Melias circles the long line of horses in a lightly wooded area one hundred yards from anyone waiting to gain access into Darkuth. “Look, we can’t keep traveling onward with a herd of horses trailing behind. We also need to sort the last items we collected. Take what you want, and we will sell the rest in this city or the tents outside the walls. Even if we receive less than the standard value, coins will be easier to carry and we may not see a similar opportunity for some time.” The others agree. Melias leads the search through the guard’s saddlebags. He takes a few mundane items for himself and gives six very fine arrows he finds to Arturus. The coin they discover he splits between them, giving the two leftover copper pieces to SeLiem as “a donation for your church.”
SeLiem accepts the coins, but nothing more at this point.
“There is nothing I want there,” Orjulun says, as the final item is scavenged. “Since we are probably being followed, perhaps it might be best if we Wizards looked like fighters. Rastorn and I can don armor and weapons and appear as mercenaries. If anyone asks the gate guards later, they will say they saw no Wizards enter the city. Might they just as likely inquire about Elves?”
“Yes, they would most certainly be looking for Elves. We are rare in this area,” Melias answers. “I could try to disguise myself as a woman. I’m about the right height for the female of your race. Arturus could pass as a Half-Elf with a little work.”
Arturus frowns and shakes his head slightly, then rubs his neck and nods in agreement with the plan. After loading his few chosen items, he mounts his horse and smiles at Melias. “A woman, eh? I bet you’d make a pretty one, too. It’s been a while since I’ve known a woman’s touch.”
“This woman likes to remove appendages,” Melias jokes, brandishing his dagger.
Rastorn frowns as he considers the plan. Disguised as a damnable fighter! He’d rather be a thief. “I supposed I’m strong enough to bear arms. Damned if I’ll fight, though. I hope you thought this through, apprentice – sweating in armor and all that, not being able to cast at the drop of a coin.” He continues to complain, even as he shrugs into a chain shirt and jerkin. Claiming the chest with the broken false bottom, he shovels in most of what Melias and Arturus left, then straps the remaining weapons to himself or his horse. With an angry sigh, he pulls off the chain armor and dons studded leather, which is more befitting a Thief.
Once Rastorn has taken all he wants, SeLiem takes what remains.
Concealed by the herd of horses surrounding them, Melias goes about creating disguises for everyone, except SeLiem. He works on his own first and amazes the rest of the group with how complete and convincing his costume is. He looks just like a female Human Warrior. In fact, he gets each of the men thinking about the last time they spent time with the fairer (in the case of Rastorn: much fairer) sex. As he applies their disguises, they have a difficult time even looking at him. He sounds like Melias but looks like an attractive female. Happy with the results of his efforts, Melias takes the reins of his horse and leads them all toward Darkuth.
As he clumps along, Rastorn alternately tugs at the collar of his armor and the hem.
Arturus and Orjulun point out the poor fit of Rastorn’s armor and his inability to walk with the confident grace of a Thief or a Warrior, but Melias says there is nothing more he can do.
The nearest cluster of tents are also the most heavily guarded. Orjulun recognizes their banner as belonging to the Allied Seller’s Organization. A man in a cape and richly embroidered velvet clothing exits the largest tent and greets the party with a slight bow and Melias with a lingering smile. “How may this humble A.S.O. merchant assist you?”
Fluttering his eyelashes, Melias steps forward and in a high-pitched, disguised voice says, “We happened upon a large lot of items for resale and were wondering if there might be a market for the items around here.” As the flap closes, he fails in his attempt to glimpse the tent interior and see the sort of goods the man specializes in. “I would be ever so grateful to the person who helps us.”
“Unfortunately, my dear lady, law forbids us from any trading within sight of the city proper,” the gentleman states with a hearty chuckle. “I’ll not be crossing my best – and most particular – customers, don’t you kno-” A loud horn blares from over the city walls interrupting him. The blood seems to drain from his face, and he waves Melias away. “I am very sorry; we must make haste . . .” The many guards and other workers break from their previous activities and start packing up the tent and harnessing horses to wagons. The merchant directs their work, shouting, “Quickly, quickly, load up, load up!”
“Please clear this site,” a handsome young man in chain armor softly, but sternly demands, as he herds them away. “We have much work to do if we are to be a ‘final entry’.”
All the other merchants are also quickly packing. Many complain the horn came too quickly this night. They seem not just hurried, but frightened, as if their lives depend on working quickly.
