Creation of Trade
|"Death is mighty, and is no one's friend."|| The run begins on the Day of the Late Tiger in the Month of the Crane in the thirteenth Year of the Magpie since the Regency Council was formed.|
The run takes place in the World Above.
Into the World Above
The party (sans Anto) meets up at the Green Table inn in the Brass District, after having been interrogated or possibly evaded interrogation instead. The group has taken all but one of the rooms, which was previously reserved. Everyone is beginning to relax and drink tea in the common room, when the doors burst open, and a spirit-glowing Anto strides in to announce "Very well, it is time for your audience.". Then, there is a great wind, blowing through everyone and catching up their spirits.
As the spirits of Merit, Zhi-Hao, and Kasumi begin to blow, they drift in a parabolic arc, but then there is an odd explosion somewhere behind them, and then they feel themselves grabbed and pulled, quite painfully, by... something. It's hard to tell what's going on in this nonexistent wind, but it's as if gnarly poky tentacles are dragging them ungently somewhere.
Then, there is a faraway voice which would no doubt be terrifyingly impressive were it not so far away: Your lords are not the only ones who can have their enemies’ servants interfered with. Then, a second voice, also far away, replies: No, though You may be the Breaker of Rules, You cannot interfere in My domain so easily.
After that, they seem to be pulled by a second force away from the first force, and then after a moment or two, they come crashing downwards, get terribly squished through a tiny tiny space, and then thump to the ground. Opening their eyes, the three see that they are on a marble floor, in an opulent room with gem-studded murals. One end has a large figure, studded with emeralds, of a large man with an elephant's head. Standing at the other side of the room is... a large man with an elephant's head.
- "I was reading a webcomic that started this way..." -Drew
Merit stands up and bows to the elephant-headed guy, who starts to speak -
- "ARE YOU QUI---"
- before turning into something more like a regular-looking guy with a more regular voice.
- "Are you quite all right?"
The group allows as they're probably all right, but wonders where they are. The guy says that he has brought them to one of his homes, as he did not think they wished to visit one of Kali's homes. They agree enthusiastically that they did not. Then, introductions are performed.
- "Master Deng Zhi-Hao."
- "You are of one of the clans?"
- "I am a swordsmaster - not of the clans."
- "Li Merit"
- "Li, so, one of the working classes?"
- "Yes, I work for a living"
- "You should not be ashamed to do so."
- "Arata Kasumi."
- "I would enjoin you not to practice your art in these lands."
- "Um... I'm not much of an artist. I have knot-tying..."
- "As you may have guessed - hmm, has anyone guessed? No one has guessed, how very disappointing - you may call me Kubera. I am known in these parts as a lord of wealth and, though you may not understand it, the master of the Northern lands, that is, yours."
- "Then you have an interest in our lands?" -Zhi-Hao
- "I did. It was an immensely profitable arrangement. But you have closed your borders to such profit. Profit no longer interests you?"
- "That must have been a long time ago."
- "It was quite some time ago. A couple hundred turns of seasons."
- "There has been some creative interpretation of 'trade with the Northern Lands' - there are ways to penetrate the barriers." -Merit
- "Smuggling? So vulgar and overpriced."
- "They do have to charge to make the risks worth it..."
- "And there are so many more risks than there used to be. Even if you are going to lock the gates, and cover them over with rocks, did you have to poison the ground?"
- "Wait, the ground is poisoned?"
- "More so than it used to be. It spreads out from the Wall."
Merit notes that they are interested in a policy change on this matter, and Kubera is pleased. It has been forever since he had a decent cup of green tea, and new silks to wear. Merit thinks that he could probably find a cup of tea in his pockets, but Kubera admits he was thinking of larger amounts than a single cup, and Merit realizes he doesn't actually have any stuff on him at all, except for Xian, who seems to have been in his secret pocket this whole time. He sets Xian loose to join the conversation.
Kasumi asks what price they are being charged for rescue from Kali, and Kubera says that he will take it as full payment if they deliver the message that he would be interested in opening trade routes. Of course, the alternative would be a continuation of what they endured before - if the Northern Lands keep weakening those who strive against her, she will grow stronger.
