Calistril 3, 4713 (morning, Uqtaal necropolis)
We are leaving today. I can’t say that I am sorry to go, and if we could have left yesterday we would have. We never intended to come here, we certainly didn’t want to come here, and pretty much everything about this place has been horrible. Making peace with the yeti was a welcome change from how we started, but it doesn’t bring Bevelek back to life. And while the chief is grateful to us, I worry that not all of his tribe is on board with that. Katiyana may have been the catalyst, but several of them still died at our hands. I am anxious to put all of it behind us.
I spent hours and hours yesterday cleansing this place with Ivan and Koya, removing all traces of Fumiyoshi and restoring as much of the Desnan iconography as our spells could handle. Even that was unsatisfying. It feels like a job half finished, but there is just no way we are backtracking 30-some miles to remove all of those skulls. That, and no one understands, much less knows how to deal with, the pool with the tree. Other than using the specters for target practice, which I doubt was the original intent.
I am tired. I didn’t sleep well. And I hate it here.
Calistril 6, 4713 (Path of Aganhei, Wall of Heaven, evening)
We rejoined the Path of Aganhei around mid-day today after over three days of winding through the mountains. We’ve begun our descent to Ordu-Aganhei, though according to Ulf (and our maps) that is still over a week away.
We finally have pleasant weather. The sun is on a reasonable schedule, the skies are clear, and while it’s still cold we aren’t anywhere near the sub-freezing temperatures of the arctic. I should be happy about all of this, but I’m not. I promised mom and dad that I’d check in once we got this far and I have been putting it off because I don’t know what to say to them. There’s no way for me to tell them that Bevelek’s dead without confirming their worst fears about our journey, but I can’t not tell, them, either. So, the mature adult that I am, I’ve been avoiding it.
Calistril 8, 4713 (Path of Aganhei, Wall of Heaven, evening)
Ivan has been making small repairs to the caravan using magic as we go. The wagons took quite a beating in the storms, and then again under the mountains. As we learned in Ul-Angorn we don’t want to look like we’ve been through…well, all that stuff we just went through, I guess. Of course there’s no avoiding the obvious, which is that we are coming down from the Crown in late winter. At best, people will think we have lost our minds, but with the wagons beat to the Abyss and back, we’ll look like fools who didn’t know better and are lucky to be alive.
These mountains go on for hundreds of miles inland. They call it the Wall of Heaven. The coastal range stretches from the divide between Tian Xia and the Crown all the way down to the equator. At every point it’s at least a hundred miles across—in most it’s at least twice that—with peaks towering to 30,000 feet and beyond. Except at Goka, the only port city on the west coast, at the only break in the range. It’s no coincidence that it is also one of the largest cities in the world.
It’s said that there’s a lost valley somewhere in the northern expanse of the Wall, maybe a thousand miles or so from where we are now, where the people live an idyllic life, isolated in, and by, the mountains. It’s a Nirvana on Golarion, with no rulers, no war, no evil, and no sin. It sounds like any one of a dozen other legends we have back in the Inner Sea. I don’t believe any of them, either, but who’s to say? Maybe there really is a paradise out there, and humanity is just too jaded to accept the idea that a utopia exists.
Calistril 10, 4713 (Path of Aganhei, Wall of Heaven, small hours)
I finally talked to mom and dad. It could have gone a lot worse.
“Bevelek? By the gods, Kali…what—”
I cut him off. “It was our fault. We…we made an assumption that…it was a terrible mistake. I—I don’t know how else to…”
I had to stop to wipe my eyes.
“It didn’t have to happen. We could have prevented it. I…”
Another long silence. Then mom spoke.
“Do you want us to tell someone? Do you know where their family lives?”
“Give us…give us a week,” I said, sniffing, and wiping my eyes dry again. “Qatana says she can…bring him back.”
A much longer silence this time.
“You don’t approve.”
