Trajan Justinian Severus was getting drunk, and not the good kind. Not the kind where you’re happily laughing away with your friends, oblivious to the cares of the sober world you just left behind. No, TJ, as he was known, was the kind of drunk where you stew on those cares that seem to have followed you, and as they slowly eat at your self control, you begin to ponder things that you’ve been avoiding during your busy day.
For example, a few tables over, TJ could clearly see several of his peers in the Five-Score Fellowship, doing just what he wished he could do: laughing, sharing friendship, toasting each other and ribbing each other and generally being friends. TJ normally blotted out this stuff, but right now it was consuming him. He was sitting in one of the most social places in all of Yu-Shan, the Sparkling Crystal, a mid-class bar occupied by the most diverse crowd of supernatural beings, and he was drinking alone.
TJ had grown up on a farm, and he knew all too well the difference in temperament between those farm hands who drank together and those who drank alone. When he had first thrown himself into his new divine work, he didn’t think his temperament mattered much for his work, but twice now he had been passed up for important posts on Conventions, for other Sidereals with fewer qualifications but better connections. His isolated lifestyle wasn’t supposed to matter, but he was pretty sure it did. Hence the pondering something he had been ignoring all this time: the possibility of making actual friends.
Well, he reasoned to himself, if I wait too much longer I’ll be too drunk to pull it off, now or never.
With only a slight stagger, TJ abruptly kicked himself up and sauntered over to the table. Four Sidereals were at his target, three he knew from work and probably knew a few secrets about already: Verrance, Chosen of Endings, flush with quiet glory coming off the tremendous case of the Wind Creature; Alex, Chosen of Endings, eternally wrapped in layers of cloths with so little visible even his/her gender was open to interpretation; and Sedanya, a fellow Chosen of Secrets, central to the operation of busting the Yozi Infiltration and the exposing of the Green Lady a couple years back. The last Sidereal he didn’t know too well, aside from his name: Silver Water, Chosen of Mercury.
As TJ arrived, Alex made a gesture of friendliness, breaking the ice before he even had to say anything. TJ felt a rush of gratitude as Verrance pulled a chair up for him, and he sat a bit heavily and breathed a sigh which was probably of relief.
“Hey guys, how are you all doing this fine evening?”, TJ said with a warm smile, as a crystalline waitress brought him a fresh drink. The others nodded and said they were well, each in their own characteristic way.
“We were just talking about you actually,” Silver Water said elegantly, brushing back his his silver hair. “Wondering if you’d been stood up for a date.”
“Nah,” TJ said jovially, “Just relaxing after a stressful day.”
“You, relaxing? Let me mark my calendar,” Verrance quipped. He pulled out a notebook and mimed writing in it as he muttered, “Today’s ending: my belief in TJ’s invulnerability.” Everyone laughed.
“You do have a reputation though,” Sedanya said to TJ, “We all see you work so hard. Seems like every day is stressful.”
TJ caught the implied question and gently acknowledged it “Yeah, well I carry a lot of burdens, things I can’t talk about.”
“You’re very discreet,” Silver Water commented, “Even for one of us. We can’t even tell what factional sympathies you have, if any.”
TJ smirked a bit, pushing down the sudden irrational panic that slowly welled up inside him. He made light of it: “Come on, you guys are all very smart, what do you think of my sympathies? If you tell me your best guesses I’ll tell you the truth.” Making a game of it would probably defuse his worrying. Probably.
Alex peered at him discerningly. “Well you’re obviously not a strong patriot to any cause, but the way you were friendly with Erika I think maybe was a bit of a reveal towards Gold side.”
Verrance raised an eyebrow, amused, and then added, “When you helped us with that Solar Kami who came in last week you were pretty friendly with that group as well. I’m thinking you probably have some Gold sympathies but you keep it quiet because you have to attend so many of those all-Jupiter meetings, with a bunch of elder Bronze faction Sidereals sitting around staring through your soul.”
Sedanya piped up quickly, “Hey those meetings suck but people there still know I’m Gold and they haven’t made my life miserable yet. Well not any more than anyone else. But yeah Chejop Kejak and his buddies are intimidating as hell, so I think I agree with Verrance.”