- "The war of knives in the dark serves her - I am served by trade and wealth and prosperity, but as long as that is denied to me, she becomes stronger. Or, if I take up knives, and send agents into the north against her agents, then that makes her stronger as well. It supports her to fight in her style - plus it is terribly uncivilized." -Kubera
Merit says that he would be more than happy to carry this message, but it would be easier if he knew more about what the offer included - very few people in the Empire remember what kinds of trade goods the South has at this point.
Kubera says they can feel free to look around - he will make sure that some of the priests can see them, unless they would like to rent some bodies. Merit doesn't think that will be necessary, but others think that it might be nice to talk to the locals.
Kasumi asks if Kubera has any suggestions on who they should talk to about opening trade. He is rather surprised, and asks if they do not have any ideas themselves? Perhaps ministers of trade? The Emperor? The guardians of the Wall?
Sensing an opportunity for profit, Merit offers to trade information for renting a body, and offers that there is no Emperor - the Empire has been ruled by a Regency Council since, probably, shortly after the Wall became more restrictive.
Master Deng offers a tidbit that the restrictions on trade routes are caused by a small faction trying to become more powerful in the Empire, but Kubera is not convinced of the interestingness of this information - small factions trying to gain power is pretty much politics as usual in the Empire, as he understands it. Deng adds that the faction serves a Spider spirit, which Kubera thinks is possibly interesting.
Xian says that the Cycle has some different members now since Kubera last saw. For example, Whale got expelled - but Kubera knows that.
- "Some thought that might open up a golden age between your Empire and ours."
Xian adds that Dragon is currently a prisoner, and Kubera scoffs - he is only interested in true information.
- "Dragon is prisoner. Of a skinwalking demon pretending to be the Spider spirit. And the small faction mostly kind of runs the Empire." -Xian
Xian is willing to swear that it is true and puts himself in life-debt if it is not, so Kubera accepts the news. Master Deng clarifies - the little faction is running things, but they're not publically running the Empire in that capacity. Kubera is still a bit unsure - he did not think that the Empire's spirits recruited direct servants. Xian reminds him that it was a "fake" spirit.
Kasumi has been silent this whole time; Kubera encourages that surely she has something to offer in exchange for a body? She protests - she doesn't know which things he cares about, or which ones she isn't supposed to tell! This is hard!
- "Then I shall get good value." -Kubera
Kasumi thinks... there's a lot of internal stuff, like the Spider faction renaming the countries. Merit prompts Kasumi with the name changes, which Kubera finds interesting.
- "Your best opportunity for profit would be -" -Kasumi
- "You could stop now!" -Merit, interrupting
Kubera says he can offer them better stats on their bodies, if they wish to trade more information. They can choose bodies with starts of 3/4/5/6 (pick an order), and they still have whatever their Tao normally is. Merit complains about not having his own stats, but his own body is way back in the Green Table and not really available.
- "So... you oppose Kali?" -Zhi-Hao
- "No, no, I do not oppose Kali - that would be suicidal. But I do not approve of the direction in which she is dragging our people, sending minions to destabilize what was once our greatest ally and partner." -Kubera
- "Wait... 'greatest'? There are more countries?"
- "Didn't I tell someone about this? Whale showed us some other places, there are some really off the wall outfits." -Xian
Anyway, Kubera is sure that others among his brothers and sisters have other ideas, but this is the idea he has had.
Merit wonders how they might contact him again later, once they are back home? Kubera says that if they can send messengers across the Wall, then he can provide places for them to meet.
- "You could, of course, take the oaths and become one of Mine, but the people of your lands tend not to do that sort of thing." -Kubera
- "It is somewhat damaging to our chi..."
Kubera looks mildly affronted - he thinks it would be altered, but he would not say damaged. Xian placates: the change is unfamiliar enough to them to look like damage.
Then, he raises his hands, and has an elephant head again. Everyone is suddenly hit with a headache, as well as all the myriad aches and pains that normal bodies are prone to. Additionally, in the Material World, the vast opulence of the murals is lessened - they are encrusted with polished stones, not gems, except for Kubera's eyes, which are still emeralds. Kubera himself is no longer visible.
