The Twenty-Second Day of the Month of the Moth,
404 Imperial Era
Ubagai Wakuno took long, eager strides down the great stone corridor before him. His light boots padded across the ancient floor, barely audible. The dull grayish walls were illuminated by crude clusters of flickering candles spread down the length of the corridor, their melted wax pooling across the floor and seeping into the narrow cracks of the stone. Behind the masked man could be heard the devotions of the true believers, short mellow ululating along with a steady chant in the old language of Folk with the rhythm of hardwood clappers in the background. Such was endless here as this place was a grand sanctuary of spirituality and connection with the gods; singing, chants, and all kinds of instruments playing was constant.
Wakuno soon reached the end of the corridor, the distant music and song echoing still as he stood before a pair of large rosewood doors. With a forward stride he pushed the doors open in unison just enough for him to pass through, the doors swinging hard closed behind him. The hard strike of the wood together making his hair bristle. Wakuno was within a massive chamber resemblant of a throne room. Lanterns hung all along the walls gave light to the chamber, white tapestries reached down from the dark ceiling just short of touching the floor. On the opposite side of the chamber stood a towering grey statue of a bald and near naked monk, a simple sash reaching around the statues’ torso and bundled about in its lap. The reflecting light of the circle of lanterns gave the visage of the statue a flat but hardened look, like that of an impatient father peering down at his rowdy child.
At the feet of the statue sat perched a modest raised platform of stone, the base of it surrounded with drooping candles like those in the corridor hallway. On the platform were three people huddled together, their sitting position like that of the monk statues’ - legs crossed and hands resting on their knees. The three were draped in heavy white robes with billowy hoods pulled low over their heads casting a concealing shadow around their faces hiding all, even their race and gender. From across the room and even with their faces hidden Wakuno could see them looking in his direction expectantly, waiting for him to approach and address them.
As he had many times before Wakuno took a short breath of preparation and crossed the chamber towards the three, his shadow stretching out behind him from the light centered around the platform. Wakuno stopped just short of the front row of candles, arms at his sides, and bowed long and low. No words were said, the figures merely waiting for Wakuno to raise back up and speak, and so he did.
“It…” Wakuno fought a straining in his throat, “is done. Xiao Shang is dead by my hand.”
Silence for a moment, the three looking between themselves and then back to Wakuno. The figure in the middle was the first to speak in a low oily voice, “Well done, Ubagai Wakuno.”
The masked man felt a swell of pride in his chest even as his throat grew tighter. Wakuno said nothing, merely nodding in response to the simplistic praise.
“Our work has only just begun.” said the figure to Wakuno’s right, his voice harsher in tone.
“Yes.” the middle one replied, turning his hands over on his knees palms facing upward. “With the Xiao bloodline ended as necessary the true struggles must now come.”
Wakuno swallowed to clear his throat, “Then… we will begin mustering all our strength here?”
“Not all.” the center figure retorted.
The figure on the left spoke up, a soft but firm woman's voice, “We must further weaken Yongcun. Xiao Shang may be dead but even now the realm remains mostly stable. I imagine those in Bianwei move to assure that the people do not yet know of Xiao Shang’s demise, at least until they can form some new pillar of stability.”
“Tell us,” the figure on the right demanded, “whom else do you know of that was fell, Wakuno? Did the council die?”
Wakuno shuffled his feet, a twitchiness lingered about his masked face. “Our people inside of the Ruby Palace failed to kill the councilmen. The Imperial Guard got them to the underkeep, we only barely managed to trap Xiao Shang in the throne room.”
Silence came again but only for a breath, the middle man speaking, “It is of little issue. Xiao Shang was the one marked for death, the council will have no shortage of struggle in holding the realm together. It is up to you and the rest of our brothers and sisters to pull it apart at the cracks.”
“Yes.” Wakuno said with a sharp nod of understanding.
The middle man cocked his head slightly rustling his robe, “You must be weary. Go, take several days to rest your body in the comfort of the sanctuary. Meditate. You will be summoned forth once you are needed once more, and that will be soon have no doubt.”