Silver Water peered discerningly at TJ, then after a moment took his turn. “I don’t have the benefit my peers have of working with you, so I’ll take a different angle. I think you won’t tell anyone because you’re a Chosen of Secrets and keeping secrets is fun for you. Maybe you don’t even know yourself. We catalogued six times when you said something that could be construed as pro-Gold and nine times you said something potentially pro-Bronze, so you’re probably also laying down red herrings.”
The table went quiet, probably expecting TJ to deliver, but also in a way that made TJ think there was a purpose to this meeting. He cursed under his breath as he took another drink and as he wiped his mouth with a napkin he accessed his Efficient Secretary Technique and posed the question: How many times in the last hour was the word “Gold” or “Bronze” uttered by any occupant sitting at the table I am currently sitting at?
Searching… One hundred twenty one times, came the reply.
TJ sighed and smiled, seeing expectant faces looking at him. In this moment he had a choice: he could tell them the truth and the whole truth, or he could evade, as he had been doing all this time. For a moment he thought about revealing the secret. The one he had been carrying around since his youth. Then he thought about Jupiter, who he had met once, and who had looked at him approvingly in a way he knew she did not look at others often. So he chickened out.
Then he realized they probably had charms active to detect deception, and he had probably walked right into a Fate effect on top of that to ensure he would have a meaningful encounter. So he resolved to give them what he had promised: the truth. Just the small truth.
“Ah hell, the truth is that you’ll hear me express a lot of different opinions because I always think they’re true. I see both sides. The Solars are the rightful lords of Creation, but they blew it and we shouldn’t give them another chance, except if they’re going to take another chance anyway we might as well use that for something good. Hell, I have the exact same opinions about one of my ex-girlfriends. So I guess you could say I’m not over her, or the Solars, even through it would probably be best to do so. I never bothered to get any more specific about an overall plan because I’m too damn busy fixing the problems that get dropped on my desk, and I just play each situation by ear. Just trying to get by. I ain’t trying to jive-talk anyone, just feel like Creation is still in the middle of a messy breakup, is all.”
As he talked he could see the light slowly drain from the others’ eyes. So they were trying to feel me out for the Gold Faction, is all. TJ sighed again as he finished and watched their body language slowly retreat. He felt dumb for having believed, even for a moment, that he could have friendships here. He stood after a moment.
“Sorry guys, I know you’re all Gold and you don’t want to hear that stuff right now. Thanks for chatting with me.” He left a silver coin on the table for his drink and stood to go. Alex looked a little pained that he was leaving, but he shrugged and turned away. He slouched down the aisle and out the back door.
“Finally, an opinion worth hearing,” an authoritative voice said quietly but with an undeniable gravitas. TJ turned in surprise to see a figure in a long, heavy jacket like his own holding a canal boat ready for him. The lighting was poor (Jupiter had just gone ahead in the Games of Divinity and only green starlight twinkled down from the dome of Yu-Shan’s “sky”) but the figure and voice were vaguely familiar.
“Are you…?” TJ asked, approaching. A Chosen of Jupiter sign suddenly lit up on the forehead of the figure, lighting the face just enough to be recognized. A weathered, dark-skinned southerner with piercing green eyes and a knowing smile looked back at him. TJ stopped short.
“The Free Man? What is this??”
The Free Man was an elder Sidereal, well-known for his booming, persuasive voice and his calls for restoring the Loom of Fate to balance by any means necessary. He was a two-thousand-year-old big-shot, and while he was at those same meetings with Chejop Kejak and Sedanya, TJ didn’t think he ever took notice of him.
“Get in, please. I want to have a private meeting with you.”
TJ could only nod dumbly, and somewhat awkwardly got into the boat. The Free Man got in as well, and steered them towards the Forbidding Manse of Ivy.
The trip had been made in silence, and only once they occupied one of the innumerable reading rooms and the Free Man had activated his anima banner and warded the room from intrusion did the two Chosen of Secrets feel at ease enough to discuss business.
“Did you send them to feel me out?” TJ inquired as the elder completed the warding. He turned and smiled.
“No I didn’t, though I knew they were curious so I waited to see what would happen. I’ve been looking for someone like you, TJ. Someone discreet and pragmatic enough to work on a project for me.”
