City of Coin
Alcázar had many names. In the language of its own people, it was the Fortress. The poets called it the jewel of the Inner and Outer Seas. To the merchants, it was the City of Coin. For the ships leaving Herbergja to cross the Storvik, traverse Drake Run, pass around the Fortönn, and sail for weeks on open waters on the Outer Sea, Alcázar was most of all a relieved sigh at the sight of safe harbour.
Alcázar rested upon red cliffs that jutted into the waters like the prow of a ship, guarding the precarious passage between the Outer and Inner Seas, much the same manner that Middanhal did between the peaks of the Weolcan Mountains. A ship arriving from the west would see its walls rise along the cliffs, near impossible to assault. The western docks were the largest and busiest; upon approach, such a ship would have to lower its sails and ease its way into the harbour among the many other vessels.
With trade between Herbergja and Alcázar unmatched, scores of islander ships arrived each day. The shipments in their holds and the silver coins in their purses were vital to the lifeblood of the city; the former supplied countless necessary materials that could not be found so abundantly nearby, and the latter ensured enough coin in circulation to keep trade flowing freely.
As soon as a ship moored by one of the piers, day-labourers and slaves scurried aboard to begin unloading crates, jars, barrels, and so forth. The captain would speak with one of the harbourmaster’s aides, paying the mooring fee and providing all relevant information. The sailors meanwhile would attend to any final tasks before they could be given leave.
One ship, named Disfara’s Eye, unloaded more than goods as it anchored in Alcázar. Once the ship was safely fastened, a passenger disembarked with speed, carrying only a heavy bundle slung over his back. He blinked a few times against the sharp sun, glancing around. In every direction but the one behind him rose the cliffs and buildings of Alcázar, and there was a clamour of voices speaking either Nordspeech, Suthspeech, or a mixture of both.
“Everything good, Master Garrick?” The captain of the ship approached his passenger after his business with the harbourmaster’s aide had concluded.
“It is, captain. Thanks for a smooth journey,” Garrick told him.
“Spring is a pleasant season for sailing,” replied the experienced sailor. “I’d advise you to keep your wits about you,” he added. “The docks in any city tend to draw unsavoury people, and more so in Alcázar than anywhere else.”
“I won’t be hanging around,” Garrick explained. “I have a letter for the blackrobes living here. Do you know the way to their temple?”
“It’s little more than a shrine, but aye, I do. Follow the big street into the city,” the captain pointed, “until you reach the maswar.”
“It’s a big, open square, you can’t miss it. The shrine’s a little north of there. The streets around the maswar are like a maze, mind you. You’ll need to ask directions again once you get there, or if you got a copper, pay an urchin to take you. Keep a grip on your purse if you do,” the captain grinned, “because those little bastards got more tricks for stealing coin than a ship’s got rats.”
“Appreciate the advice,” Garrick said along with a farewell gesture. Keeping one hand on his sword hilt and the other on his belt, near his purse, he walked towards the bustling streets of Alcázar.
In the southern neighbourhoods lay plenty of public houses, some less reputable than others. The most ill reputed of all was the Broken Tooth. It had expanded over the years, taking over the adjacent buildings until its size resembled a guildhall rather than a tavern. This was not by coincidence, as it served as the home for the Black Teeth, the gang of criminals that ruled the underworld of Alcázar.
The resulting architectural monstrosity resembled a maze when it came to the basement or the upper floors. There was nary a straight corridor, and rooms lay scattered in ways that contradicted intuition. This was all on purpose, to fool the unwary and trick the stranger. Operating outside the confines of the law meant that the Black Teeth were a distrustful lot. The only area resembling normalcy was the ground floor, which had one giant space apart from the attached kitchens. Numerous tables stood spread around the room, allowing for several scores of patrons to consume their spirits along with the tea that was a customary evening treat in Alcázar. One end of the space was elevated, separating it from the common area, and furnished with soft couches and large pillows; when she deigned to show her presence, the queen of the thieves held court upon this perch, surrounded by a few henchmen and attendants.