Standing in the South
A man wearing similar robes to Kubera's garb comes in, and sketches a very formal Imperial bow (as if read straight from the manual) and says in accented but understandable Xiang, "I am told that you wish a tour of the small trading outpost. Your tour has been purchased."
A younger man comes in as well, who asks in Senatali if the group can understand him. Xian says Yes, but everyone else says no.
- "If you have difficulties, you can convert speech, but this one speaks some of your language." -older guy
- "I speak very good. You call me Small Cook." -younger guy
The older man leaves again, and the younger one offers to escort them around. Leaving through the main temple area, there are a number of people sitting on the floor and chanting, so the group goes as quietly as possible. When they leave the building, Merit recognizes the structure as matching the Imperial outposts that were north of the North Wall, though this one is a little more open and a little less fortress-y. However, where the Dragon seal should be, there is now an elephant. Trees to the north block the sight of the Wall, if it is there.
The guide leads them to the south - just over the hill is a city, which Merit estimates as size 3 in terms of trading. The guide translates the name of the city as "Small North Trade", but Xian parses the Senatali name more elegantly as "Gateway to Riches".
The main street has a bazaar in it, selling spices, small animals, and odd foodstuffs. There are also a number of stalls selling brightly colored cloth, which looks to be sturdier than silk but less scratchy than linen. There is no sign of tea or silk; little jade, but more stony gems. Merit thinks there are definitely some possibilities for trade here.
Deng, observing the scene, wonders whether the city seems to be at the height of its growth, or if has fallen on hard times. Things do seem a little dirtier than they would be in a similar city in the Empire, but perhaps that is normal here.
- "How close are we to the coast?" -Xian
- "The coast of which ocean?"
- "Wait, there's more than one ocean?" -Kasumi
The guide says that the Great Ocean is many days to the east, and the Small Ocean is much farther to the south. Merit thinks about sending ships around the wall by sea, but Xian, translating, says that the guide thinks that the sailors distrust northern sea travel, as many ships are lost that way. Sailing the Great Ocean to other lands is very perilous, and few will attempt it.
Master Deng's weaponsense notes that there are a number of guards in the bazaar, especially on the more valuable merchandise, but the entire populace is not armed.
Merit asks what else there is to see - the guide suggests the Rajah house, or temple lands, or a worker house, but the discussion is interrupted by shouts (in Senatali) of "Stop thief!". There's a young boy carrying a string of black beads, running pell-mell away from the bazaar, chased by several guards with swords. Zhi-Hao makes a grab for the kid but misses; Kasumi grabs his shoulder, and then the guards catch up. They start to carry the kid away, as he protests that he didn't steal anything, but Xian knows he's lying - the string of pearls was definitely stolen. Merit frowns, suspecting that Butterfly put the kid in their path for a reason, but nobody is willing to cause a commotion as the guards take the young thief away.
The Rajah's district is where the palace is. The Rajah is apparently some sort of a prince. Xian wonders where the rich people shop - is there a higher-end merchant district? There is. There is a tailor, with more of the unfamiliar fabric in impressively bright colors. There is no silk, but some wool. Merit thinks the dyes are the most impressive of the trade goods yet - the fabric would be good, but the dyes could be game-changing and rare. The upscale fashions here show a lot more skin than the upscale fashions in the Empire do, and Merit thinks that they might not translate well. It's warmer here, for one, Xian points out. And while the Savanna is warmer than the northern Empire, a sari might not be sufficiently martial.
- "Not everyone in the Savanna rides horses and tries to kill people." -Merit
- "That's not been my experience." -Kasumi
Another store has animal-based decorations - ivory is plentiful and cheap, but there are also peacock feathers, and several tiger rugs, including one panda tiger rug. The price quoted for one of the panda tiger rugs is 700 rupees - Merit's guess is that a rupee is about 1/3 of a li, so exporting tiger skin could be profitable, though hunting tigers is dangerous and often not well thought of.
A jewelry store has more faceted gemstones, but fewer stones like jade. There are more pearls, which come in white, black, and an unusual green.
