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Found 1 result

  1. Cycle Three Old Stones It had been five years since Shi KwaiRan had killed an Emperor; the tiny pebble that had started the avalanche that was to come. The Succession Riots began almost the same evening that Emperor Yazad and Arbiter Kaleva had died, and the ensuing bloodbath had nearly eradicated the Moderation Faction and the Discovery Faction. And Gamman, the ambitious but unassuming arbiter of the Reform Faction, had ridden the chaos to power, stepping in to cut the legs out from underneath the warring Factions. As far as most of the citizens of the Rose Empire were concerned, the MaiPon artist who had assassinated the former Emperor, may he reign in radiance, had been captured by the Strikers, and well, it was best not to think too deeply about those things, though they had also hoped that his death had been long and agonising. In truth, Kwai had had a quiet and rather uneventful life since the end of the Succession Riots. Life went on; the Frozen Moon weathered a terrible midsummer storm, and then the following months were taken up by repairs. He waited tables and generally stayed out of the way. Occasionally, he painted. He wanted no more role in Imperial politics, much less the terminal sort. He kept his head down, and for a time, he allowed himself to breathe and to believe that it was over. Gamman, in any case, was busy consolidating his power. All of this came to an end one evening, when he came out of the kitchen to an empty tea room, and Gamman was sitting at the table, having helped himself to a cup of fresh Emperor’s Blessing tea. There was a crash. Pottery shattering on the floorboards. He’d dropped the stacked cups he was carrying, of course. Wenshon would take it out of his paycheck. That didn’t seem like a pressing concern now, when the Emperor of the Eighty Suns was sitting in their teahouse. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Gamman said, and his smile was like a knife. Kwai felt a sudden chill. “Your Majesty,” he said, cautiously. “What do you want?” “You seem to have lost a little of that court polish, haven’t you?” Gamman observed, idly. He might have very well been talking about the weather. Kwai could not make out any Strikers in sight, but he suspected there would be at least a dozen of them close by, ready to intervene if necessary. “I work in a teahouse now, your Majesty,” Kwai said. “So I’ve heard,” said Gamman. As if he hadn’t come to the Frozen Moon, five years ago, when he’d wanted the other ambitious arbiters from the Glory and Heritage Factions—Urskevan and Frava—assassinated for him. In the end, they’d lived. His smile grew as he set the cup back on the table. “What do I want? The same as Yazad and Kaleva, I suppose. I want power, to set the policies I must. I want power, and that means I need to be able to get rid of the old guard, the corrupt ones who have money and power and influence, and who have been kicking their heels and screaming about every single reform our Faction wanted to pass. I want to live to a ripe old age, and to see my enemies humbled, and the Rose Empire strong and proud and powerful again. Six in every ten citizens outside of the Imperial Seat starve each year; within the Imperial Seat, four in every ten citizens do not have a roof over their heads. You didn’t think Kaleva was a saint, did you? He had a nasty habit of throwing his enemies into jail or blackmailing them. There’s a reason our eyes and ears grew so extensive under Kaleva.” “Your Majesty, please get to the point.” Gamman reached into the bag at his side and threw out a set of books, all bound together with red cord. “Burn them when you’re done. The names and addresses of people who are of interest to me.” “I’m not a killer anymore, your Majesty.” “Then don’t kill for me,” said Gamman. “Write for me.” Kwai pushed the books away. “I work at the Frozen Moon now, your Majesty.” Gamman smiled. “Where is Wenshon?” he asked, a seeming non-sequitur. “He went out yesterday to—” Kwai began and then froze up as the implications hit him like a charging Gurish warhorse. “Write the letters, assassin,” Gamman repeated, softly. He pushed the books back at Kwai. “Study the names. Know them. And then, we will begin.” ㄢㄋㄌ Wai ZhierSen had never expected to return to the Frozen Moon. She wanted no more part of such games. She remembered from past experience that there was a small bathhouse at the back of the Frozen Moon, and slipped away from the milling crowd of disoriented conspirators, and made straight for it. If any of Gamman’s Strikers were out there, they would have to fight her for the bathhouse. She ran a hand through her hair and winced tiredly as her fingers came away thick with glitter. Was there no end to the sticky menace? Even getting plastered with soggy beard hair was better than this. In any case, Zhier was not as concerned with the rest of the conspirators. Let Gamman reign over an Empire in revolt, if he must. Or an Empire of ashes. That did not matter to her. What mattered was whether the creator was