Exalted South: Crimson Sands
Six Seeds in Shadow
Summary: A guest pays a visit to Mongoose at the Teahouse of the Pomegranate Moon.
Instead of a bell to signal that visitors have entered the Teahouse of the Pomegranate Moon, there is a raiton that stands vigil and cries out when someone steps across the threshold. She was a gift from the Crowfather when I was very young. At the time I thought it a splendid, kind gesture from a benevolent old spirit. Now, I understand that it was simply all a part of his rivalry with Grandmother Bright as he competed with her for my affections.
It is two hours before dusk and the raiton is calling. I tell Teamaster Thanest to prepare the special tea, the one with six seeds, because it will be one of the few comforts left to any mortal visitors who remain trapped here when night comes.
In my doorway stands a terrified Delzahn noble of perhaps forty years, resplendent in fine silks. Fear spills from him like blood from an open wound, attracting the wrong kind of attention from other patrons who turn his way. I feel little sympathy toward him.
The sinners are always the ones who are most afraid, for they know what sort of evil transpires in darkness.
Following behind him is a creature who wears the visage of death itself. She is one of the Sisters. Few know the identify of those hidden behind the dark cloaks and snarling jackal masks, but I know the faces of each and every one. I was once numbered among them.
And her… I know Crescent Claw best of all. I would know her even if she were not wielding her moonsilver scythe. I would know her by the way she moved, catlike and elegant, and in the way all the teahouse strays wind around her ankles. I, too, have wound myself around her body in similar adoration.
She stands there silent and expectant, saying nothing. Like her father, she prefers to say little. It is her actions that speak the loudest. As Captain, she could have sent any of the other Sisters to be this man’s escort. Yet she came herself, and I know it is to see me.
“How may I serve you?” I direct my question to the man, distracting myself from the warmth across my cheeks. I know the color must be staining my face like bloodstains, and once again I wish I had the darker skin of other Delzahn.
It is but one of the many ways my father’s heritage has left me cursed and outcast.
“Grandmother Bright says you can help me.” He licks his lips nervously, eyes darting around like a prey animal. His instincts are correct. Here, the living are the hunted. “Please.”
“The Teahouse of the Pomegranate Moon offers many services,” I assure him. “For a price.” That is first the lesson Grandmother Bright had taught me. Everything and anything worth having comes at a cost. Favors were not a kindness. Anyone who offered you something for free was a grinning liar and the wares they peddled were cheap and given too easily to be of any value.
“I’ll pay it,” he begs, and the whispers that creep in during twilight laugh.
Crescent Claw follows as I lead him to a private room in the back. She leans against the doorway, her scythe barring any escape as my guest and I sit down to meticulously prepared tea. His hands shake on the cup as he tells me his story.
“I didn’t mean for it to happen,” he starts, and I smile patiently. They never mean for it to happen. “I just wanted what was best for my family. I didn’t think my sister was going be the best for it. It was only because she was born first that she was going to inherit it all, she never worked hard like me-”
“Did you mean to kill her,” I interrupt. “Or was it an accident?”
This is a story that I have heard too many times. I understand now why Grandmother Bright must have involved herself. Though she was no longer Bright Sanguine Saber, betrayal always attracted her attention. From the doorway, Crescent Claw snorts and shakes her head.
“I didn’t mean to,” he whispers helplessly.
“What trouble has she caused you since?” The tea refills itself in his cup, he sets it down and begins to look overwhelmed.
“None of the newborns have survived,” he says, growing hysterical. Tea now abandoned, he begins to pull at his dark, finely groomed hair. “They all die shortly after being born. It’s as if we are cursed-”
“You are cursed,” I agree.
“- and I need your help. My wife is beside herself. I don’t want to bury any more children. I’ll do anything.”
“The price you need to pay is not to me.” Though Grandmother Bright has taught me about the power and importance of vengeance and justice, my heart cannot help but ache for the innocent little ones. Children should not have to pay for the crimes of their parents. “But you already know that, don’t you? That’s why you are here. To speak to her.”
