Friday, 6 July 2012

Fading Suns 3 Players Guide Opening Fiction


To: Lady Yasmina Keddah, New Lahore, Grail

My Dearest Sister,

I know that this letter finds you in good health, for were it otherwise my twin I would surly know it. I have entrusted this transcript to the safety of the Town Criers Guild and I know that it will be placed in to your hands within weeks of my laying pen to paper. I have written similar letters to our mother the Lady Estra Thana Keddah and to our cousin the Baron Amat Keddah, though the accounts of my adventures that I offered to them have been subtly amended. To you my sister I can tell no lie nor offer any misdirection for as surely as I can sense such things in you, you equally recognize them in me. I know also that you recognize that these writings are yours in confidence for I will admit things to you that I would say to no other.

I have been away from our home now for scarcely three short months, but it feels like a lifetime ago that we last walked together in place gardens. The rainy season will be upon you now and I know how our mother suffers with the damp. I still hold hope that either the physicks can offer her some relief or that she might be persuaded to leave our fathers graveside to seek warmer, dryer climates.

When I took my leave of the family home, I set out in a grand adventure across the stars. I thought that I knew where the path would lead; yet at every turn I have been surprised by the new direction. House Keddah’s rise in fortunes of late have served me well, ensuring that I have received invitations to visit with many noble lords who might otherwise never have noticed my passing. Though this has been a boon, on many occasions there have been times when I would liked to have travelled faster and not stopped at the invitation of hospitality with this or that lord and lady, or the next.

My intention had always been to travel to Byzantium Secundus, the throne world of the Emperor, there to take my oath to join the Questing Knights of the Phoenix Order. These were the dreams of a simple youth, but now I appreciate that life has complexities that must be played out in the spaces between the plans we make and the path destiny has ordained for us. I departed Grail in good company, my friend and fellow aspirant to the Order of the Phoenix, Sir Leonardus Jurano, and his bodyguard, Sergeant Solan Rukas of the Muster, in accompaniment. Our spirits were high, though Sergeant Rukas maintained his accustomed stoic presence. I was glad to be travelling in company, for the prospect of setting out from home into the great universe is a daunting one, and our route to the throne world would take us through the burning world of Pyre, a place best avoided by our kind.

Our starship was a small merchant craft, the “Olan Spirit”, owned and operated by a Charioteer pilot by the name of Artnus Beck. The tiny ship was little bigger than those hoppers they use for shipping cargo from orbit to the downside starports—and, I hear, for smuggling too. We were fortunate to have small individual staterooms, furnished in a spartan manner, though any comforts I would scarcely have noticed, so distracted was I with the prospect of space travel.

I admit the combination of fear and exhilaration is a heady mix. The little craft shook violently all along its course out of Grail’s atmosphere. I spent that part of the journey, and much of it after, close to a view port so that I could see our world as the patchwork of greens and blue faded away below white swirls of cloud to be come a distant globe. Within a few hours my home had shrunk to become just another point of light in the black void. But my excitement persisted; I was restless and found sleep difficult to come by. I was grateful that I was not the only one. Sir Leonardus, too, seemed to share my excitement, and we enthused about our impending adventures together. Sergeant Rukas seemed to be unphased by space travel and spent much of the journey either sleeping or trading stories with Captain Beck, for the four of us were the only company aboard.

I have heard talk about the ancient jumpgates, even seen a magic lantern image of one, but nothing prepares you for the magnificence of the real thing. As our ship approached, Captain Beck allowed us to crowd into the back of his tiny cockpit, from there to see out to the infinite black where appears a star that grows until, slowly, it is no longer visible as a point of light, but a dark silhouette, visible more from the absence of the stars behind it, and the point of light becomes an outline of the jutting gargoyles where they catch and reflect the starlight.

The great hoop of the gate continued to grow so large that I could no longer see across the whole span of the arch, and only then could we see the running lights of other ships as Captain Beck pointed them out. He spoke with them over the squawker and our tiny vessel slid into formation with two other much larger vessels, also bound for Pyre. We had to wait for what seemed like an age, and as we did so there was a bright flash of lightning across the gate and a swirling vortex, visible for a split second as a tight group of bright stars exited the corona and seemed to come to rest far in front of us. I could not make out what kind of ships they were from so far away, but the Captain consulted his instruments, identifying them as League merchant vessels. One of the group broke away from the others and climbed slowly up to join our formation bound for Pyre.

