Week 15, On to Maratesh
We left our heroes closing negotiations with King Smerdis to undertake the recovery of his daughter, his hippogrif, and his pink jewel. Smerdis rolled up his magical tent (which we get only AFTER the mission), and his people mounted their hippogrifs and flew up into a cloud bank. We resumed our journey down the Great Silk Road.
The landscape became steadily more desert. On the third day after our meeting with Smerdis, Cantrel spotted a river ahead in the distance, with a city beside it. By sundown we had marched in sight of it: Maratesh, a major trade center at the intersection of the Silk Road and the river.
The city architecture is solid Arabian Nights. ("How absolutely classic!" murmurs Pfusand.) The guards at the gate vaguely understand Lapidian, since Chyoxan is a close linguistic relative. They tell us there are no inns; travelers stay with friends or in public hostels. There is no gate toll, but there are lots of taxes. We also note a samurai cat sigil on the wall, but it looks very weathered.
We enter and they charge duty on the bread and wine we carry. We cheerfully pay for this IN bread and wine, since the stuff grows back. The hostel is a barn-like structure near the customs house, and between us and it there lies a stretch of slum shoulder-deep in street urchins, all begging and offering every conceivable and inconceivable service. "I'll sell your camel for you!" "Want to buy another camel?" "Want to buy my sister?" "Need a guide?" "Alms for the poor, masters!" Beygar curses and swings at them with his staff. Pfusand growls. ("Want a muzzle for your bear?") One urchin, a bit older than the average, ducks under Beygar's stick and offers to get rid of the others for us, for a fee. Tom tells him to disperse the crowd first, then we'll see about the fee.
And in fact the urchin, Hakim, shoos his fellows away and lets us make reasonable progress toward the hostel. There are some adult beggars on the hostel steps, whom Hakim shoos aside. Tom pays him two small coppers and Wu engages his services for the next morning. He tells Hakim that we would like to obtain a hippogrif. Hakim scurries off to see what he can find.
That evening, everyone but Beygar and Chris goes out. Wu heads for the south bath house, which is a respectable social center, he is told. (The north bath house would be, in 20th century Earth, a massage parlor.) The house is divided into a men's half and a women's half, the one offering business gossip and the other social gossip. Wu collects nothing but some chit-chat, learns the name of the head attendant (Zazag), and asks about obtaining rare animals. The attendant says there is an exotic animal dealer who comes in around noon most days.
Back and the hostel, Hakim appears with a one-legged beggar in tow. The beggar reports to Chris that a hippogrif landed here, in the bazaar, about four days ago. It had two passengers, a man and a woman, who went off into the merchants' quarter. Chris is a little suspicious, since the beggar keeps referring to the way the hippogrif pawed the ground with its hoofs. But a hippogrif doesn't have hooves on its forelegs, just talons. Chris asks if the hippogrif was pure white, or if it had any black, for instance black socks on its forehooves. No, no, the hooves were all white. Maybe the beggar is going blind as well as lame.
No one else learned anything significant. The party returned to the hostel and slept. Cantrel, however, was out on the desert with his herd (flock? flerd?) of winged horses. He woke to uneasy wing-flaps and whinnies around midnight. Seeing a shadow scurry away, he tripped it with TK and yelled. Before the man could get up, Cantrel had a foot on his throat. He looked like a local, dressed in black rags. Cantrel relieved him of a purse containing two small coppers and of a knife, then shooed him away.
The next morning, we invite Hakim in for a breakfast of bread and wine. The urchin has no new leads for us, but he does know that the hippogrif has not been seen to leave the city. We start pumping him for local background data, and learn:
The ruler is Prince Shirvan Assurid. He controls one third of West Chyoxus, having wrested it from the Bedouin-like nomads who overran the place a couple of generations ago. The nomads came into the power vacuum left after a civil war. Two Assurid princes fought each other to exhaustion, one vanishing in with a great burst of magic and the other forced to retreat before the encroaching nomads. Prince Shirvan represent the return of the more mundane line.
Kind Smerdis also claims Assurid descent and rules over hundreds of the nomads. He and Shirvan don't have any relations that Hakim knows of. They could become rivals or allies.
