Thursday 11 January 2018

Exalted - The Quest for Blacksmiths (Cherak)

I spent most of the journey back from the Black Chase drawing what I'd seen of the Black Citadel, to give us the best chance when it came to assailing it. 

As we left the river, a man with the fair skin and hair of the north and dressed in furs approached our group on a cloud - a 'cirrus skiff', like Kito can summon. From the trees, a snow leopard leapt down to pad at his side. He approached the married couple of our party, in their matching armour, and muttered something to them. They pointed to me and Kito, and he came over and introduced himself as Syren and the leopard as Pounce. His mentor had sent him to find "the twins", and he understood that was us. Up close, he face was badly scarred, but he seemed our age, maybe a little younger. We were cautious, at first, but as he travelled with us the relationship between him and Pounce made us suspect they might be Anathema (we were wrong, as it happens: he's a sorceror and Pounce his familiar). 

Our unit helped them hide when we reached the Last Refuge, while Kito and I reported to the Rose Black. We explained the promise we'd made to the sleeping Primordial, including the compulsion we'd been under and the threat of the attack from the Bull of the North, and the threat the creature in the Black Citdael would pose if we didn't deal with it anyway. Somehow, we managed to convince her this was a good cause. It would require huge effort, however, and significant preparation, so she anticipated we wouldn't be able to attack for around 3 months. She wanted our unit to stay close to the camp during that time, doing basic duties, but relented when Kito and I begged to do something more. She recalled our first meeting, when I negotiated a better deal with the Guild for her than her official contact had been able to. The army needed blacksmiths, especially those experienced with artefacts. They already had all the Realm felt they could spare, and she suggested we unofficially head out to Cherak, Nexus and maybe Thorns to see what they could spare. We agreed readily, and she signed us as being on Leave for the duration.

We made sure our unit were ok and settled in, leaving Cathak Cainan in charge while we were away. Syren and Pounce were to accompany us, so we smuggled them out of the camp as we left.

We thought we'd go to Cherak first, as it was closest and we'd never been there. Kito and Syren took turns to summon clouds to travel on, and we spent time on foot too. Syren seemed jumpy, claiming a hawk was following us. Neither Kito nor I spotted it and it would have been easy to dismiss if we weren't we worried about Viziers and Realm spies. Syren thought we managed to lose it once we reached the city.

If you can, I recommend approaching Cherak from the air at least once. The view over that incredible lock system that brings warships to the harbour and returns them to the sea is even more beautiful when you can see it all in one go. A remnant of the First Age, it's breathtaking in its artistry and engineering. All through the city, you can see signs of what it must once have been like that are hidden from the ground.

We went to the City Hall, where I (in full guise as Captain Cathak Taji of the Imperial Army, granddaughter of Cathak Chow) talked us into a meeting with the ruler of Cherak. This turned out to be a party, of sorts. We were led to a lavish house where everyone competed to have the msot ostentatious outfit: vibrant, clashing colours, impractical fabrics and cuts. One man stood out for his simple, elegant outfit in black, and I hoped this Sondar. It wasn't, but rather his righthand man. Sondar descended the stair in the loudest, most flamboyant outfit of them all, gushed over us with air kisses, calling us "darling" and kissing my hand. I did my best to hide my eye-rolling. He insisted we stay with him and sent us off to clean up and rest. My room had beautiful views over the rooftops of the city. Kito's was directly opposite, with Syren and Pounce next to him.

Sondar at breakfast was just as flamboyant as the night before, but introduced his daughter, the Lady Ena. She was different from her father, quieter. She seemed reserved in comparison, but I don't think truly any more than most people. She was smart and very pretty; we bonded over a shared love of art. Her mother had been an artist before she died, and Ena had been drawing and painting her whole life. She might even have been better than me.

Syren and Pounce were uncomfortable in the confines of the city, and could usually be found wrestling in the grounds of Sondar's estate, or scrounging for food in the kitchens. Kito spent a lot of time exploring the city, I thought, though he later admitted to me that he was actually spending time with the Lady Ena, developing a strong mutual attraction (which would explain the number of pictures of Kito I saw in her studio towards the end of our visit).

I spent time with Sondar, and quickly learnt the hedonistic fop he portrayed in public was a disguise for a shrewd political mind. His act was so good, I had trouble convincing Kito of it, but he dropped it a couple of times when it was just the two of us in his study. He told me such an act was a powerful tool, and I should remember it. He danced with me at his parties - I was reluctant at first, having not danced since school, but he led skilfully and I found I was enjoying myself when he leant in close and whispered in my ear: this wasn't just for pleasure, but also a clever way of sharing secrets in public. My respect for him grew; I hope I was a good student for the few days we were there.

Understanding the purpose of our visit, he was happy for me to negotiate with the head of his department that oversaw the blacksmiths, a tall, broad man with fair skin, reddish-blonde hair and military bearing. He might have been intimidating to someone else, but I'd grown up with Cathak Chow using the same tactics with his size and bearing and he didn't faze me. He knew my grandfather, it transpired.