“Well I’m always happy to do what is needed of me here,” TJ said, puzzled. “Do you mean you need me for something off-book?”
“In so many words, yes,” The Free Man said with a sigh as he sat into a seat. TJ sat across from him at the table.
“Anything that can get me executed?” TJ asked casually. The Free Man smirked. “You know as well as I do that anything can get us executed if we muck it up badly enough. But to be more specific, I’m not asking you to do anything treasonous. Quite the opposite actually. Creation needs some serious saving right now.”
TJ adjusted in his seat. “Saving Creation is what gives me job satisfaction. What’s going on this time?”
“About two years ago, during the issues with the infiltration by the Yozis, Zig Zag was compromised fairly severely. Have you met him?”
TJ thought carefully. After a moment, the image of a wiry, short-haired Chosen of Serenity filled his mind, though they had not exchanged words. TJ nodded. “In passing.”
“As part of his punishment, but also to monitor him for other residual effects, we deployed him on a long-term mission to map aberrations in the Loom of Fate. He must have crossed all of Creation, cross-referencing tables and star charts on that mission. It turns out his time with a Yozi inside his mind made him particularly sensitive to unravelings in the Loom of Fate because when he returned he had quite a massive list of aberrations, at least eighty deviations of at least magnitude 5. A number appear to be posing serious threats in the near future, but it’s hard to say how so because, obviously, they’re being caused by something outside of Fate.”
TJ acted just a little more nonchalant than he was feeling. “Okay so how can I help?”
The Free Man made a sour face. “Unfortunately, the Convention on Oversight has now assigned this entire file to me, probably because I’ve pissed off one too many people recently. The entire thing is now solely my responsibility.”
“You’re kidding, right? They actually assigned you this file? As if you don’t have any other things to get done?”
“I know I appear high and mighty to you, but I was young when the Usurpation happened and my ambivalence on it made me few friends. Probably why I want to ask for your help. I think you and I think alike, TJ.”
TJ managed to restrain the impulse to make a wisecrack about only half the time, but a small smile still leaked out of him. The Free Man probably took that as affirmation, because he continued.
“The Convention on Oversight did not explicitly say I couldn’t ask for help, but they did make a number of restrictive specifications, and I think the best way to stick to them is to have no one else in all of Heaven know what I’m about to do. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to assemble a field team for troubleshooting all of these problems for us.
It took just a moment for TJ to realize the subtle but profound implications of what the Free Man had just said. If no one else in all of Heaven could know, then no Sidereal could be on this team.
“I… Uh… That’s pretty steep,” TJ stuttered. After a moment he realized it had been phrased as a request, so he added, “But I will accept. Not sure how yet though.”
“I think you can figure it out,” The Free Man said with another knowing smile. He pulled out a scroll. “Here, this will help you with any paperwork, just be discreet. The Convention on Oversight file has assigned the project to me under the code name Improbable Matrix Functionalization, or IMF. If anyone asks, you haven’t been assigned to it, I just asked you to courier something for me.”
TJ nodded slowly. The enormity of this project began to sank in, especially if he didn’t even know what the missions were. Nevertheless, if The Free Man needed him to complete this, he would not fail. Creation was depending on them, as usual.
Bedtime would have to wait.
“Hey, you there?” Trajan called out into the mists. His voice echoed for a moment then was muffled out. Then slowly a table appeared in front of him with two chairs. The far chair was occupied. The near chair had a bottle of sake and a glass in front of it.
“Thought I’d be a gracious host and cook up some relaxation,” The figure in the far chair said coolly. Trajan sighed and sat down. “So many chairs today. This isn’t my first drink either.”
“You went drinking?” The far voice was a little incredulous. “Damn you, you did that on purpose. Whenever you drink, I pay for it.”
“Not this time,” Trajan said evenly whilst pouring himself a glass. “Didn’t have very many drinks. Met up with some other Sidereals instead. Alex, Verrance, Sedanya, Silver Water. They were feeling me out, I think for Gold faction stuff.”
“You didn’t tell them how you really feel, did you? God, do I have to deal with that too?”
“Relax, Justinian, I was honest enough to register their charms but I left out the part that I actually agree with them.”
