Come back to stay
"I'm not," Isaac replied. The two cataphracts moved slightly closer together - still at their posts but near enough that they could talk quietly. Not that there was anyone around to hear them.
"How come? You can't deny that she inspired people, left a legacy, delivered salvation by bringing people into the Empire. Uh. You know, things like that?"
"Demonstrated her benevolence by securing the well-being of the Empire as a whole?"
"Yeah, that kind of thing. Lived a miraculously long time?"
"You're pushing it there Malachai. Anyway you only need four for an exemplar and I think you'd struggle to convince people she's a paragon. Well, a paragon of anything nice."
"Nice isn't a virtue," said Malachai automatically. Isaac rolled his eyes.
"Point to you," he said. The two had been playing this game for weeks, when there was nobody else around.
"So why not make her an exemplar then?"
"The way I see it there's two reasons. One political and one not."
"Go on," Malachai yawned widely, then shook himself and straightened up properly. It had been a long shift.
"First off, where do you stop? You look at the Thrones and they're all pretty inspiring in their own way. Sort of. They leave legacies, they improve the Empire, that kind of thing. Where'd you draw the line?"
"Nicovar?" said Malachai. "Can't see anyone recognising his virtue."
"You say that... but the history books say he was popular at the start and I'd bet you a crown that someone in the Vigilance or Wisdom assemblies could make an argument for him."
"Or Courage," mused Malachai. "You can't argue that he did what he thought was right. Even if he was crazy as a box of frogs."
Isaac refused to be sidetracked by his friend.
"Either way, before you know it all your Thrones are recognised. Then it becomes weird not to recognise them. Then you're stuck because it it's seen as automatic, and you start wondering why you need the Synod to recognise their virtue given they're going to be exemplars anyway. You end up like one of those mad places that makes all their dead kings into gods. It's not a good road to go down. Never mind all the questions it raises about who actually does the virtuous stuff the Thrones get the recognition for."
"Fair," said Malachai. "What was the other one?"
"Oh. The virtue problem. Which virtue do you think she was an exemplar of?"
"Ambition maybe - she was pretty driven. Prosperity? No, Vigilance. She was definitely vigilant, One of those. Maybe Pride. Or Courage, given she was fearless."
"Yeah you see the problem. What if you got it wrong? What in the Synod declared her an exemplar of a virtue and she didn't agree with them. Do you reckon she'd take that lying down?"
"No, no. You make a good point. A very good point."
Isaac chuckled under his breath and shifted back to his side of the great iron-bound door. He glanced up at the inscription, as he had done hundreds of times before.
ASLEEP AT LAST.Hopefully.
Zenith has fallen to the Druj. This would be bad enough news if it was any Imperial territory, and any orc nation, of course... but there is something different about Zenith. Historians, cynics, and scaremongers alike all point out that Zenith was the first of the four territories added to the Empire by the Iron Empress - by Varkula. People who maybe should know better remind everyone of the stories about what happened when Holberg and Skarsind fell to the orcs - of the reports of loud noises from within the tomb. A recent piece of historical research relating to the burial rites used when she was interred in the Necropolis has begun to circulate at the request of Lord Armand Remys of House Remys. Interesting as it is, it cannot help but stoke concerns among the credulous, the superstitious, and the guilty.
The story claims that there are three doors in the tomb, and that two of them are now open. A third territory claimed by the Carrion Queen has been lost to the barbarians. Even though Holberg and Skarsind have been liberated there are people who expect that last door to open any day now and ... something ... to emerge into the light of day. Something angry. As these doomsayers point out, nobody reported the sounds of any doors closing when the fourth city and the northernmost territory became part of the Empire again. Indeed, a few Varushkans darkly suggest that it is entirely possible, were she around today, that the Throne they call the Winterborn might not believe Skarsind was truly in Imperial hands at all...
Either way, in the weeks leading up to the Spring Equinox, certain signs begin to manifest that may lend credence to those people proclaiming the imminent return of the Undying.
Dreams of Ice
The dreams started in the last few weeks. Nobody agrees on precisely when, but by the start of the summit it is pretty clear that people sleeping within the borders of Casinea are experiencing a dream - a nightmare? - that is not of their own mind’s making. It does not happen to everyone, and it does not happen every night. There is some anecdotal evidence that folk with the draughir lineage, people from Varushka, and priests dedicated to Vigilance seem to experience the dreams slightly more often than other people but that could just be a coincidence or an assumption being repeated as fact.