to be found amongst this rabble. And if they were, Zhier intended to take appropriate, bloody vengeance. Preoccupied as she was, she didn’t notice a shadow slipping out from the courtyard, slinking towards the brightly-lit confines of the teahouse. A shape stirred in the darkness, letting out a cry of pain. Zhier hesitated. To pursue? No, she decided, a fraction of a heartbeat later. She rolled her shoulders, and stretched out her arms, fingers interlocked. It wasn’t her problem today. Heroics was for someone else. Whoever she was, Wai ZhierSen wasn’t a hero, and she didn’t intend to start being one today. ㄢㄋㄌ Blood welled up from the meat of Kwai’s thigh, from which a crossbow bolt protruded. He bit back a cry of pain and leaned against the pavillion wall. Strikers, he thought, disgustedly. Of course it had to be Strikers. Why else would Gamman ask that of him? He examined the bolt. All things considered, the wound was not particularly bad, and the Striker in question had gotten the drop on Kwai, or he would not have shot Kwai to begin with. Of course, Gamman hadn’t bothered to tell the Strikers anything else, Kwai thought. He had yet to decide on whether it was back to being a deniable asset, or if Gamman had wanted him dead too. Left alive, he was a loose end that could not be relied on, especially since he had resisted doing Gamman’s wetwork for him. He wasn’t going to make it back across the courtyard. Not like this. The bolt had gone through muscle, and as far as he could tell, had not been tainted or poisoned. Still, attempting to put his weight on that leg immediately brought about pain, and he tried very hard not to curse. The Strikers weren’t moving in yet. That puzzled him. They should have been. And yet, they seemed content to form a loose cordon about the teahouse, and to shoot at anyone who was unfortunate enough to enter their line of sight. What were they waiting for? ㄢㄋㄌ “Leaving so soon?” a voice asked. A flick had the knife dropping into her hand from its concealed sheath, as Zhier went straight for the speaker. In a moment, she had a stranglehold on his collar, a knee wedged against his thigh, in perfect position for a reap. Her knife pricked his throat, and blood beaded up. “Prickly, aren’t we?” “Bad time to be sneaking up on someone in the dark,” Zhier retorted, not letting up. It was the Grand from the teahouse. “What do you want? Think the group back there will manage to not wet their pants if you aren’t there holding their hands?” The Grand cocked his head, curiously. “In a matter of speaking. Are you going to put that away so we can talk?” Zhier raised an eyebrow. “Give me a reason,” she challenged. “You seem to be doing a pretty good job of talking even with a blade at your throat.” He shrugged. “Suit yourself. You’re looking for someone, and they’re in the teahouse. Or rather, they will be in the teahouse. But they will also be in the pavillion, rather than the bathhouse, which is where they’re heading.” “What’s in it for you?” “I studied the Succession Riots,” he said. “To understand the Riots, I had to understand the key players during the Riots. Yourself, Lady Wai. Asterion. Cang Lu, Ableah, and the others. I had to understand the enemies we faced, from the Glory and Heritage and Moderation Factions.” He smiled, faintly. “Cunning of Gamman to rise when we were too busy slaughtering each other to notice. I think they let him, too. By the end, we were all tired of wading through blood.” She applied a little more pressure to the knife, and he spoke a little faster. “The last report that mentioned you was...curious,” he said. He didn’t flinch or twitch away from her knife. She did not loosen her grip on his collar. “Mentions of some fantastic portal and a hail of sweetbreads trailing beard hair. A rain of maple syrup and glitter. And then you came back—the sketch artist’s portrait did not do you justice, Lady Wai—and then I asked myself what the reason could be. Asterion, perhaps? He was staring at you as if he’d seen a ghost. But no. I suppose you want vengeance.” “Suppose I do,” Zhier growled. “Why tell me about the pavillion?” He frowned at her, as though she was a particularly inept pupil. Zhier did not like that at all. “Because it is history,” he said. “Because that is the collection of our lives; one person intersecting another, and another, and another, writ large. Because tonight was not inevitable, and yet we have been steadily crawling towards it, since the day Yazad and Kaleva died and we slaughtered each other in the streets. Because I want to see what happens next.” His smile was thin. “I am, after all, a scholar first and foremost.” Zhier withdrew her blade, slamming it back into the concealed sheath in a swift blur of movement. She let go of his collar at the same time. She’d have to clean the knife later. After she dealt with the creator. “The creator will be there. You are certain of it?” “How many things are certain in this life, Lady Wai?” he asked her softly. She kicked at the soft tissue behind his kneecap, just to make him flinch. “I am tired of being played