We sat in our parked formation for almost two days. I made Captain Beck promise to wake me so that I could see the jump, but I hardly slept. From my cabin view port I could just make out part of the gate’s span, and I saw two more arrivals before we were ready to make our own jump. Again we crammed into the cramped space at the rear of the cockpit. Captain Beck was talking to the other ships in our small flotilla. He grinned back at us as our little ship took point and we could hear the other ship captains sounding off as Beck sorted through the jangling hoop of jumpkeys he always carried on his belt. I did not know then that the number of keys a Charioteer has denotes his standing within the guild. Captain Beck must have been more senior than I ever suspected.

I’m not sure what I expected to happen as we crossed the threshold. There was a stomach churning sensation as our little ship lurched forward, then just an instant of a bright flash and that stomach churning sensation again as the ship exited the gate in the Pyre system. Everything was silent for a moment, and then Captain Beck clicked open his squawker channel and called for the other ships in our convoy to sound off. The convoy was already starting to break apart as those vessels destined to jump onwards to Criticorum or Byzantium Secundus maneuvered to join new convoys bound for those systems. As per our agreement with Captain Beck, we headed in-system towards Pyre itself, the only member of our convoy to do so.

Captain Beck was under contract to make a courier delivery before continuing his route to Criticorum. It had never occurred to us that we should have arranged to transfer to another vessel bound for Byzantium Secundus at the Pyre jumpgate. We made planetfall on that scorched desert world in only five days. Throughout most of the journey I was restless, a mixture of exhilaration and growing anxiety. I remembered all the warnings about the Inquisition and the Temple Avesti, and here I was about to set foot on a planet brimming with frothing fanatics who would not hesitate to burn me at the stake should my “special education” be discovered. I retreated to my stateroom seeking to calm my mind, using the meditation techniques that our mother impressed upon us with long hours of discipline to maintain my focus until I had mastered my fear.

While Sir Leonardus went up to the cockpit to watch our entry in to Pyre’s atmosphere and the descent towards the spaceport at Sanpietro, I did not accompany him. Instead I strapped in to a chair in the small galley. Sergeant Rukas, strapped in besides me and asked if I was okay. I feigned that it was motion sickness caused by the turbulent flight. Within the hour we had touched down, and for the first time the airlock was opened to let the hot dry air in. I had not realized until then how metallic and stale the air had become during our trip. I was collecting my belongings when our ship was boarded by a group of robed men; they claimed to be customs officials, but looked more like monks to me. Captain Beck evidently had been here many times before and was on good relations with the port authorities. His paperwork in order, the men checked the crates in the ships hold against his manifest before allowing us to disembark.
The sun was high overhead and blisteringly hot. I could barely see through the glare, but Sergeant Rukas had the foresight to wear some darkened goggles. He obtained directions from Captain Beck before we took our leave of him and guided Sir Leonardus and myself to a reputable inn only a short distance from the starport. The streets of the city were dusty, and narrow. The buildings low, squat cubes of baked white bricks, windowless and the walls so thick that the intense heat does not penetrate.

I found the heat punishing, and it only added to the oppression I felt from this place. Walking narrow streets and being very aware that I was not dressed like the locals, likely drawing attention that I did not want to draw, I wanted to leave Pyre as quickly as possible. Enquiries with the port authority revealed that few ships actually stop here unless they have prearranged business. Booking passage to Byzantium Secundus was no easy feat. We had just missed a transport that could have carried us, but the next one did not have sufficient space for our entire party. We were forced to endure Pyre for more than a month before we finally got off that burning rock.

I spent most of my time on Pyre, concealed in the room at the inn. During my first week in that blasted hellhole I had been foolish enough to go out during the day and my skin had burned, turning bright red and peeling. The pain was considerable but the innkeeper was kind enough to treat me with a soothing ointment. I used that excuse thereafter to avoid any prolonged excursions under the sun. Sir Leonardus was more adventurous, purchasing local garb and making frequent trips to local shrines and landmarks.

When finally I was able to board the hopper that would take us into orbit, my relief was almost physical. The “Leveran” was a massive void-framed hauler, great ceramsteel containers in an open mesh of plasteel latticework. I had visions of great halls and open space, but once aboard the space was cramped and mostly devoted to cargo. The passenger areas of the vessel were rudimentary and I was fortunate to have my own stateroom. There were a large number of pilgrims leaving Pyre that had been allocated to one of the cargo bays, along with some of the other livestock. I found it unpalatable that people, even Avesti pilgrims, should be transported like so much cattle. I retired to my stateroom and did not emerge for several days. Only once our voyage was underway did I feel that I’d finally left that burning world behind.