This time, dad spoke. “That is not it at all. We are just…surprised. Qatana? Your friend, Qatana. Qatana Marchand.” he asked, clearly incredulous.
Another long silence.
“Now I do not know what to say.”
Calistril 14, 4713 (Path of Aganhei, Hongal, evening)
We spotted a hunting party not far from the road today. They didn’t approach us, and we didn’t approach them. Ulf suggested that was for the best. He explained that the people of Hongal are suspicious of foreigners, and accept the trade route, and the travellers on it, as a kind of necessary evil. As long as we stay on the road and keep to our business, they’ll leave us alone. Stray too far from it and we’ll be trespassing, and around here that is like asking to be executed without the added burden of having to ask.
They are mostly a nomadic people; even their king lives in a sort of traveling tent city. They are famed for their horsemanship, and live in a land that is equally famous for the quality of its horses. The city we are headed for, Ordu-Aganhei, is one of only two permanent settlements in the entire nation. Unsurprisingly, the other one lies along the trade route as well, on the border with the Forest of Spirits.
Calistril 16, 4713 (Ordu-Aganhei, late afternoon)
Prince Batsaikhar, the brother of the Khan, has made us his honored guests in the palace. In less than two hours, we have gone from living like vagrants and transients—literally living off the land by our wits and skills for months—to luxury the likes of which I have not seen since Niswan. And back then, I only saw it. As the Prince’s guests, we are living in it, and I lack the words to properly describe the contrast between where we were and where we are. Less than three weeks ago, I was in a frozen wasteland isolated from humanity. Now there are servants attending to my every need, following me like a cloud of gnats.
They don’t seem eager to please so much as terrified to not. Or, perhaps more accurately, terrified of not satisfying their ruler’s demands. The Prince makes me uneasy; he’s always smiling and overly polite. I think Ulf summed it up pretty well: “The Prince can be a powerful ally, but he is also known to be ruthless. So be careful.” A point that is underscored by the severed heads adorning the walls of the city. Chua said that “they were robbers, preying on traders along the Path of Aganhei.”
Still, our situation now is something of an improvement over our arrival. Because I couldn’t keep my temper under control. Yes, the guards at the gate were not just rude, but belligerent, accusing us of everything from being smugglers to spies to assassins. When they started climbing all over the caravan like rats in search of food, I let it get to me. Challenging their authority was, perhaps, not the right decision. Fortunately, Chua intervened before weapons were drawn.
Chua is the…well, I am not really sure what he is. Perhaps a chancellor or vizier or whatever title they give here to the one who is closest to the Prince and responsible for making things happen. He interrupted the guards and extended the royal invitations to us. Naturally, I accepted on everyone’s behalf without consulting them because it didn’t seem wise to refuse or even put the matter up for debate. It was Chua that gave us our first hints of what the Prince might be like: he handed a black rose to each of the ladies in our party, and uttered some artificial and demeaning remark about the beauty of foreign women. (A black rose is, of course, a terrible insult to a Shelynite, but Nihali takes the form of a black raven and that earns me my own share of stares. So, I guess I am not in a position to complain.)
After listening to the highlights of our travels across the Ice in the dead of winter (Radella says he was bored by them, but good at hiding it) Prince Batsaikhar declared he would be hosting the Five Feasts of Hongal in our honor. So I guess our little stunt isn’t pulled very often. Arriving in mid-Calistril was something of a red-letter day.
The first dinner is in a couple of hours. I asked Chua for advice on not accidentally offending our host. He said, “Be polite. Speak your own language, because he prides himself on his expertise in Common. And use chopsticks.”
Ameiko and I will be giving everyone a crash course on the latter.
I already screwed the second one by speaking to him in Hon-La. I am not sure what Shelyn has in mind for me, but apparently it involves drawing attention to myself, good or bad.
