The adventurers set out on their new horses. The ride would take the better part of two days, more if the weather made a morass of the Lost Coast Road. Rahab assured them there was a country inn along the way.
“Homey,” Lem observed drily as they reined up in front of the structure.
“I was going to say, ‘rustic,’” Rahab smirked. The squat single-story building was constructed of roughly-hewn logs that leaked light here and there.
Abby’s brow furrowed. “There’s no stable.”
“There are no windows,” Lem countered.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gloriana said. “They’ve merely closed the shutters against the night’s chill. You can just make out the frames of light.”
Kara glanced over at Rahab. “You’ve stayed here?”
“Indeed,” the wizard replied.
“I rephrase: you’ve stayed here?” Kara raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
“It is the finest inn around.” Rahab wielded sarcasm like a sculptor with a chisel.
“This is the only inn around,” Abby said.
“I refuse to acknowledge this is an actual inn until we have determined they have food, drink, and a dry place to sleep.” Lem folded his arms wearily on the horn of his saddle. “How is the board, Rahab?”
“Do not be fooled by the exterior! Rest assured, The Rusty Dragon has nothing on an upmarket establishment such as this: Succulent game, the freshest vegetables, warm breads drizzled in butter and honey, a selection of delectable desserts, and a wine cellar the envy of the region.”
Lem shook his head. “That is so much horseshit.”
“Yes,” Rahab admitted. “The board is whatever they happen to have. Perhaps venison, perhaps turnips. The last time I passed through they had one variety of ale, and it was strong.”
“I like it. I think it’s quaint! It will be fun!” Gloriana sounded genuinely enthusiastic.
Abby could only summon resignation. “Nothing for it. We’ll have to do the brush down, maybe store saddle and tack inside.”
They dismounted and the warrior made a quick search of the grounds. At the rear of the building was an open area covered by a makeshift wooden roof. Three horses were tied along the inn’s outer wall underneath the covering. It would have to do. Hammered iron rings set in the logs secured the leads. They removed saddle, blanket, tack, and bags, then brushed the horses and pony down for twenty minutes, watered and fed the animals, shouldered their gear, and shuffled to the inn door.
The interior was one large common room. A hanging burlap drape hid access to the kitchen and storage area at the back. In the center of the room was a stone-ringed fire pit that blazed bright. The walls were hung with various hides, predominantly deer and elk, with a few of fox, opossum, and wolf. Two bearskin rugs dominated the plank floor, and the bar was a series of boards laid atop sawhorses. A sleepy innkeeper—who was also the barman—took some coin in exchange for five sections of cured hides laid on the floor in a corner of the room. They stacked their saddles and gear along the east wall.
There were only two tables, each the length of a small fishing boat and lined on either side by benches. Candles mired in their own wax drippings sat at intervals along the knife-scarred and beer-stained surfaces. At one table sat the only other patrons: Three men dressed in mud-stained traveling gear, two of whom were chatting quietly over their drinks, while the third had the wary sobriety of a bodyguard. The conversants looked up briefly as the party entered.
Abby, Gloriana, and Kara took seats at the other table while Lem fetched five mugs and Rahab paid for a bucket of frothy, amber ale. The innkeeper offered to serve stew and the wizard requested five bowls “after we’ve had the first bucket,” silently reasoning it would be more palatable if they were all a little tipsy. At the table he tipped the bucket over the mugs until full and the party settled in.
Lem and Rahab heard it at the same time. They glanced at one another quickly, then did their best to appear as casual as possible while straining to listen for more. The two travelers at the other table were engaged in a hushed conversation, but the snippet that wizard and gardener overheard indicated the topic was recent murder.
Lem leaned toward Gloriana. “There’s something you should hear.” The gardener inclined his head slightly over one shoulder. “They mentioned recent murders, and we’re more than twenty miles from Sandpoint.”