I took my meals alone, preferring my own company. When I did emerge I did so to pass the time with Sir Leonardus and Sergeant Rukas. It was on one of these forays from my cabin that I had stopped to admire the stars beyond one of the viewing ports. I did not hear her approach, but a quiet voice at my side announced her presence, I think I actually jumped in surprise, so taken off guard was I. The only non-humans I had ever met have been the avian Etryi, but here stood a tall slender woman, her skin pale and raven hair in braid down her back. The ritual scars on her exposed face and arms marked her as one of the Ukari. To cover my unseemly surprise my training in etiquette took over and I introduced myself. She was Kalera oj Korr and a member of the ships crew. We stood and admired the stars a little longer. She pointed out the constellations to me, telling me a little about the folklore and the names of each of them, and for the next three days we would meet at the same view port to look out at the light of the stars together. I must admit to you my sister that I found her presence, her alien-ness to be most exhilarating.

I know that conventional wisdom suggests that all Ukari are thugs and assassins, but Kalera was not at all like my expectation. Were it not for her eyes and the ritual scars I would not have realized that she was not human, even in the short time we spent together I felt an instant connection to her. Perhaps on some level we sensed a kinship between our gifts, for I already knew that the Ukari were gifted in the practice of occult powers, and my special training that you, yourself have shared ensured us a keen awareness of these things.

On the fifth day I had expect to look out and see the jumpgate, but there was nothing but the black void and the glowing pinpricks of the stars. Kalera explained to me that the Leveran was a slow moving vessel and the journey would take a few more days. I started to become concerned that I had not been to confession since my departure from Grail and that it would likely take another two weeks before we would make planet orbit around Byzantium Secundus. I made some enquires but I could only find a single priest aboard, and he was travelling at the head of the Avesti pilgrims. I could not bring myself to unburden my soul to a man who would likely condemn me should he, by some twist of fate, recognize my family lineage and reveal my psychic gift. Sir Leonardus was not so burdened with secrets as I, and sought out the priest against my advice.

The following day when I took my now daily walk to meet with my companions I was surprised that Sir Leonardus was not alone. Instead a robed man sat with him. My blood ran cold the moment I laid eyes upon the Avestite preacher. A man of advancing years clothed in the humble robes of a travelling monk. He must of noticed that I had paled at his appearance, for his reaction was immediate, he rose and lowered his eyes offering respect to my noble standing. He made to take his leave, but Sir Leonardus bid him stay. I could not now in conscience leave.

Father Davus Hercan was yet another challenge to my narrow world view. I had been lead to believe that all Avesti were frothing servants of the Inquisition, with about the intellect of Tapali sand beetle. Hercan was calm, and measured, his eyes piercing and intense. He had not always been a priest; our conversation revealed that he had once been a subject of House Hawkwood and a militiaman during the Emperor Wars. When the wars had ended and his duty was spent, he sought out a life of penance for his past deeds. To my continued surprise I discovered that the man was also literate and fond of reading. Against my better judgment I found him to be likeable.

Sir Leonardus had contrived our meeting after he had been to confession the previous day. I could not conceive of a reason that would not set me in a poor light to refuse Father Hercan’s offer of his ministry while we shared the same starship. I did of course attend confession later that day, and felt unburdened by it.

My friendship with Kalera took a strange turn the day after we made the jump to the Byzantium Secundus system. I was woken by a commotion in the corridor outside my stateroom. I could hear raised voices and then sounds of a struggle. Most of my weapons were locked in the ships locker for safekeeping, but I had retained my sword as a symbol of status. I stepped through my door, wearing nothing more than my nightclothes and holding my blade. Kalera was there, pinned to the wall by two men. I did not hesitate; I stepped forward and held the tip of my rapier the first man’s neck.

He turned instantly knocking my blade aside, and drove his fist into my ribs. I should have spent more time studying swordsmanship. Everything was a blur as I tried to catch my breath. Sergeant Rukas was there in second, pinning one of the men to the floor with an arm lock. The second was slumped close by with Kalera standing over him; the long knife in her hand was bloody. There were more people coming out of their staterooms now, standing in the doorways.

I gathered my wits and demanded answers from the pinned man he spat and refused to converse, “with friend to a mind raping alien whore”. Kalera had no answers either, denying that she had ever set eyes upon them before and offering that she had acted only in self-defense. It nagged at the back of my mind that there was something more here than met the eye, but I handed the man over to the Captain of the ship to deal with as we saw fit.