Wakuno nodded, it was true that he was very, very weary. After the killing of the emperor and the escape from the Ruby Palace Wakuno and his brothers had all scattered into the surrounding forests, others making for the river. Wakuno spent the whole next day on foot, staying to the wilderness and foraging wild fruits for his food. The day after he managed to steal a horse from a lone hunter he crossed, leaving the man dead in his wake. Wakuno rode hard straight for the sanctuary stopping only to sleep in the woodland when he needed it and rationing the food that was in the hunters’ saddlebag over the next few days. Wakuno rode the horse all the way back - the exhausted animal now tied up in the stables outside - and not stopping to eat but instead hurrying to tell of the emperor’s death. Now he just wanted a scalding bath, a full meal, and to rest - he had earned it and more after all.
Wakuno bowed again and turned to leave when the woman suddenly spoke up, her words stopping him cold, “Where is Tsio Bu?”
Wakuno hesitated, half turned away and his mind growing a bit restless at the question. He slowly looked back to directly face the woman, replying in a slow, careful way, “Tsio Bu… did not survive the night in Bian Wei.” Wakuno let his words hold in the air for a moment then continued, “He and I parted ways just before we sprung, Tsio Bu joining our brothers in taking the square at the foot of the palace. I did not see for myself but as we fled the city the others said he was struck down in the fighting.”
The tension in the air seemed to be growing thicker with each breath, the two white-clad men slowly turning their heads to face their female counterpart. Wakuno felt his throat tightening again as he waited for her reaction. Her hood hung low shrouding her face but Wakuno could feel that she was not looking directly at him, either at the floor or past him. The masked man wiggled his toes in her boots nervously as he stood frozen in his half-turn.
The hooded male in the middle raised his right hand slowly as if to place it upon the woman but she sharply waved the gesture away with a sudden outward flick of her wrist.
“Go, Ubagai Wakuno, rest. We will call upon you when you are needed. For now the rest of our fellows will continue our work across the realm. You will need all your own strength to help when the time comes.”
Wakuno nodded and turned to leave, this time undeterred, the only noise to be heard was his light footsteps and the closing of the rosewood doors behind him.
“Is it true?”
Jia Chong looked up from his writing desk and was met with the towering shape of Keola, Imperial general and Swordmaster to the late Emperor Shang. So absorbed was he in his working that Jia Chong had not even heard him come lumbering in. The large green Zauri was fully adorned in his red and black tunic and armor, his long halberd gripped in his right hand - the tip just short of grazing the ceiling of Jia Chong’s room. Any others would have been awed and may even go scrambling backward at the site, but Jia Chong had known Keola too many years to be scared of or even concerned by him.
The Imperial Regent scratched at his right eye as he sat up straight, setting his writing quill back in its ink pot. “Is what true, Keola?” he asked.
“The White Lantern!” Keola hissed down at the seated Folk.
“Ah,” Jia Chong started, inhaling through thinned lips, “we… believe so, yes.”
“But they were to have been destroyed,” Keola rumbled deeply, “they-“
“We all saw the lanterns outside of the city, Keola,” Jia Chong interrupted, something few others would do, “those of us who went outside the walls that is. And the handprints.”
Keola growled low in his throat but said nothing more. While he had not seen anything himself the Zauri had heard the reports; the morning after the attack seven days ago white lanterns were found strung along fence posts down the roads and bobbing in the Emerald river - scores of them. And then all throughout the city random handprints in white chalk and dyes were found on fallen bodies and on the sides of buildings. Those who knew their history knew it was like the stories of the old cult of zealots that had been plaguing the Eternal Empire since its earliest days. And the attack on the night of Wan Yue,
Keola thought grimly, it was like the one so many generations ago. When they tried to destroy Bianwei…
Keola found his thoughts drifting back to the battle that night; endless waves of armed men and some women, most dressed as commoners or guards while others were adorned in robes and veils of white. Arrows rained down setting homes aflame and striking down citizens in the street. Those who avoided the arrows had to flee for their lives to avoid being burned to death or cut down by blades or axes. Keola squeezed the haft of his weapon fiercely, so many had been killed that night - without consideration or mercy. And worst of all the Emperor was lost, the man Keola had always been sworn to protect as both a personal oath and a service in his station. Xiao Shang was the last of his line and now…
A splintering could be heard and then a fierce snap, Jia Chong flinching as the upper half of Keola’s weapon broke off, the metal blades and an arms’ length of the haft of the halberd bouncing across the wooden floor. Keola hissed loudly and cast what remained in his hand through the nearby door out into the hallway.