Gloriana looked over at the strangers. In a moment she made a decision, stood from the bench, strode boldly to the other table, and sat down without waiting for introduction or invitation. The bodyguard started to intervene as she approached, but the other men saw the golden-haired oracle arrive in a swirl of colored silk and waved the guardian back. Gloriana favored the travelers with a winning smile.
“Good evening, milady,” one of the strangers said, his own smile lascivious. “What brings a genteel beauty like yourself out to the wilder stretches of road?”
“Not that genteel,” Gloriana laughed, then took up the man’s own mug, downed the rest of his drink in a gulp, and snapped her fingers. A candle at the center of the table that had gone out suddenly rekindled at the bidding of her magic,1 and that was it: The strangers were captivated. They eagerly signaled the innkeeper for more ale.
Gloriana learned much, deftly directing the conversation to the information she wanted like a dancer in the lead. The men were two merchants on the road from Magnimar in company with their bodyguard. They revealed news of unsettling and unexplained murders that had thrown The City of Monuments into an anxious state. Neither merchant could say with certainty how many murders had occurred, and their voices rose in disagreement as they contested the listed dead, naming merchants, politicians, beggars, members of the city guard, moneylenders, priests, common laborers, nobility, and criminals alike. The one detail upon which both seemed to agree was the condition of the victims. Each was found with a mark carved upon the chest in the shape of a seven-pointed star. Gloriana played along, averring that she had heard of something similar, and what were the authorities doing about it?
By the time she finished her interrogation Gloriana knew she could keep Sandpoint free from any scrutiny Magnimar might levy concerning the death of Aldern Foxglove. She also realized that the events of recent days were mere prelude.
Abby, Kara, and Rahab awoke shortly after dawn. Warrior kindled the fire pit, alchemist readied her gear, and wizard sat at table poring over his spellbook. Lem woke soon after and went to check on the horses. Gloriana was last to rouse.
“No calisthenics this morning?” Rahab teased.
The oracle favored the wizard with a venomous look from slightly bloodshot eyes. “A necessary sacrifice,” she muttered.
“Diplomacy.” Rahab’s expression betrayed no irony, but the oracle recognized it regardless.
“I paced myself and managed to convince the merchants to do most of the drinking, but the bodyguard was a rock and touched nothing. He never even warmed up to me.” The oracle nodded appreciatively. “He’s good at his job.” She rubbed her forehead, then turned to help preparations for departure.
On the road to Magnimar Gloriana related what she had learned. At a clear, chill stream the party stopped to refill waterskins. The horses drank as well, necks bent to the flow, riders comfortably stranded in the saddle for a few moments.
“Thank Chaldira’s luck we do not have to stay in that place tonight,” Lem breathed.
“It was fun!” Gloriana tried.
“It was reprehensible,” the gardener retorted.
“It was available,” Rahab shrugged.
They made good time, and by late afternoon the walls of Magnimar came into view. A great swath of structures seemed to cascade from east to west, interrupted by the sudden plunge Rahab had called the Seacleft. The late day’s sun shone ruddy upon edifices of stone, timber, and plaster, and occasionally among the rooftops appeared an expanse of clay tile, or a spire, or a gilded dome. A thousand smokes rose like wisps of hair woven on the wind and carried out to sea. Even at remove it was not difficult to discern the colossal curve of immense blocks shaped into plinth and causeway that dominated the city’s northern edge: The Irespan arced to the northwest before its ruin crumbled away, leaving only six broken remnants of titanic support emerging from the waves. They had all seen such architecture in their travels prior to Sandpoint. Rahab had lived for a time in this very city. Kara’s long journey from her homeland through the reaches of Varisia had witnessed similar ruins in the wilderness. Abby hailed from Riddleport which had its own harbor monument, and Lem’s travels had traversed the countryside dotted by great ruins of obelisk and ziggurat. Even so, the sight did not fail to impress.
“Come,” Rahab lightly kicked at his horse’s ribs.