Melias shrugs, confused. “Maybe we should reconsider our options and find another city?”
“Agreed, any place with a horn that makes people frantic cannot be a safe place,” Arturus says.
“Dammit! I was going to tell that fellow that Melias enjoyed having his ass pinched,” Rastorn says, smiling. “Maybe we should ask someone what the horn is about. It sounds as though people are going into the city before nightfall. Maybe we should do the same?”
Melias nods. “Look, something strange is going on here. You four take the horses to the line for entry. I’ll try to get some more answers from the merchant and catch up in a little bit.” As they lead the horses toward the line, Melias sashays up to the merchant. “Can I help you in some way? Maybe we can talk a little while you’re wrapping things up?” He glances at the anxious crowd, then looks pleadingly at the merchant. “I don’t understand what’s going on here. What’s the big rush?”
Arturus asks the same question to the first person he meets in line and is ignored.
SeLiem comments, “I don’t care much for the horn at all. The sooner we leave the better.”
Melias’ womanly charms win over the busy merchant. He answers, “Listen, after the horn sounds a very few are allowed into the city just before nightfall. Those who are turned away risk the dangers of this area after dark. There is no safe village or town for miles and miles.” He stops his work hitching a horse to one of his wagons and looks Melias in the eyes. “The next closest place is Metava, understand? Or Volcano Trail to the south.” Noting Melias’ confusion, he says, “Those places are not safe . . . this place is not safe. Worst of all, you risk your entire trip and all your goods if you don’t get inside.”
“‘Final Entry’ will be decided now! Out of my way,” a busy caravan guard snarls as he pushes past Arturus.
Arturus shouts, “And your mother was a lover of Orcs!”
The insult is ignored . . . for now.
“Oh, goodness me…” Melias says, feigning worry. “I really should get in then. Is there any trick to getting through this ‘final entry’? Is there a test or maybe… ” he looks left and right, then lowers his altered voice, “a bribe, perhaps?”
“Bribe?!” the merchant shouts, then lowers his voice and says, “My dear girl, bribery will get you killed in this city. You’d better come with us. Ignorance of the law is no excuse in Darkuth. They’ll lock you in the dungeons just the same . . . and even my wealth means nothing if that happens. Gather your mates and we’ll add you to our company.” He pauses, then adds, “For twenty percent of your profits, of course.”
Melias lifts an eyebrow and stifles a chuckle. “Uh, yeah… right. You wait right here, and I’ll fetch them.”
Once he locates the rest of his group, Melias tells them, “Don’t try to bribe the guards. Bad news. The merchant offered to help us through but wanted twenty percent. I didn’t feel like being raped – in any definition of the word – so I left him waiting. What a loser.” He giggles and whispers in Elvish to Arturus, “No wonder you robbed the bastards.”
“Lousy merchants. Better to rob them than to work for them or have to deal with them. Now we’re surrounded by them. I think I robbed a few of the ones here. Like that fat guy with the yellow silk shirt,” Arturus says in Elven.
The party shuffles forward and soon the Elves can hear some of what is being said at the head of the line. Each group is asked a series of questions.
From where do you hail?
Are you a merchant by trade?
For how long?
With what Trading Company are you affiliated?
Have you visited Darkuth before?
Are you here on special request from anyone?
What goods do you carry for trade?
Melias realizes they will have to formalize a cover story. He shares the questions with the rest of the group.
“Almost a quarter? Given just to get into this damnable place? You can give that much of your wages, but I’d rather have my stones in a vice. Did you see the way that fellow stammered and stuttered at the chance of getting into our purses? Twenty percent my bloody ass…” Rastorn says, with his arms crossed and lower lip jutting out.
“Perhaps we should take the merchant up on his offer, rather than trying to come up with convincing answers to these questions,” Orjulun whispers. “I’d feel more comfortable letting someone more experienced with this city make the arrangements to enter. Twenty percent doesn’t sound too bad to me for this service.”
“Twenty percent plus whatever tax the city levies on us. There might not be a lot left over when they’re done,” Melias responds.
Through a clenched jaw, Arturus says, “I really hate to say this, but I think Orjulun is right. Instead of stuttering and stammering through the questions, we might as well give some of our gold to those bastards and have an assured way in.”
