“I haven’t seen you in these parts,” the barkeep said, sidling over to where I sat. “Name’s Bao.” He stated it exuberantly, as if word of his exploits were shared by settlers around many a fire in Aeternum.
He waved to a wooden keg beside us, and I returned his gesture with a nod. He filled a glass and slid it to me across the stained red wood of the bar before continuing.
“As a betting man, I’d be willing to wager a fair bit of coin you’re in Ebonscale Reach for more than the drink and sights,” he said, eyes glancing from the sword sheathed on my hip to the bow slung across my back.
He was right, of course. Unlike the legends of Bao, tales of a corrupted Empress had trickled to the southern parts of the isle over the last few months, piquing the interest of many a seasoned warrior—myself included. Wherever peril and risk lurked in Aeternum, gold and riches aplenty oftentimes accompanied. I had traveled northwest to Ebonscale Reach chasing these shadowy rumors, and Bao’s quick assessment confirmed my suspicions.
“To compensate for the gold you would’ve won off that bet, I’d be willing to pay for any light you can shed on the rumors of the Empress,” I said, looking up from my drink to meet Bao’s eyes.
He glanced around the nearly empty room. Satisfied that none of the other patrons were vying for his attention, he began to speak. “Aye, adventurer, I can regale you with the tale of our Empress, and assure you that you haven’t traveled here in vain.”
“The Empress’s name is Taiying.” Bao leaned on the bar, picking up a glass and cloth rag to wipe it clean as he began to recount his story. “She’s the firstborn daughter of the Emperor and Empress of the Zhou dynasty in China, where many of us here in Ebonscale Reach hail from. She was a bright young woman, destined for the throne and greatness. She was raised in the palace, receiving education and tutelage from the best and brightest minds in the land, alongside her half-brother Shang Wu, an illegitimate child of the Emperor and a concubine.”
“As she grew up, she quickly won the hearts of the people and gained a loyal following largely due to her intelligence and beauty. Many suitors pledged themselves to her but she rejected them all, not wanting to share her rule with anyone, especially not with someone she did not find to be a romantic match and perceived instead to be striving for political power by asking for her hand. The mystique of her being unmarried drew in even more admirers, all of whom she spurned.”
I nodded sharply, attempting to nudge Bao through his rambling account of the Empress’s story. I came to learn if the tales of the growing Corrupted armada was real, not listen to the plights of a young monarch’s quest for love.
Bao continued, ignorant of my silent plea for him to hurry along. “Not everyone loved the young Empress, though. Many called for a man to take the throne out of old traditional beliefs and distaste with the idea that she had rejected all her suitors. Slowly, support for her half-brother Shang Wu to take the throne grew in secret, and he took full advantage of this new support in organizing an army. On the night before Taiying's coronation was set to take place, Wu brought in armed forces to chase her from the palace. She was forced to flee with her most loyal supporters toward the sea. When Shang Wu's forces marched again to eliminate her and exterminate her supporters, she took the fleet of ships anchored in the nearby port and set sail for anywhere but China. As a youth, she had heard rumors of Aeternum, the land of Eternal Life, so she sailed to the Atlantic in hopes of finding it and bolstering her power.”
I continued to nod silently, holding my tongue as I sensed Bao was finally on the verge of divulging the information I was seeking.
Bao shook his head wistfully, his cheerfulness beginning to falter. “I was on the voyage. The plan was always to return back to China with the powers of eternal life—if the rumors were true—and use them to take back the throne. Unfortunately, as what happens with all ships that sail too close to Aeternum, our fleet crashed into the island storms and we were washed up on the shores of Ebonscale Reach.”
“But that wasn’t enough to deter Taiying. She made her way inland to establish her claim on the land and met with an agent of Corruption who promised her the power, eternal life, and the revenge she was seeking. Empowered with Corruption, she converted most of her loyal followers into what serve as her Corrupted Dynasty ranks. The rest of us fled,” Bao said, his eyes full of dull, burning anger. He continued to polish the glass vigorously, despite it having been wiped clean many times over during his recounting of the tale.
Bao’s voice quieted. “The stories we’ve been circulating of a Corrupted armada are true. Zhou Taiying seeks to build a new fleet to return to China and reclaim not only her throne there, but also stake a claim over the world. We’ve seen… some strange things manifest in her after she became Corrupted. Powers beyond anything I’ve seen here, fueled by her vengeance.”
The emotional toll was evident on Bao’s face as he finished his tale. Nevertheless, he continued to speak.
“If you’re looking for more information,” he said, setting the polished glass on the shelf before continuing on, “and someone with the coin to pay for your sword and services, the woman you’re looking for is Zeng Lingyun, former handmaiden to the Empress. She’s in town. You should ask around and find her tomorrow,” he said, arm waving at the moon and starlight streaming through the window nearest to us.
I thanked Bao for the tale and the drink, reached into my purse, and slid a few gold pieces across the bar.
“Safe travels adventurer, and good luck.” Bao said, turning away. “You’ll need it,” I heard him mutter as I stood and left.