*One Grace set to establish safehouse
*One Grace set to get a Summit member to brew up something of a storm, then gather intelligence from around Nolair and meet with Isan
*Meeting planned with the Disgraced and one of the Nolair rebel leaders
*Two Graces, including Blades, soon to head in to Nolair
I am planning to try and... shorten things somewhat, and make this game seem more accessible rather than requiring vast walls of text, but... right now, this is a convenient creative outlet, and this was something I kind of needed to get from my brain into writing. So, sorry, this is a long one, but don't feel that everything has to be anything like this!
The teahouse, a few miles past the village of Altua and in to the mountains, was empty but for the four Graces who'd arrived. Nestled just peeking over a ridge in the upper part of the valley, it commanded fabulous views for miles around. The landscape was picturesque, but more importantly, empty of observers. This was one of the reasons the Graces maintained such places. They served as excellent spots for a quiet meeting, or as safe houses for anyone wishing to avoid attention for a little while. Or even a long while - the staff who lived in nearby villages, or sometimes the teahouses themselves, were often placed there by the Graces' Widows and Orphans program, as being good out-of-the-way places for... notable figures to be able to retire in peace, often far away from those who had found them notable.
The Society of Graces, being without formal hierarchy, didn't exactly have orders; they were more like agreed-upon courses of action. The Grace of Blades, at this moment, was standing on the teahouse balcony overlooking the valley, and issuing agreed-upon courses of action to her peers with accustomed speed and decisiveness.
"Eleanor, you've got the Countess' estate to go and check on. Flash that seal she gave us, show the letter to whoever's in charge, get us in there, throw money at the servants so they're not going to tell anyone else about comings and goings, and get the place ready for whatever other forces we commit. Meanwhile, tour the area; usual meet and greet for locals with Influence. Make some friends. Scope out the local roads, get to know the good places for moving around in a low profile manner, or a fast manner, if we have to.
Joan, go and visit the senior Summit member in the area. Don't antagonise them, but... find a way to get some ominous weather magic brewing in the area. Convince them that rainfall is low or something, and a short storm is better than a drought. The sort of thing that reminds everyone in Nolair that there are forces not to be messed with, a sentiment to have remembered *before* you rebel. So far, the Nolair rebels have been outward focussed, ready to fend off an overt attack from the capital. Giving them something else to worry about, to remind them that it's not just outside that problems come from. Standard meet-and-greet, sweetness-and-light policy while getting there. Then head for Isan at Bessie's, where you can pick up the results of some of the Grace of Letters' intelligence-gathering efforts, gather as much local info as you can, and bring it all to the Countess' estate.
Neela, you're with me for now acting as lookout; we'll use the adapted signal system. What follows from there depends on the meeting outcome, but I'm hoping that we can ride into Nolair afterwards. No better way of finding out what's going on, and it'd be good to assert that we can have an open presence there, whatever the Disgraced said. If not, we'll probably go back and have a go at dislodging that Harvester ship from this situation. Whatever happens, we'll aim for no more than 2 days of anything, then head for the Countess' estate. That should put us all there within 4-6 days, barring anything exciting happening. Questions?"
There were none. Eleanor and Joan departed on their errands; Neela remained behind, as the Grace of Blades idly gathered the necessary elements for the tea ceremony she'd be performing later. Technically this was a task she could have delegated as she made other plans regarding Nolair, but she quite liked the ritual of the preparations, and having done it all herself was usually noted as a sincere and gracious personal touch.
After a few minutes, she realised that Neela must be remaining behind for a reason; it wasn't just that her next task was nearby and required little in the way of setup, she must have stayed behind for something in particular. After fetching a small pile of charcoal for the brazier, Blades decided to just ask the girl rather than letting her do things in her own time.
"All right, what did you want to ask without the other two hearing?"
Neela turned from her formal kneeling position to look directly at the Grace of Blades for a short while, before answering with her own question. "Why bring me on this mission, and not someone more... experienced and... well, graceful?"