Melias throws up his hands and says, “Fine… if you all feel that way – great. But we can do better than that offer. That’s just outrageous. You’re a merchant, right, Orjulun? Head back and barter for us. I’ll bet you can talk him down to ten percent.”
“Merchant? Me?” Orjulun says, eyes wide. “I’m no merchant. I’ve bought a lot of goods, and on occasion, I’ve haggled a bit, but that’s the extent of my experience.”
“You are more than welcome to stay out here and try to negotiate your own way in, Rastorn,” SeLiem says matter-of-factly. “The rest of us are going to try to negotiate a better rate with that ASO merchant. Regardless of the deal we end up with, we are taking him up on the offer of assistance, correct? Maybe we could just offer him the horses.”
They move up in line and discuss things with the merchant again. This time he gives his name: Herwick. He settles on ten percent, but only if they trust him to do the talking. As he shakes each of their hands, he mentions he had just heard horses were in high demand in Darkuth at this time and they should do quite well.
Melias hates feeling so vulnerable, so reliant upon a stranger, but what choice do they have? He winks at Herwick and puts on a selling smile, “Oh, yes… I’d trust you to the ends of the world.” If Herwick crossed them, he’d have made a very unforgiving enemy, he silently vows.
“That is much more reasonable,” Rastorn says when the party returns after the haggle.
Satisfied they reached an agreement with the merchant all party members could live with, Orjulun takes a place beside one of Herwick’s guardsmen and asks what, if anything, he can do to help.
Melias takes a position walking him horse close enough to the merchant to hear his conversation, but not close enough to be captured should things turn ugly.
“I am surprised that it is so difficult to get inside Darkuth,” SeLiem comments to Herwick, then turns to speak to Melias, Rastorn, and Arturus. “Do any of you know a lot about Darkuth? I don’t recall much at all, though I must have passed it on my travels. Personally, I think ten percent is a fair deal, based on the rumors I’ve heard about large cities.”
“At least they didn’t try to get our souls in exchange for passing through their gates,” Arturus says, loudly enough for Herwick to hear. “That is, if we even get in. Nothing says these goons will get past the gate, either.” He wishes he could rob Herwick’s group and leave them with only ten percent.
Rastorn chuckles maliciously at Arturus’ comment about the merchants trying to capture the party’s souls. “Nice one, tall Elf! They would have a hell of a time keeping mine in one place, were they smart or powerful enough to grasp it.”
Orjulun steps out of line to lend a hand packing up the last tent and loading it onto one Herwick’s wagons. One of the hired hands assures him, “Don’t worry, Master Herwick always gets us in . . . and once in, he always dickers for the best prices on most everything.”
Once his final wagon joins their caravan, Herwick excuses himself to prepare for his interview saying, “Great, in accordance with traditional verbal contracts with members of the ASO, my legal counsel will now explain the details of our temporary arrangement. I’m sure it will be to your liking.”
A very skinny man with an extremely high-pitched and clear voice steps forward and relates all the details of the agreement. He speaks with an incredibly precise pronunciation of each word, but it is obvious he is creating the content of the contract as he speaks. Most of what he says is absolute gibberish to the Elves and overly and unnecessarily complicated to the Wizards, but SeLiem seems to be hanging on every word, enjoying the organized structure of every detail of the contract. As the fast-talking council completes his accounting of the agreement, SeLiem is dumbfounded by the fact that every conceivable scenario has been addressed and the whole of the contract is mind-numbingly logical and precise. He gathers the Elves (who had wandered off shortly after the third time the skinny man said “First-party” ) and tells them the contract is fair and all that is needed is for each of them to say “I do” to finalize everything before Herwick returns.
They all agree, once SeLiem explains the main points of the contract, which are,
1. Herwick will add the party’s goods to his own and sell them with the same vigor and price sensitivity that he would the rest of his goods.
2. Council will keep a detailed account of the accepted price obtained for each item they hand over for sale.
3. Someone from the caravan will contact the party once all items have been sold, at which time they shall meet with Herwick and receive their ninety percent in coins (primarily gold).
4. The party must agree to be hirelings of Herwick until they are within the city proper. All that will be asked of them is they help unload the wagons once inside.
5. The party must allow Herwick to speak on their behalf, in order that he be able to better assure their entrance.
6. If the party does anything to jeopardize entrance or if the merchant is unable to gain admittance, the contract is void.