Despite it being only noon, the place had plenty of patrons already. Some of them lived in the compound or had dealings with those that did. Being a company of rogues, many were also busy bragging about the fruits of last night’s labour.
“I tell you, the old merchant had coins stashed in every conceivable place. In the drawers, between the ledgers on his shelves, even underneath his chamber pot! I pulled out birds and coppers from every crack,” one thief related.
“I think you’re pulling your stories out of a certain crack,” another jeered. He was thin to the point of being gaunt and had long, sinewy arms. A few scars ran across his hollow cheeks.
“You’re the one always full of it,” came the counter. “How long have you been talking about Dār al-Imāra? I don’t see your hands full of silver.”
“Funny you should say that…”
Disbelief burst from several of the rogues. “Don’t even try! You didn’t!”
One of them turned towards a large fellow, hitherto silent. “Walid, tell us it ain’t true.” The aforementioned hulk of a man simply shrugged.
“Come on, then,” another said, directing attention back towards the sinewy thief. “What was inside the lockbox?”
“What box?” asked a newcomer to the conversation.
Several groaned. “Now you’ve done it.”
“Have you never been here before? Tahmid’s told that story from apple to tree at least three times.”
“I’ve heard it four.”
“But never with this ending,” Tahmid interjected. “So if you wouldn’t mind shutting your teeth holes, I’d like to tell it in full.”
“Go on, then.”
“You’ve all heard the boasts made by al-Hadid, I assume,” Tahmid began.
“A lock maker,” another listener explained.
“The best lock maker in town,” Tahmid corrected. “He claimed to have made a lockbox for the master of Dār al-Imāra that could not be picked. Not even by yours truly, Tahmid, the best thief in Alcázar.”
“He mentioned you by name?” The question was asked with incredulity.
“If he knew about me, he would have,” came the reply. “Naturally, the master of Dār al-Imāra would put his most precious belongings inside this impregnable lock and keep it in his innermost sanctuary.”
“Bloody Tahmid’s a storyteller now,” someone snorted.
“Given that Dār al-Imāra trains the mamluks of even the Kabir himself, it is to be expected that their palace is tighter than a chicken’s arse. Guards everywhere, from the outer grounds and every step towards the master’s bedroom deep inside the harāmlik itself. But where others see the impossible, I see a challenge,” Tahmid smiled.
“Well, I hear a windbag.”
“Last night, I went inside Dār al-Imāra.”
The other thieves looked at him with surprise, incredulity, or both. “Really?”
Tahmid raised one hand. “I swear by Elat. Got over the wall and inched my way forward. Damn mamluks were swarming the place. It took me an hour just to cross the grounds.”
“Where did you go?”
“Into the harāmlik, of course,” Tahmid replied overbearingly. He was leaning back in his seat, smiling at the undivided attention sent his way. “Took me another two hours. Finally, I reached my prize. With al-Musharaf sleeping in the bed next to it, I saw the loveliest little chest, made entirely from steel. It glittered in the faint moonlight.”
“I stepped up to examine the lock. I’ll tell you boys, it was the most intricate thing I’ve ever seen. It would make your little necks turn and snap trying to figure it out. I put in my picks to rummage around a little, and it was unlike any other lock I’ve ever tried.” Tahmid stared around the table, keeping them in suspense. “I realised that even I, the best lock pick in Alcázar and possibly the entire Inner Sea, would need hours to figure it out.”
The thieves returned his gaze with bated breath. “So what did you do?”
Tahmid’s lip curled into a superior smile. “I picked up the lockbox and took it with me!”
Laughter erupted around the table. “Must have been a heavy haul.”
“Enough to make Haktar sweat,” the thief swore. “Took me hours and hours to get out undetected and haul that thing all the way back here.”
“Did you get it open?”
Tahmid grinned. “Would you like to see it?”
“Walid, get it from my room.” By his side, the brute turned to glance at him with disapproval. “Come on, I’m sick to my stomach of carrying it. Just get it, you big oaf.” Walid chewed on his lips but remained silent, leaving to do as bid.
“Did you get it open?” someone asked.
