Oliver D. Bernuetz's Stories
A Good End in Badside - Part 2
As people started making their way back to Pavis, the cemetary was just downriver so safely outside city limits, I headed over to the woman. Both Belvani and Jorjar had tried to get my attention as they left but I just waved them off so they shrugged and went back to Pavis with the crowd. Harkala Glad-help started coming over to speak to me but spotted me heading towards the woman. I hoped that she wasn't frowning behind her false beard as she turned instead to head back to Pavis. Hoping that she knew I was on business I sidled my way over to the graveside and bowed my head trying to look respectable. I stood there in the hot sun as long as I could stand it hoping the woman would either say something or head back to Pavis so I could offer my services as a guardian. When it began to look like she wasn't going to move before she keeled over from the heat she finally made her move. She turned suddenly and started hiking back to Pavis moving rapidly with a purposeful stride. I hastened to catch up, no easy trick at the pace she was making. I pulled abreast and wheezingly introduced myself while offering my services as a guardian on the still somewhat dangerous trip back to the relative safety of the walls. I was pretty surprised when "she" told me in a decidedly male if not particularily masculine voice to "go bugger myself".
I was taken aback enough to stop in my tracks and let "her" get farther ahead of me. I had to really hoof it to catch up with "her" once I regained my composure. "Can I ask you some questions?" I managed to gasp between wheezes. (I've really got to start taking better care of myself). I don't know whether it was pity or sympathy or some other misguided emotion but "she" stopped and sighed. "All right, Treibonus I'll talk to you but only if you're buying." I nodded conserving my breath and weakly gestured for "her" to lead us back to Pavis. (Does everyone in this city know my name?) "She" shook her head and said, "we'd better let you rest long enough so you don't die on the walk back." "She" sat down demurely like a woman and I slumped to the ground. I hate sitting on the ground but I wasn't going to get anywhere any time soon. We rested for quite a while and when I thought I could manage to get to my feet and walk we headed back to Pavis.
Through some unspoken communication neither of us spoke even when we were back in Pavis. The damn gate guards winked at me and made some ribald comments about my getting lucky at a funeral. My guide actually swung "her" hips and made kissy noises at the guards. This made them laugh and howl like coyotes. Assholes. Whatever my guide had to say had better be worth this. If anyone discovered I was following a catamite to a bar my reputation would be mud. Thankfully my guide didn't embarass me any more and we finally reached our goal, The Beleaguered Buffalo. If you've never been there try and deny yourself the pleasure. It was at the end of a twisty alley in the Farmer's Quarter, not too far from Gimpy's actually but not right up against the Rubble wall like homesweet home is. If I tell you that the Storm Bull temple is nearby that should give you an idea of the ambiance. I knew we were there when I saw the painting on the wall of a bison being savaged by a pack of wolves. Painted above the picture was the name of the place in New Pelorian, Pavic and what I think was Old Pavic. I don't understand though why the place is called the Beleagured Buffalo when they clearly meant to call it the Beleagured Bison. Probably some confusion by the person painting the name on the wall. Or maybe the artist didn't know what a buffalo looks like. Quite a nice painting surprisingly enough. But why would they name a place in Prax after a buffalo? Must be the first reason.
As soon as I ducked under the lintel and entered the dingy interior I suddenly felt like I was a giant. The place was full of Imapla Riders, little sawed off runts of Praxians none of whose heads reached my chest, despite my own marked lack of stature. The place was decorated with the heads of various herd beasts, no impalas mind you and even what I hoped was a herdman's head. All the eyes in the place turned towards us as we entered. What, a Lunar and a Yemalian woman in this dump were that unusual? Of course like lowlifes everywhere they quickly went back to their business which seemed to consist of throwing knives at the walls, just the walls I hoped, and drinking.
We found a table to sit at. Thankfully the tables were scaled for people of our size rather than Impala Riders. The large furniture gave the place the air of children playing house what with all the Impala riders in the place. My guide was about as tall as me, which isn't very and quite slim. He lowered his veil to show his face which since it had no facial hair and fairly delicate features could have easily been that of a boy, girl or woman. I was pretty sure that I had never seen the face before.
A server came over to take our order. I manfully surpressed the urge to ask her what her mommy was thinking letting her come into a place like this. I ordered wine and she stared at me like I'd asked for the nectar of the gods. I tried beer and got the same stare. Fearing the worse I asked what there was to drink and she brought my fears vividly to life by grunting, "Kvass." Fermented impala's milk. I shuddered inwardly, briefly toyed with really risking my life by ordering water instead and then bowed to the inevitable and ordered two kvass. I was rewarded by the blanched look that came over my tablemate's face. The server stumped off to fill our orders
I turned to my tablemate and said, "I'm afraid that you have the best of me. You know who I am but I have no idea of who you are." He replied in excellent New Pelorian, "Let's just say that my name is Petro." Great, rock, very believeable. "Okay, Petro which one of the dearly departed did you know?" "Oh, both of them but I knew Cressidus best." I waited for more information and when it wasn't forthcoming I asked the question I had wanted to ask at the graveside, "So what was your relation to Cressidus? Friend, enemy, creditor," I paused, "lover?"
"All of the above." Petro paused and when I had nothing judgemental to say, I mean how could I as a member of an Empire run by a complete deviant, then continued, "I was a member of his bodyguard." I snorted at this but my snort was cut short when I felt a cold blade pressed against the big artery on my real leg. I got the cold sweats real fast since I hadn't even seen him draw. "Don't piss me off Placidus. I may be dressed like a woman and like to sleep with men but that doesn't make me a pushover or a chump. If you screw with me I will let your life blood pour out all over this floor." "Point taken. My apologies."
I felt the blade retreat and felt pleased that my bladder hadn't let me down. I felt suddenly guilty at the thought of subjecting it to kvass though. I put myself back together and Petro put his blade back. At this awkward moment our server returned with our order. She set it down, I paid her, she left and we both sat there a moment looking dubiously at the vile brew. I shook my head and decided asking Petro questions was much less dangerous than drinking that stuff. "So how long have you known Cressidus?" "I was one of the young troublemakers sent to his "boys" club at the Sun Dome in Sartar." I was taken aback. "You're a Yemalian? Isn't it some sort of mortal sin to dress like a woman?" Petro shrugged, "Technically it is, however you should know perfectly well by now that reality and legality don't necessarily operate the same way." "Oh," I intelligently replied. "Cressidus helped me to realize my true nature and later we became lovers. Before that though we were business partners."
I was just about to ask him what sort of business they were in together when we were rudely interrupted by the front wall of the bar being rather nosily ripped off the building.
Thankfully the ceiling stayed up or we would have all been crushed into a fine paste. The air was filled with dust and screams, both of pain and rage. Cutting though all that though was an unearthly shrieking that made every hair on my body stand on end. I called on Lyos the Harrier to give me clear vision and immediately found it easier to see. I heard the unmistakeable sound of tearing flesh and cracking bones and looked over in the direction of all the racket.
Squatting, since it was obviously way too big to fit in if it had been standing, on top of the carnage and destruction it was causing was some sort of otherworldly demon. It had hairy goat legs, a prominent member with fangs, bat wings and a long whippy tail with a sting on the end. Its upper body was covered with scales and it had long arms tipped with 18 cm claws and its whole body rippled with muscles. Perched on top of all this was a relatively tiny horned head with a snout chock full of fangs dripping poison. It had a Impala rider in each hand, one under each foot and another in its jaws. The tail and member were whipping in and biting or stinging riders. It started flapping its wings to drive the dust away so it could see better. I had a bad feeling about who or what it was looking for.
I have to give those Impala riders the credit they richly deserve. As outmatched as they were none of them were holding back. They were harrying the critter like the wolves had harried the bison on the no longer existent mural on the outside wall. They had their knives, makeshift weapons and a few illegal ones to boot, not that they were going to live to face any legal penalties. They tried to keep their distance but the damn thing had two metre long arms and that tail didn't help. Even the server was there trying to smash the thing with a cookpot until the tail stung her and she convulsed once and fell down. The monster soon finished off all the ones it had in its grips. I turned to look at Petro and saw that he had turned white with shock.
I grabbed his arm and slapped his face to snap him out of it. "What the hell, pun intended, is that thing?" I yelled over the racket. He looked at me angrily and still half stunned and said, "Cacodaemon." I felt like smashing him in the face. "What the hell do ogres have to do with this mess!?!" "Never mind that now it's running out of Impala riders." I looked over and sure enough all but three of them were lying in the rubble twitching or not moving at all. The last three had to use every single bit of their ability to keep out of the thing's clutches. Of course there was no way out except past the damn thing.
It turned its head towards us and I swear a hideous sort of smile spread over its face. I pissed myself at that sight but I still managed to slap my thigh to release my shortsword. I knew it wouldn't be nearly enough though. The Harrier helps watchmen investigate and patrol but He doesn't offer much in the way of protection. I figure that it wouldn't have helped much anyway. Petro pulled out his blade as well. Sure it was a long knife but it wasn't near long enough. It seemed unlikely that the army would be saving us in time and I decided that I didn't really want the city patrol dying at this thing's hands too. I started composing my death curse to heave at the thing in futility as it dropped the corpses in its clutches and started crawling our way.
And then unbelievably the cavalry arrived.
The first sign of our rescue was someone letting out a shout in an unfamiliar language. Almost simulataneously the ugly's body jerked as though it'd been struck. I'd seen the Impala rider's weapons bounce off of its scaly and/or hairy hide so the blow must have been struck with some force. It let out an ungodly roar and turned awkwardly to face its new opponent. This turned its back to us and I could see that an iron throwing axe was sticking out of its back. I could also see the smoke from where the ichor was reaching the air and that the iron was dissolving from the contact. It started crawlng back out and I could hear a weird roaring sound like nothing I'd heard before coming from something in the lane outside.
I darted forward, well as near to a dart as a man with only one real leg can make, and slashed at where I guessed the thing's tendons should be, at the same time calling upon Lyos to guide my blow. Lyos must have been listening because my sword sunk into the damn thing's flesh and it let out a roar and stood up. This finished off the roof and only my proximity to the monster saved me from burial under all that rubble. I had to drop my smoking sword in agony as some of its ichor landed on my hand. The pain was unbelievable and I had to call upon Lyos for a clear mind so I didn't curl up into a snack sized ball. This was granted, all thanks to Lyos, but with Him still aiding my vision I could see that the bloody thing was turning again to deal with me. I did what I thought was the only smart thing and jumped up and grabbed the hand axe embedded in its back with my only good hand.
