Najaf departed for the Ivory Palace to pursue some leads on some wizards knowledgeable in the arcane arts of breeding new races while Safa returned from her cousin’s wedding with a response for Shahzadi from her brother indicating his desire to meet. Shahzadi, seeing no point in keeping Safa in the dark, filled her in on Najaf’s strange psychic parasite as well as her own membership in the “Offspring,” the illegitimate children of Abalach-Re. After some conversation discussing the implications of these things (during which Dhaara continued to drink lots of wine) it became apparent that if their Saddhu was going to be of any use in the meeting with the Cult of Badna in a few hours she would need to sober up a bit.
The agents, sans Najaf (who wasn’t there) and Dhaara, donned convincing laborer-caste guises and ventured to Ascetics Row to join the covert cult in their services. The observant among them noticed others arriving in small groups attempting at stealth. The man at the hatchway into the underground meeting area appeared to recognize Dhaara, and let her and those with her pass.
The underground chamber, which was probably once a large wine cellar, was packed with nearly two-score people. The agents were on highest alert and noticed two elves among the worshipers keeping back and apparently guarding the entrance. Dhaara noticed another man seated near the other exit from the chamber with a degree of stillness and discipline she found vaguely disturbing. The rest of the worshipers seemed ordinary enough. Soon, the priest of this gathering arrived. He was an older man named Salim, dressed in simple, threadbare robes, evincing a powerful charisma. He spoke to the people, preaching about how the decadence and corruption of the former Grand Vizier had so angered the god that she had been cast in the wilderness and her people given into bondage. Only through the steadfast belief of the faithful in this time of trouble and tribulation would demonstrate to the god their worthiness and so Badna would remove the yoke of the dead king and his unbreathing forces from around their necks. He spoke also of the possibility that Abalach-Re may yet repent of her sins and return to her city renewed in her piety and belief in Badna and deliver her people.
At that point, the time came for new members and initiates to come forth and receive the blessings of Badna from Salim. Alekel rushed to be first and spun such a convincing and heartfelt tale of Badna’s mercy and Dhaara’s wisdom and benevolence that none there, even his own companions, doubted his sincerity. All eyes, however, turned to Dhaara, who had some fame in the Cult before Dregoth’s conquest. She was able to convincingly parlay her clear discomfort into modesty, which Salim gladly elaborated upon. It was clear that he knew of her even though, to Dhaara’s recollection, the two of them had never met. Shahzadi, however, recalled hearing of Salim as a renegade Badna priest who used to preach against the Grand Vizier for her indolent, sinful ways. He had apparently not changed his stripes once she was driven into exile.
The other agents eventually received Badna’s blessing. Shahzadi attempted to play the part of a mute beggar woman, but as she began interacting with Salim she felt the same disturbing kinship with him that she had felt with the untouchable tanner Nanda Shatri. With some horror, she realized that Salim, also, felt that connection. It would appear this priest, notwithstanding his doctrine, was one of the Offspring. Queri-Sed was last, and spun a tale about how she felt a kinship with the “four-armed human god”, demonstrating with her own four arms. Salim wasn’t entirely sure what to think of her.
Their ruse appeared to pass Salim’s critical eye, although clearly he was not entirely convinced. He asked Dhaara and her converts to stay after the service. After the other worshipers left, it was the five agents, Salim, the strange, still man, the young girl who first spoke with Dhaara on the street, and the two elves. Salim spoke at length with Dhaara about faith, and about the origins of the Badna cult, claiming that Abalach-Re had discovered the first icon of Badna in an ancient temple ruin, uncovered by a sandstorm in the wastes, and had brought the worship of Badna to Raam. He emphasized that Badna pre-dated the sorcerer-kings and queens, and just because Abalach-Re may have cynically used the faith as a tool of power doesn’t invalidate the faith. He seemed to be speaking to Dhaara but intending his words for Shahzadi. Dhaara asked for an introduction to the strange still man. He was introduced as “Lesan, my bodyguard.” Lesan unfolded himself from the floor to stand at attention. This brought Queri-Sed’s attention to the fact that he did not seem to move in a manner that was entirely… human.
The agents did nothing to further draw suspicion from Salim, however, who bid them a good evening after mentally communicating to Shahzadi “farewell sister.”
