Some further discussion follows. Mara is convinced to make an oath sanctified by Catseye's celestial authority, in which she vows to support Ysandre in reclaiming her rightful throne, and to not leave unless either Ysandre grants her blessing, her cause becomes hopeless, or she becomes Queen of Nalia. Afterwards, Mara agrees to travel to Nalia to ascertain the situation there, while giving Catseye permission to remain with her fellow Solars as they make their way to the mine. She leaves that evening, and after a quick trip into the city to resupply, Ryan, his men and the other Solars break camp and set off the next morning, leaving Marita behind.
12th of Ascending Air, Realm Year 768
Over the last few days, the land has been getting increasingly steeper and forested as the band travels up into the hills, keeping close to the bank of the Yellow River. Eventually, the band comes to the edge of a valley that is unmistakably the mine Quill was talking about. The ground has been dug away to leave nothing but stone, and all over are tunnels and pits leading underground, most of these fitted with cart rails and winches used to haul and carry jade and miners in and out of them. Quill recognizes the technology as coming from the Shogunate, specifically from a time a few decades before the Great Contagion hit Creation.
However, everyone also notices that there are already several dozen miners working within the valley; some chipping away at the rock outside with pickaxes, others emerging from the pits and tunnels with sackfuls of unrefined jade. Mules can be seen pulling carts full of the stuff towards a large village - built in the same time period as the machinery, judging from the architectural style - on one edge of the valley. Everyone can see that the village could comfortably hold a lot more people than are currently working in the mine, and from his knowledge of the place, Quill recalls that the mine's refining and crafting facilities were housed within the village, and that the village was also home to those who worked and managed the mine.
"Looks like someone else had the same idea Quill did." Sergeant Tannis says grimly, as he looks down at the busy mine.
With the week-long travel time, I will allow all players to give their characters Minor Intimacies regarding how they feel about the other members of the group, if they so wish. In addition, each character can make retroactive Instill rolls against the other characters, signifying their attempts to befriend or get to know each other during the journey.
"It seems our path isn't gonna be easy, and that others have found this place before us." Quill wipes a bit of sweat from his forehead as he says so, and scans the area in front of the, to see wether there are signs of any guards, so he can try and figure out who's in command here.
Quill is a curious person, and in attempting to learn more about his own powers, and how he can develop them, he's inclined to ask the others questions about theirs. He won't probe too much, and force them to give up their secrets, but he's genuinely interested in them, and what they can do, and where they came from. But he probably just annoys them a bit with his questions.
Quill sees about several dozen guards wandering among the mine, but from this distance, he cannot make out any badges or other signs of rank, or anything else that might indicate who is in charge here.
"The information that lead you to know of this place," Ysandre adresses Quill, "how obscure was it? Could whoever these people are have gotten it from the same source?" She takes a quick look around the assembled solars and asks, "can anyone make out any details of the guards, or indeed the workers? I would prefer it if we knew who we were dealing with before deciding how to approach them."
Quill looks at Ysandre, and shrugs "The source of that information could have been accessed by others. That is the hazard of dealing with old manuscripts. You might not be the only one who stumble upon them. I cannot make any details of the guards, but the refining and crafting facilities will be in that village over there." as he points it out "And so, those who run this operation are likely to be situated thereabouts."
"That sounds like a good opening move," Catseye says, nodding along to Ailera's suggestion.
"From there, we need to figure out our play. Assuming we're not going to just murder the lot of them." Her dry delivery suggests she disapproves of that tactic. Instead, the Thorns woman rubs her chin as she studies the disposition of the guards and the miners that work for them. For the others in the Circle, Catseye has been pleasant, agreeable, approachable during the trip and is quite obviously a woman used to keeping her own confidence. She's politely asked about each Exalt's homeland, family and general pattern of life while (more or less) freely explaining her own past as a Thorns socialite-turned-merchant who would like nothing better than to see the Mask of Winters torn from his throne. Discussions of Thorns' fate is the only time her expression has lost its habitual good naturedness.
"Just off the top of my head, there's several ways we could approach this," she comments at last.
"First, we could find out who owns this operation. If they're local, we find out who owns and finances them. Because there's no way a jade mine is staying a small independent operation. Then we pose as representatives from whoever actually runs this place and learn the lay of the land. From there, we could bribe them, subvert their loyalties or just scare them out with horrors from the deeps or something until the mine's under our control."
"A second idea is to see if they're open for a partnership. I can't help but notice both the mine and its supporting village seem underpopulated. They could be turning out a lot more product than they are. Lack of resources from the financier? We could offer our own men, for labor or security or whatever, and I could certainly put Mercury Ants to work to speed up the work. There may be enough mine for both of us, in other words."
"Depending on how weak their foothold here is, we might just opt to scare them off. Either directly, through troops, or I could probably put together some 'horrors from the deep' given a few days of summoning."
Turning back to look at her companions, the Eclipse Caste shrugs and says, "Preferences?"