In retrospect this was one damned stupid manuever. Sure it got me out of the thing's immediate grasp but it also left me dangling two metres off the ground by one hand and put me perilously close to the damn thing's tail. I hung on sending prayers to every god I'd ever heard of and thought worthy. And a few I didn't care for like Orlanth. The extra pressure on the axe must have worsened the wound because it roared again and immediately spun around. How I managed to hold on with my off hand I'll never know. Some god must have been looking after me. Probably the God of Idiots.
Thankfully it couldn't reach me and its tail's blind flailings kept missing me. It stood straight up, flapped its massive wings and stalked out into the street. The axe was high enough up on its back that I could occassionally see past the damn thing as it moved to face its new opponent. It was a man in iron armour wielding twin iron battle axes. He was riding something that looked sort of like a horse but which turned out to be the source of the weird roaring I'd heard. It also had a mouthful of fangs rather than teeth so I was guessing it wasn't really a horse. Our savior had runes all over his armour that made it pretty clear that he was a follower of Urox. Strangely though his arms and armour glowed with the sort of magical aura that only sorcery provides.
The stranger bellowed out another challenge and then kicked his mount into action. The mount leapt forward eagerly, fangs bared and roaring a challenge. The cacodaemon answered with its own roar, spread its arms and leapt to meet it. I hung on for dear life as the thing slashed at the rider with both arms. Somehow the Uroxi managed to avoid or deflect the blows while striking the cacodaemon with one of his axes. The axe sheared off one of the taloned hands which fell to the street. Meanwhile the mount's neck proved to be both longer and more flexible than it looked as it had whipped around as they passed and sunk its teeth into the cacodaemon's leg. With a mighty yank it pulled it off its feet! I managed to let go as this was happening and landed heavily. The bloody thing nearly landed on top of me. Thankfully it had demonic vitality so it leapt up again. Lyos' clear mind helped me to roll out of the combat zone into the relative safety of the base of a nearby wall.
From there I had an excellent view of the end. The Uroxi was unscratched and his mount seemed unaffected by the demon's blood. The demon meanwhile was missing a forearm and still had the axe imbedded in its back. It seemed unfazed though and threw its head back for another screamed challenge. The Uroxi bellowed out his challenge and threw one of his heavy battle axes sideways through the air like it was a toy! A wind came out of nowhere and caught the axe as it flew and helped send it right into the cacodaemon's throat. The axe whipped around and curved through the air to come right back to the Uroxi as the cacodaemon's head fell into the street. Its body stood there for a instance before it slumped to the ground and disintegrated into a pile of malodorous gunk before finally disappearing back into the hell it had come from.
The Uroxi nodded in satisfaction before sheafing his axes. He rode slowly over to me and looking down at me from atop his mount said in Tradetalk. "I believe that you owe me an axe."
Part XXXV (respectfully dedicated to the memory of Jim Chapin)
Hell, I was so pleased to still be breathing that I would be glad to add the cost of an iron hand axe to my expense account. Oh, I wish I could be there though when the clerks got to that item! The sweet irony of Lunars paying to replace some crazed Lunar hating barabrian's axe was pretty funny. I stood up since it didn't look like my savior was going to lend me a hand and did a quick inventory. It looked like everything important was still there though I certainly didn't like the look of my hand. I could see some bones through the bubbling skin and I know for a fact that only the calmness Lyos provides was keeping me from fainting.
I heard a clank as my savior dismounted and he walked over. I turned to face him. Not face to face though mind you. I am so sick of all these monstrous barbarians. The bastard must have been well over 2 metres tall. I looked up into the shadow cast by his helm and saw that he was looking down, way down, at my hand in a concerned manner. "May I?" he asked and I nodded partially stunned by these uncharacteristic display of manners from a Uroxi. He took my hand in both of his, I thought for a moment that I was going to die when he took hold of my forearm and squeezed. Hard. Through the blinding pain I could hear him chanting again. I heard a roaring, not the weird horse-like critter this time and a wind swept through the lane.
And what a wind! Sand and garbage were kicked up and I could hear people screaming in terror. The wind swept right up to us and into my body. I swear it came in through every orifice. We were both lifted off our feet and caught up in a whirlwind. As we spun around I could feel the wind sweeping through my body. Have you ever been caught in a sandstorm? Well this was like that except not only was the sand scouring me on the outside but inside as well. A singularily unpleasant experience I must say. I caught a look at my hand as we spun around and saw that...stuff was coming out of it. I can't tell you what it looked like and I prefer not to remember anyway. We spun around for what seemed like an eternity and then crashed to the ground. At this point my gift from Lyos was gone and I lost consciousness.
When I regained consciousness, have I mentioned how tired I am of saying that, I found myself still lying in the street with no signs that anyone had provided me with any medical attention. I felt like I'd been stampeded by the entire Bison Nation and I very badly needed a drink. My hand was throbbing, I was stark naked, not a pretty sight and I needed to both pee and throw up. Despite all that my training sprang into action and I looked around.
My savior was having an argument with Jorjar the Quick. I must say that Jorjar looked to be holding his own despite the fact that the Uroxi looked capable of eating him as a snack. (Wouldn't that be chaotic though?) The constables with Jorjar didn't look like they were willing to provide any backup if it came to a fight though. There were soldiers from the Marble Phalanx everywhere in full rig looking mighty jumpy and trying to create some order. It looked like a priest of the Young Elementals was controlling a gnome and directing it to clear rubble.
There were a lot of Impala Riders wailing over the bodies being uncovered and the soldiers were trying unsuccessfully for the most part to force them back. Jorjar and my savior stopped their argument when they noticed that I was conscious and Jorjar glared at me and said, "What the fuck exactly happened here Treibonus?"
Hmm, what to say, what to omit? As far as I could tell I was the only survivor from the inn. I glanced over and the gnome was still clearing rubble. There was a depressing line of small corpses covered in Lunar cloaks in front of the rubble pile. I would have to say that it looked to correspond pretty closely to the number of Impala riders in the Beleagured Bison. But what about Petro? My inspection was interrupted when Jorjar spoke again.
"Well, Treibonus?" he asked. Hucipites, Commander of the Marble Phalanx had walked over looking like someone had soiled his nice armour. He looked the Uroxi up and down and didn't seem any more pleased by that sight. The Uroxi, with the natural ability of the truly competent ignored this inspection. I unconsciously clenched both my hands due to the tension and was immediately rendered unconscious by the pain. Well that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Feigning unconsciousness is a wonderful skill.
Jorjar swore a blue streak, mostly at my lack of consideration and selfishness while Hucipites bellowed for a medic. Watching through my long eyelashes I saw an army medic rush over. She squatted next to me and tutted as she turned my hand over examining the wound on my palm. "Ichor burn?, she asked. The Uroxi allowed his mingled pleasure and surprise at her competence to show on his face and nodded. "Cacodaemon blood," he replied. She looked even closer and sniffed the wound. She must have used other senses as well because she said, "I don't detect any chaos remaining." The Uroxi shook his head, "No, I called upon the god to cleanse the wound." She flinched in sympathy, "Ouch, that must have hurt." The Uroxi's massive shoulders shrugged and he said, "The god expects us to be strong." The medic shook her head, half in admiration, half in amusement. She quickly treated the wound, called upon the goddess to speed the healing, smeared some goop on it, and then bound it.
She stood up, saluted, first to Hucipites, then to the Uroxi, ignored Jorjar and turned to go back to her work. The Uroxi watched her walk away admiration in his eyes. She turned before she got too far, smiled at the Uroxi when she saw him looking and said, "He's faking it by the way." She turned to walk away and I swear she swung her hips at the Uroxi. Jorjar swore again and Hucipites just managed to stop him from kicking me in the ribs. "Save that", he ordered, "we may need that later if he won't talk."
I experienced a speedy recovery and got to my feet. I shouted my thanks to the medic, while cursing her inside my head, and she waved back cheerfully. I turned to Hucipites and Jorjar, spread my hands wide and said, "All right, all right, I'll tell you what happened. But first I need to find my clothes." Jorjar snickered, "You mean these rags lying all over the street?" He pointed at a few tiny bits of cloth lying around. I swore briefly at the condition of my raiment but better it than me. A kindly trooper gave me his regimental issue crimson cloak to hide my shame. I thanked hm and wrapped it around myself realizing full well that I looked like some idiot senator at one of the Emperor's parties. I started to promise him that I would return it when the trooper stopped me and told me I could keep it since he could always get another one out of stores. Sounded like supply chain problems to me.
After dressing myself I sat laboriously down in some shade and started telling the tale from the beginning. I decided to omit nothing since I didn't really have much. When I mentioned that Petro must be still buried in the rubble Hucipites got one of his men to go fetch the army priest controlling the elemental. The priest came over elemental in tow and saluted. He asked about and buried people of more usual stature (not his words) and the priest shook his head no.
So Petro managed to escape, eh? Jorjar ordered his constables to start looking for a person of Petro's description. I provided the description of course and made sure that it was generic enough to be useless. I then recommenced my story and shortly thereafter finished it with my rescue by the Uroxi. I turned to him and said, "I haven't given you my thanks yet." I bowed deeply to him, thanking him and offering to include him in my prayers. I said all this in New Pelorian and was surprised to hear him reply in the same language. He said that he had only been doing what his god expected from him but that he would appreciate the prayers!
Jorjar spoiled this touching moment by reminding the Uroxi that he followed a proscribed god and that he would have to arrest him. The Uroxi smiled and walked over to his steed. Jorjar yelled at his constables to stop him and the Uroxi turned and froze them with a look. "I'm only retrieving my papers constable. I'm not going anywhere." He then turned back to his mount which had been sniffing one of the corpses while Marble Phalanx boys watched it nervously. The Uroxi took a bundle of papers in a leather pouch out snapped a curt order to the steed to leave the bodies alone since it had recently eaten, yuck, and came back.
He handed the papers to Jorjar who looked them over. They must have been in New Pelorian because he could read them without any trouble. His face got redder and redder as he read and he finally refolded them somewhat violently and stuffed them back into the pouch. He handed them back and said through gritted teeth, "Well Sax Bolderson, your papers seem to be in order. For reasons unknown to me Count Sor-Eel has seen fit to allow you free rein to operate in Pavis. And not just Pavis but the Rubble. You are free to go."
How odd, an Uroxi being given complete freedom to operate in Prax. He must have done something big for Sor-Eel or someone else OR he had something good on someone. I shrugged as I watched Bolderson mount up and ride off. As soon as his back was turned all the Marble goons competed to see who could send the most hostile glance darting towards his back. Not too brave perhaps but plenty smart. I turned to Jorjar and Hucipites and said, "Are we done here?"
Jorjar glared at me with a truly evil expression, "You I can arrest...but I won't, not this time. Keep yourself available, Placidus." He turned his back to me and started a whispered conversation with Hucipites. My feelings hurt by this shabby treatment boo hoo, no not really, glad to be ignored actually. Checking to make sure that my new cloak was draped properly, not revealing anything I wanted to hide that is, I decided to bugger off holding my injured hand close to my chest.
