Sunday, 12 May 2013

In Which Saeed Visits The City of Sorrowblade

Life, Saeed considered, is filled with hard lessons. The hard lesson that had occasioned this consideration was thus: Do not take the terms of a deal with the Master of the Patchwork Market lightly. Saeed had believed that the restoration of Princess Butterstone's brother, in reasonable health, from his place of captivity would satisfy the deal he had made with Kalico.

The Master of the Market had told Saeed upon his return to the Master's Tower that the agreement was null and void. If Saeed wanted a market seal he would have to do one more job. When Saeed had objected Kalico pointed out the clause in their verbal agreement that required the matter be handled 'with discretion'. Saeed took a moment to reflect and came to the conclusion that the explosion and resultant damage to Sir Vaskorn's plaza, not to mention the confrontation between Vaskorn's mercenaries and the Market Watch that had followed, could hardly be described as 'discreet'.

Saeed's only options were to get angry about the matter or to accept his own shortcomings. A thief Saeed was, hot tempered he was not. So Saeed had, with unspoken sadness and frustration, accepted the master's ruling.

"I knew you had wisdom," Kalico grinned, as he sat behind his large flat desk. The Master of the Market was relaxed, he exercised power with an air of great assurance. He smiled like a shark and had eyes like a snake. Underneath it all, Saeed believed, there was a heart that was, if not good, at least ethical. "Maybe the sting of my harsh ruling will be lessened if I tell you the nature of the job I wish you to do."

"Perhaps," Saeed said, although he could not imagine it.

"What if I told you that yesterday's little disturbance was not the first time that Sir Vaskorn's activities have attracted unwelcome attention?" Kalico asked, his tone smooth and measured.

Saeed could not help but lean forward a little. He had not liked the giant knight one little bit. Sir Vaskorn was a bully, filled with rage, who frightened people into obedience. Any chance Saeed was given to undermine a man like that was a chance to do good in the name of his mother.

Kalico's smile neither grew nor did it falter.

"A wise boy and an excellent thief," Kalico said. "I shall not be able to cut too many deals to my advantage with this one."

Only then did Kalico's facial expression change, it grew darker, the grin disappeared as Kalico sat forward over his desk.

"Before the close of market on Duesday," Kalico said, "One of Vaskorn's men has been observed leaving the market upon a certain bridge to one of the darker far off shadows. The same knight returns upon the following Stockday accompanied by two talking wolves pulling a cart of treasure, the treasure goes onto Vaskorn's plaza. At that point I lose track of it.

"I have, of course, performed routine inspections of Vaskorn's plaza, as I do all pitches in the market, in order to assess the dues to be paid for the upkeep of the market as a whole. My watch have never found evidence of the chests or their contents upon the plaza.

"Aside from the possible dues evasion issue," Kalico said, a new darkness settling into his tone at the mention of 'dues evasion', "there are other matters at hand. For a start nobody knows what is in the chest, nobody knows where the chest comes from and nobody knows what happens to the chest or its contents after it disappears onto Vaskorn's plaza.

"As you have already observed all confrontations between Vaskorn's men and my watch have the potential to turn ugly. It would not be the right play for me to directly confront a dues paying merchant when I do not know what the outcome will be for the market or its other patrons. The Patchwork Market has long held a reputation as being not only the biggest and best market in the lands of Faerie but also a far safer place to bring your coin purse than many smaller establishments. A street war is not something that anyone wants.

"The particulars of market lore prevent me from hiring a retinue of intelligencers but they say nothing about how I choose to reclaim the debt of a thief that I have found causing a disturbance on the plazas. So you see, as much as I may wish to dispense you a seal and send you upon your way, right now I need your particular skills more than I need to be praised for my benevolent generosity.

"Besides, I think I would be right in saying that you are not overly displeased to be offered an opportunity to redress the power balance problem I have with one of my wealthiest patrons."

Saeed could feel the beginnings of a smile start upon his own lips. Kalico's judgement was stern but it could not be argued against.

"Indeed you would not be wrong, Master," Saeed said. "I would be happy to provide you with this service, but I cannot, a second time, allow you the opportunity of a loophole. I am as keen as anyone to see Vaskorn properly hemmed in, but I am more concerned about the progress of my journey towards my mother. If I cannot be assured that I will secure the seal by the performance of this latest task I will have to leave the market and find another road upon my journey. I am sure that, as this would mean that everybody loses, no one here wants this to be the case."

"You argue eloquently," Kalico said. "Be assured that if I find out where the chest comes from, what it contains and where the contents end up, I shall happily furnish you with the seal you require. Discretion in this matter is obviously vital. If Vaskorn catches you I don't have to tell you how badly things would go for you. I also have to inform you that I will not be able to vouch for you if he brings you to me. This matter cannot be sensibly resolved if Vaskorn knows what I have been up to."

"I understand," Saeed said. "As I will not be encumbered by either a weakened prince in a state of confusion or a requirement to make noise it shall be just as if I am not there at all."

