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Session One: The Circle Comes Together (10/20/04)
Late summer in Icehome. A cold drizzle falls, but it might as well be a Blessed Isle spring for all the gusto with which the frigid city's residents enjoy the weather. The streets and markets are filled with cheerful people, but Maitreyi is inside, getting a headache.
She has been spending the time since her exaltation scouring Icehome's library for anything and everything on Anathema and the First Age, trying desperately to make sense of the visions she's been having. Her search has yielded little. The hefty tome in which she finds herself mired as evening arrives is a dull and uninformative collection of half-recollected folk sightings of Solar Exalted. If she reads about one more slow-witted peasant waving his pitchfork at the threatening cretin approaching his virgin daughter, she'll scream. Frustration gets the better of her, and she returns the useless text to its place in the stacks. Something about this collection, she thinks as she looks around, is off.
Waman, the head librarian, approaches her as she heads out. He questions her politely about her search, and when she says, as usual, that she has found little of value, he prods her for more information about what she's researching. She is coy and secretive. Though she has known him for many years, she trusts him little, and he seems increasingly frazzled and watchful around her. She makes her excuses, saying her brother no doubt needs her, and leaves.
The long walk back to Rakesh's apartment takes her past the main marketplace, and she decides to stop and see if the fair weather has brought any booksellers to Icehome. She begins to fear her search is in vain when she happens upon a Guild trader with a wide selection of general goods; he has a collection of books, and she buys a few High Realm texts that seem promising.
As she moves through the market, purchases in hand and a faraway look on her face, she suddenly notices a skulking figure close by. A scruffy lad of no more than ten is stalking her awkwardly through the crowd. Purse-snatching is in his darting eyes. She smirks and approaches him, and, caught, his eyes go wide with terror and his lips open in denial.
"Excuse me," she says, "but do you know where I might find a sweetshop?"
He blinks. "... Sweets?"
"Yes, I've been longing for some candied dried fruit lately, but I can't seem to find a sweetshop in the market. You look like a boy who likes candy. Perhaps you can show me where I can get some."
Now hunger animates his face and he leads her speedily to a nearby merchant. She asks him to suggest the best candy, and she buys two bags of the one he indicates. She places one in his dirty palm and, incredulous, he begins devouring it.
Archly, she says, "I hope it doesn't make your fingers sticky." His hand stops halfway to his mouth, and he gulps. "Go home," she adds firmly, and he scampers off.
Shaking her head in bemusement, she turns, only to realize the exchange with the boy has been watched. Close by in the crowd is a small, shifty man, wiry and alert, dressed strangely in faded garb that might once have been a colorful performer's costume. He sees her looking at him and feigns nonchalance, looking away as though his eyes had only lighted on her for a moment. As she takes the first step towards him, a shiver goes down her spine. She shakes it off.
"Is he yours?" she asks.
Feigned incomprehension crosses his face, but he abandons pretense when she hardens her gaze. "No, of course not," he says. "He tried the same thing to me earlier."
"So you wanted to see if he would succeed on me?"
He shrugs uncomfortably.
"Because," she continues, "he obviously failed on you."
"Of course," he says, puffing up self-consciously. Then, on the defensive, he narrows his eyes and appraises her. "What are you doing here?"
It's only then that her surroundings really register. The marketplace is raucous, and a musical troupe bashes and blares out a rude but melodic tune. An impromptu dance has begun. Overflowing steins of ale and mead pass from hand to hand, from smiling mouth to smiling mouth. Maitreyi is suddenly, painfully aware that she must stand out here, with her spotless gown and reserved manner. Embarrassed, she explains, "I ... I was buying some books," and she raises the tomes in her arms as if to say, "See?"
"Really? What sort of books are those?" He leans in, craning his neck as if to read the spines.
She jerks them away, surprised that he is literate. "Romance novels. You wouldn't be interested."
But he has noticed that the titles are not in Skytongue, and the dusty books look like anything but pulp entertainment. "Those don't look like romance novels," he begins.
"-- I'm an historian," she says, cutting him off. An irrational fear rises in her that whatever his appearance, he may speak High Realm and may have noticed the titles of the books, which would certainly raise more righteous eyebrows. "It's getting late and I must be making my way home. Good evening." With lowered eyes, she gives a stiff curtsey and darts away through the crowd.