I decided to head home. I quickly discovered that with typical Lunar efficiency that the immediate area had been cordoned off with a lovely scarlet rope, no less, attached to bronze posts. I knew from experience that these barriers were magically protected and would give you a nasty jolt if you touched them. Standing on the disaster side of the barrier were more Marble phalanx boys. On the other, disaster free side, had gathered a crowd. Like most crowds they'd been nowhere to see while the action was taking place. They'd used their crowd sense to realize the danger was over so they had spontaneously collected to gawk and rubberneck.
Typical motley lot. The dregs of Genertela, or at least Prax, and the hoity toity types as well who had nothing better to do. There were also clumps of smelly Praxians who apparently had gotten wind of some rumour of Chaos run rampant. These stood about offending their immediate neighbours, at least those who also weren't Praxians, vowing vengeance and swearing terrible oaths. The goons took careful note of those swearing by Storm Bull or particularily violently by Waha as a precaution against future troublemakers. I got up to just this side of the barrier and asked one of the Marble goons to let me through. He looked back to Hucipites for guidance and when he got the nod swung a section open of the barricade for me using a carefully muttered so as to be inaudible codeword. "Good luck with this lot," he cheerfully said nodding at the mob.
I was less than thrilled at the thought of making my way through these morons so I pressed the catch on the side of my fake leg that made the hobnails come out. I started making my way through the crowd using curses in every language I know and carefully applied boots with my now hobnailed foot to clear the way. I of course avoided sections of the crowd dominated by Waha or Storm Kahns or people wealthy enough to make trouble for me. Oppress the poor that's my motto. I was rewarded by curses, pleas for information, cries of "Who done it then?", "What's happened." and even one, "What exactly has transpired here, then?" Him I booted in the groin since his clothes were rather tatty. I deflected all these questions with shakes of my head, physical violence, curses or that old classic "Ask the governor."
Just as I was about to leave the crowd someone grabbed my upper arm. I was just about to stomp on their foot to make them let go when I realized it was a woman. Or rather that it was Petro.
"You're alive," I blurted out. "Shush," he said, "Where can we go that's private?" He looked like hell. What little skin I could see was bruised and he was filthy. He'd obviously turned his robes inside out to hide some of the dust and dirt. I looked around to see whether anyone was watching and decided no one who mattered was paying any attention to us. I thought for a second and said, "Juli's, do you know where it is?" He nodded and said, "I'll meet you there." I watched him go with misgiving in my heart but decided that a bath would be welcome whether he showed up or not. The downside being of course that I would have to drag my poor bruised body all the way across town again. I sighed and headed out.
Wheezing and puffing like a bellows being worked by an overly enthusiastic giant I finally made it to Juli's. Cletus shook his head to see me back again so soon. "You're going to get sick getting wet so often. What do you think you are a newtling?" He looked me up and down again and said, "And what the hell are you wearing?" I ignored this question and managed to reward this witticism of his with a strained but clearly false ha, ha and hobbled past hoping to find someplace to collapse out of the sun. Surprisingly Juli herself was manning (womaning? no staffing) the reception desk. She smiled and said, "We've been expecting you..." She trailed off and looked me over with a quizzical look. "What are you wearing? Crimson is just not your colour." Everyone is a bloody comedian AND a fashion critic. I straightened myself, adjusted my hem and trying to look snooty said, "Really? This is what everyone is wearing in Glamour this season." She chortled, stood up and preceded me into the tub room. Looking like something scraped off of the bottom of the Emperor's shoe I managed to follow her in.
Inside the tub was already full and steaming. Sitting inside was a slim young, and yep after a quick check, definitely male figure. Petro smiled and gestured for me to join him. After a pause to catch my breath I stripped with Juli's help, unstrapped my leg and slid in. I went under the water and stayed there until my muscles had started to unkink. I was under so long that hands started to grab me. Wishing to help me since I was obviously drowning I guessed. I pushed them away and stuck one hand out of the water in a rude gesture to let them know I was alright.
I surfaced to suprised looks on their faces. "How did you manage to stay under so long?" Juli asked. "My great grandmother was a fish," I replied. A statement that lives in the general vicinity of the truth if not right next door. Juli shook her head and said, "You never cease to surprise me Treibonus. I'll leave you two gentlemen alone. Your friend has paid for the entire afternoon." I blessed her for not loading the word "friend" with any extraneous baggage. Before she got out of earshot I yelled after her for her to send some lunch in. Riding cacodaemons is hungry work. Her reply was refreshingly vulgar and I yelled out a "Please" to appease her.
I looked at Petro across the tub and asked him the following question, "So why shouldn't I drown you right here and now?" He had the decency to wince and replied, "Because then you would never learn what ogres have to do with this whole business of Cressidus and Balarus' deaths." Damn he had me there. "Okay then spill it." He looked to be fortifying himself to reply and then asked, "Do you know what hazia is?"
I stifled a groan and sunk below the surface again. Yes the water was pretty disgustingly dirty but I needed to collect my thoughts. For whatever reason I think better when I'm underwater. What did I know so far? I had two dead followers of Yemalio. One a degenerate asshole who should by all accounts have been kicked out of the cult, the other supposedly so pure that Yelm should have shone out of his arse. They were both here in Pavis ostensibly for the purpose of establishing stronger ties between the Sartar Sun Dome and the two here in Prax. The degenerate was poisoned, then smothered and then stabbed by person or persons unknown. Then after he was dead someone or someones decided to try ornamental carving on his carcass and left the results on display in a butcher's hut in Badside. I do not get this modern art.
The pure one, after announcing the first one's death, supposedly sets off back for the Sartar Sun Dome only to turn up in a cattle pen, sorry cebu pen, crusted in shit with a Black Fang smile to make up for his lack of a more usual one no doubt. So the whole business looks like it has something to do with local factions opposed to closer ties with the Sartar Sun Dome.
Now at the funeral I meet the degenerate's boyfriend, who is also a follower of Yemalio and another fine example of how not to be a Yemalian. He decides to talk and let me know what's been going on. While we're chatting the place we're in is treated to the gentle mercies of a cacodaemon, a beastie most often associated with ogres. We manage to escape death through the timely intervention of a very odd Uroxi. And now, the boyfriend mentions drugs. What next? Free Sartar rebels? Pyramid scheme cultists?
I reluctantly resurfaced to get some more information. Petro had the decency to look sheepish. I shook the water out of my face and said, "Hazia." "Hazia," he affirmed. "User or dealer?" Petro sighed, "Dealer." I sighed and shook my head. "Where? Here or back in the Sun Dome?" Petro snorted disgustedly, "Back home of course. We haven't been here long enough to set up as dealers." He was right to be disgusted with me it was a stupid thing to say. I hazarded a guess, "So you're here to either renegotiate your deal or cut out the middlemen?" Petro grimaced, "Um, cut out the middlemen."
That was the answer that I had been fearing. It certainly explained the stack of bodies. How stupid can some people get? These idiot bright boys thinking they can move in on Pavis and take over the local drug trade from the charming ogres who are presently running it? Bloody foreigners. But it didn't really explain the poisoning or the smothering. Too damn subtle for ogres. They normally deal with incredibly brutal and obvious messages. Mass decapitations, wholesale slaughter, that sort of thing. So this business still wasn't as straightforward as it could be. On top of all the still unanswered questions was one thing. I stared hard at Petro. "So explain something to me. Why are you still alive?"
Petro shrugged, "Just lucky I guess." I pondered this statement trying to decide whether he was just stupid or the gods actually were looking out for him. It was possible I suppose. It was pretty lucky that just the right Uroxi was passing by when all hell literally broke loose. It's not possible for us mortals to perceive or understand all the machinations of the divine after all. How did my uncle describe it? Oh yes, we can't see the "big picture". (What do you want from an artist?) That statement made a hell of lot more sense when I was touring the imperial art gallery in Glamour and saw some of the big historical paintings on display there. Imagine a painting big enough to hang on the rubble wall and not seem dwarfed. Put a thousand years of detail and action on it and try and get a grasp of what's going on in the whole painting. Life's like that.
But I digress. The deaths of Cressidus and Balarus still seemed far too gentle for ogre drug dealers. Not the attack on the Beleagured Bison mind you. Sorry, Beleagured Buffalo. That had ogre all over it. I stared hard at Petro. "What am I going to do with you?" He started and looked annoyed, "Why do you have to do anything with me?" I shook my head disgustedly, "Because you're a suspect in a murder investigation, idiot. I'm sure I could get Jorjar to find a nice space for you in the pokey." "The what?" "The jail. I'm sure that he'd love to ask you some questions about cacodaemons and taverns. The whole city must be stirring by now like an anthill with a Praxian staked to it."
He looked scared at the thought of jail. I couldn't blame him since that would make it very easy for the ogres to find him. "Don't worry, you're worth more to me alive than you are dead. I'm going to have to find someplace safe to stash you." I thought briefly about this and then smiled. "I know the perfect place. Somewhere even ogres and cacodaemons wouldn't be stupid enough to go." Petro looked less than thrilled at this and said, "I can take care of myself Treibonus. I've looked after myself this far haven't I?" He climbed out of the tub and grabbed his clothes. "Forget it Treibonus I am out of here and there's no way you can stop me without your fake leg on."
He nodded towards the corner where my leg rested. I leaned back comfortably in the tub and shrugged, "No, I guess there's no way that I can stop you." I paused and smiled, "So I'll have to ask for help. Yoo hoo Cletus." I called. Petro turned to scamper like the scared little bunny he was but was brought up short when he found the only exit from the room blocked by Cletus. Cletus smiled at me, ugly sight that, and crossed his arms. "My friend here wants to leave but I don't want him to. Can you put him in one of the private rooms until I make arrangements for his storage?" Cletus agreed affably and dragged off an unprotesting Petro. Smart lad he knows when not to struggle unnecessarily.
I heard a scuffle out in the hallway, the sound of bare flesh hitting hardened leather and a loud whack, followed by a sodden thud. I called out to Cletus, "Is he still alive?" "Oh yeah. He tried to knee me in the balls and make a run for it. Guess he never heard of cuirboilli loincloths. He'll wake up with nothing worse than a headache." Oh well, not that smart afterall. "Thanks Cletus." I got dressed in some clothes Juli had lent me and went out to make the necessary arrangements for Petro's storage. I left the crimson cloak behind. Too many bad memories associated with them.
