Set a few months prior to In The Shadow of the Bull, concurrent with the close of Tides of Fortune.
The sun was just rising in the East, long thin rays of light peeking over the distant tree-covered hills, as a speck of blue flame grew out of the sky and finally coalesced into a pillar of blue flame that reached down to the ground and exploded in a sudden rush of air. In the next instant, the blue fire was gone, and two living legends were standing in the grassy field, near the foot of a tall forested hill.
“This is the place?” Asked the elder of the two, though physically a mere slip of a girl, barely 17 and wearing no armor, no weapons, and not a lot of clothing besides.
“It matches everything Richard passed on, it must be the place,” Replied the younger of the two, though a physically imposing man appearing about 70 years in age. He had drawn his Second Breath a number of years after the girl, but a lifetime of mortal experience made him a natural leader.
“What else did Richard say?” Asked Samea, peering up at the hill with some uncertainty.
“Not a lot, but I expect I will be quite a while. When I’m done I’ll send a butterfly to you. You have other parts of the plan to set in motion while I’m here.”
“Of course. What if Lookshy catches on?”
“Well with that Pearl of theirs in action, they probably have already. This does concern the Underworld, after all. Now that we’re within reach of their strike squadrons we’ll have to assume that not having fire and death raining down on us counts as tacit approval.”
Samea nodded. “Well alright then. Good luck.”
She coalesced pure shining essence into her hands, focused it, then conjured a bright silver chariot and hopped on nimbly. In another moment she had bolted away into the sky, leaving glittery contrails behind her.
Yurgen Kaneko, the Bull of the North, watched her go impassively, then turned and started hiking up the hill.
The journey really didn’t take him as long as he expected. In less than an hour he was at the top of this hill and not even winded. Around the next copse of trees he spied a set of buildings that must have been his destination. In his path, however, sat a tortoiseshell cat watching him patiently. He slowed as he approached, and the cat did not even blink, to say nothing of moving. Yurgen reached the cat and slowed further, then finally stood stock-still. He stared at the cat with his unflinching gaze, and the cat, poised as all cats are, gazed back.
So they stared at each other continuously. Yurgen had never lost a staring contest before, but this cat was certainly a worthy opponent. Minutes stretched to hours, the sun set, rose again, set again, and still the two stared at each other. Yurgen knew he was being tested in some way. Of course, this cat posed no threat, he could easily swat her aside, but this mission was diplomacy of the greatest importance. If he could tolerate accidental offense he would have sent his emissary, Fear-Eater, but there was no room for error here. So they stared.
Yurgen could feel hunger and exhaustion slowly pushing at him like ocean tides against a glacier, but he stood as tall and as cold as any glacier, and eventually stubbornness consumed him. He would do this the right way no matter how long he was supposed to do it for.
On the morning of the fourth day, just as sunlight was again peeking over the same hills it had peeked over for three previous mornings, the cat blinked, yawned, and slinked off to find something to eat. Yurgen couldn’t believe it, he didn’t even register for a moment what had happened. He stretched, finding himself aching, and was for a brief moment very dizzy. When he refocused his eyes, there she was in front of him. The Tiger Lady. Narula.
“I must say, we don’t get many visitors who treat the three-day ordeal as a staring contest.”
Yurgen was as poised as any cat, but staring into Narula’s unflinching eyes reminded him why he had come.
“Narula. I am pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise. Do I know you?”
“We’ve never met directly, but I’ve heard many stories from my associate, Richard.”
Recognition flickered in Narula’s eyes. “I am assuming then that you are Yurgen Kaneko, the Bull of the North, in person.”
Yurgen nodded curtly. “The same.”
“What brings you here to my humble dojo then?” Narula asked suspiciously.
Yurgen bowed. “I can see you are suspicious of my arrival here. If anything, this only reinforces my perception that you are a very modest person. Surely enough stories have been told of the Golden Tiger who trains mortals to best Dragon-chosen to merit a visit from the great Bull of the North.”
Narula nodded slowly. “Fair enough. Come in, we can chat over breakfast.”
Yurgen’s stony face probably didn’t betray any relief, but Narula smirked slightly anyway.