I did not see Kalera for the next few days. She did not make our usual rendezvous at the view port to look out at the stars, so I started to make up my own constellations in her absence. After the events of that night Sir Leonardus, Sergeant Rukas and I found a clear area in one of the cargo bays to use in sparing practice as I tried to brush up on my fencing skills. I went to Father Hercan a second time for confession, and was invited to attend a full Avesti service. I didn’t feel that I could refuse. The only services I have ever attend were those of the Sanctuary Aeon, quiet and reflect meditations. The Avesti, I should have known would be more animated.

The service began with a simple reading from the Omega Gospels, then singing of several psalms. The energy in the room was starting to build, when the otherwise quiet Father Hercan transformed into screaming evangelist. He took the raised area that had been hastily constructed as a stage, pacing backwards and forwards as he sermonized, whipped his followers in to a fervor. Then called them forward one by one to receive a blessing, some would fall to their knees, others simply swayed on the spot, a few seemed to have hysterical fits and babbled incoherently. I was somewhat taken aback by the whole spectacle and managed maneuver myself out of the rabble of smelly peasants. I was nothing but relived when it was all over and resolved never to attend another Avesti ceremony if I could ever help it.

We were now only two days from Byzantium Secundus, I had put upon the Captain of the vessel to allow me to visit the man he had in custody. The prisoner steadfastly refused to say anything to me. The interview was therefore short and slightly troubling. I did attempt to employ the techniques that our mother taught us, but I was unable to reach his mind, whether he was able to shield his thoughts from me or that I was unable to find my focus after the events of recent days I cannot say.

That night there was a soft tap at my door and I rose to find Kalera there, she invited herself inside and closed the door quickly. I admitted my surprise but she pressed a slander finger to my lips to silence me, then she spoke softly in the gloom. I had told her of my dream to be come a knight of the Phoenix in one of our early meetings and now she offered a pact. She no longer felt safe aboard this ship and wanted to leave with us when we made orbit. There was a moment of joy and only a sliver of reservation in my mind. I did not give consideration to who the men where that had assaulted her on a few days ago might be. I only wanted to maintain our acquaintance, for I took pleasure in her company.

Much as with you my dear sister I felt a kinship that cannot be give simple words. Perhaps there was also a small part of my mind that also saw the prestige to be gained in having a retinue of my own.
We made orbit without further complications and debarked to a hopper that would take us groundside. I caught a look Sir Leonardus as he cast an eye over our new companion, but I pretended not to have seen it. Instead I focused on the spider web of lights that criss-crossed the benighted face of the throne world. The little hopper shook and rattled with the force of re-entry and a reddish glow illuminated the inside of the cabin from beyond the view port. We touched down in the Imperial City in the middle of the night.

I am no stranger to urban living; I grew up in and around New Lahore after all. But the Imperial City is something all together different. It is true to say that the city never really sleeps, its boulevards always crowded with people coming and going. Street vendors line the avenues hawking their wares even in the dead of night. Bright volt lights burn all across the city and from above they radiate out from the Imperial Palace at its heart. We were fortunate to bear a letter of introduction and a ground car carried us to the residence of Count Razak Keddah, the diplomatic envoy of our house appointed to the throne world. The lateness of the hour made me uneasy as we approached, we had sent no runner in advance and I was unsure of what kind of reception we would receive.

As it turned out I need not have worried, for the Count was away from his residence on business and his Seneschal who made received us and made us welcome. The residence was large, but not overly grand and it seemed we were only the most recent in a long line of people to stay. We did not meet the lady of the house until the following morning. The Countess Roshina Keddah is a woman of sharp wit, striking perceptivity and refinement given her advanced years. Immaculately attired with richly embroidered fabrics, her grey hair was tied back and she refuses to conceal the deeply engrained age lines etched upon her thin face. Count Razak is her third husband, and a man many years her junior.

We took morning tea with the Countess and she enquired about our visit. We shared what news we had of our homeworld and she bade me to convey her regards to our mother. It seems that she knew her many years before my birth, though she did not speak in detail of her association. She did however give the Seneschal instruction to provide us with a local guide to the Imperial City and that we should be afforded whatever hospitality we should need during our stay.

It was later that same day that our small band arrived at the Imperial City Chapter House of the Phoenix Order. An imposing building, the great entrance has been formed into a great phoenix sculpture, its wings spread far across the face of the building and its head crooked round to look out imperiously over it’s domain. It is truly an awe-inspiring structure. As we approached along the tree lined avenue I observed groups of noblemen, presumably knights, gathered here and there. Some seemed to be talking business in small coffee houses, while others caroused. Freeman came and went conducting their business, some selling foodstuffs and other wares from baskets.

As we finally drew close to the Chapter House the full scale of this building was impressed upon me. Uniformed soldiers stood on guard flanking the doorway, but made no move to stop us as we entered. The reception hall had a tall vaulted ceiling and several squires of the order manned a long counter, dealing with enquires of those who came and went.