Wu notes that Hakim eyes us nervously as he describes these important folk. He quietly casts a Charm spell and asks why. Hakim explains that some folk say Smerdis is a raider and a bandit, and hastily adds that he knows nothing of the truth or falsity of these stories. (Hakim is obviously trying to figure out who we work for and what our own attitude toward Smerdis is. We don't know ourselves, so he gets few clues.)
Wu changes the subject to religion and magic. Hakim feels that the times of the great magics are in the misty past, but there is still a magic guild here in town. It is even Wu's guild. There are two families of gods worshipped here, the gods of fire and the gods of air. The fire gods are the traditional patrons of the city, but Prince Shirvan favors the air gods, so there may be a shake-up soon.
We ask about the important men of Maratesh. The ruler of the city is the Magistrate. Hakim has more commerce with Mitran One-Eye the Beggar King, who may also be the local Prince of Thieves. (Hakim is violently incurious about this.) There is also a rumored Chief of Smugglers (and talking about him makes Hakim even more uneasy). A few years ago, there was a princely thief, perhaps also a bit of a rake, called Navrish the Agile, who also led a gang of bandits. He has not been seen for some years and is rumored to have retired, but not, Hakim observes, for lack of a hand. (We infer that chopping off a hand is the traditional punishment for thieves around here.) Perhaps Navrish has come out of retirement, we speculate to each other in Earthron.
Hakim takes Wu to the local magic guild, where he checks in. The local guildsmen tell him the Marateshites aren't particularly anti-magical, but the Magistrate would probably tax any healing for profit that Wu did and the Temple of Fire is understandably sensitive about other people doing fire magic. They advise Wu not to show up the Temple priests and not to look clerical.
Meanwhile, the other members of the party continue casing the town. Alag locates the Magistrate's house and several other principal buildings. Tom visits a teahouse and wanders about the merchants' quarter, memorizing landmarks.
That afternoon, Hakim produces another source of data. This one, he tells us, is secretive and needs bribing. We agree to bribe and Hakim produces another beggar, Hassan the Blind. Wu casts a Diagnosis spell and discovers Hassan is not blind at all, though he has a number of minor ailments such as you might expect in an unsanitary, undernourished Asiatic beggar.
It turns out that the first beggar we met was re-telling Hassan's tale, since Hassan felt it impolitic to relate what Hassan the "Blind" had SEEN. However, the smell of money and the other beggar's blundering embellishments about the hippogrif's hooves have lured Hassan out.
We learn that the man was big and of nomad stock, dressed in desert robes. The lady was small and heavily veiled. The man treated her tenderly and she did not seem greatly distressed, so far as one could tell between the veils and the necessity to pretend blindness. They went down the Street of Gems, leading the hippogrif, in full public view, though there were not many people in the bazaar at that time (near dusk).
Hassan names some of the people living on the Street of Gems: Dahak, Cyrus, Abban, Faruse, Ishmair, Eudoxus, Darush... Quite a cosmopolitan neighborhood. We also begin picking out people to query about the hippogrif: Zazag at the baths, servants in the Street of Gems, merchants near the landing point in the bazaar. Hakim adds that there is a band of mercenaries in this hostel who are willing to sell information. Wu pays Hassan and cleans up his minor ailments.
Wu, Pfusand, Chris, and Tom head out for the bazaar. There is a sweetmeat seller near the landing point. We approach and try to open conversation by buying some candy, but Pfusand, whose Lapidian is shaky, accidentally tells the poor man that HE looks delicious. We get him calmed down again and Wu buys some candy. We say we are looking to acquire a hippogrif, but the man knows only that the northern raiders sometimes use them. Wu says that he heard one had been seen around here. Oh yes, the candy seller heard that from the cloth merchants. Wu Charms him and asks him not to spread the story around, for fear it would drive up the price, then approaches the cloth merchants. Unfortunately, this must be the morning shift; they know nothing worth noting. And there, in mid-investigation, we leave them.
Copyright © 1998, Jim Burrows. All Rights Reserved.