The Houses of Gods
Merit clamors to see some magic, but Xian asks about the temple grounds, and the group heads there instead. There are a number of small buildings - larger than an Imperial shrine, more like a small palace. One is all in black stone, and another in white; another is red with a statue of a six-armed knife-wielding woman, and a fourth is red with no statue. The guide identifies the temples as belonging to Ratri, Kalkin, Kali, and Yama respectively. These are only some of the "daily gods", but the three great gods - Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu - have a temple on the next block, which looks like one large palace with three domes. Xian recalls that Ratri is Iala Mane's god, and Yama is the one that had the deal with Spiral and Swiftgreen.
- "Wait. Kali is one of the smaller gods?" -Xian
Kubera does not have a temple inside the city, only the "holy site" north of the city, in the ancient home of the Northern powers.
Merit asks which gods help if people are sick - the answer is Brahma, or Vishnu, or Kalkin if the person is sick in the head. Does it help? The guide is shocked - of course it does. Would they be permitted to visit the other temples as guests of Kubera? The guide, made suspicious by the question, asks if they are planning to do anything bad, but the group assures him no. He says he is not a priest yet, only an acolyte, so he is not sure of the metaphysics, but he does not think anyone would object, if they do not do anything bad.
- "Ask about magic! And books! And maps!" -Merit
There is no "god of books", but many of the temples have books. How about books about all the gods? The Great Temple would probably be the best place to start. Xian asks how children learn here - they go to schools, and then trade schools or religious schools. Xian is baffled - all of them? Isn't that a waste?
Now that they have wandered around the city a bit more, it does seem clear that it is not currently as awesome as it was built to be. Not all the storefronts are full, and the temple district is built on a larger scale than fits the number of people here. Upon questioning, the guide says that the city is many hundreds of winters old, and it did trade with the North before the trade stopped. In times long past, this city was the center of - he flails for the right words here, but Xian translates it as Kubera's center of power. In recent times, his main temple in the city has been taken down, and he has moved to the north temple. The guide thinks that so many daily gods having temples in the city is an insult to Kubera.
The group heads into the left side of the great temple, which the guide says is for Vishnu. They ask the priest there if they can see some of the tomes of instruction. He is puzzled, but they claim to want to learn - they're from another land and want to learn more about the gods here. Ah, it seems to make more sense to the priests that they are Kubera's guests than that they are - whoever the bodies would normally be. The priest shows them a book which he thinks may be helpful.
Merit does his best to speedread it, but he only has four ranks of Senatali and the body he is in isn't as smart as he is, so he doesn't succeed in memorizing it as well as he would like, but he gets some pointers on the religions to compare against any books he picks up in the Empire.
One difference of particular note is that the afterlife of the Empire is about the bureaucracy in the World Beyond, while here, everyone is generally reincarnated over and over, into better or worse lives depending on behavior. If you are very good over many many lives, and are very good in your current life, you yourself might become a god! That seems very odd to Merit, since he's never heard of anyone becoming a spirit. He tries to ask about that, and the priest notes that the final ascension requires a god's intervention. Whether the final acts of your life determine that judgement, or the Lords of Karma themselves that determine the judgement is a subtle distinction, and he thinks Merit clever to have picked up on it. Merit, who was not necessarily exploring that depth of subtlety, decides to leave it at that.
Zhi-Hao notes with sudden surprise that one of the servants who has just entered the temple is deadlier than he is. On the other hand, in this body and with no weapons, Zhi-Hao isn't as deadly as usual. Anyway, the servant has several well-placed knives. Xian doesn't think he is in disguise, but does note that he doesn't seem to be actually doing anything the way the other servants are, but he's good at looking busy.
- "Do you have any questions for us?" -Xian
- "Why did your gods seal the border, and is it going to stay that way?"
- "Umm... hubda hubda hubda."
- "Hubda, hubda hubda hubda! Hubda hubda!" -Mike
- "The Great Spirits have not explained to us what the purpose of sealing the border was." -Xian
- "But they allowed you to come here?"
- "Well... I don't think anyone got permission. Kali was attempting to take us."
- "She was not successful."
- "! This is a very important sign. I will tell the high priest at once!"
Xian interrupts before he can go to tell the high priest - does he recognize the third servant from the left who isn't doing anything? The priest frowns, and then shouts at him - what is he doing in here?
