We jump right back into the thick of things, with our heroes making their way to the opulent guest quarters of the palace of Delsinar. On their arrival, they immediately start discussing their plans for the city. Captain Kirigasa warns them that if they oppose the king, they oppose her: Lookshy’s contract is with the king, and they have very strict rules about how to deal with insurrections and civil wars. Ven asks if she’s a mercenary or a soldier, to which Kirigasa replies that she doesn’t see a difference—a good mercenary is just a well-paid soldier, and a soldier is just a mercenary with a cause. Red Lion acknowledges her warning, but notes that he would like to have dinner with her anyway. She says that she’ll think about it and give an answer after the circle decides if they’re visitors or invaders, and to ask her again tomorrow.
With her departure, the circle returns to conspiring. Something is rotten in the city-state of Delsinar, and they intend to suss out what it is. Before they can start scouting, however, a knock comes on the door. It’s Ochre Blossom, come to beg their forgiveness. He apologizes profusely, stating that he hated to turn them away, but without the proper protocols enacted, the king might well punish him and the guards who stood with him. He kowtows to them, earning Prism’s dismissive acceptance of his apology and everyone else’s slight discomfort.
Once they let him off the floor, Ochre Blossom explained how the land had come to such trouble. Three years ago, the king and his eldest son had died of a plague, along with many of the city’s people and soldiers. (Blazer realized this would have been the same plague that claimed the life of Apricot’s mother, Honeyberry.) At around the same time, explorers found a small jade mine in the rocky hills between Delsinar and Mishaka, in territory historically claimed by Delsinar. A small mining camp was set up, but not long after it started being profitable, Mishakan soldiers massacred the camp and seized the mine. Desperate to retake the stolen land, the new king—a 12-year-old boy—turned to his regent for aid and wisdom. The regent was a woman named Redfeather, who had been the concubine of the old king and had weaseled her way into power by playing on the new boy-king’s naivety. Lady Redfeather suggested a conscription effort and a massed attack on the Mishakans before they could muster their forces or gain any profit from the jade mine.
Unfortunately, the conscription process had been too slow. By the time Delsinar marched against their neighbors, the Mishakans had managed to scrape enough jade from the mine to hire a talon of Lookshy mercenaries, who destroyed the poorly-trained, poorly-equipped conscript army so thoroughly that they couldn’t even spare any men to bring the bodies home. After that, Lady Redfeather robbed the treasury and fled the city, leaving Delsinar even more impoverished. On the advice of his remaining courtiers, the king began draining the few remaining coins from the treasure to hire mercenaries—Lookshyan mercenaries, the same that had destroyed their people only months before—to protect the capital, leaving the outlying regions to their fate while Delsinar consolidated power and licked its wounds.
The group listened intently to Ochre Blossom’s tale of woe, watching for any deception but seeming to find none. Gideon stared into the man’s soul, finding only the normal corruption expected from a low-level bureaucrat… but strangely, Gideon’s vision of the man’s sins seemed to have him watching the stars… Ochre Blossom also noted that he was afraid to speak against the king directly, though the king might be young and callow, because local legend claimed that the spirits of the city spied for the king.
This was because the kings of Delsinar were god-blooded, descendants of the city-father Yuchu Zhen, who himself was a son of the Unconquered Sun! Prism noted that if the king was truly a descendant of the Unconquered Sun, then surely all was going according to the divine will of Heaven. Some of the circle questioned whether or not it was even possible for a god as powerful as the Unconquered Sun to have offspring, leading Blazer to have a sudden vision of his past life: a glowing, four-armed man embracing a beautiful woman wearing a orichalcum crown…
Ochre Blossom also revealed that it was only a few months after the end of the war that Immaculate monks began to arrive in town, preaching their faith to any who would listen—which was quite a few, given the city’s recent hardships. Blazer and Ven speculated that the Realm might be using evangelism as a means of undermining the region, and that Lady Redfeather might well have fled to Mishaka, or even been a Mishakan spy all along.