“Good old master al-Hadid has outdone himself,” Tahmid admitted. “When I got it back here and had both time and peace to study it, I still found the lock impossible! The tumblers seemed in a different place each time I pricked them with my picks.”
“Maybe someone should pay al-Hadid a visit,” one of the thieves mumbled.
“I tried the hook picks and the half-diamond picks. I pulled out the cleaver, the cat’s tail, the four-fingered monkey,” Tahmid enumerated.
“Get to the point. How did you get it open?”
Tahmid gave a sly smile. “Where’s the fun in telling you? I have a better idea.”
Walid returned, carrying a steel box in his arms; while clearly heavy, Walid did not seem burdened in the slightest. He placed the object on the table, which croaked slightly under the weight. Several hands pulled the lid open to peer inside. “It’s empty!” exclaimed one of the thieves with obvious disappointment.
“I wasn’t going to leave the spoils inside for anyone to see,” Tahmid replied irritated. “But you’ve all seen that I opened it, despite al-Hadid’s boast. I’ll wager a hundred birds that none of you slick-fingers got the skill to pick that lock like I did.”
“Tahmid’s gone mad, promising a hundred silver away!”
Even Walid grunted in surprise while Tahmid smiled again. “Looking at you lot, that’s a safer bet than finding lice in a sailor’s crotch.”
“Why do you want to pay us for picking the lock?” one of his companions asked suspiciously.
“I don’t intend to pay you bastards a single petty. And when you all fail miserably, you got no choice but to admit Tahmid is the best thief in town.”
“For a chance at hundred silver, I’ll admit anything.”
“One moment, good masters,” Tahmid told them, closing the lid. He dug out his picks, inserted them, and while they all scrutinised his movements, he turned the lock. “All yours,” he smiled.
Immediately, the rogues began pushing and shovelling, clamouring to be the first to take a crack at al-Hadid’s most famous work of craftsmanship.
The little boy pointed at an unassuming building with a dragon sigil carved above the door, and he turned around to send Garrick a wide smile while sticking out his hand.
“I’ll be damned,” Garrick exclaimed, digging out two copper petties. “You don’t speak a lick of the king’s tongue, but sail my ship if you didn’t know exactly where to take me.” He dropped the coins into the urchin’s hand. The boy’s small fingers snapped shut like a bear trap, and he ran off while laughing. Checking yet again that his purse was still with him, Garrick entered the shrine for Rihimil.
It looked slightly different than those in Adalmearc; the room was entirely square, and the altar was placed precisely in the middle. The warrior statue was not marble, but alabaster, but there was no doubt that it was the Black Knight. Garrick pulled out a leather string he wore around his neck; its pendant was a simple wooden carving upon which was written the rune for Rihimil. Holding the pendant, Garrick bowed down to kiss the foot of the statue. “Thank you for a safe journey,” he prayed.
Straightening up, a start went through him; the darkness of the room had concealed that he was not alone. In a black robe stood an acolyte, looking at him. “Apologies, master,” the youth spoke. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“I wasn’t frightened,” Garrick grumbled. “You just took me by surprise, is all.”
“Regardless, you are welcome in this holy place,” the acolyte continued. “If you are new to the city and require help of some sort, we will gladly offer it. We can also ensure any letters bound for Adalmearc is sent swiftly on your behalf.”
“I don’t got any letters to send, but I do have one for your master,” Garrick replied, pulling out a bundled piece of parchment. “There’s an anointed priest in this place, right?”
“There is,” the acolyte told him and extended his hand to take the letter.
Garrick pulled it back, out of reach. “I’ll be delivering it myself. I got business to discuss with him anyway.”
If this bothered the young man, he did not let it show. “Very well. Follow me.”
He led Garrick into an adjacent room, where an older priest sat with the silver dragon of Rihimil on his chest. “Thank you, boy,” he told the acolyte, who left them.
“What’s your name, Brother?” Garrick asked.
“I am Brother Cuthbert,” the priest answered, looking expectantly at the newcomer.
“This is for you,” Garrick said, handing over the letter. “I also have this.” He took out a rune-stave.
The priest grabbed both wood and parchment, letting his eyes run over runes and letters. “You’re Garrick?”