She isn't long out of the market when she realizes that she's being followed. Exasperated, she sets her books down on the window ledge of a bakery, pivots abruptly to face her pursuer, and plants her long, smooth staff forcefully. "The last man who followed me without my permission didn't come out of it well," she says in a clear voice.
"I'm sorry," he lamely, "I'm just curious. I'm interested in history, too -- First Realm history." She can hardly believe it from the look of him, but she pauses. Few would use the term "First Realm," and those who would would mean something quite different from the period in which she was specifically researching. What does he mean? Despite his guilty, hangdog expression, there's an earnestness in his face that strikes her suddenly as ... familiar. In fact, the unaccountable sense of recognition is so strong that she cannot dismiss it.
"So," she says, trying to place him, "perhaps I've seen you ... at the library?"
He shoves his hands in his pockets. "Ah, probably not."
They stand there for a moment in the dim street in silence, as Maitreyi racks her brain for the memory of his face and he watches her inscrutably. Finally, she says, "Look, do you want a bun or something? I think this is a good bakery." Like the boy from the marketplace, he blinks in disbelief, and then accepts.
The bakery is warm and bright, and they sit next to each other awkwardly, sweet buns in hand. After picking at the bun politely for a moment, he takes a monstrous and noisy bite. Instead of turning her stomach, however, the sound throws a switch in her mind -- she is assaulted suddenly with flashes of memory, snippets of the visions that have come flooding over her since her exaltation. In all of these flashes is one man, tall and fair, protective and trusted. And somehow, Maitreyi knows that this is the man sitting before her now.
She realizes they're staring into each others' eyes with the same mixture of remembrance, excitement, and fear. But she is cautious.
"Would you like to look through these books?"
He nods and opens one. He shrugs. "I don't speak High Realm."
Yet he recognized the language. "Well," she begins hesitantly, "I have some short texts on this subject in Skytongue. Back at my home. Well, my brother's home. Would you like to see them?" He nods again. "Oh, I guess I should introduce myself. I'm Maitreyi."
"Tonoshii," he says, and they shake hands formally.
During the walk through one of Icehome's seedier merchant districts, they say little. When they reach the stairs to Maitreyi's second-floor apartment, however, Tonoshii says, "This place looks familiar."
She regards his dingy appearance. "Perhaps you have had some business dealings with my brother-in-law, Rakesh. This is his apartment, really." His eyes light up with recognition, and she opens the door.
The rank smell of marijuana greets them before they even cross the threshold. Sprawled out on the tumbledown couch, one of the few furnishings in the apartment's common room, is Rakesh, his bloodshot eyes vacantly trained on the glass pipe in front of him. He looks up slowly; it takes him a moment to focus on and identify the people standing before him. Tonoshii greets him and, confused, Rakesh turns to Maitreyi. "Do you two know each other?" he asks hoarsely. "We met in the marketplace," she says, her voice strained. This is the worst she's seen in him a long while, and she has to fight the rising tide of despair that threatens to submerge her. "Well," she says curtly, "I'll leave you to it," and she bustles out of the room.
Tonoshii follows her and finds himself within a room dominated by stacks upon stacks of books of all shapes and sizes, some serving as makeshift tables with cups or neatly-folded clothing atop them. Maitreyi gestures to the bed, the only real furniture present, and as Tonoshii sits, she turns her back to him and begins burrowing through a stack of tomes. Carefully, with a nervous thrill, she surreptitiously slips a dagger into her sleeve: If she's going to do this, she has to be prepared for it to go wrong. She takes a deep breath, chooses a brief book called Tales of the Anathema Scourge in the North, and hands it to Tonoshii, awaiting his reaction.
He flips through it, and almost immediately becomes engrossed in a particular accounting. She watches him carefully, looking for signs of horror or disapproval or even boredom — anything that would convince her that her hunch is wrong. On the contrary, he seems to enjoy the text immensely.
Well, here goes nothing.
She clears her throat. "So, what do you think?"
He looks up to see golden light emanating from a half-filled circle on her forehead. The book hits the floor with a thud, and for a split second Maitreyi holds her breath and tightens her grip on the throwing knife up her sleeve. But the knife clatters to the floor, as well, when a glowing circular outline appears on his forehead, and they regard each other openly for the first time.