7. Herwick, the ASO, ASU, and any associates of Herwick are not responsible for the party in any way after the wagons are unloaded. As temporary help, the city of Darkuth will also view them as independent.
8. Herwick is not responsible for any fees, fines, tariffs, taxes, etc. levied on the party after admittance is gained.
Shortly after finalizing the verbal contract, one of Herwick’s personal guards tells them, “Since you are all temporary hirelings and new to the city, they are requesting you answer a couple of questions once Herwick’s portion of the interview is ended. Herwick said things were going very well and not to be too concerned since your questions will be few and simple and he’ll be there to coach you if needed. From his years of trading, he has gained the right to a private sit-down interview, so you will not be interviewed at the gate like many of the others waiting to get in. I will take you to a hallway near the interview room where you will wait until called upon.” He leads the party to a hallway built into the wall of the city and directs them to small wooden stools that line the wall. Before they can all take a seat, the party is ushered into the interview room, which is a small stone room with a door on each wall, one table, and two chairs, which are taken by Herwick and the interviewer. This interviewer is different from the one they saw at the gate. He is dressed much nicer and seems more patient, well-mannered, and friendly. He and Herwick are laughing as the party enters.
“Sho,” the interviewer says, through huge teeth that muffle and distort his words and cause him to spew tiny drops of spit onto the chest of his already soaked blousy shirt, “Hehrwihck shaid hyou hwhehre nehw to hhish ghroup . . . ” He pauses and looks at each of them head to toe.
“As I said . . .” Herwick begins to interject, only to be cut off by the Interviewer’s slowly raised hand. “Ih’d lihk to heahr iht frohm thehm.”, he says, still eyeing the party. “Ahctchually, Ih’d lihke to heahr frohm him!”, he forcefully states, pointing at SeLiem. “Tehll mhe, whhat hyou whill bhe dohing ihn Dhahrkhuth.”
Rastorn was about to reply with a pithy comment, but when the interviewer points at the cleric he silences himself. Rastorn believes he has a way with words when needed, but he wasn’t given the floor this time.
SeLiem steps forward. “We are here just to sell a few horses and such. We just go to towns and sell a few things to make a profit and re-stock.” He smiles, “We are just traveling merchants that happened across this city. That’s all.”
Melias bit his lip as he waited for the SeLiem to answer and was dumbfounded when he heard the answer. It was a pleasant surprise SeLiem was able to twist the truth. He never expected such from the Cleric.
Arturus’ hand rested on his sword, he was expecting a fight to break out. When SeLiem gave his answer Arturus relaxed a bit.
Rastorn looks into the eyes of the interviewer, then at SeLiem, then back to the interviewer. He was prepared to speak up if he felt SeLiem put them in danger, but the statement was simple and concise. He believes it will do just fine.
“You see,” Herwick interjects in a cheerful tone, “as I said, they are just independents who hired on with me near the end of this trip. Once we unload, they will no longer be working under my banner and thus will not be my responsibility. But, after all, they are just merchants and as such are very low risk.”
The interviewer sits for a long while, his eyes fixed on SeLiem. “Hyou rehfehred to thhem ahs ‘hheihrlhings bhefhore, Hherwhick. Nhow hyou chall thhem ‘mehrchahnts’; whhich ahre thhey? Ahnd,” he adds, “Hwhy ish iht thhat thhish one hhapphens to bhe a prhiesht ohf hyour faith?”
“Yes sir, they refer to themselves as merchants because they sell whatever odds and ends they come across in their travels, but they are not merchants in the true sense and thus should not be taxed as merchants, but as hirelings. They will not need to apply for merchant status, either, since I will be trading their goods – including the horses, which I hear are in demand now – for them as part of our agreement. It was just happenstance this one is a Priest of -” Herwick stops short of naming the god, “the same deity I revere.”
“Hyou hhave fhound an intehreshting lhoop-hhole, friehnd Hherwhick. I ahplhaud you,” the Interviewer says with a slight bow of his head. “I whill grhant hyou ehntrhance, uhndher thhese cohndhitions: Thhey phay thhe ‘mehrchant tahx’, ahfter hyou rehleash thhem ahnd hyou lehgahly vouch fohr thhem.”
A bead of sweat runs down Herwick’s temple and his smile droops as the last condition is stated, but then he looks at Melias and SeLiem, and his expression changes back to a smile. He turns to face the interviewer and with a broad smile exclaims, “As always sir, you know exactly how best to use the laws to Darkuth’s advantage!” Which seems to make the interviewer very happy. “We accept your conditions!”