He gave us a tour of his city (and beneath his act, I had a sense of real pride). When Kito mentioned he wanted a new sword, Sondar led us to a pair of blacksmiths, father and daughter. The daughter, Ragna, measured him and had him hold and swing various templates before telling us to return in 3 days. I bought art supplies: Cherak is rightly seen as a city of art and culture, and I was basking in it. I even found someone able to make me a very bespoke case, a quiver that doubled as somewhere to store my art supplies, with additional hidden pouches. It's too big to hang at my hip, like a normal quiver, so I wear it slung across my back.

There was a strange art movement popular among the younger artists. It didn't appeal to me, though it was interesting. Blood, faecal matter and other bodily fluids. The artist, clothed only in paint, rolling in or running at a canvas and selling the result. Lots of, um, allusions to male parts. We understood from the Lady Ena the movement grew from feelings of boredom and frustration - stagnation - among her generation (although she wasn't a part of it). That came back to mind when we learnt of a series of break-ins to the wealthier homes, more prank than serious theft. It piqued our curiousity and we told Sondar we'd look into it. 

That night, I'd got ready for bed thinking to sleep, but that restless feeling that comes over me sometimes had me up and staring out of the window. It was a bright, clear night and quite beautiful. There was movement on a rooftop not many buildings over. I looked again and saw a silhouetted figure standing there, briefly, before moving on. Could this be our prankster-thief? I raced to Kito's room, banging on the doors to wake him and Syren adjacent before heading back to grab my bow and quiver and jump from the window.

I ran along the streets until I found a building I could scale to find my quarry, and again spotted the figure. I found I couldn't run along the rooftops as easily as they could and returned to the ground. I tried to keep up all the same, but realised I'd lost them when I heard a scuffling and whimpers from an alley.

I ducked in to see a man grappling a struggling woman. I whipped an arrow from my quiver, knocked it and drew the bow as I ordered him to let her go. He spun round, holding her in front of him, knife drawn. He laughed at me, threatened to kill her. I stayed calm and repeated my order to let him go, or I'd fire. He didn't believe I would, with her between us, so I loosed the arrow. It winged his cheek, spattering blood across her face. Worth it for his look of shock, but he stabbed her and ran. I loosed a second arrow at him - it might have clipped him, I'm not sure; it didn't slow him down. 

I had a fraction of a second to decide whether to chase him down or try and save her life. I knew which Kito would do. As much as it pained me to let him go, and knelt beside her and fished the healing needles from their pouch in my new quiver/art case. She'd gone very pale and was bleeding heavily, but calmed as soon as I slid the needles into the right trigger points. I held her hand as I channelled essence into her, watching the wound slowly knit. She told me her name and that she'd met the guy and flirted with him but then he'd try mug her, and maybe worse - she'd heard stories, but not thought it would happen to her. I realised how cold it was, bare foot and in a flimsy white nightie. My teeth were chattering by the time she was healed; I walked her home and she gave me her coat - torn and bloodstained as it was, I was grateful for it as I tramped back to Sondar's palace.

The guards initially didn't want to let me in, but a passing servant recognised me and pulled me in, leading me to the bathhouse. I ripped off my mud- and blood-soaked clothes and sank gratefully into the warmth of the water. She took them away to clean, and brought me fresh towels, clean clothes and, blessedly, food. I ate while lounging in the water, and that's where Kito found me, with a degree of embarrassment. All those years in the army, and a little nudity still makes him uncomfortable. He hadn't heard my knock, and Syren hadn't thought it was anything important, which was why I'd had no backup. I took this as a lesson, to make sure in future I'd have at least Kito truly with me.

Later in the day, I spoke to the head of the guards about what had happened. They managed to find the guy thanks to the injuries I'd inflicted. He was part of an unpleasant group, and I felt proud to have been able to put an end to their activities here.

I spent one afternoon sitting on the walls of the city, sketching the view. The more I looked at it, the more it reminded me of something else, something I'd only read about: a factory cathedral! Incomplete, or rather broken, but distinct. I recalled rumours that this place had once been such, building warships. My eyes widened in excitement, and I sketched hurriedly to capture what I saw, while separately working on a larger canvas to paint the city as a gift for Sondar to thank him for his hospitality and advice.

We returned to Ragna and her father to collect Kito's sword. It was masterful; simple steel, not jade or any other magical material, but balanced perfectly, and sharp as anything. Kito was rightly delighted with it. Ragna said it was called 'Swallow' and eyed it almost sadly. When it came time to pay, her father charged us very little, as long as we would take Ragna with us to the army: she'd learnt all she could here. Although sharing his anxiety for her safety, we agreed swiftly. She would be in the main keep, the safest place there, but it still played in the back of our minds. 

The negotiations for the blacksmiths were fun; I'd forgotten how much I enjoy this. Cherak prizes its artisans highly for the same reasons the Imperial Army wanted them. The Rose Black had given us a lot of freedom, and I think the deal we came to was fair for all involved. Passage was arranged for those travelling to the army, and Kito, Syren, Pounce and I left to make our way to our next stop. Nexus.

We weren't far from Cherak when Syren took a shot at a tree, where he claimed to have seen that hawk again... 

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