They gathered on the observatory, Jehanjir taking turns showing each arrival one by one, the haze around Korana, and extending outward around her like spiral scarves in a twirling dance. At her crowns were barely visible the silvery blue and green beads of her aurora, shrouded, as they were, by the black. Indeed, the strands were blacker than black. Since Korana was known for her soft beige glow, and the sparkling sands and bright blue sees, any who knew her at all were startled. In another corner the Summoner was explaining that even the powerful spirits of the space deep, were trembling in terror at what this could mean.
A scattering of people of different professions, though hardly representative.
There were first a mass of merchants and captains, clustered around the astrologer, trying hard to look as if they understood his explanations. They were in pantaloons, boots, light jerkins, or light armor. They were all brutally clean, or rank of many days of voyaging. Sleekly shaven, or with scurry beards.
The second cluster were priests and priestesses, of deities both minor and local up to a representative of the grand hierophants. They were in long robes, sometimes cinched close around chest or waist, but often left flowing. It was clear that they had a wide variety of circumstances. Some were emaciated from fasting and poverty, others were replete with rolls of copious fat, and given to shining ornaments.
The third cluster were of diverse costumes, but clearly all were of foreign missions of various worlds, including, it might be added, one whose home city was on Korana. He was not of any particular high rank, but was the best that could be found. The missions and heralds were either in the uniform of office, or, in many cases, merely their native costume. Some clearly had had more time to groom than others, and were decked with signs of office.
The fourth cluster were clearly those of arms, mostly hackbut and swordsmen, and swords women, to a few captains on horse, and one massive man who towered above all others, with a barrel sized maul on his shoulder. It seemed to be made of almost solid stone. All were in shape, and they varied from young to old according to their experience. While many had individual adornments of great price, all were as practically dressed as could be imagined, with breastplates, or chain, or leather boiled in wax, or other forms of self-protection. Many had full metal helms that ran across their back, and several clearly were habitues of heavy plate when fighting in close pike ranks.
The last cluster, and smallest, were seven mages. Not all of the magicks were represented, and almost all were older men. The local university did not permit women to teach, and most were from there. Jehanjir was expecting a later arrival who would help balance the lot. Mages were all in traditional black academic robes, and most were wearing the mortarboard and tassel of academic life. The clusters broke down at times but almost always reformed.
After an hour of chatter and milling around, one man, a heavy-set man, replete with the prosperity of this world and the poverty of the next, stood up on the day bed and banged his gavel into a gong his servant below him held. He was in rich and lustrous brown silks and velvets from head to toe, with high boots that cuffed half way up his legs. Rich rope braids of office were on both shoulders, as he was both Lord High Mayor, and Admiral of the Fleet. His name was Bartine, Lord High Mayor Admiral Bartine dun Aberwon. He affected an oiled beard and mustache, in a style he liked to imagine was as sophisticated as those on Korana, where men were known to take great care in their appearance. Instead, it looked as if it were carved of something and screwed to his lip.
“Greetings all, greetings all! We have come here and the kind and generous invitation of the Master Astrologer, Jehanjir al-Akbar, and I first must thank him for his munificence and bounty.”
There was a general coughing, and some shuffling. The mayor had expected more of a response. But he plunged forward.
“I do not understand all of the nature of their woeful tidings, but it is clear that this is a disastrous event, even as it is, marked by no comet to underline the portenticity of the event.”
This got little attention.
“Let me remind all that trade is the life blood of worlds, and I do not see a man or woman here dress only in homespun and local leather. We are all involved in anything that might disrupt trade.”
There was some nodding about this from the contingent of merchant captains. There were board looks from some, but not many, because one thing all these professions had in common was regular dosing in turgidity.
“As I understand our illustrious hosts, it falls to us to mount an expedition, and report back with whatever knowledge we can glean.”
“Will there be a reward? Who is backing this?” This from one of the merchants.
Another cried out. “Better to form a joint stock company and send grab all the ships that can make it. The markup will be truly remarkable. Miraculous.” At this there was some general nodding.
“What say you, astrologer?”
“This is the fate of worlds, and you think to make one last run for profit?”
“And why not? According to your own numbers Korana will have to head out, we can jump, catch, have days to pack up with whatever can be gotten cash, or paid to escape, and be back out. I think if it is as bad as you say, then many would be willing to pay handsomely. We'd be in position in a bit over a week, and so could equip quite a squadron.”
The astrologer, used to centuries of decrepitude was shocked at the force of his own voice.
“I will not have my home turned into the trading floor of Al-huran, or Wood Street. You can do this if you wish, but you will have no help from me.”
At this point, the Mayor, who despite his fumbling exterior, was no fool, broke in.
“Jehanjir, no one is turning this into a trading floor. But how can we, a poor world, bear the cost of this alone? And a profit will give all an encouragement to get out. From time out of mind, merchants have been spies for others, making and taking a profit, but doing good for god and goddess. Why not now? Your expedition would be a naked one. A ruse, a pretense at least, of other motives, would certainly go far to deflect any unwelcome attentions. You admit they are there yourself. And what better lie than the truth.”
The honey tongue was beckoning to him, Jehanjir stopped.