“Keola…” Jia Chong warned as he stood. But the Zauri was not done, grabbing up a nearby sitting stool and with another loud hiss slamming it down on the floor with a terrible crashing - fractured wood pieces flew every direction.
“This will change nothing! Do not destroy my room in your fits!” Jia Chong shouted scrounging around his desk. Keola met his eyes and for the first time in memory Jia Chong felt a cold wave of fear in the Swordmasters’ presence as he looked into his yellow reptilian orbs. Still, the regent held his ground and despite the growing lump in his throat kept his voice level, “I can imagine how you feel…”
“I can,” Jia Chong attested, “I was sworn to serve him as you were, and…”
“I was sworn to protect his life.” Keola grumbled.
“I know that,” Jia Chong snapped, “I…” The regent stopped then slumped his shoulders, shaking his head slowly. He wished he had something to tell the great warrior before him, something to calm him, to assure him, to give him hope, but Jia Chong had nothing of the sorts. “All we can do,” Jia Chong started, choosing his words carefully, “is try to help the people of Bianwei and keep word of the Emperors’ murder from spreading.”
“You cannot hide it from the people, not forever.” Keola challenged.
“Not forever,” Jia Chong acknowledged, sliding back to his seat, “but long enough I believe.”
“Long enough for what?” Keola snorted.
Jia Chong slipped some parchment from a small drawer on his desk, rolling it out across the top and then dabbling his quill in the ink pot nearby. “Tell me; how go the efforts in the city?”
Keola noticed the deliberate change in topic but responded in kind to the regents’ question, “The guards have secured the palace and the noble districts in full, however the common areas are in a horrid shape. The fires destroyed much and hundreds are without homes, squatting in the streets or in the spread of encampments outside the walls. And many have just left to go elsewhere.”
“I imagine there manifold refugees making their ways to Toknam and Shanjing,” Jia Chong said as he began to scribble away on the parchment, “not just from within Bianwei but the surrounding villages and communities. I just hope the magistrates handle things well, we do not need any sort of discontent or unrest from the masses - not now.”
Keola said nothing, merely another snort.
“I have had missives posted that his majesty was ‘grievously wounded in the attack’ and his duties have been passed to me and the council for the time.” Jia Chong said. “As you know.”
“I have also sent news of the attack onward to Karitu, humbly requesting any help that the Seshkyo and his vassals might offer. The markets and most of the cities’ shops were destroyed in the attack, perhaps the Merchant Guild can be of help. And then of course we must immediately begin organizing rebuilding of homes within the city. I will put out a call for carpenters and stonemasons, triple the pay of usual tasks.”
Realizing that he was beginning to blather, and peevishly wanting to pry more out of Keola, the regent asked the Zauri if he would be able to keep his men who witnessed the murder of Emperor Shang silent. Keola flatly stated it would be so and that any who were heard uttering of the killing would be executed by his order for treason against Imperial mandate.
“But,” the Zauri said, “I cannot say for the… others.”
Jia Chong’s writing hand froze, quill half lifted from the paper on his desk. The regent met the Zauri’s eyes, this time with a concerned and questioning look in them. “Others?” Jia Chong asked.
“The night of the attack - of the murder - there were others in the throne room. Others than my men and the attackers. They fought at our side but wore no crest or uniforms, I remember seeing another of my kind and… a Folk female, and a Honfokun as well. And…”
Jia Chong raised an eyebrow, “What became of them after?”
“I know not.” Keola said flatly.
“Perhaps you should find them, or at least see if you may.” Jia Chong replied. “Murmurs about our emperor possibly being slain are one thing but a handful of people saying they bore witness to it in part with the Emperor nowhere to be seen… that would bring unrest and distrust.”
“Hiding death brings mistrust.” Keola barbed though Jia Chong did not react to the spiteful statement.
“Mind you waste no effort or time in pursuit Keola, there are other matters far more important to see to in the wake of this terrible happening, but any loose threads must be cut away.”