“Mei Mei was a birthday present,” you reply, brows knit in confusion. Why did Masaru’s mother want to know about Mei Mei. Besides being your puppy, there was nothing special about her. “Did you want a puppy?”
“Dragons, no. The last thing I need is more puppies.” In spite of the tartness of her words, Lady Reva picks Mei Mei up and brushes dried mud out of her fur. “Why are you cover in mud, puppy?” Mei Mei wags her tail and licks Reva’s face.
“We gave her a bath yesterday,” you defend yourself.
“Mother,” Masaru looks to you. “Mei Mei isn’t one of grandmother’s puppies is she?” You shrug. You have no clue who Masaru’s grandmother is.
Reva holds up a finger to silence her son. She walks over to the Shogun’s secretary, puppy in arms. “Is this the dog you acquired from my mother for your nephew’s birthday present?”
The Secretary wipes sweat off his brow and croaks. “She told you about that?”
“My mother tells me everything about her dogs.”
“In excruciating detail,” Sujay, the Wood Aspect, quips. Basma snickers.
Reva silences her circle with a stare. She turns back to the Secretary. “Is this the dog you gave your nephew?”
“Your mother has a great many black and white puppies…”
“Secretary,” Reva cuts him off. “A yes or no will suffice.”
Elder Kejak weighs his options and finally replies. “Yes.”
“This boy is a Sidereal.” Reva declares. Shit. So much for your cover.
The Secretary frowns in confusion. “I’m not following your logic, Lady Reva.”
“The boy has the puppy. The puppy you gave your nephew.” Lady Reva explains slowly. “Thus it stands to reason this boy is a Sidereal.”
You are not following Lady Reva’s line of thinking either. You glance at Masaru, who is busy staring at his boots.
“Really, Reva” the Secretary protests. “That is a wild assumption to make. What makes you think any of my nieces and nephews are Sidereals?”
Reva ignores the question and asks one of her own. “What is he doing in my son’s circle?”
Before the secretary can reply, Masaru speaks up. “He’s my friend.”
“Your friend… How did you meet him?”
“The Chuzei assigned Svante as my roommate at the beginning of the school year …. And he’s the only other boy at the school my age who cares about manga. “
Reva studies you and now you are the one staring at your boots. She hands the puppy over to the secretary, who juggles the dog for a moment. “Who piloted the Blood in the Breeze?” She asks you.
The Blood in the Breeze is one of the warstriders from Metal Gods. “Cora Nadia.”
Lady Reva taps her finger on her lips. “What is the name of Fikaria’s sword?”
Fikaria was a Fair Folk minion in Kill Fire Sword. “The sword has different names based on the time of day. In the evening, it is the Lover’s Sigh. In the morning, it is Lover’s Last Breath. At all other times of the day, it is nameless.“
“What is the name of the immoral mortal in Adventures of the Immaculate Dragons?”
“Um….” You knew one of Masaru’s relatives sent him a copy, but you never actually read that comic.
Reva smiles. “Don’t worry, Svante. No one actually reads Adventures of the Immaculate Dragons.”
“How do you know what the mortal’s name is?” Masaru asks.
“When my mother burned all my manga when I was a child, she graciously left me a copy of the Adventures of the Immaculate Dragons.” Reva sighs. “Masaru, why didn’t you tell me about your roommate?”
“I can’t write to you about him because… Sidereals….” Masaru explains. “And I haven’t seen you since before my second breath.” Reva goes to her son and cups his face in her hands. “I know you are busy…”
“Shh…” She hugs Masaru and closes her eyes. “It’s okay.”
You almost jump when you feel a hand on your shoulder. You look to find Elder Kejak by your side. “Masaru and the rest of his circle have been good friends to Svante. He’s been lonely since taking his second breath.”
Lady Reva wipes unshed tears from her eyes. “Let’s collect the rest of your circle and head back.”
You climb though the lower ruins of Meru, though ruins are not the term you would use. The majority of the buildings are in perfect condition. They stand empty and silent, waiting for the Anathema masters to return. Only the weeds growing though sidewalks and the flickering streetlights betray Meru’s decline.
Lady Reva leads the way with Sujay by her side. You, the Secretary, Chiyoko, and the rest walk next. Basma brings up the rear. In the distance, the sky glows with amber light. As you approach, you see an idyllic park ablaze. Each tree burns like a fiery flower. White light cracks the ash-covered ground. Crimson char flutters around you.
“The park has burned since the Usurpation.” Elder Kejak explains. He grips his staff and watches the fire. The blaze casts dark shadows on his face. “A Solar fell here and wanted Creation to never forget his passing.”
You turn away from the destruction. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Danger!
Sujay shoots into the darkness. A yelp. He runs over and returns with a feline corpse. Its adorable chubby face is at odds with its long fangs and claws. “They are breeding again. I saw his mate slither away with a litter of kits.”
“We will let the guard post know to send out a crew to clear them out again.” Basma says.
Finally, you reach a section of Meru where the streets lights glow bright. A tall jade wall encircles a large part of the city. A full circle of five Dragonblooded guards the gate. Other Dragonblooded patrol the wall.
Lady Reva brushes her fingers against the jade stone of the gate. It opens to reveal the bustle of a living breathing city. Cafes and shops line the street. A group of mortal women titters as you pass. They fall silent when you stare at them.
“Bitches,” Aiko hisses under her breath as they hurry off.