The servant briefly contemplates his options, but then decides to give up on the pretense. He shouts "Kali Durga!" and then charges the little group.
Even without their items and with wussy southron bodies, the group is still proof against one low-level assassin. Kasumi grabs his nose (though not as well as she would expect - effects from spending a Yang appear to be more difficult), Xian is generally confounding, and Kasumi and Zhi-Hao are disarmy, so the assassin is quickly made ineffective. He then retreats.
- "Should I... take care of him for you?" -Zhi-Hao
- "Oh, no."
Xian wants to know why a servant of Kali is attacking Vishnu's temple, and the priest appears to think this is a very good question. He takes one of the knives, and then storms through the central temple into the one on the right, that of Shiva, and waves the knife angrily in front of the high priest of Shiva.
It is deemed that the assassin's transgressions will be Dealt with. And... since they were attacked in the house of the Lords of Karma, then they may have a boon. The priest of Shiva doesn't like that, but the priest of Vishnu thinks it's obvious. Eventually, the priest of Brahma settles the dispute - why are they even arguing about this? Give the visitors their boon.
The boon is of the Trimurti (the three Lords of Karma), which the acolyte of Kundera points out is a really big honor. Xian agrees. They are very very honored. Um... what are good boons to ask for? The acolyte says long life, a high rebirth, the remission of sins, that sort of thing. Hmm. It seems like it is a metaphysically large boon, but it isn't clear that it comes with immediate practical benefits. However, they need not decide now - they can call it in any time they speak to a priest of the Trimurti. They may choose to use it for a higher purpose rather than personal gain, but they may not just give it to someone else.
- "I'm totally retiring to this country. It's much more straightforward." -Kasumi
The priest of Shiva takes the knife and prays over it for a few minutes, and then tosses it in one of the urns of fire and ash. There is a sudden scream from outside the building, which seems to surprise the priests - not that the assassin has caught on fire, but that he was still sticking around.
Xian wonders how the three Lords of Karma would feel about reopening relations with the north. The priest of Vishnu says that they would be most accepting to deal with their northern friends again. The priest of Shiva is less enthusiastic - he's not sure why they would care one way or the other. The priest of Brahma smiles benignly. Xian notes that one of the "principal obstacles" in convincing the Empire to reopen relations is the recent difficulty in which the worshippers of Kali attempted to forcibly attack the Empire.
This provokes an argument among the three priests - these things do come in cycles. Everyone is agreed that eventually Shiva will let Kali destroy the world, but Vishnu thinks that the time is not today. Of course, if she is successful, that is because it was the time. If she is not successful, that is because it was not.
- "Obviously, your land will have problems with Kali - your land is where we have foreseen the prophecy will come to pass (if it does). It's not permitted to the servants of Kali to do anything inappropriate - but it is appropriate if it's successful."
The argument seems likely to go on for quite some time, with or without the party, so the group goes back to speaking to the original priest of Vishnu, who mentions that there are two daily gods who directly oppose Kali: Ratri and Kalkin. Of course, the final result, though it will take place in the north, will not depend on the north - it is not as if the Empire can do anything, but it the board on which the game is played. Vishnu, of course, is on the side of the north not being destroyed. There are many who think that the battle between Kali and her enemies will be decided by whichever side Yama decides to come down on, so our choices are thought not to matter.
Xian notes that the Empire does have an obligation to go through the motions, even if they can't actually affect it. The priest agrees - if they don't try, they will surely be reincarnated to a lower caste. They must strive fully! Xian, trying hard to drag things back to a less metaphysical level, notes that when the Empire is trying to decide how much to open the border, they must of course worry about their ability to stop Kali.
The priest says something, but his words are lost in the sudden confusion of everyone dropping all their stats by one.
- "So, when you return to your lands, make your decisions as you consider best to move yourselves forward, but it is the hands of the gods - as are all of us."
Merit quickly suggests a fancy encrypted countersign to identify a messenger to the temple of Vishnu as coming from Merit and no one else. The priest is willing to go along with this, though it seems likely that he would be interested in meeting northerners whether or not they came from Merit. And the messenger wouldn't get the group's boon, of course. Xian and Merit put together a poetic spy code.