The two of them strolled around past several training students who gawked for just a few moments, and into the dining hall. They sat down on opposite sides of rough-hewn benches and were quickly passed crude bowls with eggs and oatmeal.
“So,” Narula said between mouthfuls of oatmeal, “You must have some particular purpose here.”
“I do,” Yurgen said solemnly. “I wanted to meet you in the flesh.”
“You wanted to feel me out for something,” Narula said with an even stare.
“Of course. I have an emissary, an Eclipse I can send for just feeling someone out. But if you agree to what I propose we will be putting our lives in each others’ hands.”
Narula’s gaze was steely. “Really. You do realize, it’s not just my life you’re asking me to risk. I work here to train mortals, God-blooded and Dragon-blooded in the martial arts–and we have no need of riches, equipment, territory, anything. What plans do you have that would merit risking not just myself, but my students’ teacher, and the homes and families they go on to defend after studying here?”
Yurgen stared Narula down for a long moment, then said slowly, “The Mask of Winters is regenerating.”
Narula flinched like she’d been flicked in the nose. Then she scowled.
“That one’s for free, Narula. A fair warning from one child of the Dawn to another.”
Narula’s face became a stony mask again. After a moment Yurgen continued.
“My colleagues and I are assembling a force of the most powerful Exalted for a mission to move against the Lover Clad in the Raiment of Tears. As the only living Solar who has been trained by the Sidereals, I want you on this mission.”
Narula scoffed. “You’re expecting a repeat of the Battle of Lookshy and the Mask of Winters’ defeat? You think I have another victory like that just up my sleeve? One of my very best friends died in that fight, and it was just luck and timing that I didn’t join him. The Mask of Winters was more powerful than the entirety of the forces arrayed against him, the sorcerer who fixed that can never cast that spell again, and now you’re telling me that after all that, he isn’t even permanently dead. So it sounds to me like you’re concocting a fool’s errand”
“You disappoint me, Narula,” Yurgen said evenly. “You defeated the Mask of Winters by playing on his weakness: his vanity. You of all people should know Deathlords cannot be defeated by military might but only by their own strength. Isn’t that the first lesson any martial artist learns? We intend to do the same against the Lover, and I don’t mean we aim to destroy her.”
“What then?” Narula groused.
“Soon, my associate Nalla Bloodaxe is going to “defect” to the Lover. We will monitor his progress and conceal his true thoughts from her. And when the time is right, we intend to take something from her. We also hope to steal other information, like how it can be that the Mask of Winters will return. So there is quite a payoff for you.”
Narula pondered this for a while. Yurgen said nothing, knowing he had made his most persuasive case possible.
Eventually Narula tapped the table lightly. “I’ll go. But I will not go alone. I’m bringing my friend, Howling Stripes with me.”
Yurgen raised his palms and smiled. “The more the merrier.”
“When is this?” Narula asked.
“Well since we have you on board now we can move ahead with plan A. I will return in three week’s time, give or take, and we’ll get started.”
“Agreed,” Narula said. She stood. “That gives me three weeks to get Shale Digger up to snuff to teach classes all by herself.” She strode off without even a goodbye, but as Yurgen watched her go, he noticed the cat was back, standing on the table next to him, watching him intently.
It was a short trip back down the hill and a short butterfly message to Samea, and soon she appeared before him in a blue flash of flame. As she started conjuring another blue pillar of fire, Yurgen couldn’t help but spare a glance back up the hill.
“I assume she’s on board?”
“Indeed,” Yurgen said, thoughtfully as time and space suddenly stretched. A moment later, they were back in the frozen wastes of the North.
“You didn’t tell her about the Golden Army, I assume?”
“Of course not,” Yurgen said gruffly. “She doesn’t need to know.”
“You’re not worried she’ll leak info to the Sidereals, are you?”
“Not directly, but they’re watching her, I’m sure of it. I can smell their spiderweb looped all around that hill.”
Samea nodded. “You’re taking a risk including her then, aren’t you?”
“This entire enterprise is a risk. The payoff, as you well know, is worth risking everything.”