The sight is like a key turning in a lock. There is no doubt now: She knows this man, though in another skin, another time — another her. The word "circlemate" comes to mind, and she knows it though she has never heard it before. Relief and recognition mix with resurfacing trust and affection, and with unbidden tears stinging her eyes, she flings her arms around his neck with sudden force. Hesitantly, then genuinely, he embraces her.
In hushed tones, they share knowledge with each other: visions, dreams, history. Maitreyi is hungry for anything that can help her fill in the blanks, and she rejoices in finally having someone with whom she can share the secret information she's been slowly uncovering. They've barely scratched the surface, it seems, when they are interrupted by a violent banging.
"Rakesh!" a muffled voice calls. "Open up, Rakesh."
Tonoshii opens the door to Maitreyi's room just a crack and peeks out. The apartment's front door is vibrating with the force of the assault on it, and Rakesh is struggling to his feet.
Maitreyi stands as if to push past Tonoshii, but he stops her, pointing to her forehead, where her caste mark still glows too brightly to be covered. As she stands there, frozen but frantic, a loud crash signals the destruction of the door.
"You owe too much, Rakesh, and we've given you enough time already," a man yells. She hears her brother-in-law protest sluggishly, and the men strain to … are they lifting him? "You're coming with us," they say, and then they are gone.
Maitreyi stands amid her book-mess, her eyes wide with helpless fury. Tonoshii goes to the window and watches the men — three of them, large and ugly — strongarm Rakesh through the street. He looks up to the seething woman. "We'll just have to wait."
Tonoshii knocks gently a few times on his thieves' guild contact's door. "I sort of work with them," he explained to Maitreyi on the way there, and she saw that there was no "sort of" about it. She reminded herself that she is in no position to judge, considering the company she keeps.
Finally, the little window in the door slides open. "Anasi," Tonoshii says, relieved, "it's me, Tonoshii. I need to talk."
The eyes in the window are shrewd and uncaring. "Tonoshii, huh? Hmmm … doesn't sound familiar."
He begins to attempt an explanation but Maitreyi elbows him in the ribs and hisses, "Money!"
"Ohhh, right," he says as though sudden recollection has dawned on him. "Don't I owe you some money? I must owe you money. How silly of me to have forgotten."
"Now you're talking my language," he says, and opens the door to admit them to his ramshackle abode. The place is a den more than anything, filled with stuff of all imaginable kinds — though apparently lacking, Maitreyi notes without surprise, in reading material.
"Who's the broad?" he says, jerking a thumb at her without looking her in the eyes.
"A friend," Tonoshii replies.
Now Anasi sizes her up, sweeping his eyes over her body unflinchingly. "A friend, huh?"
Maitreyi manages a chill smile. "Because he's a gentleman, he won't say more."
Anasi gives Tonoshii a knowing, and frankly disapproving, look. Tonoshii says, "It's about her brother. He's in some trouble."
"What's it got to do with me?"
Tonoshii explains that he thinks Rakesh, having exhausted his sources in the thieves' guild, turned to other, more illicit suppliers on whose trade the guild, to put it lightly, frowns. Now he owes money all over town and no one is inclined to lend an undercutter any sympathy. Hearing this, Maitreyi winces in guilt, thinking of how generous Rakesh has been to her, and of all the books his money bought.
"Sounds like a simple misunderstanding," Anasi says broadly, leaning back in a worn but formerly luxurious chair. "Now, if only I could remember what they do with dirty bastards who don't pay their debts on time."
"Don't I … Oh, yes, I think I have just a little more money for you. It's really a shame that I keep forgetting, Anasi."
He grins and pockets the coin. "Ah, yes, it's starting to come back to me now. Seems the guy they send out to rough up problem customers — real big guy, absolutely ripped, face looks like somebody smashed it with a brick a few too many times — is crazy for the fights. He gets a kick out of taking these unpopular clients, drugging them up, and matching them up against the best fighters he can find. Really not much of a match, actually. Usually ends badly for the poor scum."
Maitreyi's eyes narrow. He adds, "No offense. Best of luck."
Icehome's undercity is warm and its air is close and pungent. It's down here, below the undercity proper, actually, that the fights take place. Maitreyi has heard nothing of them before tonight, but clearly, this is the place to be for a certain segment of the city's populace. A segment, she begins to suspect, with which she will have increasing contact. In a cleared-out cellar beneath a storehouse, all manner of people crush and call out, urging on the brawling men in the center of the madness. That everyone has had their weapons taken at the door is little comfort.
