After their successful mission against the Committee for Conscience, Tse-dong and his band were offered a monthly stipend by the Governor, to keep their services on retainer. In lieu of the stipend, Tse-dong requested a secluded place in the countryside to stay temporarily. The Governor readily agreed. Little did he know that Tse-dong and his friends had a special plan in mind for the place. At last, they would get a chance to safely study the powerful and highly illegal sorcerous texts they had found inside the yaks.
Metal Day, 15th of 1st Month, ZY1114
The town of Kong Wan was abuzz with questions of what would become of the statues and images of the late emperor, such as those that stood outside Thauma-Virun temples. They had been covered since the emperor’s death, as it is bad luck to show such an image until after the funeral. Now that the funeral was over, it was time to unveil the images and replace them with new ones. Traditionally, the new images would depict the new emperor. But with three siblings sharing the Empire, it was uncertain what would be done. Whichever sibling’s image was displayed would clearly reveal the loyalties of the one displaying it. The Governor of Kong Wan has not yet made any indications of favored loyalties. Officially, the emperor’s will gave Kong Wan to Princess Atas, but in reality the mountain town straddling the border between east and west was likely to be hotly contested. Loyalties could go either way, with Princess Atas in the East or Prince Bayanhongor in the West. Everyone is watching the images to see which way the Governor will turn.
In the midst of this anxious political climate, Tse-dong and the others found peace in the countryside. The Governor let them stay at a hunting lodge in the hills. It had belonged to a Dwarf fallen noble who defaulted on his debts. The government ended up with the estate, but hadn’t been able to do anything with it yet. The place had fallen into disrepair, so the Governor was happy to have someone who could stay there and fix it up a little.
The lodge was a two-hour walk uphill from Kong Wan, and a one-hour walk back. It nestled in a narrow holler between sharply jutting mountain crags. The main residence featured three bedrooms, a living room with a hibachi, a kitchen, a study with many books, and a tea set. Besides the main residence, there was also a stable with four horses tended by a part-time groundskeeper named Ling-an, a tiny Thauma-Virun altar near a cave, and a storage shed with skis, snowshoes, hunting equipment, and a broken-down moldy old chariot. Finally, there was a path with a sign that said “This way to hot springs.”
One of the Governor’s men showed them around the place and then, as a parting word, said, “Oh, and watch out for the macaques.”
With that, Bayar summarily dismissed himself from the others’ company. He didn’t want to be rude, but he was planning to go on extended spiritual retreat, and needed to insulate himself from social contact. He and the others would still share the residence, but otherwise they would be living separate lives for the next two months (see Chapter 9 The Epistles of Bayar and Jinga).
Meanwhile, the others were quick to explore the residence’s library. It was filled with books on oratory and leadership skills. It also had Bhatrati’s famous historical volumes, Twilight of an Empire and They Came On Horseback. Rounding out the mix was an anthropological work on myths in the Empire, some religious pamphlets, and various miscellaneous books.
The groundskeeper, a Goblinoid called Ling-an, tended the horses on a part-time basis. Tse-dong took the initiative in befriending this government-employed servant, offering him extra monthly pay to fix up the lodge. Ling-an agreed and made considerable improvements over the course of the next two months.
Finally, there was one thing yet to explore: the path leading to the hot springs. Tse-dong, Mo-tse, and Tass followed the icy slope up the path until they noticed movement in the trees. Then they came upon a clearing with white vapors curling upward. A couple of natural pools quietly steamed, and in the pools lounged a number of small gray macaques. They sat warming themselves, their fur matted down like that of wet cats.
The monkeys retreated in fear at the approach of Tse-dong, Mo-tse, and Tass. But as the latter three enjoyed the hot springs themselves, one cute innocent-looking macaque returned, quietly begging to share the pools’ warmth with them.
But little did they know, while all eyes were on the cute one, another monkey was sneaking up from behind. Only Mo-tse’s watchful eye kept them from stealing their clothes. The threat was then clear. Tse-dong declared, “This must be remedied.” For the next two months, they declared war on the monkeys. Mo-tse stalked the creatures with his crossbow, hiding in the pools in wait for his prey.
After that, it was time to get down to serious study on the texts of sorcery. To prevent discovery of their illicit activity, Tass carefully and meticulously copied the texts into the margins of the pages of Bhatrati’s They Came On Horseback. The original texts were then buried in the frozen earth.
Meanwhile, Lord Gansalahi had grown impatient with Mo-tse, who still had the former’s exquisite crossbow in his possession. He summoned the Lau brothers to The Empire.
Before getting down to business, the lord brought up the elf girl that had been keeping company with the brothers. He and Tass had bad blood between them, but seeing as she was a comely lass, he proposed that she might make up for past offenses by working at The Empire.
Then Gansalahi came to the matter of the crossbow. He explained that as a nobleman he only hands out gifts of such magnificence to his vassals. Therefore, if Mo-tse wished to keep the crossbow, he would have to become a vassal. Before doing so, he would have to pass a test of loyalty. The test that Gansalahi flatly demanded was to shoot his brother Mo-tse in the leg in front of the patrons of the Empire. If he refused, he need only hand over the crossbow and he could be permitted to live.
Mo-tse carefully studied the face of his brother for a sign of consent. Tse-dong looked shocked and horrified at first, but at length a calculating cool overcame him. He privately reasoned that his healing spell would likely be enough to repair any damage, and the pain would ultimately be insignificant compared to the advantages of vassalage. Thus, in true Tse-dong style, and with a power-hungry craze twinkling in his eye, Tse-dong gave his brother a nod.