Dinner was, in a word, disgusting. I have a little cantrip that covers up a lot of sins, and I got plenty of use out of it tonight. Look, I pride myself on having a wide palate, OK? You can’t travel like we did when I was young without adapting to the local culture’s food. I’m not even a vegetarian for gods’ sake (I’d practically be a pariah in Vudra for that, alone). But every culture has some screwball, over-the-top, “gourmet” dish that is truly foul, and the chefs went all out to ensure that was all we ate.
It also doesn’t bode well for the next four nights: if bird brains and chicken feet aren’t off limits, then there is a lot of ground that you can cover.
To make up for the food, we were treated to cultural entertainment. It was actually pretty impressive: the Prince’s royal guards performed an exhibition of what they called the “Three Games of Hongal”: mounted archery, bareback horse racing, and wrestling. It’s pretty obvious that their reputations as horse masters has definitely been earned.
The big surprise of the night was the Prince asking us if we could do these same things. Like, literally, the same games. After we picked our jaws up off the floor, we actually put on a pretty good showing. Ivan says he got lucky, but I’ve seen him shoot and you make luck like that. Two arrows struck their target, dead center. Sparna was challenged to wrestle their champion, and he managed to pin the guy to the floor. It was a close match—I don’t know the rules of wrestling, but it was pretty obvious they were somewhat equally matched and it went back and forth a couple of times—but Sparna got the upper hand and that was that. I remember saying, quietly, “He probably just executed that guy.” Which was not intended as a joke, but rather a factual observation. Olmas, for his part, almost pulled of the horse racing with Kasimir, but Kasimir is a warhorse and I guess he just didn’t see the point of it.
Still, two out of three wasn’t bad for people who were put on the spot like that. The Prince obviously agreed and—
There was a knock at my door just now. When I answered there was no one there: just a gift box sitting in the hall. An ornate gift box tied with silk ribbons. I opened it, and inside was an absolutely stunning, Tien-style evening gown. One that is, shall we say, fairly revealing. It was accompanied by a note from Prince Batsaikhar saying, and I am quoting this, “Your exotic beauty graces his palace and will shine all the brighter in this fine gown,” signed “with his humble compliments”.
OK. I’ve been sitting here for several minutes, dumbfounded. I don’t know what to write. I can’t process this.
Calistril 17, 4713 (Ordu-Aganhei, morning)
I am pushing all thoughts about dinner tonight and that gown out of my head for now. That is the plan for today, anyway. Shalelu says she found a suitable shop where we can purchase the diamond Qatana needs to raise Bevelek, and we have all agreed to meet at roughly 5 o’clock tonight to get it done. Until then, we are going to be unloading this collection of crap we’ve been carrying since the Storm Tower and then use the money to do some shopping. It’s just the sort of distraction I need.
I did come to one decision, though: I am wearing the gown tonight. I decided it would not be in our best interest to refuse a gift from the Prince. At least, one that is, aside from the modesty (or lack of it), fairly innocuous. We need more time here, and we need to keep him on our good side if we are going to remain here as royal guests. I intend to do my part.
Last night after dinner, the Prince announced what tonight’s feast would be (The Feast of the Ancients), and as soon as Chua came to escort us back to our rooms I asked him what the entertainment would be (because we are not going to be caught off guard like that a second time).
“Theatrical performances with story-telling,” he said.
With Ameiko’s help, I think we can have that covered.
Bevelek breathes again.
It’s hard to fathom that one among us possesses the power to raise the dead. It’s even harder to fathom that it’s a Cleric of Groetus, and harder still that she willingly used it. I mean, it seems like a contradiction, but then again so is Qatana.
Besides, she points out that Groetus is the god of the end times, not the god of death. The latter is Pharasma’s job.
Not that Groetus has an opinion on what she’s done. Among theologians it is widely believed that Groetus does’t intend to create followers, and either doesn’t know he has them or doesn’t care. In short, Qatana has access to divine power and no one to answer to. Like wizards and sorcerers, it is immense power that comes with literally no responsibility.
Vankor was especially grateful to have his brother back. And of course Sandru and Koya were almost equally emotional. The brothers have been with Sandru’s caravan since it’s beginning.
