Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The Moon Emperor pushed the scroll towards Rén, gesturing for him to read it. 'It is addressed to you.' Hesitating, Rén took it. The Moon Emperor continued speaking as he unclasped and rolled open the scroll. 'It seems to be an invitation of sorts--to what sort of gathering, it is impossible to say ... but perhaps you may be able to shed some light on it?'
Rén stared down at the letter. Although the outside was feathery and soft, the paper was red and glossy on the inside, flashy vertical stripes in yellow and green bordering the edges. It looked like a circus tent. The typefont itself would have made Yesim squirm with discomfort; blocky letters clustered together on the page. They read:
Greetings, Bàn Rén.
YOU ARE INVITED
To the Annual Signet Symphonia, an Event of Great Importance
Organised under our Most Accomplished High Order,
Where we shall compose the next part of Melchizedek's Symphony
Among other things.
In three days
At the Blue Gates in Northern Tiangyedan,
Next to the flower shop.
Although this is an invitation, you are urged to remember
That the Signet Symphonia does not extend invitations to Simply Anyone.
If you are so Fortunate as to have received this,
Kindly leave your Letter of Acceptance on your windowsill.
Our Resident Fire Dog, Mr Bhool, will collect it tonight.
His Most-Esteemed Personage,
Below that, in small, curling gold font were the words:
We will present to you an offer you cannot refuse.
Rén placed the letter flat on the table. He stared at it in silence, trying to find the right words to say. The room was quiet but for the sound of their breathing, and the clinking of china as the Moon Emperor poured himself tea. 'This letter ... came from the marble?' he asked, eventually.
'Marble?' The Moon Emperor's eyebrows flicked upwards. 'This is the letter the Fire Dog was carrying... It arrived in the form of a marble?'
'How ... odd. And you were carrying it for a while?' Rén nodded again and the Moon Emperor sighed. 'What a roundabout method of delivery! That's not usually how it's done, as far as I know. But the contents'--the Moon Emperor reached for the letter again--'are just as odd, so I suppose it doesn't really matter. Have you heard of this "Signet" before, on your travels? The Warhorse General has told me you were part of a circus troupe for some time.'
Rén started. 'His Majesty knows General Yume?' he blurted, ears turning red as he realised what a stupid question that was--obviously the emperor of the country would know. 'I--yes, I was. Part of a group of firemen, that's how I travelled up-country. But I've never heard of a ... of this Signet before. And I don't know what this letter is, aside from it being vaguely threatening...'
The Moon Emperor gave a slight chuckle. He shook back his voluminous sleeve; a heavy-looking, antique watch clung to his wrist, the dial a hovering hologram. It looked to be an older model, perhaps a decade old, the kind of watches Huā sometimes brought over to fiddle with. The time read four o'clock. Rén's head jerked abruptly towards the lone window in the room, but the shutters were down. Yesim will kill me if I'm late, he thought, chewing on his lower lip. The gathering had probably dispersed by now. The print offices would be at work, compiling the news--the news. Rén's eyes widened. Shit--once he finds out about today, he'll definitely kill me.
The emperor, however, was surprisingly unperturbed. It was as though the fire earlier that day had never even happened. 'Ah,' he said. 'Chang Mul is late.' He lowered his arm and the watch disappeared beneath a vast sea of silk. 'I thought it would be prudent to wait for him before giving you your punishment, but our guests must be keeping him busy. Speaking of which, what did you think of them?'
'I--' Rén could feel irritation clawing at his throat. I just want to get out of here. 'They were ... interesting,' he said slowly, wary of the fact that the emperor would not approve of his honest opinion on the matter. He gulped. 'Your Majesty, I don't wish to be rude, but I have questions and--'
'Ask away. There is time until Chang Mul arrives.'
Rén raked in a deep breath. 'When you say Fire Dogs, do you mean the same ones as from the children's stories?' He twisted his gloves in his hands, all his anxious thoughts tumbling out one by one. 'But what does that have to do with this letter? What--what is this letter? And I won't lose my citizenship, will I?' The scales on Rén's neck and cheeks were changing colour rapidly--from green to red to muted shades of purple dancing on his skin.