Pavis is a funny place. Things happen here that you couldn't see happening other places. Well, except Glamour that is. For example you can see a room holding trolls, elves and dwarves at the same time without the place needing redecorating afterward. It's got a unique vibe I must say, surprisingly enough something like the one Glamour has. No not on the surface of course. The only part of this bloody place that would stand out in Glamour is the Big Rubble. Those walls would stand out anywhere except that hell on Glorantha, Alkoth. Goddess keep me away from that nuthouse and its inhabitants.
Like I was saying it's got a unique vibe and allows for strange things to happen. What I was doing is a perfect example. Nowhere else on Glorantha could I see myself going off to talk with a troll. Why was I going off to talk with a troll? Why to arrange storage for my buddy Petro. And why would these nice, ha, ha trolls do this for me? For that I have to tell you a little story.
Once upon a time there was this party of adventurers who had after much hard work and sacrifice on their part had journeyed into some nasty underworld and retrieved this spear which had been dipped into the blood of divine Yemalio himself. This gave you a permanently burning spear which had all sorts of other abilities. Well this bunch had no sooner surfaced when a whole war party of Zorak Zorani Death Lords and assorted hangeron's had jumped them. This story taking place in Pavis instead of killing them outright the trolls just shook 'em down for the spear. And paid them for it. (Well, it was an offer they quite literally couldn't refuse, not and keep on living anyway. But they still got paid for it).
So not being complete idiots they accepted the troll's money and let the spear go. Much to the disgust of the bright boys but that's another story. Of course they got paid in bolgs and ended up with a house full of the damn things. What do you expect from trolls? What does this story have to do with me? Well seems these adventurers needed the services of an informer who forget to check the colour of their money when he accepted the exorbitant fee they offered. What the hell am I going to do with a house of the bloody things but hire trolls? I'm tired of paying trollkin to guard my stash anyway. I swear the little bastards are eating the damn things themselves.
So that's why I'm going to pay the local Zorak Zoran temple to stash Petro for me. Can you think of a safer place to put someone in Pavis? Well as long as the trolls don't eat him themselves that is.
Trolls give me the creeps. I believe I've already mentioned that I don't particularily care for non-humans, no matter what Sedenya thinks about universal brotherhood and what. Don't even get me started on the farcical distinction between "good" and "bad" chaos. No, not bad, what's the official term again? Oh yeah, "unenlightened". Right, unenlightened my arse. There's a reason why the public lavatories in Glamour that aren't staffed by broos do such booming business compared to those that are. Most "unenlightened" people can't tell the difference between the two varieties and don't care to.
Like I was saying I'd be perfectly happy if I didn't have to deal with any of them. I can certainly tell the difference between non-humans and some are better than others. But trolls are probably the worst of the ones you're likely to see on a day to day basis. Especially here in Pavis. You know my history with elves and they creep me out even more, cause they're so damn different than humans. And so bloody dangerous. But most days I can fool myself and believe that trolls aren't that different than humans. Right, like most people I visit pose the danger of eating me. Well there was that one time...
But I digress. My troll contact is one runty looking uzko, those are the ones most like humans. He's so runty he's not much bigger than your average Uroxi, i.e., still a heck of a lot bigger than me. They call him Chomper, yeah real imaginative I know, at Bob's Bisonburger where he "mans" the grill. I don't know what his mother called or calls him. Chomper's okay I guess but he's considered to be a weirdo in the general trollish community because he eats cooked food. If he were a decent, morally upstanding troll "cook" he would work at Thunderbreath Gobbleguts out in the Rubble serving up the vittles still squirming if at all possible. But no he's a freak like much of Pavis and lives here and eats cooked food like a human.
At Bob's I order a bisonburger, there isn't anything else on the menu, crispy on the outside still sloppy inside. When I pay Chomper I flip him a blog our signal that I want to talk to him. I eat my burger with relish, it's not bad really and get up to leave. Chomper tells Bob he's taking a break wipes his hands on his apron and heads out back. I'm standing there waiting for him and he smiles at me and says, "So what's up?" I explain the situation to me and offer him one in ten of the remaining bolgs if he'll deliver this message for me.
Shaking his head Chomper says, "Those Zorani are bad news Placidus. If you look cross-eye at 'em they'll gut you faster than a riverman cleaning carp. Give me one in nine and I'll do it." Since I didn't really care what happened to the damn bolgs I agreed. Chomper looked disappointed to lose out on a decent haggle but like I said I'm just happy to be rid of the bloody things. No guarantees the Zoranis would do it though. I thanked Chomper and told him that he could either find me or leave a message for me at Gimpy's. Waving goodbye I headed back to Juli's to make arrangements for my bud Petro.
Bloody trolls. I knew that they would wake me up in the middle of the night. Waking me of course out of one of the best sleeps I'd had in days. I also knew that they would send one of those twisted little runts, i.e. trollkins, to fetch me. What I didn't know was that he, err she, err it, would be wearing the uniform of Jorjar the Quick's night patrol. I wonder if he knows that his patrolthings are working on the side? Perfect disguise in which to wander the streets at night. If it was a disguise. I decided that the runt's secrets could stay its secrets. No point in irritating critters that like munching on people.
Earlier today I'd arranged for Petro's short term storage at Juli's. This was going to cost me an unspecified favour sometime in the future. This annoyed me as I don't care to have things hanging over my head. Oh well. After that I'd gone home for supper and an early bedtime. In the middle of the night every other resident of Gimpy's, except me was awakened by the "watch" thumping on the door. First I knew of any of this was when I myself was awakened by a pounding on my door. I was sort of expecting this so I wasn't too surprised. Yelling that I was coming I quickly dressed and stepped outside. Parzel Post greeted me with a real dirty look when I made my appearance and confused me totally when he gestured sourly downstairs and grunted, "The watch want you, Placidus." I smiled apologetically, feeling terribly confused by all this and followed him downstairs.
I saw his brother and Morey the Short at the base of the stairs and things started making more sense when I saw that instead of the regular watch it was the nightwatch, some trollkin Jorjar had brought with him from Adari to use for night patrols. The "sergeant", well he did have stripes on his sleeve though they might have been booger tracks gestured for me to step outside as the boss wanted to talk with me. I decided on bravado and asked, "What are you going to do if I refuse? Club me on the kneecap?" He smiled showing his snaggly teeth and said, "No, me bite you in groin." This statement was rewarded by a wince and an immediate adoption of an instinctive hunched protective posture by all the human males present, myself and the owners to be precise, and of course my complete and immediate cooperation. I waved a jaunty goodbye to the Post brothers and Morey. They waved uncertainly back, still hunched over.
After we got outside to the street the sergeant smiled again, said "Don't worry me no bite, me take you friends" and gestured for me to follow him. I shrugged again and followed him through the darkened streets. His five troopers followed us to preserve appearances. We travelled a twisted trail to Bob's Bisonburger, no surprise there, and the sergeant led me around back where he knocked on the door in an obviously coded pattern. The door opened and he turned to go without so much as a cheery wave goodbye.
It was dark inside, of course, but I squared my shoulders and entered. Once I was inside the door closed. Someone lit a dim lamp and once my eyes adapted to the light I almost died from fright. Leaning against the grill directly opposite from me was a Zorani Death Lord in full combat rig. A hand touched me on the shoulder, even closer to death there, and the familiar voice of Chomper said, "Here he is boss." The Death Lord didn't deign to look at me and I realized that the comment was actually directed at yet another troll who I'd missed while swiftly calculating the best escape route. Great I'd had this dream, sorry nightmare, before. Just me and three trolls in a kitchen. Wonderful.
A closer look at the troll Chomper had addressed made me feel a bit more relaxed, not that you should ever be that relaxed around a Death Lord. Probably only their zombies and skeletons could ever feel that relaxed around them. The other troll was wearing sunglasses held a big floppy hat in one hand and had a rolled up sun parasol in the other hand. Didn't take much of an effort to guess which cult he belonged to.
The Argan Argar trader addressed me in quite decent New Pelorian, "My name is Glint Coincounter. My services as a negotiator have been hired by the local Zorak Zoran temple. The temple representative is Kreeg Skullhollower." He nodded towards the Death Lord who didn't respond in any way. I forbore from offering to shake hands with him but did nod in his direction. "Is my intercession in this manner acceptable to you." I shrugged and nodded agreement. "Shall we get down to business then?" "Certainly", I said. The trader translated each statement into the trollish language for the benefit of the Death Lord.
"Now my understanding is that you are wishing to hire the services of the Zorak Zoran temple to safeguard the life of a human. Is this correct?" "Yes," I agreed. "Now what is the nature of the threat to the human." "He's being pursued by ogres and cacodaemons", I replied. At the translation of this the Death Lord smiled. Goddess guard that I should ever see a smiling Death Lord ever again. Even scarier than the cacodaemon's had been. I barely suppressed a shudder.
"And the duration of the protection is to be...?" "Um, that depends on how much protection I cna buy with a house full of bolgs I suppose." Again the Death Lord smiled at the translation and spoke for the first time. I don't understand a word of the trollish tongue but he sounded like the Death incarnate he was. He went on for some time and laughed. And I thought his smile was bad. I failed to suppress my shudder this time. The trader turned to me and translated the following:
I shuddered inside on Petro's behalf. Unfortunately I have my doubts that any of the human agencies in Pavis could safeguard him. Besides which I could finally get rid of those damn bolgs. I nodded agreement and had begun to describe where the bolgs were when the Death Lord spoke again so I stopped. The translation explained a lot.
He slapped a bolg into my unwilling hand, almost knocked me off my feet and I saw that the bolg was marked with one of the same runes that the Death Lord had on his armour. How in the Goddess' name had I ever missed that before. Must have been my disgust at being stuck with the damn things in the first place. The translation continued.
"Thanks", I said and bowed. He actually nodded his head, will wonders never cease? "So we have a deal?" I asked. The trader spoke with the Death Lord again and then nodded. "All the bolgs minus my fee.." I interrupted and said, "And Chomper's one in nine." The trader translated and the Death Lord spoke again. The trader said, "The Lord says that Chomper will get what's coming to him." Geez, I hope that's not as ominous a statement as it sounds. I stole a look at Chomper who looked content enough and decided that it was his problem. I nodded and held out my hand. The trader interrupted by saying, "Are you sure that you don't want to haggle?" He had a almost begging look on his face. I shook my head no and said, "I'm just glad the sacred metal is getting back to the Zorak Zoranis." Lying bastard, what I really would have liked to say was that I'd have preferred it was melted down and then used to seal their temple shut.
The trader sighed and translated. The Death Lord held his hand out awkwardly and I shook it. Then he seemed to remember something and spoke to the trader. The trader looked at me and said, "This human isn't from an enemy cult is he?" Oops. I quickly lied and said no. That's going to be a tough one to break to Petro. Maybe I can get him to switch to Urox...
