[HOW MANY LIVES HAVE YOU TAKEN?]
“Seven hundred and twenty two counting both draugr last night,” you reply. Adrian sucks in a sharp breath.
“Two of them?”
You nod. “Strong and tough, but they die the same as everything else. Blessed silver works well, too.”
Your colleague shakes his head incredulously. “I saw one tear a dozen soldiers apart in seconds.”
“That does sound like something a draugr would do,” you say. “Especially if the squad was inexperienced. Speaking of which, you’ve seen combat before – have you killed anyone?”
“I–” his mouth moves wordlessly. “It was a blur, and there were so many… I can’t remember. Five? Ten? Too many. We found out later that their mages outnumbered us three to one.” he shudders. “Nothing compared to seven hundred, but–”
You shake your head. “One is too many.” Each kill is crystal clear in your memory, preserved like a fly in amber. Some of your victims were defiant, some resigned. Most were fearful. It didn’t matter in the end.
“…Does it ever get easier?” your colleague asks.
You consider his question for a moment. “My Order considers violence a necessary evil. I find it…” you pause, looking for the right word.
Adrian scratches his chin. “Difficult?”
“I find it regrettable,” you say at last.
You soon find yourselves in the Jin Mansion’s shadow. Much like its smaller cousin, the building resembles a massive stone flower – but the similarities end there. Instead of white and green, the mansion’s exterior is a rich blue with miniscule script flowing up its walls in gilded vines – ancestral names, dates and accomplishments packed into swirling patterns of dazzling intensity.
Jin He, Tenth Day of the Sixth Month of the Year of the Wooden Monkey: Appointed Grand Prefect of Xishan…
Jin Bao, Third Day of the Eighth Month of the Year of the Wooden Rooster: Served with honor in the pacification of the Southern Rebellion…
The list goes on and on, the history and genealogy of an entire Great House transcribed on its seat of power.
“Did you see that?” Adrian whispers as you step over the threshold and hand your coat to a waiting servant. “The writing on the walls…”
“If you would be so kind as to follow me, Honored Guests,” the servant says. “The Lady of the House awaits.” Her voice is high and sweet, like the trilling of a caged songbird.
The interior of the mansion is as opulent as its exterior. You walk down corridor after corridor of priceless artwork – exquisite paintings and calligraphy, delicate vases and urns nestled in alcoves, intricate clockwork figurines and mechanisms that whirr and tick as they move…
You emerge into some sort of training hall, racks of practice weapons resting against bare walls. A staff-wielding woman spars with an imaginary foe in the middle of the room, striking and parrying with practiced grace.
Your guide knocks softly on the door, and Lady Jin turns to meet your gaze.
“Thank you, Mei,” she says in Reshanese, putting her weapon down. “You may take your leave now.” The servant bows and heads back into the corridor.
Both of you remain silent as the noble approaches you, bare feet gliding over lacquered wood. When she is ten steps away, you bow at the waist, and Adrian does the same a split-second later.
Lady Jin inclines her head ever-so-slightly as you straighten up. She looks somewhere between twenty and forty, but has ruled her House for over two hundred years. Do not underestimate her, you have been warned. You will not live to make such a mistake again.
“Welcome, ambassadors.” She speaks your tongue flawlessly, words crisp and precise with no hint of an accent. “I beg your forgiveness for the meager hospitality – you must be used to a higher degree of comfort.”
Her false modesty appears completely sincere. Is this an act, or does she truly believe her extravagant hospitality inadequate? Neither option sits particularly well with you.
“Not at all, Your Grace.” Adrian replies smoothly. “We – our lord included – were greatly impressed by the courtesies you have bestowed upon us. He is a strong advocate for closer relations between our two nations, and your hospitality lends much weight to his beliefs.”
“It gladdens me to hear such,” she says. “Of the matter we discussed yesterday…”
You nod. “It is done, Your Grace.”
“My thanks,” she replies. “The jiangshi – what do you call it? Draugr? – has killed my people for close to a month, despite my best efforts. For you to track and destroy it in a night… such a deed deserves recompense, wouldn’t you say?”
You shake your head. “I would not presume to trouble you any further, Your Grace–”
She waves her hand, cutting you off. “It is no trouble at all. What is it you desire?”
“If I may be so bold, Your Grace,” you say after a moment’s consideration, “I would ask a boon of you – its nature and magnitude to be decided at a later date, perhaps?”
Lady Jin laughs, high and clear. “So practical! Much as I hate being indebted to another, I am a woman of my word… very well. I will oblige.”
You bow again in thanks, and she goes on: “How fare your preparations for the banquet tonight?”
“They go well, Your Grace,” Adrian replies. “We are eager to visit the palace and see its wonders.”
“Ah! My humble abode is but a hovel in comparison to the splendor of the Imperial Court,” Lady Jin says. As you and your colleague begin to raise differing opinions, she cuts you off with another wave of her hand.
“Save your breath,” she says, a twinkle in her eye. “You may argue with me later tonight, if you please. I doubt you will, though – His Majesty the Son of Heaven has spared no expense in his hospitality…”
Today, the Son of Heaven’s mourning ends. Twelve months and two days of abstention from official duties (a full year with one day more at the beginning and end, for the years of mourning are three in number), prayers and offerings of incense, burnings and buryings and sacrifices, watery gruel and rough linen garb…
Death brings enough misery to the living – it seems strange that anyone should prescribe more. But it is not your place to question another’s beliefs. And if anybody deserved mourning, you suppose it would be the previous ruler of Reshan.