“Yes.” Even with all the blood drained from his face from fear, he still looks more alive than me. “How can I?”
“It’s very simple, really.” I gesture to the third cup at the table. “She’s already here. She’s been here since you stepped foot into the Shadowland.”
She materializes with the gaping slash still across her throat that he’d given to her, long dark hair billowing around her in tendrils that reach greedily toward him.
“I’m sorry!” he screams, and the throws himself to the ground, pleading and prostrating himself before her. She watches it all with a little twist at the corners of her lips that I have seen on Grandmother Bright’s face when she recounts tales of the past.
“You murdered me and made my only daughter a servant in your home,” she accuses. “Why should I forgive you? Why should you be allowed happiness when you have stolen mine?”
“Please!” He is sobbing now. “I’ll do anything. Anything, if you make it stop!”
There it is again, the promise that Grandmother Bright warned me never to make. Anything. It is too dangerous. There is nothing anyone can give that worth that.
“You will name my daughter heir.” She is looming over him now, an imposing figure even in death. Even as he weeps onto the floor I can see his face twist in resentment. I am certain now that when he killed her it was a very deliberate, cowardly act. He meant it, and he would do it again if there was no consequence. “You will admit your crime and submit yourself to the mercy of the Kha-Kahn and I will rescind my curse from your wife.”
“That will most likely result in my death!” He sits up, furious. “What kind of deal is that?”
But the ghost only smiles again, the same fierce, merciless smile as before. “You did not ask for your life,” she reminds him. “Only the lives of your unborn children. May I remind you that your son is due any day now?”
My breath catches. Crescent Claw grips her scythe tighter. If he chooses his own life over his child’s, I am not certain which of us will kill him first. She’d do it simply to keep me from being the one to bloody my hands, like she did the last time we fought together. I still remember her claws, stained crimson beneath the moonlight. I have not been able to bear joining my Sisters’ patrols again since.
“I agree,” he says, defeated, after a long pause. But I see his lips tighten and how his downcast eyes are already calculating how to escape his promise. His sister’s ghost knows this too, and looks to me.
This is also why I am needed here and not out with my Sisters.
“Shake and swear to it,” I say, and he reaches out a hand to grasp hers, thinking it only a formality.
The dark skittering of long forgotten runes bleeding in the air and the whispers of Oblivion as their promise is sealed for all eternity is what makes him finally pass out. I see his sister’s delight when a stain spreads across his pants, he has pissed himself from fear.
“Are you satisfied?” I ask her. All I can think about are the children and the wife that have paid for one man’s crimes.
For a moment she looks at her brother and her eyes burn. Vengeance is an all consuming thing, I have learned, and will eat and eat until there is nothing left.
But then she looks at me, nods. There is a part of her left that remembers how to forgive.
“I am,” she says. “He will find justice as the hands of the Deliberative or Oblivion, and that is all I want.”
Crescent Claw gathers up the man into her arms and turns to go before night traps him here. I attempt to follow her out when the ghost touches my arm, stilling me.
“You are so much like your father… silver-tongued and all smiles,” she says, and for a moment I feel sick. But then she taps me on the chest and continues, “Except here. Here, you are different.”
And then she is gone.
When I finally compose myself enough to leave the room, Crescent Claw is waiting for me at the doorway of the teahouse, still holding her unconscious burden. She is not the sort to give goodbye kisses or tender words, so I am surprised when she beckons me close to lay a hand upon my shoulder, and even more surprised when she actually speaks.
“When are you going to hunt the night with me again?”
No sweeter, more tempting words have ever been said to me, most especially because they come from her. But I cannot. Not when I am still needed here, and the shadow of the Deliberative in the city feels more oppressive to me than anything found in the Underworld.
“Soon,” I promise. “Soon. But not yet.”
As I watch her walk away I realize she has never asked me to seal that promise. I wonder if it’s because she believes it without question, or if she simply doesn’t want to watch me break it.