"I agree, the first thing we need is information," Ysandre says with a nod to Ailera. "Regarding what to do once we know their situation... I agree that we should try and form a mutually beneficial arrangement of some kind. We have no particular right to this mine or its wealth, but we are able to offer them things they probably cannot get on their own, most notably your summoned spirits," she finishes, acknowledging Catseye's contribution.
Ryan pats Ailera on the back as a sign of encouragement. "If you want to infiltrate, we'll have your back. I'll keep an eye out in case we need to clear a path for you to leave."
For the moment, Ryan is notably withholding essence use until he suspects something based on their activity. After getting caught in a pincer with most of his motes spent, he assumed it'd be best to stay ready to cross blades if the worst should happen.
Ailera nods. "Ok, I'll slip in, listen around a bit, then come back up here to check in. Unless these guys have some serious mojo on their side, they won't even know I was there." With that, the Night Caste fades from view, and moves silently down towards the miners.
I will spend 3m on Easily Overlooked Presence Method to be able to slip in and listen, and 5m on Sensory Acuity Prana. Both are Scene long, and I now have double 9's on Perception rolls.
With her Charm active, Ailera makes her way down one of the less steep sides of the valley and into the mine. Once within, she can see that the guards are equipped with chopping swords, shields and reinforced buff jackets, suggesting that they're here to protect the miners, rather than force work out of them.
None of the miners or guards notice Ailera's presence, and she is eventually able to overhear a conversation between two guards stood out of earshot of everyone else.
"Between you and me, I don't know how long Feren's going to be able to keep this mine open. My gut says three more months, at the most." one of the guards says.
"Really? It's still producing plenty of Jade, and Feren seems to have enough money to keep paying all of us." replies the other.
"Yes, but the problem is he's not *making* any." says the first guard, sounding frustrated. "You heard that the bandits have taken our last two shipments of refined Jade, correct? Right now, we can't get any of this mine's product out to anyone willing to buy it. That's bad enough, but the bandits are also attacking the caravans taking supplies up to here. The caravan owners have to spend more money to protect the caravans, and that means they'll charge us more than the supplies are worth so that they can make a profit."
The second guard nods in understanding, and the first guard goes on darkly. "It's that Guild bitch who's behind all this misfortune, mark my words. She failed to persuade Feren to sell her the mine, so now she wants to render it unprofitable and force him to. If I know the Guild, she's certainly got enough money to bribe bandits to harass us. And although I can't prove it, I'd swear that she's trying to sway the God of this mine over to her side with prayer slaves. I mean, when you think about how many accidents and cave-ins we've had since the rest of the trouble started..." he lets the rest of the implication go on unspoken. "We waste time fixing things and cleaning out the rubble, and miners end up dead, maimed or quitting. No-one wants to work in a dangerous mine unless they've got no other choice."
"You really think Feren will be forced to sell?" asks the second guard, sounding despondent.
"I'll say this much for Feren. He won't give up this mine unless he's got no other choice. He knows how much of a windfall this is, and he's determined to be the one taking advantage of it. You know he's been shut up in his office for the last few days, correct? I reckon he's either trying to get help, or figure out a way to solve all the problems plaguing this mine."
Ailera decides that this is important enough to share with the others. That explains quite a bit. If we lay down a bid to buy the mine right now, we can probably move in for a sweet deal, then work to get the 'accidents' to stop, along with the raids that are taking the raw ore from them, and we will solve a large chunk of our financial needs. She moves out quickly to get back to the rest of the Circle and share what she's heard.
As she approaches the others, Ailera will drop her Stealth Charm to avoid surprising anyone with her sudden appearance. "Hey everyone. I have overheard a interesting nugget of information that might just come in handy. While the mine is putting out a lot of ore, they are in a lot of trouble. It seems that there have been many unexplained accidents that have taken the lives of several of the workers, and despite the Jade coming out, they are losing money like crazy. There are bandits in the area that have hijacked several shipments to and from the mine, and the owners are barely able to pay the workers and guards at the mine."
She pulls out an apple from her pocket and takes a bite. "If we were to go and make the current owners an offer to take over their operation, we could buy it out from under them for a song, then with all of the Exalts we have, we can easily deal with the bandits and find out why there are so many accidents in the mine itself. It could be the spirit of the area is upset that the workers are cutting into 'his' Jade, and is in need of some convincing to leave it alone."
"This is very good to hear, well done." Ryan takes a moment to ponder the suggestion for a moment, "Hmm... If we can't buy it outright, we could simply exchange services for equity, then we wouldn't have to work the mine ourselves. We'd be able to discretely collect our cut passively so long as the mine continued to operate." The knight looked to Catseye for counsel.
"I know very little about judging the viability of financial decisions though. Only some basic ideas I was instructed in as a result of courtly schooling. Lady Catseye, would you be so kind as to take the lead on this one? I'd prefer to keep any hint of our lovely patron's direct activity a secret for as long as we can manage it."