She checks the ring. Thankfully, neither of these men — one youthful, energetic, and bare-chested, the other pale and grim — is Rakesh. Her sharp eyes begin hunting through the crowds, searching for her brother-in-law but fearing that she will not find him. At least, not in one piece.
She pays little attention to the fight, instead examining faces: ruddy, round, hawkish, bearded, painted, delicate, ugly, but none familiar. She wonders if she will find the bravo with the brick-smashed face, and begins considering what she will do to him if she does.
Just then, she hears a quiet voice very close to her ear: "The Bishop knows there are four of you here at the same time." She spins around — but no one is there. And then she hears a sickening snap, a limp thud, and the pregnant silence of the crowd.
She follows the shocked eyes around her to see, in the ring, the pale man standing over the motionless body of the bare-chested boy. He is casually triumphant, as if ignorant of or indifferent to the club's rules against killing in the ring. In fact, he seems to be gloating over his transgression, daring anyone to attempt to punish him. But no one who witnessed the murder will dare, for they know from the graceful ease with which he crushed the boy's body that he is too terrible a threat: not human.
The silence breaks and pandemonium is unleashed as everyone in the large cellar rushes for the one staired exit. Maitreyi is pushed to the wall and struggles to keep her footing, and to search the terrified faces in vain for her brother. She begins to fight against the crowd's inexorable direction, keeping herself pressed against the wall, fearing suddenly that he may be unable to escape, already incapacitated from some earlier fight. Tonoshii, she realizes, is being separated from her by the crazed mass, but she cannot worry about that now, cannot worry about the pale hulking monster in the center of this room, or the strong-jawed man approaching him with rage in his eyes. Rakesh is her responsibility and if he is here, she must find him. She is momentarily distracted but not at all deterred when she hears the pale creature calling his furious challenger "ascendant sun," and when this draws Tonoshii into the fray.
With the room nearly cleared, she finally sees him, slumped against the wall farthest from the exit, eyes closed and body battered. She rushes to his side and examines him: unconscious, jaw and arm broken, skin clammy and pale, breathing shallow. He's nearly destroyed, but stable. She looks around for a more protected place to secure him until they can get out, but she realizes she couldn't move him if she tried. He'll have to stay where he is.
Only now does she turn her undivided attention to the conflict in the center of the room. The strong-jawed man — or, if the deathly creature is to be believed, the strong-jawed Solar — has laid hands on a broomstick and wields it like a staff. Tonoshii has already landed a kick on the creature's back and is readied for more. And the pale, red-eyed monster in the middle, whose fangs Maitreyi now sees with a chill dread, fights superbly and seems to have an incredible ability to take blows without harm.
She looks around and discovers a broom right beside her. Handy, she thinks, as she snaps off the head and feels out the weight of the thing with a quick flourish. Setting it like a lance, she charges towards the cold creature, seeking to drive the ragged point of the broomhandle right into his ribs. Just as she reaches him, though, he flickers, and splits into two, and her makeshift weapon goes right between the twin images. She barrels by him without so much as brushing his garments.
She turns just in time to see him and the fierce man / Solar clashing in midair, each landing spectacular blows that send them flying in opposite directions. The creature hits the wall with terrific speed and tumbles to the ground, unmoving. She rushes to the man, who dusts himself off, not seriously injured.
He introduces himself as Burning Frost, and says "I think we'd be wise to leave this place as quickly as possible, but I'd like to arrange to meet with you two." He's looking down at the corpse of the bare-chested boy, who Maitreyi understands now was his friend.
"Well, we're not done here," she points out. "That thing isn't dead yet — just unconscious." Frost quickly remedies the situation with a brutal blow to the throat.
"So … your place again?" Tonoshii asks her, wiping sweat off his forehead.
"Probably not a good idea, considering how popular Rakesh is at the moment."
He nods. "Mine, then." He looks up at Frost, who is tenderly gathering up the boy's body.
"I have to see to a proper funeral for him," Frost says, "and you should tend to your friend, too." His face darkens. "I saw his fight, and spoke with the men responsible for it. Justice should be dealt to them, as well."
Maitreyi's eyes spark with anger and pain — and hope for revenge.
NB: Ending's a bit patched, as we were rushing things to get the hell out of there and get to sleep. Ah, gainful employment. Will be updated after we sort things at beginning of next sesh.