To his chagrin, the Moon Emperor merely looked amused. A wave of anger rippled through him.
'You will not lose your citizenship, half-dragon,' the Moon Emperor said. 'Convincing the council to grant a hybrid citizenship was no easy feat; it would be easiest to play the entire event off as an accident, although that will be difficult, seeing as how people distrust the idea of a legal hybrid anyway. But I would like...' The emperor leaned forward slightly; the light from the ceiling fixtures cast his features into sudden, harsh shadow. 'To barter with you. Your reputation has become my reputation, and your punishment is to assist me in upholding mine.'
As if on cue, the door slid open. Governor Chang Mul walked in, footfalls resonating heavily on the wooden floor. He bowed to the emperor. 'Your Majesty.'
Then, inclining his head briefly towards Rén, who had stood up to greet him, the governor sat down next to the emperor. Even seated, Chang Mul was huge, the difference especially obvious due to the Moon Emperor's much-smaller frame. Rén was afraid to look up at him for fear that all he would see if he did was an astoundingly graphic view of wide hairy nostril.
'You're just in time, Chang Mul,' the Moon Emperor said, smiling broadly. 'You caught me in the process of telling Rén about the Terrabike Races.'
Governor Chang Mul's eyebrows rocketed into his hairline. 'You are still adamant about this?' he asked. Rén was surprised he addressed the emperor so informally--but then again, he was his Caesar. 'I would advise'--Chang Mul glanced askance at Rén, his eyes cold--'against it. This child cannot uphold his own honour, let alone the both of yours combined. But if you insist...' He bowed his head. 'I suppose there is nothing else for me to say.'
'Uh.' Rén shifted awkwardly. 'Terrabike Races?'
'Chang Mul, would you do the honours of explaining to our young guest what the Terrabike Races are?' The Moon Emperor steepled his fingers, leaning back and looking at his Caesar in expectation.
'I--oh, very well.' Chang Mul poured himself some tea and took a sip, grimacing. 'It's cold. Anyway.' He looked at Rén, his forehead creasing as he spoke. 'The Terrabike Races are an old tradition--when I say 'old' I mean some hundred years back, although initially it was started as a pilot project to ... encourage people to come up with better, faster prototypes for travel. At least, that's what the Sun Emperor told people, but for all intents and purposes, the Terrabike Races were originally an attempt to develop a spy network across the Greater Kingdom. You probably haven't heard of it?'
Rén shook his head. 'I don't know much history,' he admitted. 'I know about Keiyan and what General Yume and my master taught me about Maghfi but aside from that...'
'Ah,' Chang Mul said tonelessly, picking at the tassel on his court hat. 'Unsurprising. But if you were to ask someone from the Northern Kingdom, they would be able to tell you about it. When the Sun Dynasty first came in power, the emperor's youngest son suggested he keep a sort of grand vizier. One who would head this spy network and work with creatures from the Other Realm: the fire dogs, Chollima, the koi in the rivers and lakes ... and so on and so forth.
But there's always been a bloody history with handpicking advisors, so a competition was devised--one that would test mettle, loyalty, and other skills besides, and these were the Terrabike Races.' Chang Mul paused. 'You keeping up so far?'
'I think so,' Rén said, trying to keep track of all these developments. 'But I do have ... questions.'
Chang Mul made a face, but the Moon Emperor gestured for Rén to continue. He was watching them as though they were some sort of amusement, or a very interesting specimen of plant being pounded into poultice.
'Was his emperor's Caesar selected through the Terrabike Races, too, after the war? Why isn't this common knowledge? Or was there a gap in-between--does that make you an interim Caesar?' Rén chewed on his lower lip.
The Moon Emperor sat up straighter. Rén didn't know if he imagined it--he probably did--but for a fraction of a second he thought he saw something akin to fearin the emperor's eyes.
'Too many questions,' Chang Mul said shortly. 'Yes, there was a period where the Terrabike Races were not taking place, and the very idea is a new one in this country. Anything else?'
