Lot #983b: Untitled Portrait of a Young Person

One of several finished by unsold portraits found in his Rue d’Richat studio after he died, Étoiles presumably painted this piece in September or late August, approximately one month before his body was found. The frame is one of several he purchased in June, along with a canvas that he bought in July–approximately 30cmx30cm.

The subject, though, is the cause of much speculation. High-browed, dark-haired, with a sharp chin and an arch expression, the subject is strangely androgynous, with their ultimate identity being used as evidence for many theories about Étoiles’ sexuality. Either way, the subject is surely young, in their early twenties at the latest, and has strikingly green eyes.

No one matching that description was found when the police were searching for leads in Étoiles’ death before it was declared accidental, but Green-Eyes figures prominently in several theories regarding the artist’s death, playing the role of everything from femme fatale (or homme fatale) to hapless victim.

Either way, the painting was found in the frame backwards, with Untitled Still Life of a Bloodied Dagger (Lot #983a) in the forward-facing position. Much has been made of this by scholars, though Étoiles commonly doubled up his paintings in this way for reasons that remain unclear, and none of the other doubled paintings found in his studio (#982a & #982b, Untitled Still Life of Sausage on a Cutting Board and Untitled Portrait of a Street Dog) or in his sister Margot’s apartment (#981a & #981b, Untitled Still Life of Full Moon Over the Seine and Untitled Scene in a Parisian Clothing Shop) have excited any such speculation.

Nevertheless, the identity of the subject, and the meaning of the expression on their face, has long been seen as the key to understanding who or what ripped the artist’s throat out while he lay in bed after a night of heavy drinking.

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The Green Emperor laid down the fundamental rules of succession near the end of his rule in an attempt to prevent civil war, stating that the reigning emperor must name a successor and that the successor must be confirmed by the ruling House of Gulls. That system, in theory, guaranteed that there would never be a power vacuum and that the emperor and the Gulls needed to be in accord about the choice of successor.

As long as there was a strong dynasty on the throne, with many possible heirs to choose from, the system worked well enough. One of the reigning emperor’s sons or daughters would prove themselves able, be recommended as successor, and confirmed by the House of Gulls. There might be some brief posturing or a short, sharp conflict, but everyone involved realized that it was in their best interest to conclude things quickly.

However, when the Seventh Dynasty died out, the Verdant Empire was left in a quandary. The emperor had been the last legitimate male of his house, and the various cadet branches had been decimated by the purges instituted by his insane grandfather, the previous emperor. The Eighth Dynasty would have to come from a very distant relative indeed, especially since the squabbling between the emperor and the Gulls prevented him from agreeing on a successor. When he died, the Gulls nominated one of their own, a man distantly related to the imperial house through marriage.

The Grassblades disagreed, and forwarded a candidate of their own: a man with an even more distant link to the imperial house but one who was an accomplished general and could command loyal troops. Two emperors feuded over the Verdant Empire for nearly two years until the Grassblades put their man on the throne at last, only to see him assassinated after six months in favor of a candidate supported by the Sickles.

There have now been twenty-five emperors in fifty years, reigning a little over two years apiece. The most august of them clung to power for five years, while three have lasted under a month.

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Long before the Verdant Empire attained its current extent, the heartland was ruled by a body known as the House of Gulls–reportedly because they never stopped squawking, though one frustrated member was also heard to complain that they “shit on everything.”

The Gulls were originally the petty kings and nobility of the patchwork of kingdoms and principalities that made up the heartland, but over time there were a variety of methods used to pick them including appointment, election, and the purchase of seats by the wealthy. Whatever the case, they nearly always represented the political and economic elites of their areas, and any law that was passed required their approval.

In public, the Verdant Emperor always deferred to the House of Gulls, but in practice they were often little more than a rubber-stamp debating society under strong emperors. Weak emperors tended to result in true power resting with the Gulls, though they were rarely able to form a coherent government on their own. During the Imperial Crisis, many of the most powerful Gulls rose to become emperors, almost always feuding with military-backed candidates.

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Outside of the large port cities of the Inland Sea where the Grassblades remain, the countryside has largely fallen into anarchy. Roving bands of marauders and brigands fight for control of roads on which they act as highwaymen, making shakedowns and bribes necessary for travel of any distance. This situation has made inns like the Squiggly Lamb essential, as they represent safe harbors between long stretches of dangerous roads.

It has also made them targets of those selfsame bandits, who will often extort protection money from the inns and waystations themselves. Larger inns keep their own guards, especially those near small towns, but smaller ones are generally at the mercy of outside forces.

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Top-heavy. Unseaworthy. Floating hovels. Wooden barns on the water.

All of these–and more–have been applied to the ferries that stagger their way through the Inland Sea’s shallows and estuaries. Many are decades old, most are barely afloat, and nearly all are pushed to their limits with each trip to try and squeeze as much coin as possible into the hands of their owners.

And they are a vital lifeline between the remaining cities strongly in Imperial hands like Iskandria and the heartland.