I’ve known them nearly as long, but what I felt was quite different. I felt the weight of guilt lifting off of me. Just a bit.
My predictions about dinner were, unfortunately, spot-on. The assault on our senses resumed with such delicacies as goose stomach, fish lips, and solidified blood. I consider not throwing up to be a major victory.
The entertainment was a play whose title translated to “Why the Marmot Doesn’t Have Thumbs”, told through shadow puppetry and accompanied by throat singing to music on the horsehead fiddle. As expected, Prince Batsaikhar asked us if we could put on a performance to match, and this time, we were ready.
Ameiko told the story of the white dragon, through music and song. Ivan and I opened her performance with a few special effects courtesy of our spells, and as she got underway I began interpretive dance, interacting with imagery from Ivan’s illusions.
The accolades we received were enough for me, but the Prince already had two things in mind. First, we were gifted one of the Hongal performers’ fiddles (and I suspect we have executed her, too). Second, he thanked us all personally, but me especially, and then he asked me to join him for breakfast in the morning. I am not really fond of the idea, but refusing the Prince in front of a couple hundred of his nobles and subjects seemed like an extraordinarily bad idea at the time. So I said yes.
Note that I said, “at the time”. As Chua was escorting us to our rooms, Olmas struck up a conversation with him, and he asked a few questions about the Prince that have me regretting that answer.
Among the stories Chua told us was this gem: “Once he stacked five people on top of one another, just to see if he could sever their heads with a single stroke of his katana. Which, of course, he did!”
“We’re they prisoners being executed or something?” Olmas asked.
“I don’t know. I suppose they might have been. But whoever they were, they weren’t important. Should that matter?”
Chua will come by at seven o’clock in the morning to take me to breakfast. Sparna volunteered to escort me.
Calistril 18, 4713 (Ordu-Aganhei, morning)
Gods, I feel sick. I’m still trembling. I managed to keep myself together until I got back here but then I started shaking and I couldn’t stop. Even Nihali couldn’t help me. I’ve calmed down since then but I can still see the tremors in my hands and my stomach won’t stop aching.
On the way out, as I was about to walk through that door, I felt him run his hands through my hair. I was not OK with that. Not in the least. I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t want it, but I could at least ignore it.
And then his hand continued down to my back, to my skin, and I was back on that beach, with Jeffy Theern standing over me. A memory nearly eight years old, and I could feel the wind, smell the ocean air, hear the surf, and count the grains of sand against my palms.
Nihali tells me I froze for just a second. I don’t remember, and the Prince didn’t let on that anything had happened, but I have no reason to doubt her.
On the way back, I whispered to Sparna using one of my spells, and told him what happened. Told him I’m worried what the Prince might try next. Then we met with the others when it was safe to talk.
We’re getting the caravan ready to move. I can get out with magic, but the caravan can’t and if my hand is forced it could put everyone in danger.
I have no problem admitting this: I am scared.
I am writing this hastily as the girls are waiting for me to begin. But I need to get this down while I can still hold myself together.
Tonight was the Feast of Fire. I barely remember any of it, just the part where I was, once again, asked to perform. Dancing on burning coals (under the protection of fire resistance, of course) in a not-at-all-revealing dress of fiery reds and golds. Once again, we were rewarded with gifts from the Prince. I played my part.
He announced the next two feasts. Tomorrow is the Feast of the Honored Visitors, and we are expected to help his kitchen staff prepare a traditional Varisian meal, and provide all the entertainment. Because of course we are. The last is the Feast of the Dragon, a city-wide celebration with food, music and dragon-dancing.
It struck me on the walk back to our rooms. The Feast of the Honored Visitors. None of us has been “honored” more than I have, and we won’t be dining in the palace the night after. Whatever he’s going to do, it’s going to happen tomorrow.
But just in case I am wrong, the other girls and are staying with me tonight. I don’t want to be alone.