“Good, I’d hate for us to get strung up for double-crossing factional politics and I would only keep my mouth shut so long about those Goldies and their naïveté.”
“I was really honest, I do see things from both sides though. You’ve been helpful for that, if nothing else.”
Justinian sighed. “Me too. I know where they’re coming from… And I’m sorry I’m holding you back. Though in fairness you’re holding me back too. You know we should have been officers on on the Convention of Air by now.”
“Yeah yeah, we have bigger business than that now,” Trajan said with another drink. Justinian sat up. “What?”
Trajan bent forward, his elbows on the table, a smirk crossing his face. “The Free Man was watching them feel me out. He wants us for a mission.”
“What kind of mission?” Justinian leaned forward, ignoring the shifting between “me” and “us” that usually got on his nerves.
“A comprehensive docket on severe deviations from Fate has been compiled and assigned to him, and he wants us to assemble a team that no one in Heaven knows about.”
“….The Hell?? Then who is supposed to be on this team?”
Trajan took another drink, his smile showing through his glass. After a moment Justinian kicked his chair back.
“No, no way, whaaaat. Solars? For real??”
“Well I did some leg work before bed, but we need at least two more still so I’ll let you figure that out. Besides, if we get the whole team killed that’s fewer Solars to worry about right?”
“Ugh that’s what’s wrong with you Goldies,” Justinian said with contempt as he paced, tiger-like. “You think that Bronze factioners think they should just all be killed off however possible. You just don’t get Solars, do you? Every time you throw an impossible situation at them, half of them die but the other half just get stronger. Playing them against each other buys you time but afterwards they’re more powerful than before, and after a few rounds of that they’re unstoppable. I don’t want any more high-essence Solars running around, even if we killed a bunch to get the last few that way.”
“Well fine, make the team out of Immaculates or something, whatever. But The Free Man wouldn’t have asked for this if he wasn’t staring at 80-plus magnitude 5+ deviations.”
Justinian’s jaw dropped. “What?? How are we all still alive?? Who found these??”
“Zig Zag collected them after his bout of being a Yozi-puppet’s-puppet. It’s serious. There are enough things besides Solars that get stronger over time that we need to use every tool available, or we won’t even make it to the next Calibration.”
Justinian growled, then sighed. “Okay, fine. But I don’t want to hear a single complaint about my methods, okay?”
Trajan laughed a single, loud laugh. “Boy that’s good to hear. Can’t wait to see what you come up with.”
Alex pulled up short, allowing TJ to catch up while tucking close a packet of files. “TJ, what can I do for you?”
“Hey Alex,” TJ smiled, trying to turn a bit of the charm on. “First off, I’m sorry how things ended last night.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Alex said, as they started walking again. “It was probably unfair to have expectations about how it would go. You are not to blame.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that,” TJ said. “I actually wanted to ask you a favor. I was charged with bringing one of the STFC entries off-roster this week and I’ve been so busy this is my last chance. Do you have it with you?”
In fact, the Severe Threat to the Fate of Creation list was exactly what Alex had in hand, and this didn’t seem like a coincidence to Alex at all.
“I do… What authorization do you have for taking a name off? You know once these go in they’re locked in.”
“I know, I know, but I’m acting on orders. You know what they say about orders.”
“Let me see them,” Alex said suspiciously. TJ handed over his scroll which Alex unrolled and examined.
“TJ there’s nothing on here except signatures. You really can’t expect me to hand over a file from the STFC list based on this, can you?”
“Those are some pretty heavy signatures,” TJ said, dropping his voice. “We both know this is enough.”
“It’s a blank check! Who the hell are you working for??” Alex said, not following suit with the voice-dropping. TJ sighed and made a calming gesture.
“I’m just being asked to courier for someone important. One of those names on there wants to pull a file, I won’t tell you which.”
Alex pulled out the packet and flipped through the files. “TJ these are all awful people. This list is going to Ahn-Aru this afternoon and she’s going to kill them all, which will save thousands of lives. She’ll be furious if she finds names were withheld. These people need to die.”
TJ held firm. “This is for the good of Creation. There is an alternative being cooked up, no one will be the wiser. Please.”