After picking up Petro from Juli's I left the trolls to their business and went back home. I can't say that Petro was terribly appreciative about being watched by trolls. He seemed particularily upset when I explained that they were Zorak Zorani trolls. Kind of incoherent even. He was shrieking something about cult enemies or something. I suggested that his god wouldn't mind too much if he avoided any mention of which cult he belonged to and that perhaps he might want to avoid practising his devotions until I came and got him. I suggested that he could make up the devotions later.
For some reason he really didn't want to go but finally Cletus and I got a sack over his head and managed to knock him out. I'm sure the Xiola Umber healers will be able to bring him around. I persuaded the Argan Argar trader to tell the Death Lord that Petro was crazy and to ignore anything he might say while under their protection. I sure hope that saying he's crazy keeps being a lie. He seems a tad high strung to enjoy a trollish captivity.
Like I said I left the trolls to make their way back to the Rubble. All I could see was the trader, the Death Lord, Chomper and Petro were hidden by the shadows the trader had summoned so I just waved goodby to him. Glint Coincounter, what an odd name for a troll. I don't know how they were going to get back there though I suspect Sor-Eel would be very interested in knowing. I wasn't prepared to risk our business arrangement with needless heroics or nosy question asking to find out though.
I left them and headed back to Gimpy's. I was surprised when the night watch suddenly appeared to offer me a safe escort back. The sargeant, I think his name was Twisty-no I don't know why, left me at the door and I thanked them and waved good-bye. I pounded on the door until I got Miltry Post's attention. He wasn't too pleased about getting out of bed though and made some choice comments about rude guests and complained about being rousted out of bed yet again.
I thanked him, slipped him a couple of lunars for his troubles and stumped my way back upstairs. I was so keen to hit the hay that I was pretty careless while entering my room. This meant that I was completely taken aback when a very senuous voice said from the direction of my bed in New Pelorian, "Where have you been you naughty boy? I've been waiting for you for what seems like forever."
Now normally upon hearing an unexpected voice in my bedchamber I would have tucked tail between my legs and fled. However this was an extremely sexy voice and it had been a very, very long time so tucking was out of the question. Instead I did some quick thinking. If this person meant to kill me I would already be dead, so they didn't mean to kill me...or I suppose they might just have wanted to do it both slowly and painfully. Well it had been so very long that I decided to throw caution to the wind and see exactly what this person wanted. I put my best foot forward (yes that's the real one) and boldly approached the bed. I believe I said something asinine along the lines of, "If I'd known you were here I'd have hurried home."
When I regained consciousness sometime later, and no she didn't sap me she just wore me out, I was surprised to find her still in bed. I propped myself up on my elbow ignited my bedside lamp with a quick charm and looked down at my partner. She was an absolutely stunning woman, wearing absolutely nothing. Obviously a Pelandan from her colouring, if the perfect New Pelorian hadn't suggested somewhere in the Empire. She smiled a heartbreaking smile up at me and I smiled back. I said, "You are very, very, very good at that. So why are you wasting such talent on the likes of me? Who do you work for?" She laughed a beautiful trilling laugh and I forgot about my questions for a while as I reached for her.
Afterwards I said, "But seriously who are you working for?" She smiled again but I steeled myself and frowned back at her. This made her laugh some more and I was forced to smile. "What am I doing that you could possibly care a rubble runner's ass about? A professional like you, no offense, is wasted on the likes of me." She sighed and sat up cross legged. I manfully ignored the beautiful display this presented and put on my best no nonsense face. She looked serious and said, "How much do you love the Empire?" I sighed and remained silent and thoughful for a while. "I don't know how to answer that. The Empire does a lot of good but it also does a lot of evil things. For example why are we forcing ourselves on this rat's hole?" I shook my head, "I suppose I would be forced to admit that it's mostly a positive force in the world."
She nodded, " I'm here in Pavis keeping an eye on things for.." she paused and shrugged, "officials in the Empire." I frowned at her, "You're spying on Sor-Eel for Fazzur Wideread?" She laughed and clapped her hands in delight. "Very good but not quite right. You are every bit as smart as Fresser said you are." "Fresser?" I asked. "You know Fresser?" I was puzzled and starting to get scared. "You're a follower of Cora?" I squeaked. She nodded gravely. The followers of Cora are Moonson's personal concubines. They serve Moonson as spies and sometimes as assassins. There aren't very many of them so getting boinked by one's a great honour. Fresser's their head priest and something of a friend of mine from Glamour. I'd heard that he'd been exiled by Moonson for a bad joke he'd made at Moonson's expense during an orgy. Something about a full moon rising I think.
"So, now that you've blown your cover are you going to have to kill me?" I didn't have any illusions about my ability to defeat even a naked Corean in combat so I was resigning myself to death. At least I could die happy.
She laughed her tinkling laugh and clapped her hands in delight which stopped my heart from racing along. "I wouldn't have told you anything if I didn't think you could be trusted. Fesser said that you were very discrete and could be counted on to keep your mouth shut." Geez, I didn't know that the big mound of fat covered muscles thought so highly of me. I must have visibly relaxed because she laughed again. I laughed too and realised that I didn't even know her name. When I asked it she smiled and said, "Call me Crystal." "So, Crystal not that I haven't enjoyed our...exchange of ideas but..." She laughed again and flopped down beside me on the bed. She really did look good from every angle. I continued, "But what are you doing here?"
She smiled again. "I'm here because there are two situations here that are of grave interest to the Empire." She held up one perfectly manicured finger. "First, we have two dead followers of Yemalio from a temple technically within the Empire, albeit a somewhat restless border area. It is not in the Empire's best interests to allow residents of the Empire to be brutally murdered. Especially not diplomats. No matter what their personal short comings. Fortunately they weren't Imperial citizens or we'd be seeing a sudden outbreak of crucifixions. It may still come to that." It chilled me to hear such offhanded brutality from such a pretty source. Just a reminder of how formidable agents of the Emperor can be. "Closer relations between the Sartar Sun Dome and the ones here are definitely in the Empire's best interest. However it is very suspicious that a degenerate like Cressidus would have been sent as a representative. Was this a serious attempt at closer ties or not? If not who's playing silly buggers? I may have to look into that myself."
I interrupted, "What's the second situation?" She smiled a grim smile, "The hazia trade. The Emperor wishes the trade between here and the Empire in that drug to be stopped." She rolled her eyes, "Unfortunately the Emperor is often of two minds about a subject. He's also sold the rights to deal in hazia to a Dara Happan association, the Willowgreen association out of Raibanth. Not officially of course, nothing so obvious but He has agreed that they can benefit from the trade and transport the drug into the Empire. Sometimes money speaks louder than misery. Especially in this case when the money speaks so loudly."
"So Cressidus was the connection in Sartar for the drug?" I said, "The drug left here, traveled to the Sartar Sun Dome and then from there into the Empire." She nodded, "Part of the shipments anyway. Despite official disapproval and harsh punishments the financial rewards for growing the drugs are too strong a temptation for the farmers of Sun and Garhound Counties. Of course the farmers in Garhound County couldn't care less what misery the drug brings to the Empire. What the Emperor would like done, in an unofficial manner if possible, is if the trade was stopped here. Of course He can always claim any official action here was without his knowledge or approval so that would be okay too. That'd get Him off the hook with the Willowgreen Association." She shook her head, "Unfortunately this Cressidus was apparently trying to get the local middlemen out of the picture. Seems unlikely he could do such a thing considering his resources and their resources." She shook her head again, "But then it's easy to underestimate how stupid men can be. Present company excepted." she said with an offhand wave of her hand. Geez, how flattering.
"So, why are you telling me all this?" She smiled and said, "Ultimately we work for the same boss whether the local authorities see it that way or not." She paused, "I just wanted to let you know what the "official" stance is on the matter." Again she paused, "Oh and a warning which you probably don't need to watch out for those ogres. They are definitely bad news." I grimaced in reply, "No need to worry about me in that respect. I always take demonic monstrosities to heart."
She sighed and then stood up and started collecting her clothes. "I have to go now. I will be in touch if it proves necessary." I was crushed by this casual dismissal but I understand duty. I still had to try though. "Is that it?" I asked. "She turned to me, dressed in a nondescript sack like dress and smiled at me. Laying her hand along my cheek she said, "Oh you men are all the same. You take things far too seriously." She shook her head. "It was fun but it was business. Let me know if you find anything interesting out about the hazia. I can be contacted through the evening chamber maid at the Silk-n-Plume. Tell her that you lost a magic crystal. If she asks what colour say that it was red and black. Then give her your message." She turned to go swathing herself in a voluminous hooded cloak.
I sighed, "Good luck and Goddess bless then." I could see a glint of amusement in her eyes in the hood and she kissed me, copped a feel and left. I closed the door and decided to go to sleep. Exhausted by all my exertitions I slept the sleep of those truly blessed by the Goddess, among whose ranks I sincerely doubt I am numbered. But is it not written that She Loves Us All?
The next morning I awoke late feeling quite refreshed. I dressed carefully in my cleanest clothes and made my way down to breakfast whistling, only to discover that they were serving lunch. I shrugged and sat down to a nice lunch of braised bison, vegetables in season and half a bottle of imported red. After I had eaten I sat there nursing the rest of my bottle of wine trying to decide what to do next. It seemed obvious to me at least that ogres didn't have anything to do with Cressidus or Balarus' deaths. Too clean, too simple, too...wasteful. It must be hard to find real mockpork here in Pavis, not that fake stuff that the Praxians eat. But if ogres hadn't offed them who the hell did? In Cressidus' case the question was not who had a motive for killing him but who didn't. In Balarus' case though who would have wanted such a complete git knocked off though?
Maybe it was time to arrange a trip to Sartar.
I was distracted from my musings by a tug on the hem of my tunic. I looked down and found a grubby urchin with his filthy hand firmly wrapped around my cleanest tunic. "Hey let go," I shouted, only refraining from giving him a push from a desire not to further begrime myself or make any closer acquaintance with Gorakki's children. The urchin let go and stood with his hand out. I frowned and demanded irritably, "What do you want lad?" The urchin bristled and piped out, "I'm a girl not a boy!" I shuddered inside at her filthy state but feeling somewhat guilty at being so loud I lowered my voice a bit and repeated my question more gently while acknowledging her gender. I also shook my head at Miltry Post who had started coming over to throw the dirty scamp out. "What do you want lass. You surprised me, that's all." She sneered and said, "You really should be more careful who you let sneak up on you. How do you know that I'm not a Black Fang assassin?"
I shook my head feeling irritated once more, "How'd you like to end up in the Deezola orphanage? I have connections in this town." I felt immediately guilty when I imagined that her face had turned pale. It was kind of hard to tell what with the dirt and all. She muttered something rude under her breath which I ignored and said, "I have a message for you." She held out her hand again and I noticed this time that what I had mistaken for her extended palm was actually a potsherd. I gingerly picked the potsherd up ignoring the fact that she didn't stop holding her hand out. I turned it over and read the brief message I found there scratched in New Pavic:
If you want to know who killed the Sunlovers come to the Real City today, alone.