With that, Mo-tse pulled the trigger and sent a bolt tearing into his brother’s thigh. The patrons of the Empire gasped at what was apparently a quarrel between the brothers. Gansalahi’s lips curled up in pleasure, and the brothers were rushed out of the Empire.
Tse-dong winced in pain. Fortunately the bolt had missed the femur and major arteries. His healing spell returned him to proper shape, and the two went away with a new advantage. Mo-tse was now a vassal of the wealthiest noble in Kong Wan. But what really pleased Mo-tse was the exquisitely-crafted crossbow which was now his possession, free and clear. It was definitely worth the chores he had to perform as a vassal, which turned out to be moonlighting at the Empire whenever Gansalahi wished to be entertained. In essence, Mo-tse was his fool. But no matter: at least this fool was armed with a wicked crossbow.
When Tass heard of Gansalahi’s offer for her to “work” at The Empire, she wretched in disgust. The thought of that man, the very man who’d demanded her parents’ execution in retribution for their accidental trampling of his young son, ogling her with his narrow Orcish eyes gave her chills. From that moment, she conceived a radical plan: she would fake her own death. Never again would he think to exploit her for his own lusts. Plus, it offered advantages in working against him: he cannot suspect one who doesn’t exist. So, over the course of the next two months, Tass went to extraordinary lengths to feign serious illness.
Meanwhile, Tse-dong launched a peculiar plan of his own. He began taking certain psychoactive medicines in heavy doses in order to cultivate a certain “creative inspiration.” His unusual plot was to author a manifesto dedicated to his own aspirations toward becoming emperor, and the medicines were intended to get him to the psychological state in which he could write a truly inspired work of literary madness.
Further events unfolded during the two months. The Governor instituted a series of “public chats”, purportedly to give the people the most accurate and up-to-date information during such precarious times when all were predicting war in the coming spring. All citizens were invited to attend and ask questions. And as guest speaker for the first chat was none other than one of the town’s beloved heroes: Lau Tse-dong.
In the chat, the Governor led Tse-dong with a series of apparently innocent questions, asking about his profession as a drover, his homeland in the West, and his travels near the Plateau of Trulkor. Tse-dong did his best to answer accurately. Soon it became clear that the Governor had a hidden agenda. His questions focused in on two things: the strength and unpredictability of the Tathatans in the West where Prince Bayanhongor ruled, and the destructive power of sorcery as practiced on the Plateau of Trulkor.
The Governor concluded: “Well, let us pray this vile art does not fall into the hands of our enemies. Thank you for meeting with us.”
Then, as Tse-dong was dismissed, a number of citizens stood up to voice their concerns. Tse-dong did not fail to note the lilt of highly-scripted dialogue.
The first citizen asked, “Governor, is it true that Prince Bayanhongor recently met with leaders of the Tathatan faction, including Sri Gunda, and saluted them? Shouldn’t a prince of the Empire take a firmer stance with these radicals? What business does Bayanhongor have showing them a gesture of respect?”
The Governor confirmed the news, and added that Princess Atas, in contrast, refused even to meet with Tathatans of her region.
The crowd booed Bayanhongor. A few Tathatans in the crowd protested that the salute actually followed a meeting in which the Tathatan leaders agreed to severely limiting concessions, but they were drowned out by the crowd.
The second citizen, a mother holding two children in her arms, asked, “Governor, are my children safe with these Tathatans roaming around freely? If they really do believe in protest by any means necessary, doesn’t that mean they will use any means to accomplish their radical goals, even sorcery?”
The Governor responded, “We have no evidence of Tathatan sorcery at this time.” Then the chat was abruptly ended and the Governor hurried off the stage. The crowd was left in an uproar over the possibility of their two great fears, Tathatans and sorcery, joining forces.
Over the next two months, the town was aflame with fears of Tathatan sorcery. Charms and remedies against sorcerous hexes appeared in the vendors’ stalls, and all the talk was of superstitions and folk tales of sorcery, a subject of which few had any real factual knowledge.
Another complication arose when an old acquaintance of the Lau brothers returned: an Orc mounted soldier with burly arms, massive hands with thick fingers, and a faded rider’s cloak in the black and color-striped pattern characteristic of the Western mountains region. It was none other than Captain Dugo, the officer who had originally contracted them to drive the yaks to Po Keng. He claimed to have figured out what the brothers had done in Po Keng, suggesting he might know that the brothers had sorcerous texts in their possession. Rather than arrest them, however, he used the opportunity for blackmail. His plan might have worked if he had asked for a minor sum, but instead he demanded an outrageous 10,000 iron shu. What’s more, each time he showed up he was apparently demoted in rank, suggesting his superiors’ displeasure at the situation. The brothers and Tass called his bluff, and after several visits Dugo went away in a huff.
But it was not the last they heard of him. In a final public chat, the Governor called to the stage “Citizen Dugo.” The Orc, apparently no longer a soldier but now a mere citizen, testified to a startling revelation: he had been involved in what he now knows to have been the transport of sorcerous texts through Kong Wan to an agent in the East. Names of those involved in the event were withheld “for reasons of Kong Wan security”, but it seemed to confirm the fears of the citizens. It was now clear that there was a secret cabal of sorcerors with a agents in both East and West, and possibly even in Kong Wan itself.
At the conclusion of the public chat, the Lau brothers and Bayar were immediately summoned by the Governor. It didn’t look good for them. All signs indicated that Dugo had called their bluff, and reported their sorcery to the Governor. The summons could very well be a summons to their execution.