"Let us hope for all our sakes that you are neither proud nor boastful," Kalico said.

By the following Duesday Saeed had been given a good three nights to consider the extent of his own arrogance. He had come to the conclusion that a little arrogance was required of a thief, therefore he could only hope that his own was not excessive.

Vaskorn's knight appeared before the noon bell, heading out along the bridge that the Market Watch had pointed out to him. The bridge lead out through the rainbow mists to a shadow called Sorrowblade. This was not a land that Saeed was keen to visit again once he had left this time.

A large city sprawled up the sides of a valley directly upon the far side of the bridge. The sky here was a strange reddish purple. Upon the horizon Saeed could make out the tall stacks of vast chimneys constructed from dark mud bricks.

The same bricks were used to build everything in Sorrowblade, the walls, the roads, the buildings. There was no sign of nature excepting small walled beds of black earth from which there sprung coils of sickly white creeping plants with no leaves. The wind that blew through the valley was warm and dry, it filled Saeed's nose and mouth, drying his throat and leaving a taste like baked bricks and vinegar.

The domain of Sorrowblade was a sad place indeed, buried in bricks and steeped in wickedness.

Thankfully the city streets were a natural home to shadows and the rooftops were high. Saeed did not find it a challenge to follow along behind Vaskorn's agent unseen. The citizens of Sorrowblade all appeared to be talking animals of the ferocious variety. Many were wolves but there were bears and foxes alongside tall rodentine men who obviously had ancenstry among rats, mice, ferrets and weasels. There were also a fair few of the more evolved lizard men living and working in the city.

Saeed recognised the way that the people of Sorrowblade were divided as being very similar to the social divisions of the souk in Afsana. Many of the wolves, bears and foxes were well dressed, they treated the rodents and lizards with contempt, shouting at them and ordering them about. Saeed couldn't help feeling a little sorry for some of them, particularly those who resembled white-furred mice who were not just smaller than their lupine and ursine fellows but also a good deal meeker. In much the same manner as the meek souk residents had been regularly bullied and abused by the palace guards of Afsana so these little fellows were the butt of cruel practical jokes or bore the brunt of horrible abuse from the ferocious bears and wolves.

Saeed followed Vaskorn's knight along a number of streets and over a gigantic square. In the centre of the square was an enormous statue of a jackal sitting upon a throne. The statue's eyes glowered down upon the throng of Sorrowblade citizenry with suspicion.

Vaskorn's knight headed into an alley and down a set of steps into a cellar building. At the door of the cellar the knight's identity was confirmed before he was allowed entry. After he had gone inside the door was locked behind the knight.

He moved from the shadows where he was standing back to the corner of the alleyway. Thankfully there was a low building, two stories high not far away from which he could look at the cellar in the alley and also the front of the same building. That way he would be able to see if the knight returned to continue his journey before evening. Saeed scaled a drainpipe at the side of the building and took up a position at the edge of the roof.

It didn't take long until Saeed began to feel that he was being watched. The entire oppressive atmosphere of Sorrowblade was enough to generate a certain level of paranoia but Saeed began to feel that this was not all there was to his feelings. He surveyed the rooftop and it did not take him long to spot a pair of sleek black cats regarding him with almost total disinterest from the opposite side of the roof.

Upon making eye contact one of the cats stood up, stretched and slunk over to sit beside Saeed on the roof ledge.

"Monkey two legs," the cat said. "Not often we see one of your kind on our streets, let alone within the kingdom of the cats."

"Apologies for my intrusion," Saeed said. "I was not aware that this vantage point belonged to anyone. I promise I will be no trouble and I will be gone soon."

"I am not overly concerned about your presence here, monkey two legs," the cat said. "I barely care enough even to be having this conversation with you. Still, you are strange in my world and I do have a little time for strange things. Would you care to tell me why you come to Sorrowblade? This city is so hostile to your people that you have to hide away in the Cat Kingdom lest you be savaged by a wolf or bear."

"There is another man here," Saeed said. "He comes from the Patchwork Market of Bridgetown and soon he will return there bearing a chest. I just wished to know where the chest came from, and now I do."

"Why do you care?" the cat asked. "What is in the chest?"

"I don't know, this is something else that I need to find out."

"That building is one that has a hot roof," the cat said. "It is not part of the Cat Kingdom. A mischief worker plies his trade inside those walls. A cat goes in, it never comes out."

"What does the mischief worker do?" asked Saeed.

"Works mischief," the cat said in a tone of voice that communicated just how stupid it considered Saeed to be. "All kinds, many kinds fatal. The mischief man has a book of monkey markings, even though he is descended from the play food. We stay away."

"Thank you," Saeed said. "That is very helpful."

"It was not intended to be helpful," the cat said. "And I do not care for your thanks, they are neither soft to sleep on, nor good to eat. I am bored now."