After Ochre Blossom excused himself, Blazer set to building a new project—a magical fan that would banish mental influence, under the belief that the king might have been mind-tricked into making bad decisions. Ven and Red Lion went to bed early to rest up for the next day, while Prism meditated. Snapdragon sought to follow Ochre Blossom back to wherever he was going, but lost him in the alleys near the palace. He turned a corner and was simply gone when she caught up. Gideon chose to enter the palace and spy on the king.
The palace gardens were where he found the king of Delsinar: a blonde, deeply tanned fifteen-year-old boy. The boy-king stood by a pond, feeding fish as a lone courtier played a shamisen for him. When he finally tired of it, his guards escorted him back to his rooms, where his staff changed him into his sleeping robes and put him into a bed that was so large it nearly swallowed him. Even as he slept, guards stayed in the room with him. Gideon felt his heart go out—this was no tyrant, but merely a boy who had been used by those around him, and who was always and never alone. He stayed with the king through the night, a silent guardian. Before dawn, the boy arose and went back out to the garden, where he knelt before an ancient statue depicting a man with four arms, each clutching a different object, and with an eight-pointed star carved into his muscular chest. As the king finished his morning oblations, Gideon slipped away.
On her way back from following Ochre Blossom, Snapdragon happened to spy a part of the city that was well-lit at night, and more populated than usual. Making her way toward the activity, she found herself at the Immaculate temple they had passed on the way into the city, where a teenaged boy with blue hair was preaching to an assembled crowd and monks were handing out Five Dragons prayer beads. The boy condemned the practice of direct divine worship, playing to the crowd’s anger at the city’s recent losses. He put forth that the gods demanded sacrifices from men, but gave little or nothing in return—the Dragons asked for no sacrifices, save the righteous behavior of the faithful! Men might fail, but the strength of the Dragons never would! Nor that of their Chosen! As he preached, lightning arced through his body and sparked life into nearby torches—the boy was Dragon-Blooded! Disturbed by the presence of Dragon-Blooded among the monks, Snapdragon returned to the others.
Prism’s meditations were interrupted by blazing pain—a vision! In his mind’s eye, he saw the silhouette of a boy wearing saffron robes, clutching at his own throat with bloodied hand, before falling dead at Prism’s feet. The vision flashed to an eight-pointed star, then to the night sky, and then back to the dead boy. In the vision, Prism’s fingers were covered in blood, and he could hear someone screaming at him, calling him a murderer… Wearied from the vision, he informed the others of the danger to the king, who he was certain was the boy from his vision. The danger didn’t seem imminent, but they should remain on their guard and be ready to keep a close eye on his well-being.
The next day, the group was woken to a fine breakfast and fine new clothes, though the biggest robe they could find still had to be left open in the front for Red Lion. Prism complained about unneeded opulence, while Red Lion just complained about being uncomfortable. Once they were ready, they were escorted into the presence of His Majesty, Sun-King Voshun VIII—a fifteen-year-old boy wearing uncomfortably heavy robes and sitting on a throne far too large for him. Snapdragon immediately thought of the boy she had corrupted, whose father she had killed, and she swore that she would safeguard this boy’s innocence. Voshun questioned them about their presence in his city and answered their questions candidly. He knew that the Immaculates called them demons, monsters that had stolen the power of the Unconquered Sun in ancient times and reincarnated in the modern era, but he was curious about them and no Immaculate himself. The Solars explained their presence, claiming to be friends of the people of Delsinar. “And what of me?” questioned Voshun. “Are you my friends as well?” Gideon responded that they were friends to any just monarch—and terrible enemies to unjust ones.
Hoping to defuse the tension, Venomous Spur presented a gift to the Sun-King. The circle was surprised at her announcement: What could it be?! Ven unveiled the package to reveal a small cage containing… the most adorable tiny animal anyone had ever seen. It looked something like a kitten, but with a lamb’s softness and docility, and when it purred/bleated, its noises sounded like a baby’s laugh. Ven had created the animal in her lab, combining the attractive traits of many creatures to breed a new animal whose only purpose was to be adored by humans. The king was delighted, looking younger than his fifteen years as he cuddled the tiny, delicate animal. He realized then that these people were truly workers of miracles, and his heart softened to them. After much discussion, the king gave the circle his blessing to remain in Delsinar, asking only that they cause no trouble in the city. Red Lion took the promise to heart.