Seventy years of age when she was taken by an assassin’s knife, the Empress’ death drowned an empire in the flames of civil war, pitting her two children against each other. Eventually, justice won out – in a three-day duel that boiled the seas and blackened the sky, the Son of Heaven cast his murderous sister down in a duel and crushed her armies… or so the story goes. History is a luxury of the victor, and fact is often less convenient than fiction.
Whatever the circumstances behind your presence in Reshan, your mission is clear. Assist Lord Anselm in his quest to strengthen diplomatic ties between the two empires, you were told. Do so by any means necessary.
A soft knock on the door interrupts your train of thought, and the servant from before bows and glides across the room. She whispers something into Lady Jin’s ear, and the noble frowns.
“No,” she murmurs. “That is… I cannot in good faith demand such a thing of them. Tell him I will–”
The servant shakes her head urgently, muttering again. You make out the words “Imperial Seal”, and Lady Jin lets out a heavy breath. “Very well,” she says, looking a few decades older. “Show him in.”
The servant bows hurriedly and leaves in a swish of skirts, almost running in her haste. Lady Jin looks at the two of you, sadness in her eyes.
“I would like to apologize,” she says, “for what is about to transpire.”
“Should we be concerned for our safety, Your Grace?” You ask, keeping your voice even and curling the fingers of one hand into a loose fist. Power swirls within you like a storm, howling for release, and thought/image/feeling flashes through your mind–
Strike first – only a split second – kill archers in the walls – back along the corridor – guards – kill them too – kill the servants, dead men tell no tales – retrieve the Principal – burn your way to the docks – strike now now Now NOW–
Lady Jin reels backward, raising an arm instinctively in a defensive gesture, but you quash the murderous impulse with an effort of will. Not now, you tell yourself. Not until she makes her move.
“I mean you no harm,” Lady Jin replies, the fear in her eyes fading into wariness. “But I must put you in a difficult position – His Majesty has decreed it so, and it is not my place to question his judgement.”
“Difficult? How so?” Adrian asks.
“The punishment for treason is fate worse than death,” she says, “and His Majesty wishes for you to witness it first-hand. Here they come.” A corner of her mouth twitches in displeasure.
Boots clunk heavily across wooden flooring, and a courtier garbed in red with silver trim marches into the room. He is accompanied by a guard clad in gleaming steel from head to toe, and a stylized metal coffin floats serenely through the air behind the duo.
“The Imperial Edict arrives!” The courtier cries in Reshanese. Lady Jin falls to her knees, pressing her forehead against the ground. You and Adrian bow but remain standing – Lord Anselm’s instructions were clear. The courtier may speak with the Emperor’s voice, but you will kneel only to the Emperor himself.
“His Majesty the Emperor, the Son of Heaven and Lord of Ten Thousand Years, has decreed that all who enter his palace must first witness the full price of wickedness,” the courtier proclaims. “The Vessel of Penitance behind me contains a heinous traitor, arrested for crimes against Heaven too numerous to count – high treason, sedition, murder, rape, arson, theft… No amount of punishment is enough for such filth.”
You can hear hate in his voice, bitter and strident. “This ends the Imperial Edict.”
The coffin opens to reveal a trembling man – pale, hairless and naked from head to toe. His arms, legs and torso are bound by leather straps, and his eyes are mad and unfocused as he struggles desperately against his bonds.
His mouth dangles open, a dark void stained with smears of deep red. Tongue and teeth have been removed, leaving only empty gums, and you hear the whistle of air escaping his throat as he tries to scream through mangled vocal cords.
“How long has he been in custody?” Lady Jin asks, rising to her feet. Her face is a shade paler than before, and a bead of sweat is forming slowly on her brow.
“Two hundred and six days,” the courtier spits. “Not long enough for the likes of it.”
“Two hundred and six days of flaying and brining,” Lady Jin whispers. “Of flesh slowly pared away by the torturer’s knife. Two hundred and six nights of biomancy, renewing the body for the horrors to begin again at dawn.”
Adrian looks like he’s going to be sick. He stares at his boots, grimacing as his chest heaves violently.
You shake your head. In your five years of service, you have seen angry and frightened men do horrific things to their enemies. But this deliberate cruelty, the sheer premeditation and artifice and effort invested in the suffering of another…
I would not wish this on my worst enemy, you decide. What manner of twisted mind birthed such a punishment?
“Thus always to traitors,” the courtier proclaims triumphantly, and the armored guard steps forward. Gleaming scalpel blades slide from the tips of its gauntlets with a snick, and the captive’s struggles intensify as he recognizes the sound of impending agony. His eyes dart wildly about the room, but everyone avoids his gaze.
Everyone except you.
He looks pleadingly into your eyes – a wretched creature that was once human, now broken beyond repair by the tender mercies of the Imperial Torturer. The first incision splits his skin from groin to chin, and the captive convulses in his bonds as bladed fingers begin peeling his skin away from his flesh.
For a moment, the whistling of his neutered screams is the only thing you hear. Then you become aware of the pounding of your heart – and an unfamiliar feeling stirring within your chest.
Something you thought you’d buried forever, in the training halls of your youth…
[WHAT DO YOU FEEL?]
[Sadness. The mission takes precedence over all else. You cannot damage the goodwill between your two nations for the sake of one criminal.]
[Anger. No crime deserves such a punishment. You will not stand for this sick display of pain and suffering.]
[Determination. You have a duty not only to your nation, but to all humanity. Perhaps there is something you can do, some compromise that can be reached…? (Write-in)]