The details of the dreams differ, but the details are not important: the broad sweep is the same in each case. The dream begins with a scene of desolation. The dreamer is faced by a tall and powerful woman, unfamiliar, a dark presence that calls the eye to witness, the ear to hear, the mind to remember. She wears a crown of black ice, and her eyes are the colour of polished amber. And when she curls her lip in disgust at what she sees, she has vicious pointed teeth like those of a wolf.
The coldly restrained fury of her voice is entirely pitiless. The words she speaks - again, the precise details differ - are a litany of failure, of idiocy, of weakness. They speak of the Empire, of Human Destiny - and of how it has been betrayed in the current generation. How dare those who claim to champion the Empire be so weak and foolish as to fail to defend her legacy? How dare they allow the jewel that is Zenith to slip through their fingers? The dreamer always awakens before they can answer, and for an hour after they wake they find themselves confused and weakened in body and spirit.
The source of the dreams - assuming they have a source - is unknown at this time. To some though (primarily in Urizen), the message is clear - the conquest of Zenith is so terrible a crime that it has called Empress Varkula back from beyond the grave. Unless steps are taken immediately to reclaim the lost Urizen territory, the Iron Dowager is certain to return and take vengeance on those who have besmirched her legacy one time too many.
Any character who wishes to may roleplay that they have experienced this dream at any point over the course of the summit. Anyone who does so experiences a roleplaying effect: You feel an urge to confront and berate those you consider responsible for the loss of Zenith. While experiencing this roleplaying effect, you can choose to respond to anything that would cause you to remain calm, or restrain your urge to act, by becoming angry as if this were a source of spiritual strength.
The one exception is any character with the cambion lineage. If you experience this dream, instead of the effect outlined above you may choose to become obdurate, stubborn, and even angry that a dead Throne is attempting to influence your actions. You experience a different roleplaying effect: You feel an urge to oppose the apparent wishes of Empress Varkula by any means. Those who support her agenda are bullies and tyrants. If you have the hero skill, you have an additional hero point for the duration of the event, as long as you choose to continue with this roleplaying effect.
The Haunted Senate
Starting two nights before the Spring Equinox, the civil servants and labourers preparing the Senate for the coming summit began to report strange feelings of suspicion and even paranoia. A powerful sense that there is something unwholesome afoot that must be challenged.
Some reported a feeling of being watched, especially when they were alone in the building and at night. They began to suspect that there was a conspiracy afoot - and in one extreme case that people were actively lying to them. The effect seems to cover the entire interior of the Senate - not only the floor but also the viewing gallery - but stops immediately at the door. Preparations for the summit have been disrupted on two occasions by loud altercations between workers.
It is not clear who first suggested it, but there is a growing swell of opinion that the Senate has become haunted by the ghost of Empress Varkula. Some of the workers claim that the closer one comes to the throne, the more pronounced the feelings of being watched and judged become. More sceptical citizens who have visited the Senate claim the effect is simply an aura of some sort - although they are at a loss to explain how the aura has manifested or what it might mean. Most of these sceptics dismiss the idea that it is anything to do with Empress Varkula. Such a thing is impossible.
It is probably nothing but... in the interests of completeness...
There is a small house of Freeborn in Necropolis called the House of Quills. They are an interesting footnote in the annals of history, but one with a connection to the Throne whose name is on so many lips at the moment. Scriveners and lawyers, the House makes a modest income offering services primarily to Freeborn pilgrims visiting the tombs. A family concern, the i Tamazir i Riqueza are a small insular offshoot most of whose relatives still live in Madruga.
Their only real claim to fame is that they are experts in the preparations of wills, and other legal documents related to death. Indeed, it was an i Tamazar I Riqueza who served as executor for the will of Empress Varkula. Who oversaw the distribution of her legacies, and ensured that she was interred with the grave goods she requested be placed in her tomb alongside her body. She is, without a doubt, their most famous client. Perhaps their only famous client. Most people could not pick the i Tamazar i Riqueza out of a crowd, except perhaps to note that they are Freeborn, albeit with clothes of a surprisingly severe cut and sombre hue for people of the Brass Coast.
It is pure coincidence then that one of these people spotted one of the i Tamazar i Riqueza they did recognise at the Navarr wayhouse of Myfanwy's Rest a week or so before the Spring Equinox summit. They were on their way to Anvil, apparently, but became extremely cagey about their business there. The Freeborn are normally known for their brazen openness, it should be noted.
