The Empress asked us to travel to Nexus, investigate the Guild, a trading organisation with headquarters there, and report back in 2 months. She cautioned us to avoid the Emissary, and that our connection to the Realm and particularly the Throne must not be revealed.
To help us, she took us round various manses and allowed us both to choose a hearthstone to help us. Kito's would help him recover faster from injury, while mine made negotiations - especially haggling and trade - more likely to go my way. Seemed useful, given our task.
We visited Grandfather. He told us Mei had been chosen by Mellor, the Water Dragon, and gave us gifts. Kito got Daddy's other sword and I had Mummy's bracers - it gave me somewhere to store my hearthstone, at least. He gave us another hearthstone, too, one which we could use in an emergency to contact Hak - it would enable us to send him a message, and reveal our location to the two of them.
We left with Mi-Yung and Jia for Lookshy on a ship called the Sea Bream. We got on well with the crew; Captain Roberts seemed nice, and encouraged us to pepper his first mate, Johnny, with our endless questions. Their sorcerer, Ken, suffered seasickness so once we left port all his focus was on ensuring a safe passage and he couldn't answer our questions about the magic he was using. We tried watching the flow of essence anyway. For the few days we were at sea, Captain Roberts helped us prepare for our subterfuge in Lookshy, suggesting we tell the harbour officials we're meeting family at the Sleeping Dragon Inn: to hide who we are, Kito was going to pretend to be a young nobleman of the Silver River House who was pretending to be a Dynast to get more respect... Mi Yung, Jia and I would be acting as his servants (which involved disguising Kito and I, to try and make us look less related).
It was a lot of preparation and proved unnecessary: the harbour master, for whose benefit it had been, seemed completely disinterested, as though we were far beneath him.
We headed to an inn, the Leaping Fish. It looked lovely from the outside, but we walked straight back out after a glance at the inside, and crossed the road to the Pickled Haddock, which looked run down outside, but inside was beautiful. It was run by Marissa and her father - she was about our age and very sweet.
Once settled in, we headed to the market. It was well-established, though the stalls were all simple and easy to move. At the centre was a fountain, a low-level manse that produced its own water. Sitting on the water was the god of the market. An elderly man, but looking well-fed and in good health. Streamers covered the fall, remnants of a recent festival. The stalls and walkways were spread in a geometric patterns from the fountain. We could hear a swirl of languages around us, though River Tongue dominated. I felt an overwhelming tug of homesickness, hearing it. Not for the Realm, but for Derren's Ford.
A sultan and his retinue dealt with a trader in what sounded like Flame Tongue - the advisor wore a gold torc that caught my eye. Black jade, and doing something to his speech, to enable him to speak other languages and modifying his tone to be more persuasive.
Another exchange caught my attention, a snobbish man speaking High Realm while the trader spoke Low Realm. While the snobbish man thought highly of himself, it was the woman with him who was in charge. Tall and powerfully built, in green jade armour with a huge scimitar diglave, I recognised her immediately as a member of House Tepet. I knew (from Grandfather's instruction) they were the other major martial House of the Empire, currently engaging the barbarians in the north. I was pretty sure this was Tepet Ejava, the Rose Black, an up and coming general for the House. Kito, on the other hand, saw a family resemblance to the Empress and thought this may be her neice. While we bickered good-naturedly about it, I wondered why they were there. There's another, non-descript guy with them, but the snobby one seems to be a coins-man, wearing colours of a merchants' House, with a trace of essence to him, which made him seem even weirder to me.
Under the cover of our bickering, Kito and I moved closer until we could overhear a bit. House Tepet were seeking supplies for the armies in the North. The merchant was reluctant: it would be a big order and would become his entire job. If they pulled out, he'd be sunk. I thought a bit more about why they're doing this here, and realised it will be easier - somewhere already inside the Threshold - than in the Realm itself, and there's a much better relationship with Lookshy than Nexus.
A town crier distracted us briefly, shouting about new levies from the Guild and the damage Thorns had suffered. There would be a Council meeting in Thorns next month to discuss the future of Thorns, which caught my attention because that meant they'd be meeting during Calibration.
Rose Black noticed us while we were distracted, and we ended up talking. We admired her sword - beautiful, covered in a viney design. She said it was called 'Thorn'. We learnt the merchant had chosen the venue: part of the Guild, this ground was more favourable to him, but neutral enough. Full of the confidence of youth, I pointed out her coins-man and the merchant weren't talking to each other properly and offered to take over. She accepted my offer, and I addressed the merchant in Low Realm, quickly coming to a suitable arrangement with him. Sure, the hearthstone from the Empress helped, but I've always been good at negotiating for things I want, and both Grandfather and the Empress had made sure this was nurtured.
Rose Black was impressed with what I'd achieved. She wanted to know who we were and why we were there, of course. We prevaricated, but ended up telling her. She advised us to try trading with the Guild to really learn about them and suggested travelling with a caravan to get there. From what she told us of the place, it didn't sound very nice. Prone to flooding, riddled with bureaucracy, and with laws that constantly shift and change.
As we walked away, Kito pointed out we should leave for Nexus now, before "they" heard we were asking around and set a trap. We split up to try and find a floating caravan to join. It didn't take me long to find one, the Shining Beak and its captain Lorenzo Bagni. Passage arranged, I returned to the Pickled Haddock and waited for Kito... and waited...
He'd been mugged, badly. The Empress's hearthstone brought him round after and he made his way back to us, and by the morning was well enough to travel. But very quiet; he didn't want to talk about it.