My eyebrows rose I looked back at the street brat, "Do they think I'm stupid or something? Who gave this to you kid?" She shook her head, "I couldn't see their face they were wearing a big cloak." "In this heat?" I shook my head again. How obvious a trap could you get? I wouldn't have given three bent clacks or a houseful of bolgs for my chances. "How big was the person?" She nodded her head and said, "Big. Taller than you." She looked me up and down, "Well, a lot bigger than you." I grimaced, "And what language did they speak?" "New Pavic." A thoughtful pause, "without an accent." I smiled, "What a clever girl", I said She scowled and blushed, I think damn that dirt, at the same time
Hmm, this was too tempting, despite the fact that it was obviously a trap. I rummaged around in my belt pouch looking for money, a scrap of parchment, a pen and pot of ink. I told the girl to sit down, "What's your name, kid?" She looked suspicious and remained standing, "Daphne. Why do you want to know?" "Because I don't eat with strangers and I gestured for her to sit down again. She sat down and I waved Miltry over. "Miltry please bring my guest a pot of stew and something to drink." She perked up, "Wine?" I shrugged and said, "Why not? Bring her a glass of the good stuff. Put it on my account." Shaking his head at this Miltry walked off to fetch Daphne's order.
I arranged my writing implements and Daphne watched in fascination. "You can write? I didn't know you were a longbeard or brown sage?" I shook my head while I struggled to force the scrap of parchment to lie flat, "I am neither a follower of Lhankhor Mhy," I paused as thoughts of a certain attractive Lhankhor Mhy flitted across my mind, "Nor am I a follower of Irripi Ontor. I just need to know how to write in my business." Once the parchment was flattened somewhat I quickly scribed a brief note to Count Belarus telling him what I was planning on doing.
Miltry returned with a glass of wine and bowl of the famous stew Gimpy's served. He'd even thrown in a hunk of somewhat stale bread. The stew's not famous because of its quality but rather the fact that it originates from a magic stewpot that never empties. Actually I've had a bowl and it's pretty bland stuff. You wouldn't have guessed that from Daphne's reaction to it though. She made it, the bread and the wine all disappear like a conjurer makes coins disappear. As I waited for her to finish, and incidentally for the ink on my mesagge to dry, I watched her eat.
She ate like a starving kid, which obviously she was. Thin as a rail. I couldn't really guess at her age. No older than 12 or 13 years I'd guess though. Painfully thin, matted hair and possibly pretty under all the dirt. No life for a kid at all. Probably destined to die an ugly death on the street sometime in the future or be turned into a prostitute by some pimp. I reconsidered the Deezola orphanage but I wouldn't have wanted anyone to put those kind of restrictions on my freedom either.
What to wear, what to wear? What are they wearing to ambushes this season in Glamour?
What I'd like to wear was a detachment of Lunar hoplites with accompanying magical support
troops but I guess that'd be too tacky. Something tasteful and simple I suppose.
Like my normal garb, perhaps with the addition of another present from my Mostali buddy,
to wit a chainmail vest made of some metal I don't recognize that he asked me not to wear
in public. Well at least not openly. Under my tunic would definitely be okay.
I made my way through the streets heading towards the People's Gate which is the easiest way to get into the Rubble and head on to the so-called Real City. The Real City was the first bit of Pavis built centuries ago by the dwarves and managed to survive more or less intact that whole time. No thanks to the nomads and trolls of course.
When I reached the gate the guards were all set to make me do the usual paperwork. They were quite disappointed when I waved my magic writ of cooperation in their faces. They were going to give me a hard time when they saw that I was alone too but I just waved the write again. They scowled at this but waved me through. Some of King Hargran's thugs offered to guide me but I waved them off too.
I could hear them placing bets with the gate guards as to how far I would make it or what exactly would eat me. One particularily charming looking speciman suggested that I would probably be "tenderized" first by some nice broos. A gate guard called out that he hoped that whatever got me, he wasn't particular as to what did it, would leave enough bits to identify me by. I gave them all some choice street salutes from Glamour and headed on my way.
I was nervous enough just walking through the Rubble without a guard never mind expecting an ambush any second. There were plenty of spots where you could be safely jumped by nearly anything. The piles of rubble were bad enough to hide the bloody Bat for Goddess' sake. The most annoying bit about this whole business was that they must take me for a complete lackwit, I mean really, "Meet me in the Real City, come alone?" Where in the Real City? It's not that small after all. I shook my head, squared my shoulders and kept on going trying to seem nonchalant as befitted a citizen of the greatest empire Glorantha has ever seen.
When the ambush came it was sort of a disappointment. Out from behind some piles of rubble stepped three thugs carrying crossbows. They were all big buggers with bulging muscles and nondescript clothes. "He actually came Pa, what an idjit." Another goon shook his head, "This guy's just as stupid as the other ones, Pa." The third one, not to be outdone in the sparkling repartee department said, "Yep, he sure is stoopid."
I almost rolled my eyes at these morons, crossbows or no crossbows. I carefully spread my arms out palms facing them, making no hostile moves. "I'm going out on a limb here fellows but I'm guessing that none of you inbreds is the leader here? Am I right or am I right?" A shiver went up my spine as I heard a cold chuckle from behind me. "You're a funny man Lunar," said a raspy voice that really sent the chills up my spine. Next thing I felt was a sharp blow behind the ear and I knew nothing more.
Well not until I woke up that is. As far as regaining conciousness goes this was a bad one. Getting clouted upside the head is bad enough but waking up hanging upside down from a meat hook in an ogre's den is just about as bad as it's ever been for me. How did I know it was an ogre's den? Well let's just say that the decor left nothing to the imagination. I'll spare you a description of the sights and the smells though I suspect they'll always have a prime place in my roster of nightmares until the Goddess clasps me to her sweet bosom that is. Thankfully someone had just looped a rope around my ankle and hung that from the meat hook rather than sticking the hook through my ankle. Still bloody uncomfortable though. My wrists were trussed together and I could see my fake leg had been stuck somewhere rude in one of my meat hook neighbours. How ironic considering the number of times I'd threatened or wanted to do that to someone.
There was no disguising the fact that I was conscious because besides the groans of regaining consciousness I had started awake and set myself to spinning around. Not the best thing on an already upset stomach. After breakfast had exited the way it came in I tried to stop myself from spinning. I managed to slow myself to a gentle spin and once my stomach settled I tried to look around.
From my gently rotating perch I could see that two of the three wannabe Bush Range hillbillies were seated at a table playing some sort of game with a grizzled, even bigger version of the same. No doubt the owner of the scary voice. Incongruously there was a small scruffy, indescriminate looking mongrel attached to a leash sitting at the table as well perched on a chair. Odder still it had playing pieces in front of it. It noticed me looking over and I swear that a sad look came over its eyes. One of the young orges glanced over when he saw it looking and saw that I was awake. "Our guest is awake Pa. Ratbane spotted him." Ratbane?
The grizzled one cuffed the speaker upside the head and he flew backwards and thumped into a wall. He slumped to the floor and lay there rubbing his jaw. The grizzled one turned around to sit backwards on his chair in order to face me with a somewhat disgusted look on his face. He shrugged. "What can I say? They take after their mothers. Got anything smart to say now Treibonus?" He smirked.
"I think from now on I'm going to set a limit on the number of times that I am willing to regain consciousness during an investigation." It was fairly annoying to be rotating slowly while talking to someone. "No more than once per investigation I think." "Oh, I don't suspect that will prove to be an issue any more, Treibonus. I suspect that your career has ended as of now." "Oh great, ending up as ogre chow. Not exactly how I envisioned myself dying. No dancing girls involved," I managed to reply despite being chilled to the bone. Being a wiseacre is an full-time job after all.
Incongrously enough the old ogre stood up and twirled around. "How's that?" he asked as his sons and the dog all looked goggle eyed at him. "You're a little long in the tooth for my tastes frankly and I prefer bigger tits on my dancing girls." He threw his head back and laughed the hearty laugh of the insane villain, "So you're probably wondering why I lured you here today."
I was surprised to say the least, so much so that I blurted out, "What this? Is this the point in the story where the villain tells the hero all about his dastardly plans? How hackneyed," I started laughing out loud but then I stopped abruptly upon realizing that normally this happens just before the villain tries to kill the hero. My captor bared his nice white ogre teeth at me, no doubt attempting to put me at ease which of course failed miserably. What he said next suggested that he was reading my mind, "Please, I'm not the villain in some bad Lunar melodrama. I don't feel any obligation to expose my evil plots to you." A pause and another smile, "If I wanted you dead I would just kill you and get it over with. No overly elaborate death traps to give you an undeserved chance to escape." The sons guffawed at this statement.
Well wasn't that heartening? "And here I'd been hoping for a good old fashioned death trap so I could escape once you'd cackled evily and left me to my doom." I said swinging slightly back and forth. The ogre shook his head in amusement, reached over and poked me in the chest setting me to gyrating wildly. "I like you Treibonus despite your being your stupid enough to accept my invitation. So you know what I am going to do is to fill you in a bit on what's been going on." I was in no state to listen as my stomach roiled and I struggled not to vomit. Would it be throwing down?
The ogre reached over and grabbed hold of me stopping the swinging. He didn't grab me gently either, just like an ogre to show off his strength. At least when they don't have to hide their nature, that is. I've dealt with ogres in the past and they're another argument that chaos IS all bad. I'm still waiting to see some good chaos. But I digress. Once my head and my stomach had stopped spinning I gasped out a thank you and the ogre continued.
"You probably already guessed this but I have an interest in the local hazia trade. There's two sides to the trade, neither of which is particularily above board considered the repugnance the Sun County, Pavis and Garhound County governments all officially have to the trade. However there's is a, hmm, more official channel to the trade that deals with the Lunar demand for the drug. This is the trade dominated by a trade association from Dara Happa."
I interrupted, "The Willowgreen association out of Raibanth." The ogre scowled and crouched down before me. Grasping my jaw in his hand he squeezed hard enough that I could feel my jawbone creaking and cracking. I saw stars and I vaguely heard him say, "I don't like being interrupted Treibonus. If I want to hear from you I will let you know." Once the pained look had left my eyes he continued.