“Did Godfrey instruct you?”
“I think he expected you to do so.”
The blackrobe nodded. “It’s quite simple. We have contacts throughout the city that gather useful knowledge. It would seem odd for some of these personages to visit our temple, especially on a regular basis.”
“You need someone to go between. Who won’t look odd visiting your shrine.”
“You’re quick. Good. Yes, as a northerner, none will think it odd that you visit us from time to time.”
“That implies someone is keeping this place under observation. You really think that’s the case?” Garrick asked with doubt in his voice.
“Most assuredly,” Cuthbert replied dryly. “Which is why you should not linger. Take this,” he continued, pulling out a short piece of paper, “This has an address written upon it. Get one of the street children to show you the way, but beware your purse.”
“I know,” Garrick nodded, taking the note, “they got more tricks for stealing than a dog’s got fleas.”
“That place is at your disposal to live in. Before you leave, your assignment is this.”
“Already got work, eh?”
“In the southern medinas – neighbourhoods,” Cuthbert added, “there’s an unsavoury tavern called The Broken Tooth. Tonight, I’ll send my acolyte to take you there. Your task is simply to wait until the Prince of Cats makes contact with you.”
“The prince of what?”
“Cats,” Cuthbert added irritated. “I thought you were quick. Keep to yourself. The Prince knows to expect a northerner. You’ll be contacted and informed what you need to know.”
“And if nobody approaches me, what do I do?”
“Return the next night, and the next, until the Prince finds you.”
Garrick raised his eyebrows. “He’s an actual fellow, this kitten of yours?”
“And not to be trifled with,” the blackrobe urged him. “He is the ruler of the underworld and the most feared man in all of Alcázar. Do not speak of him in jest, do not mock him, and never threaten him.”
Garrick squinted. “And you’re sending me to meet with him?”
“You need not worry. He is bound to our cause. Enough questions. You know all that you need to know.” Cuthbert stood up, signalling an end to their conversation.
“Fine. I’ll be seeing you, I suppose.”
“Yes, but not too soon. Wait at least four days.” As Garrick left the room and the shrine, Cuthbert called out loud enough that the street could hear, “Rihimil keep you, my son!”
Crossing Alcázar, Garrick eventually found his accommodations, which was a single room amidst a number of others in a shared building. A jar of water was present along with the most basic of household items, but that did not include food. After some investigation, Garrick learned that none of his neighbours spoke Mearcspeech, but with an exchange of gestures, he persuaded one of them to let her small daughter take him to the marketplace.
It was afternoon, and the heat had dominance of the streets. Walking in his heavy boots, Garrick sent an envious look at the sandals worn by people around him. Thankfully, his young guide knew to stick to the shade, leading him through the clustered medinas, whose narrow alleys allowed little sunlight to reach the ground.
Approaching the docks, the girl made a few sharp turns until a large, crowded space extended in all directions before Garrick’s eyes. “Souk,” she told him, saying the word a few times slowly with an overbearing grin.
“Souk,” he repeated. “I’m guessing that means the place where honest men get swindled out of their coin. Or marketplace, for short.” She grinned at him and extended her hand. Once a copper had been placed in it, she ran towards a stall to buy something to eat.
Keeping a tight hold on his remaining coin, Garrick ventured forth. Some things were familiar, such as the smell of butchered meat or different types of cheese; cows, sheep, and goats were the same whether in Adalmearc or by the Mydlonde Sea. The same held true for most of the bread he could spot; wheat was wheat. What stood out to the Mearcian was the assortment of fruits. There was a wealth of them, many of which he had never heard of. Some of the vendors had little time for the foreigner, but others relished explaining their names to Garrick, usually with an avalanche of other words in Suthspeech to follow. Garrick simply nodded, repeating the names to himself.
The most striking difference compared to the marketplaces of Adalmearc was the barrage of smells coming from heaps of spices, creating patterns of colour to please the gods themselves. In Fontaine, a handful from one of these piles, be it pepper, cinnamon, or something else, would cost a day’s wage or more. Here, servants and wives bartered endlessly before filling small pots with saffron, cloves, nutmeg, or anything else they desired to flavour their meals with.