The agents departed, paying more attention to street traffic. They noticed that, curiously, for a part of the city renowned for having ascetics meditating at all hours, the street for a block around the secret Badna cult’s meeting place was deserted. Furthermore, there were no patrols of mansabdars for multiple blocks. Alekel made some inquiries with beggars and learned that on certain nights the guards avoid a certain area of Ascetic’s row. The beggars assume that criminals and elves had bought them off for some choice “hits” but no rumour of theft ever resulted. The agents headed toward one of Alekel’s safehouses. Queri-Sed dropped back stealthily to ensure they weren’t being followed and noticed… barely… that Lesan was, in fact, following them. Lesan noticed Queri-Sed as well, and after a bit of a stand-off, gave up the pursuit.
The agents discussed implications before eventually returning to House Shuja for some sleep.
They awoke around noon. Shahzadi’s mother had been in communication with House Maarham and had set up an “after-dinner and sparring” date between Shahzadi and Aasif Maarham. First, though, Shahzadi and Queri-Sed went back to the Ghost City to speak with Nanda Shatri. Shatri indicated that her relationship with AkuNu was purely mercenary, and if the agents wished to interfere with AkuNu, she could be persuaded not to take offense for a reasonable fee. Shahzadi also learned a bit more about the mysterious sculptor Usuch-Si and his apparent interest in the Offspring.
While Shahzadi was gone, Safa, Dhaara, and Alekel visited the home of Gaurav Kelas, Dhaara’s uncle. After all due formality, they asked him about strange movements… or lack thereof… in Ascetic’s Row. Gaurav told them that some four months previously an elf had delivered a message from the “Revered Pandit,” a well-respected Saddhu philosopher, stating that his meditations and studies of the heavens had indicated a subtle cycle where spiritual rituals would be more efficacious, and that he would be happy to send word to any who were interested a few days in advance when one such conjunction was imminent so that the Saddhus could stay indoors in meditation and contemplation. Gaurav further mentioned that when he, an imminent Saddhu, inquired of the Revered Pandit personally, he learned that the Revered Pandit had come to no such breakthrough. Further investigations revealed that these elves would pay him to pretend it was true and stay indoors anyway. He refused, but he got the impression that they amount they were offering him wasn’t substantial because he wasn’t living close enough to their targeted neighborhood. It would seem that in this modern age of moral decline, the other castes do not support the Saddhu as well as they might, and many have fallen on hard times. The “bad parts” of Ascetics Row, theorized Gaurav, are particularly susceptible to this sort of flagrant criminal bribery. He presumed it was some illegal elven night market and thought little of it. Dhaara’s implication that the Cult of Badna was involved was a different matter entirely.
After some discussion, they convinced Gaurav to let them do some more investigation. He made it clear, however, that should they give the word, he and other imminent Saddhu would make it so that Ascetics Row would no longer be a safe place for elves to conduct clandestine business.
Dhaara, Safa, and Alekel departed to go drinking at the Jeweled Scarab, conspicuously avoiding the Shuja household under the theory that leaving Shahzadi alone with Safa’s brother would be more conducive to romance.
The evening arrived. Shahzadi, abandoned by her fellows except for Queri-Sed, awaited the arrival of Aasif Maarham. The courtyard was arrayed, slaves and food and drink and a rack of assorted weapons were provided. Aasif arrived and there was small-talk, mediated by Padme Shuja, who shortly feigned business and left the two alone after promising that Shahzadi’s father would be along shortly. The two had some slightly awkward conversation where Aasif waxed poetic about the savage beauty of the wilderness and his sense of connection to the wild places before Jahandar Shuja arrived to rescue Shahzadi from any further social embarrassment. Soon, however, the time for sparring arrived, and Shahzadi was more in her element.
They danced, Aasif choosing a long-spear. He seemed quite capable, and with Queri-Sed’s verbal encouragement, eventually pulled out all the stops, revealing a very literal connection to the primal spirits of the earth. He gave Shahzadi a run for her money, although Shahzadi eventually bested him. Sweaty, heated, and generally excited, the flirtation came rather more natural under the benign gaze of Shahzadi’s father before Aasif eventually departed, promising a second date sometime soon.
Shahzadi spoke briefly with her father about the true circumstances of her conception and the deceptions required before he, too, took his leave and Shahzadi went to the bar to join her companions in some well-earned debauchery.