Snapdragon stayed behind to act as the king’s shadow, while the others began gathering information to decide their next move. The group bandied the possibility of taking back the jade mine that Delsinar had lost to Mishaka, but who was to say that Mishaka was any better off or any more deserving of being harmed? To Prism, it was an easy question: If Mishaka really had violated Delsinar’s territorial bounds, then they deserved whatever came to them. Blazer wanted to speak to the city god, Yuchu Zhen, while Gideon pushed to find out more about the mysterious missing regent, Lady Redfeather.
As they spoke to the palace staff, they began to realize that something was amiss: everyone’s descriptions of Lady Redfeather were quite vague, recalling only her red hair and that she was the old king’s concubine. Gideon’s investigation of her quarters revealed that no one had occupied them in years, not months, and he realized that the only person to give them any more detail about the woman had been Ochre Blossom. Even the king had been susceptible, giving them the same generic description. Something was confusing people’s memories!
Snapdragon had noticed someone in a saffron-colored robe moving down a side passage in the palace and gave pursuit, silent as a phantom and just as unseen. After several twists and turns, she followed the figure into a suite of guest rooms… only to discover a half-dozen Immaculate monks! It seemed that a group of Immaculates were guests of the king, including the blue-haired preacher boy from the previous night and an auburn-haired woman who seemed somewhat drunk. She observed their actions for some time, hampered by her inability to understand their speech. She was able to tell that the boy disapproved of his older companion, and that she seemed to enjoy provoking him; in the end, unable to tell what they were saying, she returned to watching the king… only to find that the monks were his next audience!
From her position of concealment, Snapdragon observed the confrontation between the Immaculates and the Sun-King. The monks made clear their wish for the king to forsake his people’s traditional faith and embrace the protection of the Realm. Without that protection, they intimated, the kingdom might not last much longer. The woman—who wore armor and bore a daiklave, leading Snapdragon to conclude that she was not a monk—went so far as to point out that the people of Delsinar were quickly embracing the Immaculate Faith, and that a king who went against his people’s beliefs would not long remain a king.
The two spokespeople were named as Cynis Falen Wurui and Brother Cloud, both Dragon-Blooded servants of the Realm. Voshun responded that his ancestors had survived the Contagion, the Balorian Crusade, and the Age of Sorrows—and that he would survive too, without the aid of the Realm. Never would he bend knee to the Dragons! Though Wurui seemed ready to start trouble over this declaration, Brother Cloud seemed more level-headed and led her away. The Immaculates were no longer welcome in the palace, it seemed. Snapdragon’s estimation of the boy-king went up.
As the circle departed the palace, they encountered Ochre Blossom once more. Gideon began to question him in earnest, while Prism spoke to him; together, they hoped to provoke a reaction. Prism revealed that they had uncovered a plot against the king through prophetic visions. Though he seemed calm on the surface, Gideon could finally sense the killing intent radiating from deep inside the “harmless bureaucrat.” His mask was beginning to crack…
The circle decided that getting out into the city was the best course of action, to get some time to investigate properly—but before they could depart, a contingent of monks exited the building. They had taken long enough dealing with Ochre Blossom that the Immaculates had run into them. It seemed that their reputation as Anathema had not quite caught up to them, as the Immaculates mostly dismissed them, except for Wurui bumping into Prism and earning an ugly glare from him. For a few moments, it looked as though real trouble were going to begin, but Brother Cloud and Red Lion managed to bring the potential combatants back to their respective corners. Proud that they had defused at least one problem without violence, the circle went into the city for food.