"As I said before I like you Treibonus and you seem to know more than I expected. But don't interrupt again." He paused again. "Anyway, that's the "official" channel for the trade. They're the ones who don't get persecuted by the authorities, so much anyway. Steady flow of drugs, big volumes, reasonable profits, but heavy overhead in the form of steady bribes. Now there's another channel for the trade as well and that's the independent entrepreneur like myself. We get our drugs, well you don't need to know that, we get our drugs and smuggle them out of Prax however we can. Lower overhead and higher risks, lots higher. But we do a pretty good business once we get established. But," here he paused again for effect, "The last thing we need is some out of towners coming in and trying to muscle in on our trade." Another pause. "Our margins are already stretched pretty thin and there's just enouh business to go around among the proper sorts." He stopped and eyed me expectantly. I managed to speak past my rapidly swelling jaw, "You mean ogres?" I asked mushily.
"Not necessarily," he replied. "I mean locals, or at least well established foreigners like ourselves. Right boys." I glanced over at the boys. Big mistake as they had obviously decided it was lunchtime. I averted my eyes as they mumbled past their full mouths, "Right pops." And other such inanities. "Anyways, these Solars show up and decided they want to rewrite their delivery contract." I hazarded an um to see if I could ask a question. He nodded agreement and I continued. "Why don't they deal with the Willowgreen Association?" "Because the Willowgreen Association doesn't care to waste their time dealing with someplace so close to Prax. The volume and the returns don't warrant it. Once they get the hazia out of Prax they don't care to break up the shipments until they get to the Empire proper. That's where we local entrepreneurs shine. We deal with anyone, even supplying them if their suppliers can't deliver. I made a lot of money when that operation at Black Rock was closed down."
"But as I was saying I don't like outsiders trying to muscle in and I was in no mood to be nice to that Cressidus Shithead." "But," he looked disappointed, "we didn't kill him. And I don't know who did kill him though they did us a favour there." I risked another interruption which was again rewarded by a nod so I continued. "But what about Balarus Reflected Glory?" The ogre looked puzzled for a second then smiled that smile again. "Oh yes, him. He thought we'd done it too." (I didn't bother correctly the ogre's mistake as I'd long since decided they hadn't been responsible). The ogre looked extra scary for a moment. "Him we killed." "Isn't that bad for business?" I ventured. "Oh, no. Someone will take the trade at their end. There's too much money to be made."
He turned his back to me and spoke to his sons in what I was surprised to recognize, if not understand, as Carmanian. The sons immediately dropped what they were doing and started collecting their possessions. In short order the four of them were all packed up and ready to go. I readied myself for the end. The leader looked over and laughed at my fortitude. "I guess it's your lucky day Treibonus since I've decided not to kill you. Not outright anyway. There's nothing you can do to me anyway. Maybe I've gotten too soft or maybe I have read too many Lunar melodramas." He shrugged. "Either way I'm just going to leave you hanging there with the rest of the meat." The sons had gone already and he grabbed the dog's leash and started to go. The dog gave me an exceptionally soulful glance as he was dragged out. The ogre stopped just outside the door and turned to me again. "Oh by the way I'm taking all the wards down so it's anyone's guess as to what comes across you first. Maybe some hungry trolls, maybe a horny broo, maybe a equites in shining armour." He yanked on the dog's leash which yelped in protest and laughing loudly he waved goodbye and disappeared out of sight.
After I had waited a while to let the bastards get out of ear shot I tried to free myself. It wasn't any use of course. I was already feeling light headed from hanging upside and I could barely feel my leg never mind my hands which were trussed just a bit too damn tight. To top if off there was an annoying ray of light that was coming from a crack set high in one wall of wherever the hell I was. The half the time I spent facing that way it shone right in my eye. I would have stopped spinning but everytime I tried I stopped facing that damn light so I immediately got myself started again to avoid it. Any gizmos in my leg were unfortunately out of reach of course. Having exhausted any physical means of succor I tried the divine world. No dice, it didn't seem that my prayers would be answered today. Not directly anyway. I debated internally the merits of shouting for help but that mention of trolls and broos didn't really make me want to risk it. Not yet anyway.
The flies were getting pretty damn annoying. The ogres' wards must have kept them out before but now that they were down they were coming in to enjoy the feast. Soon enough they were crawling all over me too, getting into my ears and eyes and even my mouth if I wasn't careful enough to close it. I spent quite a bit of my energy trying to blow them out of my mouth and nose. Fortunately they weren't laying eggs in me too. At least not yet.
Hours seeemed to pass and I was getting a terrible headache. Not to mention the muscle cramps and the lack of water. I was all too aware of how long it'd been since I'd eaten or drunk anything and the ray of light had moved a bit and it certainly didn't look like I was going to be rescued this time around. Oh well, it had been a good run I suppose. I wondered who would write my epitaph and whether Harkala Glad-Help would miss me. Ah, the poignancy of a missed opportunity! I hoped the Goddess would embrace me to her bosom. But not near any chaos or non-humans I hoped.
I was getting ready to face the risks of yelling for help and attracting unwanted attention but then this bloody dragonewt entered the room carrying one of those big stone toothed swords they use. I was pretty sure that I wasn't hallucinating when it nodded at me and turned around and left the room. I swung around some more and then the dragonwet re-entered the room followed by Count Belvani. "What took you so long?" I griped. He grimaced and said, "You're bloody lucky that I was able to persuade Karial the Pure to perform a divination. If it hadn't eventually worked I would never have found you. As it is we've got a lot of chaos and trollkin stirred up in this section of the Rubble with our searching." I squinted and cursed as the ray of light hit me in the eyes again. Belvani nodded towards the light. "You should be thankful and face the god with both eyes wide open. That ray saved your life. I wasn't really sure that the god would know where you were. If you'd been underground we'd never have found you."
"I'm grateful, I'm grateful. I'll charge a hecatomb of bison to Sor-Eel for a sacrifice to prove my gratitude to Yemalio. Now please cut me down so I can kiss you." Belvani smiled, "You shouldn't say things like that to a follower of Yemalio." He drew one of his shortswords and advanced on me. Gesturing to his dragonewt to grab hold of me he cut me down. The pain was agonizing but the relief was exquisite
"Treibonus, you are such an idiot," Count Belvani declared after I'd told him what had happened with the ogres. "How could you be so stupid as to come out here in the first place?" I made to interrupt but he glared at me stopping me in mid-utterance. "And why would you be so trusting as to send a street rat to me with a message? Didn't you think that she might just bugger off or fail to be allowed to contact me? And what made you think that you're important enough to me that I'd want to traipse off into the Rubble looking for you? Or to Haloric Gold-brow for that matter. Those templars out there aren't all my bodyguard. And why wouldn't you just contact your fellow Lunars Sor-Eel or Jortaran?" He paced back and forth ranting as I rubbed the circulation back into my leg. His dragonewt just squatted by the door and I could hear the rattling of metal outside, no doubt from those templars Belvani had mentioned. He continued, "And you really believe that those damned ogres were telling you the truth?" He stopped and glared at me again. "Am I to be allowed to speak now?" I ventured sarcastically. He nodded sour agreement.
"Well first off I'm a pretty good judge of character. This made me confident that Daphne would do as I asked. And paid for by the way. I'm not a complete fool after all. It also made me pretty confident that I could rely on you and Haloric. For reasons of my own I'm not so sure about the local government." He raised an eyebrow at this statement but I wasn't prepared to follow through. Instead I continued my points. "Second, I'm pretty confident that the Sun Dome here would much prefer it if the whole story came out." He snorted amd looked extremely dubious at this point. "Err, correction at least they would like to know all the details even if they'd rather not share them with the rest of the world." He nodded reluctant agreement to this. "My good judgement of character tolds me that you like me enough to help me out." He snorted again and rolled his eyes at this but I was pretty sure he was secretly flattered. "I thought it was a reasonable risk to come out here like I did and I was right. I learned that the ogres didn't kill Cressidus but they did off Belarus. Plus I learned some stuff about the ogres' drug smuggling. They're working against some nice official Lunars. And now I wonder if they offed Cressidus."
Belvani stared at me and sighed. "Just when I was sure we had enough suspects." He shrugged and spread his hands, "So now what?" I glanced over at my artificial leg protruding from the fundament of some poor unfortunate who had fallen afoul of the ogres and replied. "Now we get my leg out of there then arrange to torch this damn place. After we first search it top to bottom to make sure there isn't any evidence here that the ogres left behind by accident that is." I looked sheepish and said, "Do you think your dragonewt could get it out of there?" He laughed and pointed at the leg. The dragonewt got it out and they helped me strap it back on after we cleaned it up as best we could. Then we got down to some serious searching.
The search proved to be a complete waste of time, unless you happened to like running your fingers through the unspeakable leftovers from an ogre's feast. I don't. By the time we were finished even Belvani who had struck me as being pretty unflappable was looking pretty green. Of course his lizard was unaffected. I even thought I saw it snacking but that might have been my imagination. The search took quite some time as the templars refused to help. Can't say as I could blame them. I could certainly think of hundreds of things I'd rather have been doing. But as I said the search turned up nothing besides our stomach's contents. We exited the charnel house and both Belvani and I recited whatever prayers we knew to placate the restless dead before we torched the damn place. The poor bastards certainly needed whatever guidance Yelm, Yemalio or the Goddess could provide to get to their afterlifes considering the state their corpses were in.
Collecting the templars we headed back to Pavis. I personally was in the mood for and in need of a good long soak at Juli's. I mentioned this to Belvani and he agreed that this was a good idea. Once we were safely past the gate he dismissed the templars and the three of us headed to Juli's. Once we got there Cletus looked dubiously at the lizard but shrugged and let us all in. We had to wait until a giggling group of Ulerian initiates were finished in the hot tub. Watching that would have probably erased every bad memory I had from the day's proceedings but I had to settle with just listenting. Once the tub was free and the initiates had been shepherded out by their watch priestess, who smiled and waved at Belvani who smiled back I ordered an extra long session in the tub for three. Juli who was on the desk again said, "Three?" "Me, the Yemalian and the lizard," I replied. She shrugged and I paid her. They offered to empty and refill the tub but I was tired of waiting and besides how dirty could Ulerian initiates get?
The soak was heavenly despite the fact that Ulerian intiates can get surprisingly dirty. Even the lizard entered the water and hunkered down so that only his eyes, crest and nostrils showed above the water looking like nothing so much as some kind of weird crocodile. Belvani proved to be a man who looked after himself. No excess flesh on him and more than enough scars to prove his warlike virtues. The three of use soaked in silence or scrubbed at our skin until we were as pink as boiled crayfish, well except the lizard that is. I doubted the stench and aura of the ogre's house would be that easy to get rid of though. After a good long soak Belvani turned to me and said, "Now what Treibonus?" I sighed and replied, "Now we get some rest and then have a good breakfast. Tomorrow we will pay a little visit to the local office of the Willowgreen Association. I think they have some answers we need."