The interviewer nods and pulls a large book from behind his chair and starts flipping pages with one hand as he dabs his quill in ink with the other. Herwick nods toward the door to signal the party should leave now, while he finalizes the paperwork.
A guard escorts the party from the interview room to the caravan, where he has several other guards assist him in assuring the caravan safely enters the city.
The sky had turned dark while the party was inside and the scene at the gate has changed. All the tents are down and very few people remain outside the gate. Some can be seen riding at high-speed north or south.
Just as the gate begins closing behind them, the party hears the horn blow again followed quickly by the cries and pleads of those still outside the city. Once the gate is completely shut, there is silence.
“Anyone else have a foreboding feeling or is it just me?” Arturus asks.
Since the city is very well lit, by candles, lanterns, and magical lights, viewing it at night is like seeing it in daylight. Darkuth is paved entirely with cobblestone, no plant life is visible, and most buildings are of a similar gray stone color. Other buildings have a Far Eastern design. Many towers and multi-storied buildings are visible above the skyline.
The name of each street is posted on signs at every corner and the city has a very logical layout. It would be difficult to get lost in such a well-organized place. If you did, the streets are packed with people who all seem to know exactly where they are going.
After the wagons are all unloaded, Herwick explains, “We will be staying in this wagon storage facility with our goods tonight and begin trading in the morning. It may take two days to sell all your goods, so enjoy the city while you are here. We will locate you once we have completed our business. There are many laws in Darkuth, too many to list, so just stay away from the docks and talk as little as possible. Oh, and do not discuss religion, complain about the city, or fight with anyone. It is much better to pay for better lodging than to risk your neck in this city, too. Be sure to pay the merchant tax right away. Please, please, please don’t get into any trouble – I vouched for you.” He points to the door where a group of three guards and a man in robes carrying a large book and a large bag is waiting at the exit to the carriage house. “That is the taxman.”
“I don’t like the looks of that large bag,” Orjulun says scowling. “This merchant tax may be painful.” He nods at Herwick. “I thank you for your help in getting us in the city and selling our goods. Can you recommend a comfortable inn for the morrow?”
“You are welcome. Feel free to visit us. Try ‘The Sinister Gr-Inn’, on the corner of Lord Darkoth Way and Trader’s Street – comparably inexpensive, but safe.” He nods back, then starts shouting orders to his crew.
The tax collector waits until the party walks up to him then announces, “I will need names from each of you and twenty gold pieces each. This tax is non-negotiable, as are all taxes within Darkuth.”
SeLiem searches his purse for enough coins, murmuring, “At this rate we will be broke before we can sell a thing.”
“The name is Melina. Is this the merchant tax we heard about?” Melias asks calmly while rooting through his pouch.
‘Melina’ presents his portion of the tax and has his name and some other information about him written in the tax man’s book, but SeLiem seems to be panicking. He glances around as he digs through his coin bag. Soon, he will be next, and it is obvious he doesn’t have the coin required.
Looking at those in line behind him, Rastorn notices Arturus and Orjulun seem to be in the same situation as the SeLiem. He won’t have a chance to discuss anything, since it is now his turn and the tax collector is asking his name and holding out his hand for payment.
SeLiem whispers to Melias, “How can we afford twenty gold pieces? It is far too expensive!”
Melina asks the taxman, “Is it possible my companions pay the tax the day after tomorrow? We are a little tight on funds and still need to rent a room for the night.”
Rastorn grumbles as he notices the bumbling of his companions. They’re all broke? What was I thinking? He steps in front of SeLiem. “Nrotsar’s the name. Here’s my twenty and twenty for each of my broke companions,” he says while retrieving the coin and trying very hard not to let the purse jingle too much.
“I’ll repay you someday,” SeLiem tells Rastorn.
“And their names?” the tax collector asks Rastorn.
“Salami, Apprent, and Art,” Rastorn answers, pointing to each of the three in turn.
The tax collector grits his teeth and slowly parts his thin lips. The corners of his mouth quiver then curl up slightly, forming a sickly smile. “Thank you. Have a pleasant and productive stay in Darkuth,” he manages to say, before freeing himself from the torment of smiling.
To be continued in Chapter Four next week!
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