Alex seemed hesitant for quite a while longer, but finally relented. “Okay, what’s the name?”
TJ could see some of the file names upside down but couldn’t make a good decision. “Let me see, I want to be sure.”
Alex gingerly passed the packet over to TJ, who flipped through the files with an affectation of total indifference. Each of these files, however, was more horrifying than the last, making TJ doubt the validity of this strategy. Finally he had an insight.
“Got it,” he said, holding up a file and handing the packet back to Alex. “I owe you for this,” he said warmly and turned to walk away.
“I’ll remember that,” Alex said seriously, and turned to continue.
TJ pulled out the second file he had concealed inside the first one. Now to decide which of these names to recruit, and which to test the team against.
The Temple of Anisatsis was once a mighty place where people venerated Anisatsis, the local river goddess who was mother to the kings of the land, but as the Great Contagion had decimated both the kings and the people, it was now an abandoned place. At least it was supposed to look that way. Actually the headquarters of the Convention of Wood, it was a bustling secret hive of Gold Faction activity. TJ wasn’t here to meet with the Gold Faction directly though, especially not after word of last night got around. He needed their help, but he planned to get it indirectly.
Entering a sanctum room and politely removing his shoes and sitting on his shins, TJ waited for the appearance of Anisatsis. It wasn’t long before she appeared before him, beautiful and buxom, with silver and blue eyes that stared into his soul.
“I will hear the words of Trajan Justinian Severus,” the goddess spoke gently but with a certain reserved quality. TJ expected no less.
“I have come for your counsel, Anisatsis. I have been charged with a mission that none in all of Heaven may hear about who have not already heard it, but I hear tell that you have never left your temple in all your millennia of existence.”
“This is true,” Anisatsis said mildly. “If you desire my discretion and my counsel, I am disposed to hear your words, and word of your mission shall not reach Heaven.”
“I have been tasked with assembling a group that includes Solars,” TJ said, pulling out the files. Hoping she wouldn’t recognize or report the STFC stamp across the top, he placed them on the floor before himself. “One of these Solars may be added to the team, but the other must die. I would crave the advice of the Gold Faction Sidereals but they are of Heaven. Yet you have their ear and their trust, I hope that your insight would be beneficial to me, as borrowing their wisdom through you.”
Anisatsis nodded, “You are a wise man, Trajan Justinian Severus. I shall examine these files.”
TJ waited patiently as she read each dossier. After considering for a while she threw one back to him: “This man should be added to your team.” With another gesture she threw the other file back. “This man shall die.”
TJ picked up the first of the files: the warlord Ah Nold. As he stared, Anisatsis explained her reasoning.
“He is a mighty hero and very bloodthirsty, but he wishes to prove himself in battle. The Dragon-Blooded offer him little challenge, and he wishes to grow. This is a useful mentality, as you can offer him ever-greater challenges, and Creations’s safety will depend on his success. Also, I remember the Solar God-Kings of old. This one is much closer to resembling them in their youth: arrogant and powerful but not yet bending to childish thought. If you can guide him to a better spiritual path, it will mean hope for all other Solars, that they can avoid the mistakes of the past. The other Solar has given in to greed, which is a much harder disease to cure. He must die.”
TJ nodded and took it in. “I am grateful to drink from the cup of your wisdom. I am worried though. He will be difficult to tempt if he seeks to defeat all who stand before him.”
Anisatsis smiled. “If none in Heaven may know of this mission, I can still call on my brethren, a lieutenant of the Terrestrial Court of the East and a prominent Gold Faction member, for aid. She can assist you.
”TJ frowned slightly. “Who might that be? Will she be helpful?”
Anisatsis nodded. “She is a lesser elemental dragon of fire, and more than a match for any young Solar, even one as powerful as this.”
TJ bowed in reverence. “Please make it so, and the Gold Faction will benefit greatly.” Anisatsis nodded and disappeared again, while TJ put on his shoes and walked out the room and back towards Heaven.
Once back in Yu-Shan, Justinian dropped the act and stared at the file again. A horrifically daunting task, and he just had to hope it would pay off.
“Okay,” he said to himself, mostly to break out of his worry-mode. “Now to the Loom of Fate to get the timing right on recruiting Welkin, and then we’re in business.”