Belvani shrugged his agreement and we got dressed. I checked with Juli who is a fount of knowledge and she told me where the Willowgreen Association had its offices. As it turned out it was only a couple of buildings down the street. I thanked her and suggested that Belvani meet me for breakfast the next day. He asked me whether I wanted an escort back to Gimpy's but I refused. I made an uneventful trip home and after a quick snack went straight to bed.
The next morning came far too early but I got up at Belvani's cheerful (and hateful) knock, got dressed and joined him for breakfast. We ate in silence before heading off back to Riverside. We got to Juli's, where her directions began from naturally, and started to head towards where she had told me that the Willowgreen Association had their office. I stopped suddenly as I thought of something. I turned and headed in a slightly different direction. Belvani who had been cursing me for my unannounced direction change hastened to catch up and said, "Where are we going, Treibonus?" Without stopping I called back over my shoulder, "I want to ask Hallarax the Singer what he knows about this outfit." Without checking to see if Belvani was following I went into the Riverman's Guild offices, conveniently located in the same building as Juli's.
Behind the counter inside was a slight youth with bad pockmarks and pimples on his face. I stomped over to the counter and thumped on it. "I want to see Hallarax," I demanded. The youth jumped in their seat and said in a clearly feminine voice - I really am doing rather badly with gender identification these days, must be all the time I'm spending in the company of naked men, pity really - "Hallarax is too busy to see anyone right now. Would you like to make an appointment?" I shook my head in disagreement, opened the gate and barged past her. Belvani's lizard's hissed at her and that and her squeals of fear drowned out her protests. I made my way inward followed by Belvani and his reptilian shadow. A goon I recognized as one of the lot who had abducted me tried to get in my way but I pushed the button on my fake leg that extends the hobnails on my foot and stomped on his bare foot. Hard. That'll teach him to abduct people. He screamed and fell backward through the curtained doorway he'd been exiting through. I followed him through the opening to see a stunned Hallarax and a crowd of unknowns, to me at least.
Hallarax stood up and demanded in his beautiful voice, "What the hell's going on here Treibonus?" "I've got some questions I'd like to ask you Hallarax." He looked aggrieved and pointed at his thug who was sitting on the floor nursing his foot. "You couldn't make an appointment like anyone else?" I felt a trifle embarrassed at my rashness but this mystery was getting to me. That and the predominance of naked men I think. Anyway I shrugged and said, looking a little sheepish, "It's important." Halarax looked annoyed and turning to the unknowns said, "All right boys we'll finish this later. Can you take him with you." This latter request was in reference to the thug on the floor of course. The unknowns muttered irritated agreement and left dragging the floor goon with them. Hallarax irritably pointed at stools in front of his desk and we sat. He sat down, fussed with some knickknacks on the desktop and then glared at me. "What?"
I looked back at him calmly and said, "What do you know about the Willowgreen Association?" The question was like pouring cold water on him. He straightened up, lost the angry look and a fleeting look of unease passed over his face. "Why do you want to know about the Willowgreen Association, Treibonus?" he managed in a flat voice. Well this certainly looked promising. "I'd like to know whatever you have to tell me." He sat there and obviously considered the situation. He got up and walked over to the doorway where he carely lifted a corner and peeked out. He hurried back and sat down. Leaning forward he began to whisper to us.
It was a tad disconceting I must say to see Hallarax so discombobulated. Belvani and I leaned closer to him so as to hear better. "What do you know about the Willowgreen Association, Treibonus?" I briefly reviewed what I knew to see what I was prepared to share and whispered back at Hallarax, "They're one of your typical Dara Happan associations. They're from Raibanth and they own lots of property there of course. They're here in Pavis trading for, um locally produced goods which they ship back to the Empire overland." Hallarax shook his head, "Don't be a jackass Treibonus. They don't just trade drugs. Sure there's lots of money to be made in that but there's a whole hell of a lot of money to be made just in legal river traffic. It's obvious that you know nothing about the River." You could hear the capital letter in his voice and he punctuated the comment with a series of gestures with both hands. He shook his head and began speaking louder. "I'm obviously going to have to enlighten you as to the realities of life along the river. So make yourselves comfortable and keep your questions for the end." He waited until Belvani and I had settled in before continuing.
"There have been families living and working along the River.." (an abbreviated series of gestures this time, which he repeated every time he said the word river) "..for a very long time. Before Dorasor, before Pavis even, probably dating back to the time right after the waters invaded the land families have lived and worked along the River. Many of those families date back as far as the Oasis people but unlike them they've lived free for pretty much the whole time they're been along the River. It's much easier to avoid the beast riders when you live near a body of water that hates them. New families have joined the river folk over the centuries, first when Pavis built his City.." (some unrelated gestures there) "..and when Dorasor founded the New City (different gestures there). More recently there have been a few familes of river folk from Sartar who have moved to Prax after the unpleasantness there". Belvani snorted at this subtle reference to our glorious invasion.
Hallarax smiled embarrassedly and I gestured for him to continue. All water under the bridge as far as I was concerned. He continued, "Anyway all these groups have been adopted into the local cult and have married into the local river folk. We know the River, we understand the River, we consider ourselves part of the River and we've always made our living off the River. When there hasn't been a city here we were content to fish for ourselves or the Sun County folk. We've moved goods on the River for them or anyone else who is prepared to respect the River and us". He stopped and sighed, "It hasn't always been the best relations between the Sun County folk and us but more often than not we've gotten along well enough." He glared at Belvani, "Except for the business of eating newtling tails of course." Belvani sighed and had the decency to look embarrassed.
Hallarax shook his head and continued, "Even when the Lunars took over life continued much as it always had at first. They seemed prepared to treat fairly with us despite the horrible things we had heard about their past relations with water." It was my turn to be the recipient of a glare this time. I shook my head in disgust. "You don't have to remind me about that. The Empire has definitely mistreated rivers in the past. My sympathies lie with the rivers." Hallarax raised an eyebrow and then continued. "Imagine how lucrative army contracts are, or say Solanthos decides on a new building project. Who's going to ship the stone and wood along the River? What about supply shipments to Ronegarth or Corflu? Who ships the crops the new Lunar settlers are growing? If the Lunars ever get the ocean trade they want in Corflu who's going to be shipping it upriver?"
I hazarded a guess. "Local outfits?" Hallarax looked annoyed but when he continued it was at a whisper again, "Once upon a time it would have been local outfits but ever since the Willowgreen Association moved in things have changed. At first they couldn't get people to give them the time of day, especially since they didn't know the River and no one was terribly keen on helping them get on better terms with the River. We're proud around here, they couldn't offer us enough money to make us accept them. And they didn't come in as supplicants or friends, they came in as uptight Solar bastards." Hallarax sighed, "But them the accidents started. A full warehouse burned down. When the family that owned it went to the outfit who had commissioned the shipment they discovered that the Willowgreen Association had bought them out. And they weren't interested in excuses or explanations. They wanted restitution for the ruined goods right away."
Hallarax sighed again. "We helped of course, everyone pitched in and raised the money they needed. But that was just the first incident. Then a river boat was attacked by bandits. Bandits that had enough magical firepower to burn the boat to the waterline and kill everyone on board. We could have gone to the Lunars but where was out proof? We barely managed to scrape together the money to make that one good but we couldn't do anything about the next one. The family involved in that mess had to go work for the Willowgreens."
"And why wouldn't you go to the Lunars with this?" Belvani blurted out. Both Hallarax and I looked at him askance. He blushed and looked terribly embarrased. I shook my head, how could someone so outwardly worldly could be so naive. He shrugged, "Sorry, it just slipped out." Hallarax sighed and settled in his chair. "We did actually think about doing that but fortunately we did some snooping around first. We learned that pretty much every transport contract and every cargo not owned by one of the Riverman's Guild members had been bought up or optioned by the Willowgreen Association. This made the "accidents" turn from seeming an evil plot into seemingly random occurences instead. We decided that we didn't have a boat to float in." He shook his head again. "I even met secretly with the head of the association here in Pavis and he was actually outraged at the mere suggestion of impropriety. He claimed that the Willowgreen Association did not have to conduct business that way and never had done so. I think he would have had his family retainers throw me out if I wasn't such an important person. For a backwater hicktown that is". This last was obviously a bitter memory.
"And what's this exemplar of propriety's name?" I asked. "Throshush Alcides Hybarates, third tier noble of House Galvanus of Raibanth. Whatever the hell a third tier noble is." "And he's the actual or titular head of the Willowgreen Association here in Pavis?" I asked. "Actual head I believe. I'm not certain if there is anyone else from House Galvanus involved locally. They do not mingle with what passes for nobility here in Pavis. And I don't believe they mix with the Sun Dome types either." It was Belvani's turn to look askance. "What, Dara Happans mingling with mere followers of Yemalio? Not a chance. We couldn't stand the brilliance of Yelm shining out of their collective asses. We're preferable to the rest of you rabble but only just." He snorted in disgust. "We certainly wouldn't be let in the main entrance. No, it'd be the servant's entrance for us." It was pretty amusing to see the snooty Sun Domers being treated like they treated the rest of us. But that wasn't bringing me any closer to solving this mess..
"So the grunt work is done by lesser status members of the Association?" Hallarax nodded and added, "Or by the growing number of local agents they are hiring. It's much easier to make a living working for them than starving without work. Of course some families are just giving up and going back to subsistence fishing. And maybe the odd bit of smuggling of course." Hallarax winked at us and we rewarded this confidence with a laugh. Far be it for me to quash the entrepreneurial spirit. "And of course," Hallarax added, "the Sartarite exiles will have nothing to do with the Willowgreen Association. They're making a decent enough living doing jobs for the Garhounders or other groups that won't work with Lunars or Solars. So far Count Solanthos has been using non-Willowgreen outfits as well. Apparently a shall we say diplomatic meeting between the association and him didn't go well." Belvani didn't flinch at this so he either knew about it or wasn't surprised at being left out of things.
I suddenly stood up, okay so I clumsily got to my feet. I still managed to beat Belvani up. "Thanks a lot for the info Hallarax, I owe you one." I never make such an offer lightly. He shrugged and said, "Glad to have been of help Treibonus. I don't know what good this information is going to do you though." "It's useful," I assured him. "Sorry about the goon." Hallarax waved my apology aside. "Don't worry about it. Maybe he'll be quicker on his feet next time and actually keep you out." Belvani and I laughed and made our farewells. We went out the way we came in past Hallarax's pals who were loitering around the outer office. I cheekily waved goodbye to the spotty clerk who tried to cower behind her desk and we emerged into the brutal midday sunshine. "So now what?" asked Belvani. "What else?" I replied, "We pay the Willowgreen Association a friendly visit."
On to Part 3
Story begun July 30, 2002. This page last modified April 15, 2004
Last updated September 26, 2016
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