A young girl – too young to have Exalted- with Water Aspect markings walks up to Chiyoko. “Lung Chiyoko, may I have your autograph?” She has a copy of last month’s Pretty Dragon Princess Meru in her hand.
“Go Away!” Chiyoko hisses.
The girl bites her lip and the Fire Aspect whispers in her ear. Masaru watches the girl wanders off. “She just wanted an autograph.”
“I’m not Pretty Dragon Princess Meru!” Chiyoko rages. “I didn’t ask for some stupid mortal to write a manga about my life.”
“But it isn’t about your life….” Masaru reasons. “The main character was just based on you.”
“I don’t care!” Chiyoko looks away and keeps walking. “I fucking hate this place.” She whispers.
You are about to say something, when Elder Kejak interrupts. “Look, Svante. There is the Chrysanthemum manse.” He points out a Red Jade building with tall columns, sitting on a cliff. “That’s where we are headed.”
Your legs burn by the time you reach the entrance of the manse. Lady Reva leads the group past the guards and into a large echoing atrium. You follow her though a large set of black jade doors and down a carpeted hallway. Elder Kejak pauses at a junction. “If you would excuse me, Lady Reva, I must see my nephew settled in.”
Chiyoko gives you a queer look and mouths “Nephew?”
You mouth back “Later.”
Reva holds up a hand. “A moment, Secretary.” She cocks her head, listening. “My mother would like to invite you and your nephew to join our circles for dinner.”
“Our Circles?” Chiyoko repeats in dismay.
“Dinner with Grandmother?” Masaru gulps.
“I rather dine with the heart eating anathema.” Aiko says.
“Children,” Reva colors the word with her displeasure. “The Blood of the Dragon shows respect for their elders.”
“Yes, Lady Reva.” “Yes, Mother.”
The Secretary bows. “We would be honored to join you and your mother for dinner.”
Aiko makes a hacking sound. Lady Reva frowns and Aiko falls silent. You cannot remember the last time you ate, but you decide that fasting may be a good experience for you.
“Will we have time to freshen up?” The Secretary says, ignoring Aiko’s interruption. A clump of mud falls off Mei Mei onto the carpet.
“We can delay dinner until you give the puppy a bath. My mother cannot see the dog in such a state. I’ll send some servants with the necessary grooming items and clothes for your nephew.” Lady Reva leads Chiyoko and the others away. Chiyoko looks back with a forlorn expression.
The Shogun’s Secretary has a single Spartan room with a bed, small round table with two chairs, and a chest of drawer. Two doors line the left side of the room, one ajar to reveal a bathroom. A fireplace is located on the right wall. Elder Kejak walks to the far wall and opens the lone window to the night sky. You sit in one of the chairs and wait as the Elder Sidereal studies the stars. He nods to himself, satisfied with the stars and close the window. “We won’t be over heard here.” The window latches with a loud click.
He sits down in the chair across from you and studies you with an intensity that makes you squirm in your seat. You break the silence. “Why did you reveal me as a Sidereal?”
Elder Kejak digs under his robes for a long starmetal chain. A small cache egg pedant hangs from the end. He sits the egg on his desk and taps it with one long finger. The egg cracks open and unfolds to reveal a writing desk stocks with prayer rolls and fine Yu-Shan ink.
“I had already planned to introduce you as my nephew.” Elder Kejak sorts though the prayer rolls. “I had even written a Resplendent Destiny for you to sign.” With a sigh, he throws one of the rolls into the fire. “It is unfortunate Reva received news of her son’s disappearance so quickly. Once you and Masaru had arrived, I had planned to reveal Masaru as safe.” He unrolls another prayer roll and adjusts the destiny. “But we have made the best of the situation.” The ink on the roll glows with a faint emerald light. Elder Kejak tucks the roll into the desk and refolds the cache egg.
“We do not have much time. Tonight we will be dining with Raijin Indarni, who is the head of Gens Raijin and most importantly, the Shogun’s lover. I have requested an audience with her days ago, but she has been busy with affairs of state during the Shogun’s illness. Sasha has spoken with her some, but Indarni requires special handling.”
“Why do you need to talk to her?”
“Her words carry weight in the Shogunate. We need her to support our choice to succeed the Shogun. Akane is infertile and that weighs heavily against her in Indarni’s estimation.” Elder Kejak rubs his face and sighs. “Fortunately, Indarni is less than impressed with Hayate, so she hasn’t spoken for him either.”
You consider the situation. “Indarni wants to support someone with an heir. Yet she does not want to support Hayate at all, so she stays silent. “
Elder Kejak nods in approval. “Yes, we need to make her realize her silence support Hayate just as much as speaking for him.”
You close your eyes “Hayate’s heir is dead. I killed her.” You can still see her surprise at the Lunar’s blade sticking out of her chest.
“Technically, the Lunar killed her and that is how we will present it when the time comes.” When you do not response, Elder Kejak continues. “Svante, you feel responsible for Lung Duri’s death and that is the proper way to feel. A Sidereal should always consider the far-reaching effects of their actions. However, you must consider not the single strand, but the entire loom. Many Dragonblooded supported Hayate because he had an heir. With Duri not only dead, but forgotten, Akane has a chance to seize the Chrysanthemum manse.”
“Are you saying Lung Duri’s death is a good thing?”
“Lung Duri is a single strand among many. Sometimes a strand needs to be cut to save the rest.” Elder Kejak mimics a cutting motion with his fingers. “Do you understand?”
Do you understand?