The mayor continued: “Why not hide one ship among several? Where is the best place to hide a key?” The mayor pointed at the astrologer's own key.
At this Jehanjir chuckled.
“You almost had me, your gracious lord mayor. I was leaning into your words. Truly I must confess, I had underestimated your abilities. But the key was wrong. The best place to hide a key, is to have it in your head alone. Go in peace, anyone who wishes to take this expedition for trade and profit, but stay those who would seek the excellence of a quest to save the goddess Korana.”
There was mumbling and more than half the crowd marched out. The huge warrior looked back and forth, trying to decide, but finally he gave a low but sheepish bow, and trailed out behind the others. The mayor left lest, with several bows and abject apologies.
Of those who were left, religious figures and mages were now far more represented. Not one warrior remained, and only a few captains. Finally one man, with a rounded face and stern features, a bit weathered, but still not by any means old, looked up, he'd been cleaning his nails wit the point of a dirk, and seemed oblivious to the carry on. He slipped his dirk back in his boot.
“I am the man to take this expedition out. T'is good riddance to the mob, because most have done little but leap from a world, and wait to be swept up by the next, plying only such ether wind as they need for stability or correction. That is not what is needed. The admiral, who you under-estimated, you under-estimate again. He's among a small and select group that have commanded squadrons in battle. Bartine has lost the three battles he has led, but he has been in them, and could pilot a cast of a dozen to Korana, even on these evil tides. However, he's the only one they have.”
“Who are you? None of us recognize you.” It was a lithe and tiny woman with features that marked her as from Tianxian. She was dressed in nearly sheer silks of bright reds, scarlets, yellows, oranges and whites, that layer upon layer gave only the suggestion of her tiny body. But it was a rather heavy suggestion of how they clung to her breasts, and slithered around her hips. She was almost the shortest person there, but her gravity and utterly unlined serenity of mien gave her a height in the eyes of those who looked upon her.
“I'm Captain Niccolo. No last name, given or asked for.”
“Well Captain Niccolo, I have heard many boasts from many men. How are we to measure your instrument while it is so keenly sheathed.”
There was some nodding among the four Captains left, and one or two stifled giggles, but then the astrologer looked over at his table and glanced among the horoscopes that remained. He nodded, but said nothing.
One of the other captains looked at him.
“Come now, tell us what you see. I am all for glory beyond glory and undying honor, but not if I am not the right man.”
“Oh I think you are the right man, but not for this. We will need to raise the defenses here, and the Admiral seems to be tilted towards the offense.” He picked up a sheet of aged parchment and held it between to fingers. “I see leadership here, and in abundance, the trines are powerful, in it, but not for the voyage. Would you Captain Blackmore, become the Admiral here? That is how I wold vote.”
The captain, hugely broad-shouldered and barrel chested, with a shock of black hair on his head and black curly hair on his chest, smirked. “I imagine that the other captains would have something to say about that.”
“Oh I imagine they will not be so proud so soon. Will you do it? I will write to some key people, and you will have summoned to your disposal, ” here he cast a sidelong glance at the Summoner, “aid of an indispensable nature.”
With a gentle lilt, the Summoner smiled. “Ah its been ages since I've had a chance to relax in the backwaters of human court intrigue. Come with me Captain Blackmore, I think we have plans to lay.” With this he placed a friendly arm around the soon to be Admiral's shoulder, and began walking to a corner of the observatory, where he unrolled a map and began making pointed gestures too and fro.
“I would suggest that you, my honorable captains, are best suited for the plans that are being made over there, Niccolo is the man for this season.”
“You are in command here, Astrologer.” Which Niccolo made a hasty decision.
At which point the astrologer“It was I who saw and see the danger, and I do not believe that others do. And you are.”
“A princess of the Empire, daughter of the holder of the Mandate of Heaven, and sorceress of the Forbidden Palace. Call me: your highness.”
The astrologer made an elaborate bow, but did not kowtow as was the custom in the Empire of the Jade Throne from which she came. She raised an eyebrow, but accepted that this was as much protocol as she was going to receive. She knew that he, coming from Korana, knew equally elaborate forms of personal debasement before leaders, but he seemed to have forgotten them.
“Princess the mandate of heaven is not upon any of us. And I would wish you give your name.” He pointed to where Korana should have been showing brightly in the sky, but instead was a barely visible black blotch.
“Very well then, you may refer to me as Highness Si-yeona. So you declare that it is on you?”
“Thank you Princess Si-yeona, Do you pretend to read the heavens better than I?”
She stopped, thinking carefully.
“I am here because I was asked, not commanded.”
“And it is I who select who to bestow my knowledge on. I choose Niccolo, but of the rest of the crew, I will leave that to others, though I would offer advice if asked.”
“And what would be your advice?”
“That two of the members I would advise are not here.”
Just at this moment a clamor broke out from far below, and everyone went to the rail to look down.
What became evident from a glance downward, was that the Mayor and others had not gone very far, and had clustered together at the foot of the tower. The astrologer swung a small telescope downward, and observed the goings on, while others merely watched. After viewing quickly, Jehanjir began walking down the spiral stair, to deal with what appeared to be a disturbance.