with,” Zhier said, steadily. “Think about that before you try to entangle me in more Discovery games.” “You will be waiting a very long time, then,” the Grand replied. “The best way of modelling situations is to look at games.” She left him in the courtyard. Overhead, a thin sliver of moon was beginning to appear from the shroud of clouds. ㄢㄋㄌ Asterion moved through a world of ghosts. Too many memories. He saw ghosts wherever he moved, or sat. He blinked, and the afterimage of Cang Lu laughing over a cup of tea disappeared. He ground the back of his hand against his eyes, and Ashim disappeared. Probably returned to the dust. Old bones. He even saw Jain, the panda arbiter of the Moderation faction, nosing at a large bowl of tea. Then Itiah walked through Jain, and he realised Jain wasn’t real. Too many of them, long dead, long departed. Flushed down the drain. All of them except Asterion, and now, her. The main door was barred but he watched as the ghost of the MaiPon server slipped out through the kitchen and almost laughed, silently. Of course. Kitchens meant waste, and waste meant that there was always another exit. He slipped out through the kitchen window, practically daring a crossbow bolt in the dark. None came. Perhaps the Strikers were asleep. Or perhaps Gamman had given them other instructions. Asterion did not know. Asterion did not care. Cang Lu smiled, his eyes burned out forever by a Shardblade, and raised a cup of tea in a silent salute. He faded again into insubstantiality as Asterion walked on, further into the dark. ㄢㄋㄌ He crossed the courtyard, his soft shoes barely making any noise on old stones. He had learned to walk silently, had learned to Awaken, had learned to infuse life into the dead. He had not learned how to survive with ghosts and the pain. How to survive when they’d shot him and thrown him out and left him for dead. The cart rattling down the cobbled road, dead bodies surrounding him. He couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe couldn’t— Asterion stumbled into the open air pavilion, beneath the peach trees. He was not alone. She was there, looking right at him. “You,” she said. Asterion’s throat worked. He tried to find the words, but there was nothing at all. He had not spoken in years. “You set them on me then, didn’t you?” He wanted to tell her he had nothing to do with that, but he had no words to set against the suspicion in her eyes, and in any case, she wasn’t alive. He should stop talking to the dead, except it was Cang Lu who had warned him, and the MaiPon was probably dead, and he’d told him to come, so there was that. He was a dead man walking, and that was the problem; he was haunting the living and he wasn’t going to be allowed peace until it was over and he could sleep. “The glitter never leaves,” she growled. “Never. I spent weeks trying to get the stench of syrup and beard hair out of my mind, and I’ve been finding streaks of glitter everywhere. Do you know how much trouble you’ve caused me?” A knife flashed. “Didn’t…” someone wheezed. Asterion realised belatedly that it was his voice. He hadn’t spoken in so many years. There was a hot, wet pain in his abdomen and his hand came away bloody. If she could kill him, was she a ghost? He reached out and grasped her hand by the wrist. It was warm to the touch, or maybe he was the one who was cold. “Didn’t,” he croaked. “Someone else…” He read the suspicion in her eyes, bleeding away into realisation and horror. “Who?” Wai ZhierSen demanded. She grabbed at his shoulders, as if she could stop him from dying by force of will. As if she could pry answers from him. They’d done this dance before, hadn’t they? Lives, and lives… “I died...years ago…” Asterion whispered. Blood of a ghost… Death came, in the end, as an old friend. He had not seen Ableah in years, either. He smiled and closed his eyes. ㄢㄋㄌ There was only breath. There was only the repeating crossbow. Ableah cranked it and lined up his shot and exhaled and then fired. Once. Twice. Thrice. A remarkable piece of engineering, the crossbow. In Scyla, they used the crossbow too, but in the Rose Empire, they’d worked out how to make the crossbow fire several bolts, one after another, before it needed reloading. The bolts ripped through the killer. He’d seen her, and in five out of three worlds, he’d been too late to stop her from killing Asterion. Far too late. He tasted blood on his tongue as he stood over the two of them, one fallen over the other. Dead. The ducks in the pond let out a mournful call as Ableah faded back into the embrace of the shadows. ㄢㄋㄌ Kwai ground his teeth together and forced himself to his feet. He wasn’t going to die here, exposed, in the courtyard. Not today. Not like this. ㄢㄋㄌ little wilson (Wai ZhierSen) was killed! She was from the Glory Faction and aligned with the Conspirators! Alvron (Asterion) was lynched! He was undercover in the Heritage Faction and aligned with the Discovery Faction! The cycle will end (and the new one begin) on 21st October, at 9PM, GMT+8. Stay tuned for the next round of Who Wants To Kill Somebody Today!