Catseye purses her lips and considers the information. Then she smiles at the Night Caste and says, "Thank you. It may not have been much of a risk for you, given your skills, but it's valuable information and you found it for us far more easily than we could have found it for ourselves if at all."
"It'd help to know a bit more about the owners in question, though. We certainly have a negotiating position as it is. If the mine's having trouble with bandits, we have the means to deal with those. What we have right now is good footing for establishing a partnership. Equity, as you say. I've no objection to being the face for our Circle, if we'd prefer to keep her Majesty's involvement a secret."
"Now, if you want to actually buy them out entirely, that'll be more involved. I'll need to know what financial resources we have in full, I'll need to compose the right paperwork and documentation for the nation-state the mine's located within or I'll need to be ready to seal the deal myself if this is unclaimed territory. Also, the owners may have a certain emotional investment, if they've suffered losses and are still holding on so a buy-out would have to be approached carefully."
"Either way, I agree that there's a force opposing this mine's successful operation. A force that could easily oppose us. It could very well be a spirit," Catseye adds, nodding approvingly at Ailera. "Or it could be a rival company with a sorcerer or a patron spirit wanting to move in. We should find out the cause sooner than later. If I may suggest, let's start with the bandits. If there's a connection, they're human and it'll be fairly easy to get them to lead us to the architect of the plot."
"There is no need to stand such on ceremony," Ysandre says, smiling pleasantly at the other solars, "my name will do fine. And Nalia is a small country hundreds of miles away, there is no reason to expect that the owner of this mine will know me, I don't see a danger in me talking to the man, though your expertise will be greatly appreciated before any agreements are signed," she adds to Catseye. "Furthermore, I think it would be better for all of us if we could become the current owners' partners rather than buy the mine in its entirety. We don't have any miners on hand, and I have no wish to settle down here. Dealing with bandits and angry spirits, however, seems like a productive use of our time and skills."
Quill rubs his temples "I can see the reasons for wanting to join this man as partners, and if need be, I am willing to put forward some of my own assets to gain this partnership, but there are a few things that I guess I need to divulge before you go ahead and introduce yourselves." And he scans the faces of the other Solars before he continues "I don't know who this Ferren is, but it would be prudent to know how he got the information about this mine. I have gained it from an organization I belong to, one that sponsors scholars and scavenger lords across the Scavenger Lands. The organization is run by Dragon-Blooded, but as far as I can tell, it doesn't have ties to the Blessed Isle. And the last bit, but not less important, is that while pursuing the clues about this mine, i have come across a piece of a journal, that i haven't shared with the organization I mentioned. It seems that nearby was the site of a Wyld hunt during the Shogunate, and the descriptions I've read, seems to indicate that the Dragon-Blooded have managed a feat that I had not heard until then. They managed to sunder one of the Orichalcum Artifacts the Solar was wearing. How they managed it, i do not know, but I was, and still do, hoping to find said pieces, and either reforge the Artifact, or to use them to fashion a new Artifact, at some point."
Catsye gives the Zenith an approving nod at the other woman's observation.
Quill's initial remark draws a shake of her head, though, and she swiftly inserts with "Our best assets in establishing a partnership are our skills, not our money which he probably has more of."
The rest of the Twilight's remarks give the Eclipse pause and she thinks it through. Then she shrugs. "I'm not opposed to hunting for artifacts, especially if someone knows the means to repair them. Let's get the lay of the land first, though. We need to learn more about Ferren and we need to find out more directly what his real problems are. If it turns out the source lies in the direction of this Wyld Hunt's battle, all the better. And if not, we'll be better able to plan a side trip once we know what we're up against."
"Let's set up a meeting with our mine owner. And in the meantime, perhaps I can conjure up an Agata or something and fly Ailera in under the cover of night so she can investigate his quarters and personal effects, or at least his office and his paperwork. I'd be willing to help with that. I'm not supernaturally sneaky but by mortal standards, I'm not bad, especially with someone else taking point."
Steepling her fingers before her, the Eclipse surveys the rest of the Circle. "What do you say? Shall we get in touch with this man?"
Ysandre listens thoughtfully to the others before speaking. "The question, it seems to me, is if we should just approach this Ferren. We have had run-ins with bandits not too far from here, so that will be a natural start for a conversation that could lead us to offering to help him with his issues. Alternatively, it would be useful to have more information before approaching him if you are willing to go on a somewhat riskier information hunt," she says, addressing Ailera. "Regarding the site of this ancient Wyld Hunt, do you know exactly where it was? Perhaps the rest of us could examine it while Ailera goes to gather information on Ferren."
Quill feels a bit relieved "Unfortunately, the source didn't specify the exact location, but it did mention the battle taking place near the mine. I am sure that with a bit of time, one of us will be able to piece together the exact location, if we stroll around. But to do that, we'd need to really be able to move around confidently."