This chance encounter would perhaps have gone unmentioned, and proved of no interest, had our traveller not reached an Anvil buzzing with the name "Varkula". The tale has been passed back and forth several times - an agent associated with a house connected to the death of the Iron Empress, on their way to Anvil? Coincidence, surely? Or perhaps there is a more simple explanation - perhaps it is just a matter of a scribe discharging their responsibilities or seeking business or...
What else could it be?
Samael walked quickly, his hood up to keep the rain out, his veil down to avoid making eye contact. The virtuous preachers, those whose sermons fitted with the tone and tenor of the Necropolis usually preached from the main plaza. But since you couldn't legally stop someone from preaching, the old Wayrain Quarter was where they sent the crazy ones. He normally took the longer route home but tonight he needed to take a short cut to get back in time to see his wife before she set off for Anvil.
"...Empress Reborn..." He caught only a few words as he pushed his way through the crowd. A tall man, Highborn by the looks, but stooped and dour with a hangdog look about him and a miserable expression was preaching to a large crowd. One of the First Empress lot presumably. He rolled his eyes - she had been caught faking history - frankly a cardinal sin. There never was any shining city. But of course that didn't stop some people believing. Facts just don't matter these days. He kept moving.
"...Tyrannical oppression... most brutal Throne ever..." This one was shorter, looked Freeborn maybe. What rubbish. The problem with this Throne was she was too bloody wishy-washy in Samael's view. From what his wife told him the Imperatrix needed to toughen up and bring Dawn and Navarr to heel, or the Empire would go the way of Zenith. Bloody typical though - he knew enough about his wife's work to know leadership was hard - you could never make a decision about anything without someone whining about it. If they thought the Empire was so bloody awful - why couldn't they just go and live somewhere else? But of course they never did...
"...The Doors of Destiny are thrown open!..." Samael laughed, mouthing "The doors of destiny" to himself. What in the virtues was that supposed to mean? He shook his head and tried to force his way past the group stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the final preacher. It was a youngish Highborn, not dressed in his best, a soldier by the looks, but quite clearly he hadn't slept, and only the rain had washed his face today. This one was on about Varkula - apparently the Dowager Empress had thrown open the doors of her tomb and now walked the land.
Never mind that his favourite Empress had been dead for over 200 years. Why let a simple fact like that get in the way? He wanted to reach out and grab this foolish youth and shake him. The point of the Iron Empress was to be inspired by her dedication to the Virtues and the Empire, to be impressed by what she achieved because she was prepared to do what was right rather than what was popular! But no, why be impressed by legacy of the Iron Empress when you could choose to be frightened that some long-dead ghost was going to come back to judge you.
Crazy - the world was going crazy. And his wife was going to Anvil - tonight! He pushed on, roughly shoving an older pilgrim and his daughter out of his way. He had to get home before she left.
At midnight, in Necropolis, scant days ago, a bell rang. Among the clamour of the chapters that keep midnight watch in the Black City most probably did not notice, or did not note it. But some did. Those who could count the bells and name each one. Those with sharp and Vigilant ears. The loud, unfamiliar, discordant toll of a heavy mithril tenor, rung by one clearly unused to the task, from a tower that’s on a tomb proper, and no shrine to the Sentinel?
By morning, a new Highborn preacher appears on a street corner in the Black City. He appears to be a guardian, with a simple soldier's bearing and little training for fine speech. But there is a fire to him and people are drawn to that despite his unwashed, unkempt appearance.
He claims to be one of those who until recently stood watch over the Winterborn's tomb. He speaks of Varkula, of the legends of her tomb being torn open. Not as a risk, a possibility, a metaphor, but as if he was there when it happened. He preaches of the loss of Zenith and claims that her spirit has been woken by the unthinkable defeat of the joined armies of the Highborn. He left before he could be accosted. By all accounts the man is heading for Anvil.
As for the tomb itself. Every steward of the dead knows where that is. It is a site of pilgrimage, albeit not a wildly popular one. But not today. The great doors to the outer fane were closed upon inspection, heavily locked and barred. The guard, outside, a dozen strong: grim-faced and tight-lipped and professional as always. They refuse to address the rumours and say only that the tomb was not open to visitors. Protestations of rank or authority, secular or sacred, fall upon deaf ears. Without orders to the contrary, without orders from the very top, this door is sealed.
But the curious who are turned away, cannot help but notice. The outer door to the tomb of Varkula has been barred from the outside. And the space immediately before it has been consecrated to Vigilance.
There has been no further time to investigate. Perhaps Escon may know more.