Blades sighed, and settled herself down on the balcony, leaning against the wooden railing. This was going to be a long discussion, she could feel it, so she might as well both get comfortable and make Neela feel like this was an informal chat. Blades reached for her pack, withdrew the heavy axe she'd sneaked along on the trip, and idly started sharpening it with a whetstone from a side pocket. "Lots of reasons." She counted them off as she went through "One, you're a full member of the Society so beyond looking for specific talents, everyone should be suitable. Two, as shown in the little thought experiment on burning the ship, you have a different approach to everyone else, and diversity is a strength as long as everyone involved can reach a resolution. Three, again noting that thought experiment, you come up with things that nobody else thinks of, and have a knack for amplifying the effectiveness of limited resources, which is specifically useful to this situation. Four, as a relatively new member it was felt that you should be included as a sign of the confidence the other members had in you. Five, I think this is likely to turn into a fight at some point and that's an area in which you've shown not just talent but also dedication. And six..." Blades somewhat tailed off from the formal assessment into an area where she was far less sure of herself "...when you're granted a measure of decision-making ability like I've been, part of that is a side benefit that you choose who you spend your time around."
Most people would have pushed in to followup questions from that answer, but Neela seemed satisfied. The two Graces sat for a while, in a silence broken only by the slow sharpening of the axe in Blades' hands.
After a few minutes, Neela asked another question, branching off into a wildly different subject. "How much of the rumours are true? Did you really, for instance, walk in to Lord Diego's fortress with nothing but an axe, and when you left, he and the forty members of his personal bodyguard were dead?"
Yep, long discussion coming. Blades let the hand holding the whetstone fall and rest for a while, and tilted the axe handle so the weight of the weapon rested on her shoulder. "Yes... and no. Yes, I walked in with no recognisable weapon but my shortsword and an axe blade, and when I walked out, they were all dead. No, it didn't happen the way everyone assumes. Remember we have a Grace of Tales, who teaches you that the most wondrous things are what people's imaginations fill in for them in the gaps between your words..."
Neela wasn't going to leave an account of a legendary battle left at that. "So... what did happen?"
The Grace of Blades met Neela's eyes for just long enough to let her know that this question was pushing it, before telling... as much of the tale as she cared for. "Well, Lord Diego was a terrible man. Which doesn't sound relevant, but it's often the start of the story in terms of the Graces' involvement in something. He was cruel, demanding absurd taxes from those he was supposed to protect, supporting bandits and thugs who preyed further on the farmers and merchants in his fief, ordering young women to work as servants in his castle... you get the idea."
Blades broke eye contact to focus on sharpening the axe again. "He also once offered the Society of Graces a third of his gold, in return for a single performance. A dance, by a dancer who was wearing nothing but the gold he offered."
Neela's eyes bulged, only partly with outrage. "But, we don't do that sort of thing!"
Blades grinned at Neela briefly. "We are not intended to. And yet... the suggestion is a powerful one. Even if we turned it down, it would create the idea that this was the sort of thing that we did. That this is what the Graces are for. Merely responding with words can't easily fight that sort of... attempt to smear the Society's reputation. So, instead, I made a proposal. I was not, at the time, a full Grace - there are one or two who question if I am even now - so I was a deniable, disposable asset."
Neela was swift to query that last point. "Disposable? We don't do that. Once someone crops up on our radar, we don't turn them away unless they endanger others. We care for people. You couldn't have been disposable. You're not. I mean, you're..." She tailed off, uncertain how to finish that sentence.
The Grace of Blades looked down, unable to meet Neela's eye, and just for a while, feeling uncharacteristically tired. "Deniable, yes, I was. And... well, on my slow progress towards sufficiently grasping most of the more presentable disciplines, I was... feeling like I'd never make it in. And I was struggling with... bits of my life at the time. To the Graces, no, I wasn't disposable. They'd have cared for me whatever; you know how it works. But... I felt disposable. Like I wasn't going to make it in, like I'd have to... I don't know. Do something else. Live with never being good enough, or switch across to the Guild of Knives and have to fight off the advances of every new meathead who joined, or... ugh, you know."
The story petered out for a minute, before Neela tried to move it on to a happier part. "So, you took him up on his offer? That sounds like... well, something I'd like to have seen..." She grinned, uncertain of the reaction.
Blades flashed a wry grin back, and resumed sharpening the axe as she told the story. "Again, yes and no. We took the gold, melted it down, and used much of it to coat a number of items of harder, sharper metals. It looked like jewellery - ornate plates, joined with rings, into a delicate-but-heavy garment."