The circle decided that, though they had the blessing of the king and the favor of the city, it would be best to exercise fiscal responsibility and not eat at the nicest restaurant in the city. Ven complained—didn’t they deserve nice things? In the end, they chose to eat at a simple noodle shop on a street corner. Five of the Chosen, eating at a noodle stand! As they talked over their next move, Red Lion had his attention caught by Captain Kirigasa, who was coming to find them. Her squadron had been dismissed by the city, and she would be returning to Lookshy tomorrow. While she agreed with Red Lion’s assessment that it was awfully sudden, she really had no say in the matter—the orders had come from the king himself. Red Lion asked Kirigasa to talk about the order with him over dinner, surreptitiously passing his noodles to Ven and gesturing at a nearby nicer restaurant. Finally won over by his charm, she agreed.
As Red Lion and Kirigasa entered the restaurant, across town Snapdragon noticed someone moving in the rafters and jumped to protect the king! Assassins sprang from the rooftops and opened fire at the circle! Men dropped from the ceiling in the restaurant, knocking Kirigasa down and crippling her with a punch to the throat! While Gideon’s danger sense kept him from being completely surprised, he was still too slow to keep an arrow from finding his shoulder. Metal shards rained in among the circle as the assassins peppered them with shuriken and kunai. As Snapdragon threw herself against the lead assassin, a grey-clad man armed with twin knives, she found him to be a most formidable opponent. Though he clearly could not see her, he still seemed to be able to sense her presence somehow.
Red Lion chose to keep to his promise and defend innocent bystanders by picking up Kirigasa and leading his assassins on a merry chase out of town. Gideon peppered the rooftops with hellfire from his Twin Dragons, while Ven changed into her kaiju form and wreaked havoc upon them. Prism exhorted his companions to their full greatness. Blazer realized through the circle’s hearthstone connection that Snapdragon was fighting alone, so he pulled out a magical trinket he had made for just such an occasion: the windchaser scarf, a bound air elemental that would meld itself to the user, increasing his speed tenfold! In a flash of light, Blazer sped to the palace of the Sun-King to find Snapdragon fighting a critical battle against a skilled and deadly assassin.
Finally tiring of the to-and-fro of blades clashing, the assassin discarded his knives and took on the stance of a martial artist—and flared an anima banner! Around the assassin flowed a burning purple aura, while his brow was suddenly marked with the sign of Saturn, Maiden of Endings! He leapt into the air, appearing and disappearing in rapid succession while his blows seemed to rain down on Snapdragon and Blazer from every direction. Forsaking his idealism for pragmatism, Blazer sent a mighty shot from his spirit bow at the assassin, only to have it miss by a hair. He was sure the shot should have hit! Snapdragon’s own blows seemed to find only air. Finally, in her frustration, she poured all of her hate into the blade, feeling its spirit awaken and hunger with her own. Realizing that the fight in the palace was still going poorly, kaiju-Ven scooped up Prism and flung him the half-mile to the palace. Naturally, the nearly invulnerable Prism simply picked himself up out of the crater he made at the end of the trip and strode into the throne room unhindered.
Now facing three Solars, the Sidereal assassin stepped up his game. Blazer had gotten too close to him in their last exchange, so the assassin leapt toward him, fist extended, and punched almost straight through him! Prism turned to Snapdragon, pushing her to go beyond her limits and exact justice for her fallen friend, and to protect the king! Finally, Snapdragon was able to make a solid hit on the assassin, wounding him badly and breaking his supernatural connection to his minions. Suddenly the fight in the streets turned in the circle’s favor, as Gideon swept men from the rooftops with his guns and Ven smashed them with her claws. Now clear of assassins, both took the fight to the palace.
Red Lion was leading the remaining assassins on a merry chase, dodging and evading them while heading for the edge of the city. Kirigasa tried to insist that she could take care of herself, but he was a little busy keeping both of them from getting killed. In the meantime, Gideon was able to use his magic sandals to join the palace fight in record time, only for the assassin to decide that things were too far out of his favor now, disappearing in a cloud of smoke. As the last of the assassins caught up to Red Lion, he tossed Kirigasa into a nearby bale of hay and cracked his knuckles. They were finally outside the city. What happened next is best left to the imagination.
As Prism moved to help up the king from his hiding place, the doors of the throne room burst open, revealing the blue-haired Brother Cloud. “Stop right there, assassins!” he shouted at the Solars….
To be continued!