I don’t know what I had imagined would be the process for swearing fealty to the Emperor as one of his questing champions, but an interview with a very serious elderly knight with a sour expression was not among them. There followed a series of trails for Sir Leonardus and myself as aspirant knights. For Sergeant Rukas and Kalera there was only the interview and background check coupled with the recommendation of their aspirant once accepted. Fortunately the next intake of aspirants was only a few days away and we were able to take some time as tourists to the Imperial City. Our guide was more than willing to show us around we made a visit to the great Cathedral of St. Maya, the great vaulted ceiling is of breath taking architecture, decorated with vivid imaginings of the disciples. We paid visits also to a number of minor shrines and several local markets though the specifics of this time are unworthy of the ink it would take to record. Suffice it is to say that the markets of the capital over flow with the produce of Empire including redeemed tech and even – should you have the resources to pay the exorbitant prices – items from beyond the border of Known Space.

Those days passed slowly despite all the activities that were crammed into them for my expectation was firmly set upon the advent of my trails. I felt for the first time a gap between Sir Leonardus and I, like we now strove for different goals, we no longer shared those childhood stories of heroics and great battles and I believed that my growing closeness with Kalera was the source of his disquiet. Perhaps, in the end it was for the best, for all men must grow from childhood to adulthood and none can tread that journey for us.

The day of our trials arrived and we returned to the Chapter House. I am not permitted to speak much of the specifics of the trials, only that they test a candidate’s capabilities in all things physical, mental and even moral. Such tests as general fitness and practice with a blade are necessary to ensure that each knight is capable of defending himself, his companions and the Emperor’s honor. Mental trials test general knowledge, heraldry, etiquette, and include a series of convoluted puzzles for which I could discern no specific purpose – and for which I was certain I had failed. The final trials on the third day seemed in advance like they should be the most ease to pass, for surely we all know right from wrong, good from evil? Yet there were times that I found the lines between black and white blurred and unclear. Is it moral to perform an evil act but with a pure intention? And is the correct action undertaken for the wrong reason tainted by that intention?

Once all these trials were complete we stood ready to be invested into the order and receive our badges of office. All was well except that one of our number was absent. Sir Leonardus and Sergeant Rukas were there, but Kalera was not, I enquired about her and was told that she had not passed the trials. I could not understand how this could be and none would volunteer an answer to my question. We were being prepared for the ceremony and in my desperation to discover what had happened to Kalera I mind searched the sour faced knight.

Fortunately my worst fears were not confirmed, as Kalera was still alive; she had failed the trials on the Imperial Eye background check. The implication of her clan - the Korr - in terrorist activities against the Muster government on Kordeth blocked her from being admitted to a cohort. My head was in a spin from what I had learned, as I heard the fanfare and the great doors of the antechamber began to open. Someone took my arm and turned me to face, the group of aspirants began to march forward and I was pushed along with them for a moment, until I dug my heels in and pulled away from Sir Leonardus. He looked at me, a puzzled expression on his face; I shook my head and did not move. He beckoned me onwards, his expression becoming one of confusion at my refusal to move. The others had gone out, and I told him to go quickly. He looked conflicted but did so.

I do not regret my choice; I think I have known my destiny since the moment I met Kalera oj Korr, to be without her feels like I am missing an arm or worse. You understand dear sister why our mother can know none of this and why I cannot return to Grail for the foreseeable future. You must guard my secret, as any priest would guard the sanctity of the confessional. In my letter to our mother I have instead lied and claimed that I failed the trails and that in my shame I am unable to return home.
For so long I had dreamed of questing amongst the stars, does it really matter that I do so now in my own name rather than in the Emperor’s? Perhaps we can prove Kalera’s innocence and yet find our way back to this point?

I tried to contact Sir Leonardus after the ceremony only for his messenger to reject my request to meet. I have since learned that he now travels the stars in the company of other Phoenix Knights and that he has now left Byzantium Secundus on a mission of up most importance to our Emperor. How I failed you my friend, may the Pancreator guide your steps and watch over you.

As I pen this letter to you know I make ready myself to leave Byzantium Secundus, Kalera and I plan to travel to Lemenkainen on the trail of some treasure map that she has uncovered. We have not the finance to travel in luxury and so have booked passage a tramp freighter that will see us to our destination.

I will write to you again soon my sister, please do not despair for me, for my destiny lies amongst the fire of foreign suns.

With eternal love and devotion,

Your brother,

Sir Mathias Keddah