Neela's eyes bulged again, but for a different reason this time. "Armour!"
Blades' grin had upgraded into slightly wicked now. "Yup. While looking like a dancing outfit. Not very good armour, but... enough to help. And, nestling in a place where it would very much get noticed, an axe blade, sharp as possible, heavy, and mounted on a couple of feet of chain hanging round my neck. Looked just like a low-hanging necklace. Once I'd given up my shortsword, I swanned straight past the guards and into a private audience chamber with one of the most powerful men of the age and his closest toadies."
"While armed to the teeth!" Neela was very impressed with this plan.
"And I danced. And... well, you've no doubt heard from the Grace of Dances that I dance like I'm in a fight and trying to flatten everyone who's dancing with me. Sometimes, it's helpful for that line to be blurred. Everyone who saw me dance like that - the Lord and half a dozen or so creeps... died. A massacre, really. They weren't particularly armed, expecting conflict or anything. And they certainly didn't expect a girl like me to be so... effectively, efficiently, and suddenly violent. Perhaps they should have focussed a little less on what they wished the Graces did, and studied a little more of what we *do* do."
"And then you took out all the guards as well?"
Blades grimaced slightly awkwardly. "This is where it gets complicated. You see, Lord Diego had hired some of the finest warriors in the country to be his bodyguard. Those who have been trained since birth for fighting to be their destiny, you know the sorts. Well, that sort of thing tends to go hand-in-hand with a strong moral code, where you don't swear loyalty to a scumbag like Lord Diego. So, he hired bodyguards, at great expense, lavished them with wealth, persuaded them to move their families to his town... and then hired cheaper, nastier guards, to make sure nobody came in or out of that section of the town without his word. And then he made a ruling, that any member of his bodyguard who survived his assassination, was to have their family killed. I only found that out... once I'd killed him. Sometimes good actions have unexpected consequences.
His Captain explained that, and then went to... well, talk to his men, explain the situation. Some of them, including the Captain, took their own lives. Some insisted that I be the one to kill them, since I'd already done so by killing their master. A few demanded a duel to the death so they could avenge their master, even though he was a scumbag. Only one just out-and-out tried to kill me as soon as he found out what had happened. But... they weren't... they had given up, you know? Inside, they knew they weren't going to get a happy ending with their families. And there's something about such despair. You can't carry it through a fight. Me, I had hope. Pull this off, I'd be confirmed a Grace. But they had nothing to win, and no hope of survival. So, yes. I took about a dozen lives that day in fights, not all of them bad men, and helped a few more into the next world. But I walked out with forty souls on my conscience. It's... not my proudest moment, despite my reputation."
Neela had gone quiet. Blades continued. "I didn't stop there, of course. Went immediately to the walled town where the bodyguards' families were being held. The whole place was in uproar - the whole bodyguard dead, they were assuming an army of ninjas or something, the place was in uproar and all the guards were running. I got the familes of my victims together, broke them out, lead them to safety with the help of a couple of other Graces and some assets in the area. They're cared for by the Widows and Orphans fund, now. This is how the Graces work; looking after the innocent, especially when we bear prior responsibility. That fight was easier. There wasn't any hesitation or ambiguity in that one."
Neela found her voice again. "So, you fixed things in the end?"
Blades snorted. "No, I killed some more people to stop them killing even more people. Despite my terrifying reputation, splashing blood around rarely fixes things as much as people want it to. Things did... stabilise, and with Lord Diego gone, the situation for many improved. But others lost out. Always, when we tip the scales, bad things happen as well as good. So, I resolved things. What people say, is kind of true. I dealt with Lord Diego, kept the name of the Graces from being besmirched, and saved a whole village worth of widows and orphans. But like the Grace of Tales tells you, in the gaps between the words is the real story."
"What about the families of those men? Do they blame you?"
Blades smiled wryly at that question. "Only they can answer that. You'll be seeing one tonight, actually. Theresa, who keeps this teahouse - she's staying in the cottage at the bottom of the valley, which is your lookout post. Her husband was the Captain. See what she thinks when I'm not there."
Neela cast her mind back to the brief meeting with the woman earlier - she'd been... slightly more polite than warm, but genuinely happy to see the Grace of Blades and her party. She'd have to ask more questions later.