After consideration, Garrick decided in favour of a few loaves of bread and a variety of fruits, some familiar, some strange to him. Tracking down his small guide, she led him back to their house. Bidding the little girl farewell, Garrick returned to his room, where he ate his fill. There were no temples with bells in this city announcing the passing of the day, but the waning light suggested that evening was still an hour or two away. After washing down his meal with a swig of water, Garrick lay down on his bed and sought sleep for a while.
As evening came, there was a soft knock on Garrick’s door; it continued for a while until it finally stirred him from his slumber. Opening the door, he found the young acolyte from Rihimil’s temple.
“It’s time to leave.”
“I figured,” Garrick grunted. “One moment.” He poured some water down his throat followed by a few figs, buckled his sword around his waist, and left the room after locking the door. Silently, the blackrobe turned and led him out of the house onto the streets of Alcázar.
The city was less hectic than it had been during the day. Fewer people were moving about, the pace was slower in general, and most citizens congregated at teahouses and other establishments. At just about every corner, Garrick saw locals seated around small tables, enjoying conversation and sweet-scented tea from large mugs. They glanced at him disinterestedly as he passed by; northerners were not a rare sight in the city that connected Adalmearc with the trade routes of the Mydlonde Sea.
The further south they moved, the rougher seemed their surroundings. The buildings were built by coarser hands, the cobbled streets showed the occasional sign of disrepair, and the inhabitants carried long daggers rather than knives in their belts. Keeping a hand on the pommel of his sword, Garrick hurried after his guide and kept his gaze from lingering.
Turning yet another corner, the blackrobe stopped. “Best I stop here before anyone sees us together. Follow down this street another three hundred paces. To your left, you’ll see a large tavern. The noise and lights will tell you that you’re at the right place.”
Garrick peered down the street. “As you say.”
“Remember, you may have to wait several nights before the Prince approaches you. He likely only stops by once or twice a week.”
“I know, I got it,” Garrick said dismissively, still looking down the street. “It’s not like I got other places to be.” There was no reply from the acolyte; when Garrick turned around, he found himself alone. “Blackrobes,” he muttered indignantly to himself and continued on his path.
The Broken Tooth was busy like any other night. People in various states of inebriation littered the street outside, and Garrick had to weave his way forward to reach the entrance and step inside. The enormous common room spread out before his gaze. Looking to his left, he saw a richly dressed woman seated on a sea of pillows and surrounded by guards and sycophants; to his right, he saw the barkeep.
“Got some ale?” he asked.
The woman stared at him, neither understanding his speech nor impressed by his appearance. She pulled out a mug and filled a hot liquid in it. One hand extended the tankard; the other extended itself with open palm.
“Right,” Garrick muttered, dropping a few petties into the empty hand. When her demeanour did not change, he doubled the number of coins before she finally pushed the mug across to him. “Much obliged.”
He stood aimlessly until he located a chair by a small table, both of them unoccupied. Seizing the spot, Garrick sat down with his back against the wall, inspecting his surroundings once more. Drinks, both of the intoxicating kind and milder varieties, were naturally consumed at every table. Games of cards or dice were played in several locations, typically with small stacks of copper or silver traded back and forth according to the whims of fortune.
More curiously, one of the larger tables near the middle of the room held a metal lockbox of the kind usually kept in bedrooms or studies to protect valuables. Several stood congregated around, apparently attempting to unlock it, though none seemed to have a key; the occasional groans of frustration were heard, and the onlookers wore smug expressions.
The mood was torn by the commotion of shouts and men tumbling around. A couple of brutes came in, dragging a third man between them. A few gashes showed that he had not surrendered without a fight, receiving a black eye among other bruises for his resistance. The patrons shouted in glee, none having sympathy with the captive; several of them spat in his direction as he was dragged through the common room, all the way to the other side.