Everything is new in this country, Rén wanted to say, but he bit down on his tongue instead. 'When you say Other Realm...?'
Chang Mul sighed. 'The Shadow World. The realm that lies in parallel to ours--or as your generation likes to call it'--General Chang Mul snorted--' magic. Myself being the Caesar, my job is to keep track of all that goes on in that world. That Fire Dog you saw today was a loose cannon, and we are currently trying to trace it to its source.' Chang Mul's gaze dropped to the Signet's letter. 'This invitation will aid us tremendously in the process, and so will you.' The General's gaze flickered back towards Rén. 'You must reply in the affirmative to this invitation and report back to us, so we can take action.'
'In addition,' the Moon Emperor said, 'you will also be joining the Races this year, as Tiangyedan's representative.' He took a small box out of the depths of his sleeves; it was the colour of sand. The Moon Emperor opened it. Inside was a small card with silver chain, a key, and an ID chip.
'You may continue working your regular job, but you will be given temporary accommodation near the Inner City and expected to show up for lessons on history, politics and rhetoric, as well as general lessons on how to operate and ride a terrabike. You must understand'--the Moon Emperor tossed his braids behind his shoulder, his thick eyebrows seeming to bristle with static--'you have little to no choice here. Your reputation--no, your very survival rests on your obedience to the kingdom.' The emperor's gaze softened. 'Ayinah Yume has been filled with nothing but praises for you, Rén. I trust in her judgement, and I trust that you shall trust in mine.'
Rén's mouth was dry. This is ridiculous, he wanted to say. An Other Realm doesn't exist. It's all a stupid fairy tale. 'Why?' he said instead, his voice quavering slightly. He felt angry. 'I've never ridden a terrabike in my life. What would the kingdom be gaining from making me the capital's representative?' What would I be gaining? The question hung like an anvil over Rén's mind. Temporary accommodation? The chance to learn, to get lessons on subjects he had always held a curious inclination towards, but never the resources?
This is blackmail, he thought. He clenched his fists. His scales turned a deep scarlet. 'Just--why?' he rasped, the word sticking to his tongue like soot.
'Have you heard the phrase: Fire Dogs will follow the Qilin?' the Moon Emperor asked. 'No? Well, half dragon, it seems that you are our Qilin. I will be frank with you.' He gestured for something to write with and Chang Mul stood up, exiting the room in a few, quick strides. 'If what happened today did not happen, I would not be sitting here having this conversation with you. The reason you remain so very ignorant of the Terrabike Races is because no such official contest has been declared. We are planning on making the announcement at the end of this year, when the current Caesar's four year tenure reaches its close. It is--how would you put it? A Jehya play, with a pre-decided ending. You will become the Caesar. You will gain the people's favour.'
'A set-up,' Rén breathed.
'Indeed. Although that is a crude way of putting it.'
Chang Mul returned, writing utensils and ink pot balanced on a wound-up scroll. Outside, Rén could hear the sound of rain. Chang Mul quickly drew up a contract. Rén inhaled deeply, the scent of cinnamon, paper, ink ... luxury. The room felt like a conclave, the inside of a shell, completely sealed away from all the petty miseries of the rest of the world. He thought of the letter the Water Quail had sent him, the letter he had left fluttering at his window that morning. His heart clenched in his chest.
Quietly, Rén quietly signed the agreement.
He pocketed the box the emperor handed him, and then he left. An Imperial Servant would show him to the door.
Once Rén was gone, Chang Mul turned to the Moon Emperor. 'You trust that he will be our link to the Shadow World?'
The emperor nodded, his jaw set. 'He will be.'
The sound of something crashing on the upper levels. A clatter, a bang, yells so loud that they punctured even the still air in the emperor's tearoom. Chang Mul got to his feet, gripping tightly onto the pommel of his sword. The ceiling shook under the heavy footfalls from above. A loud, piercing scream tore through the air. The emperor's eyes widened.
'Whore!' someone yelled. 'Albino scum!'
Alarmed, the Moon Emperor rushed to the door.