The cat turned and walked away to its companion. After a brief conversation the two of them hopped off the edge of the roof and retreated away from Saeed's position.

The afternoon wore on, the stalls in the square began to close up, a lizard man swept up in front of a stall that advertised itself as a barber's. Saeed assumed the lizard was not the barber, after all who would trust a barber with scales instead of hair? Satisfied that the knight was not going to leave that day and keen not to be caught in Sorrowblade after dark Saeed returned to the Patchwork Market to report his findings to Kalico.

The following Stockday Saeed was waiting by the Sorrowblade Bridge as the knight, accompanied by two wolves on their hind legs, dressed in relatively fine clothes and pulling a cart behind them, returned to Bridgetown.

By the time they arrived the evening bell had rung and the streets of the market were mostly dark and silent. A few of the plazas, particularly those that offered food, entertainment and lodgings (all gathered into the cosmopolitan quarter), were still operating. The knight and the wolves avoided these plazas, sticking instead to the mercantile plazas, all of which were closed for business.

They were even careful to avoid the all night tobacconist stands and appeared to be on a constant lookout for the watch.

Not needing to gain access to Vaskorn's basement area this time, and having already located his prize, Saeed skipped along the beams of the roof tops, only coming down when he needed to cross a bridge behind the knight and the wolves.

Before long they reached Vaskorn's plaza. Saeed took the opportunity to quickly circle the high walls of the area checking for weak spots. This time, the urgency of his mission having decreased as no one's life was on the line, Saeed found a small hole which allowed access for plumbing pipes, gas works and ventilation ducts. Vaskorn's plaza was well defended but it did take advantage of some things that could only be distributed through the market network.

Saeed squeezed through this hole and found himself in the rafters above the plaza, looking down upon the neatly cobbled streets of Vaskorn's domain.

The knight, wolves and their cargo were admitted via the main portcullis and crossed into the small square where Vaskorn and Kalico had confronted one another the previous Longday. A scaffold had been erected over the covered ramp that Prince Butterstone had blown apart, the stocks that Vaskorn had vandalised remained broken.

The knight crossed the square and entered the main building on the plaza via a stout wooden door. After a few minutes the knight returned with another man Saeed did not recognize. The man wore a long dark cloak made of a rich material. He also wore a broad brimmed hat topped with s single green feather stuck into a silk band that was held in place by a jewelled buckle at the front. The quality of the man's attire lead Saeed to believe he was royalty.

"I don't like doing this in the square," the man complained as they crossed to the cart. "It's too exposed."

"Unfortunately the basement rooms are not safe at present, after our accident with the detonating powder," the knight said.

"I hope that teaches you to be more careful with explosives in the future," the man said. "I always thought that Vaskorn was too cavalier in such matters."

"Indeed," the knight said. "Would you care to inspect the shipment?"

"Of course," the man said. "The second thing they teach you growing up in the House of Mossdark is never to trust a Sorrowblader, no offence," he said to the wolves with no hint of sincerity. The wolves didn't appear to be paying much attention anyway.

Vaskorn's knight took a key from a chain about his neck and opened up the chest a little way. A sliver of white-green light spilled out from inside. Before Saeed could get a good look at the contents the man in the cloak held up a hand.

"Not too far," he said. "You can still see the light of dragon crystals from an open plaza, even if you can't see the plaza."

Dragon crystals, Saeed noted. He didn't know what dragon crystals were, but he noted the name for Kalico anyway.

The man in the cloak squinted past the light into the chest and, after a few moments, waved for the chest to be closed. Once that was done he pulled a purse of coin from his cloak and handed it to Vaskorn's knight. Then he produced a stubby stout wooden wand and waved it vaguely in the air in front of the treasure wagon.

A glittering portal opened up in the square and the wolves, who seemed unimpressed by all of the proceedings, followed the man in the dark cloak through the portal which immediately began to shrink and close.

Panic gripped Saeed's heart. He had seen where the chest had come from and he had discovered what was inside. All he knew of where the crystals went was that a man in a dark cloak took them through a magical portal.

Vaskorn's knight was already halfway across the plaza, his back to the closing hole in reality behind him. Thankfully the void had to be big enough to allow a cart pulled by two large man-wolves to pass through it. Without thinking too hard on the decision Saeed jumped down from the rafters sped across the square and dove through the closing portal before it had quite disappeared.

Saeed landed roughly upon a cold stone floor in a broad passageway. There were no windows and it was both damp and cold. Saeed guessed he must be somewhere underground. Up ahead some distance he could see the back of the cart as the wolves pulled it onwards. Once they had delivered the cargo Saeed reasoned they must be allowed to return to Vaskorn's plaza. Only the chest disappeared from view.

Saeed's only option was to follow on behind and hope he could get through the second portal to return him on his way. In the meantime he had to find out who the man in the black cloak was and, if at all possible, what he was doing with chest after chest of dragon crystals. This he did, and returned to the market with news for Kalico, but the ins and outs of the situation are a tale for another day.

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