The ruffians threw him to the floor in front of the dais upon which the bejewelled woman sat, like a beggar before a queen. She eyed him with disdain and spoke harsh words along with a quick throw of the head. The captive attempted to form some manner of reply, but a boot to his mouth silenced him, and his captors picked him up again. The room fell silent while he was being hauled further back and through a door, disappearing down the descending darkness beyond.
The woman let her gaze sweep over the impromptu assembly. Her left hand caressed the pendant of her necklace, an enormous sapphire of immeasurable worth. She addressed the men and women with further harsh tones and swiftly returned to her seat. Taking a sip of his tea, Garrick leaned back in his chair until he felt the wall pressing against him.
The hours passed, and the tea in Garrick’s cup dwindled at the same, slow pace. More than once, he had it refilled and returned to his watch post, observing the common room but never letting his gaze linger on anyone or anything. It was long past midnight when one of the locals finally dropped into the empty chair opposite Garrick with a grin.
“Waiting to meet someone?” Tahmid asked in Nordspeech.
“Aye,” Garrick exclaimed relieved. “I was starting to wonder if I’d have to come back next night.”
“Wonder no more,” the rogue told him with a smile that revealed one of his teeth was painted black, making it look broken.
“So you’re him, eh?” asked Garrick, leaning forward to continue with a whisper. “You’re the Prince?”
An expression ran across Tahmid’s face. “Ah, no, I’m not – him. He is, what’s the word, he is shy. Not happy to meet people he doesn’t know.”
Garrick chewed this information for a moment. “But do you know what he’s meant to tell me?”
“Not quite. I am but a humble messenger, asked to go between.”
“I know the feeling,” Garrick snorted.
“Suspicious people we work with, but suspicions keep us all alive, friend,” Tahmid smiled. “I’m to take you to him. Wait a while, drink your tea, and leave the Tooth. Go down your strong side –”
“My strong side?”
Tahmid raised his right hand. “Go this way once you’re outside. I’ll be waiting down the street for you. Understood?”
“Clear as day.”
Tahmid sent him another broad smile. “See you soon, friend.”
Shortly after, Garrick left the Broken Teeth and turned right. He had not walked far before Tahmid silently fell into place next to him. “Himil’s balls, you’re quiet,” Garrick exclaimed as he noticed the other man.
“It helps in my work,” Tahmid smiled. “I ask you to speak more quietly.”
“Oh, right,” Garrick mumbled. “I didn’t think about it.”
“That’s why I was sent to pick you up.”
“Cautious fellow, this Prince of yours.”
Tahmid licked his lips. “There are few in Alcázar who speak of him. None do so openly. This way.” He gestured for them to turn down an alley.
“Just like the bloody blackrobes, getting mixed up in such company.” Garrick shook his head in disapproval. “Say, what was all that commotion earlier? That guy who got pulled in.”
“Who? Ah. He was a thief. He stole.”
Garrick frowned. “I would have thought – I mean no disrespect, but…”
“He stole from his fellow thieves,” Tahmid elaborated. “In a band such as ours, there can be no tolerance for that.”
“I guess so,” Garrick conceded. His next words were left unspoken as a club hit him in the back of his head, and he slumped to the ground.
“Careful,” Tahmid whispered through gritted teeth, switching to Suthspeech. He leaned down to examine the fallen northerner. “You better not have killed him.”
Walid stepped out from the shadows. “I know how to knock a man out.”
“He’s breathing,” Tahmid stated with his hand in front of Garrick’s face. “Hurry up, let’s get him tied up.”
His big companion brought out some rope and rags. “I got a bad feeling about this, Tahmid.”
“Well it’s too late now!” Tahmid exclaimed exasperated, stuffing the cloth into Garrick’s mouth to form a gag. “Besides, he’s going to fetch us at least a hundred birds.”
“That’s what you said last time,” Walid remarked sadly.
“Maybe eighty,” Tahmid admitted. “Hurry up. Let’s get him to the slavers before it’s dawn.”
Walid finished tying the cord around Garrick’s body and stood up. “I got a bad feeling,” he reiterated. “Something’s off with this one.”
“That’s what your mother said, but she still kept you. Now shut up and move.” With his sad expression, Walid slung Garrick over his shoulder and began walking.