- "Is our rental running out?" -Merit, to the guide
- "No, certainly not, or you would be feeling weaker."
The group heads to the temple of Kalkin, as "allies against Kali" seem useful to meet. The priest of Kalkin is pleased to meet visitors from the North - it has been a long time. It seems that Kalkin is a bit more proactive than Vishnu - the way to ensure that it is not time for the prophecy is to make it not happen. There is some good news - Kali has been rather shown up recently. Through "very careful manipulations", they arranged for one of Kali's minions to have a great misfortune befall him. Now, the grand high priest of Kali has been thrown down, and now there is some political infighting to choose a new one. That does seem to be going faster than it normally would, however.
- "When a new leader is chosen, there are two possibilities: either he will see the light, or we will take him out as we did the last one."
The party is a bit non-plussed - they think that they had everything to do with Mola Ram being taken down, and they aren't really sure what this Kalkin guy did to help, but the priest of Kalkin seems as convinced as the priest of Vishnu that the people of the Empire can't actually affect the battle. On the other hand, it seems plausible that Kalkin might have been doing something to Kali, in addition to whatever the Empire was doing to Mola Ram.
Anyway, if someone can let Kalkin know exactly where Kali's next minion is in the "godless North", then more action can be taken. It's more acceptable to break the rules north of the wall, for one. His priests also say that Kalkin is known as the Lord of Light and Binder of Demons.
- "He and Anto can get into an infinite loop some time."
Merit sets up a different sign/countersign to identify a messenger to Kalkin in the future, which intrigues the priest. Who are they, anyway? Messengers for a higher power? Higher powers in disguise? Kasumi is keen on claiming to be higher powers in disguise, but Xian says that they were involved in "Mola Ram lying dead at our feet."
- "Ah! Servants of the high lady of flame and rebirth!"
- "Er, yes, we... work with them."
Anyway, if they let the temple of Kalkin know, they will send what aid they can over the wall.
The group asks for details about the prophecy - what should they specifically avoid coming to pass? Well, don't let Fire and Death run amok, for one. More precisely, that's Agni and Yama. But the exact signs aren't the important thing.
- "You're not going to hear this in the other temples, but Lord Kalkin doesn't put so much stock in 'prophecy' and 'ordained'. If you want something to come out that way, go do it that way. That's our philosophy. Don't worry about the signs, worry about kicking the butts of the servants of Kali."
Merit tries for a few more details about the prophecies, "to help discredit them to the other gods". Well, there are the Shankara stones, but not everyone even believes in them. They're supposed to be stones the size of a man's heart, with stripes of some sort, but the priest assures Merit not to worry.
- "Don't worry about them - they won't show up, nobody believes in them. But if you do find them, hide them! Don't show them to people!"
Merit asks about people making fake Shankara stones, but the priest shrugs - it's not like the gods can't tell the difference. Anyway, avoid the servants of Kali and the servants of Agni - or beat them up. Another thing they could do is - but they miss that, because their stats drop again.
- "Bored now." -Kasumi, with a social of 1.
- "So... respect and worship the gods, but know that one of them thinks that you should just be doing the right things."
- "But we already do that! What else?"
- "Well... you could convert."
- "Er, maybe not just now. We'd rather... stay independent, for maximum flexibility."
The priest of Kalkin respects the practicality of that last. Then, someone mentions to the acolyte of Kubera that they're starting to be on their last legs of these rented bodies. What happens if their stats drop all the way to zero? Um... that would be bad. Quite bad. He rushes them (as much as they can be rushed, with some body stats of 1) back to the temple of Kubera, where he says he hopes they will... and then he looks around in confusion, as the party is back in spiritual form, and their bodies have gone back from whence they came.Kubera returns, and asks if they saw everything they needed to see. Merit thinks probably not everything, and it would be nice if they could visit again. Kubera agrees - they could serve their mutual purposes by increasing communication and trade. But for now, it is time to go home. Kubera transforms back to an elephant-headed deity, and casts them forth - they fly north, and squish painfully through the Wall, and then wake up in the Green Table.