Once upon a time, merchant navy vessels were escorted by warships and built in the shipyards of the heartland, as they were regarded as a vital interest of the Verdant Empire. Now, those same ships are still in service, unescorted, and with the detritus of decades of unauthorized modifications festooning them. Wrecks are common, and piracy even more so.

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We are the empire’s subtle hand
Trimming weeds across the land
A single cut, the hand that wields
Makes gardens from neglected fields

If the Grassblades are the Verdant Empire’s elite troops, the Sickles are its secret police. Operating in secret, small units of Sickles serve as spies, scouts, and assassins. Access to their networks and resources is one of the major benefits of being the Verdant Emperor. In fact, of the past five emperors, three have been elevated to power by the Sickles and the two that were not reigned for less than eighteen months each. Of course, two of the three were later deserted by the Sickles as well, since there is often a price to their loyalty.

As a consequence of the frequent civil wars wracking the empire, the Sickles have become more militarily focused and inward-facing, prioritizing internal threats in the heartland over external ones. Sickle offices in the remote Inland Sea provinces tend to be understaffed, underfunded, and operating on outdated information gathered by unreliable informants.

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Like blades of grass we stand
And blades of grass we fall
No matter what our orders
We give each task our all

While certainly not the majority, or even the plurality, of troops in the Verdant Empire, the Grassblades are by far the most disciplined and respected. Dressed in distinctive green with leaf-bladed swords, they stand as the physical fulfillment of the Green Emperor’s promise. One unit of Grassblades is raised from every province, thousands strong.

“A blade may die, but never the grass.” In times past, the Grassblades were the uniting force of the empire, expanding its territory and guarding against invaders. However, the latter days have seen most of them dispatched to fight in endless heartland wars over the throne, leaving just a few elderly reservists and raw recruits for the further provinces, often in nominal command of unreliable militia, fickle mercenaries, and the other unreliable troops often derided as “Cuttings.”

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The Verdant Empire was founded by navigators on the Inland Sea, moving away from the overcrowded heartland to found colonies on the coast. Connected by vast webs of trade and protected by a powerful navy, these colonies spread outward to encompass much of the hinterlands beyond. They shared a common language and culture, more or less, and for centuries the elites of the various cities dreamed of uniting them under a single banner.

It fell to the Green Emperor to actually unify the empire, in his struggle against the Red Usurper who sought to do the same. The name of the empire came from the proclamation the Green Emperor sent out upon his victory, in which he promised “a nation as fast-growing and resilient as a verdant field of grass.” Much of the imperial terminology, from the Grassblades to the Sickles, grew out of this metaphor. In latter days, some came to call the Verdant Empire brown, faded, or dead as an ironic counterpoint.

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The Verdant Empire’s end was a slow collapse, and the Inner Sea was the place it was felt the most. Beginning in the Fifth Age, the hinterlands were gradually abandoned by Imperial troops because the expense of garrisoning them was too great, and those troops that could be spared were generally of low quality, useless for anything other than holding static fortifications against lightly-armed raiders.

With more and more of the countryside left to its own devices, the Inner Sea soon became the lifeline between the Imperial heartland and those cities that were too large and too wealthy to give up. Ferries running up and down the great rivers and through the Inland Sea were the lifeline between cities like Iskandria and the heartland. Carrying food, materials, troops, and passengers, these ships were often decades old and ramshackle, with many additions and modifications that made them less than seaworthy.

With few skilled shipwrights left, and those that remained busy with naval ships to fuel the ambitions of power-hungry Imperial governors, the ferries were left to their own devices, and they frequently ran aground, capsized, and even sank.

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The survey team had left relatively little–a simple shelter with an inflatable airlock that could sustain an oxygen atmosphere, and some scattered tools and supplies. Brogan groused at length over the comms about how messy and unprofessional the site was, and how bad the violation of ‘take nothing but data, leave nothing but footprints’ had been.

“An archaeological survey, even a sloppy one, is better than this,” she said, once the crew had successfully repressurized the habitat.

“They left us what we needed to survive,” said Dragovic. “For that, if I run into them, I’m buying them drinks.”

“Be honest, Bogan,” said Neilos. “You were hoping we’d have to try pressurizing an alien burial chamber.” He cocked his head at the imposing ziggurat that was visible looming over the shelter, with individual crypts stacked like building blocks.

“Of course not,” said Bogan. “After however long those things have been there, they won’t seal well. I was hoping we’d have to do a little light alien graverobbing, that’s all.” She sat down very heavily, and collapsed onto her back.

“There is one thing I don’t get,” Dragovic said. “If the law’s so strict about opening the tombs, why didn’t they drop the hammer on these guys? They must have noticed things were missing from the manifest.”

“Well, that one’s easy,” Neilos said. “They weren’t an official expedition. They were tomb raiders, like us–potentially.”

“And you know this how?” said Dragovic. “If you have a data pipeline, I hope you’re not using it just to look up trivia.”

“Because you can see where they tried to get in,” Neilos said, lazily pointing at the ziggurat. “Or, I guess I should say where they did get in.”

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