But first, Neela made a decision. "I would like to make further study of the Art of Blades. It may be a difficult skill to use, but it's a necessary one for the Graces to have, and I believe one that I can better benefit the Society by developing."
Blades raised an eyebrow at that one. "Don't feel you have to specialise at all, never mind choose one so swiftly. Unlike my good self, you don't need the specialisation in order to gain latitude in other areas. And... it's a dangerous field to pick, especially when you have other strengths. Avin's little project with the balloon relied heavily on your calculations, for example. It's not a formal part of a Grace's education at the moment, but I sense Avin may be made the first Grace of Crafts. If we can use such artifice for gain, it'll be something that needs developing, and you have a talent for it as much as Avin."
Neela smiled at the compliments. "I will consider that as well. And yet, specialising... for those with little decision-making ability, it is one of the limited means in which one can... choose who one spends one's time around."
Blades grinned back, broadly, hearing her own words from earlier echoed. "Anything else you wanted to ask?" The Grace of Blades smiled gently, leaning her head back against the balcony rail and slightly disarraying her hair.
There was a long, uncertain pause before Neela asked the next question. "What's your name? Nobody mentions it. To everyone in the Society, you're just 'Blades' or 'Mistress', like they've politely forgotten things that came before. Outside, you're known for the fights, and again, they know you as the Grace of Blades. The only group that knew much of you before that was the Guild of Knives, and even then, you were just 'that girl' or 'that nutcase' beforehand, and then briefly 'that Grace' before being respectfully addressed as 'the Grace of Blades'. What do people actually call you?"
Blades looked down. This was... not something she liked talking about. The question hung in the still mountain air. After a little while, a gentle breeze started up, blowing warmly from the valley below. Clouds drifted by, above, and the sun slowly sank towards the horizon. After a little while, Blades resumed sharpening the axe. Neither woman had moved. A little while longer, and the axe was sharp, the task complete. Silence returned to the teahouse, until it was broken, to her own surprise, by the Grace of Blades.
"Seriy". She pronounced it carefully, and decided she might as well finish the job. "From the lands bordering the desert, it means, 'Fit to be married to a prince'". She flashed a wry smile at Neela, before they couldn't help but giggle at each other.
Neela moved across to Blades, and gently squeezed Blades' hand where it still rested on the axe. "Thank you for the confidence."
Blades blushed and looked down, finding herself in somewhat unexpected and unfamiliar territory, before looking back up at the younger Grace. "Well, it's not a name I accept from just anyone, you know. Only from those, I... hold closest." Blades paused and bit her lip, as various bits of her mind battled, and the practical side won out. "Now, quit distracting me before this meeting. We can... talk more later."
Neela grinned winningly, and gently rearranged Blades' hair where it had become disarrayed, before heading towards the teahouse door. She paused at the threshold and half-turned back. "Stay safe, Seriy".
More warmth than usual made it in to Blades' grin. "That's easier when I've got a dutiful lookout in her proper place, rather than hanging round closer to me. Skedaddle!"
Neela grinned and departed. The Grace of Blades sat where she was for a little while, before heading inside to change into a more formal robe for the meeting, and then re-emerging, to watch Neela depart down the valley. She wondered, idly, exactly what sort of trouble she'd managed to get herself into this time. For a change, it looked liked being somewhat fun.
A couple of days later, under an already darkening and stormy sky, Joan crested the last rise before the bay where Isan ran Bessie's. She stopped, at the sight of all the ships crowded into the natural harbour. "So *that's* where they all went!" she exclaimed to no-one in particular.
She paused briefly before muttering "We're gonna need some more sticky fire if we're going to burn that lot." Though a calculation suggested that Blades' plan was untenable for this number of vessels, and while Neela's would scale, taking on this many vessels was a couple of orders of magnitude beyond their immediate assets. Destruction was unlikely to be part of the solution here.
Joan hurried on to the tavern, to gather more information about this fleet, and the rest of the events in Nolair, before rejoining the others. And for a nice hot bowl of bouillabaisse. Just the thing in the wet stormy weather she had just, at some expense, persuaded the Summit of Magic to generate.
Unstoppable force of nature. That means she/her/hers.
Has committed an act of treason.