The guards at the southeastern gate abided by straightforward rules for city admission. After nightfall entry only occurred under very specific circumstances of bribery or by express order of city officials with any meaningful measure of power. During daylight hours admission was generally open to all not obviously intending to make war on Magnimar, though much leeway was given to the guards to accost, detain, question, provoke, harass, deny, arrest, and roust those deemed poor, diseased, or simply worthy of their attention. As they rode up on their horses—Gloriana aflutter in brilliant silk, Abby’s shield a shining silver disk agleam in the dusk, Rahab draped in bespoke robes of wine-red, Kara girded in exotic elven leather, and Lem largely innocuous—the party gave every impression of having sufficient funds to warrant admittance and avoid hassle.
Once inside the gate they found themselves on a wide avenue running from south to north in the eastern part of the city.
“We have just entered The Summit, encompassing all portions of the city above—that is east—of the Seacleft,”2 Rahab began as their horses slowly clopped along the great paving stones of the thoroughfare while busy evening foot-traffic jockeyed to criss-cross before, after, and among the mounts. “This is the Avenue of Hours and it divides two major city districts: the Alabaster District on the easternmost begins immediately to our right, and is the richest and most prestigious section of the city. The Capital District begins up ahead to our left and is the political heart. We do not present the appearance of sufficient riches to be allowed in either district after dark, so while we may traverse the avenue on our way elsewhere, and during daylight hours, we may not loiter without trouble. Let us turn left and make our way to Naos.”
They fell into single file as they veered the horses off the broad Avenue of Hours.
“Naos is wealthy, too, though to a lesser degree,” the wizard continued. Lantern and torch bearers were beginning to appear in the gathering gloom, and many of the citizens on the street were dressed in fine clothing of silk and velvet. Passers on horseback or ferried by sedan appeared regularly. “It is here that lesser noble families, wealthier merchants and clergy, and some public officials reside. We may traverse these streets in relative ease, though Abby’s obvious appearance as a sword-bearer will draw curiosity, as will Gloriana’s traditional Varisian garments. We should keep moving to avoid any new-monied drunks intent on trouble.”
Their journey took them westward through small plazas underneath oak and olive trees, past bubbling marble fountains depicting dolphins, water-carriers, or fantastic beasts of serpentine or equine aspect. Numerous businesses were closing their doors for the day, though certain stalls continued to do late trade in candied fruit, skewers of meat, or jugs of wine. Barkers and criers strolled by periodically announcing upcoming city events, businesses worth visiting, scryings about the weather, art and entertainment, or local news. From open doorways of fashionable taverns or salons came the strains of flute, drum, harp, lute, hurdy-gurdy, and voice. Abby took it all in calmly: To a certain degree, all substantial cities bore similarities, and the hustle and bustle of urban life felt familiar in both its allure and the threats it kept concealed.
For Kara and Gloriana, the spectacle was intense and sometimes overwhelming. The alchemist’s experience with human habitation had thus far been restricted to the small scale. The sheer noise of this place alone made her wonder how anyone slept, or found peace enough to formulate languid thoughts necessary for creative processes. Gloriana’s upbringing among people of the road had brought her into contact with great cultural diversity, but never so concentrated in a place such as this. The oracle wanted to look everywhere at once, to drink all the imagery and architecture and people in like a deep draught of heady wine, only to find the cup too large to sup without nearly drowning.
Meanwhile Lem’s keen perception and sensibilities scanned the environment for details most others missed: Escape routes, access to rooftops and alleyways, areas of particular popular congestion, presence and number of city guard, dead ends and choke points, climbable surfaces, hiding spots and vantages. As his pony slowly ambled through the streets, the gardener observed a skilled pickpocket sway and waltz among the citizenry, occasionally collecting a pouch or bauble and quickly passing it into the waiting hat of a fellow thief walking in the other direction.
“Up ahead,” Rahab was saying, “you can see the silhouette of the Arvensoar. It rises one hundred feet above the street level of The Summit, and four hundred feet above the street level of The Shore, which is the series of neighborhoods to the west of the Seacleft.”
The waning sun was now perched like a cherry melting into chocolate on the horizon, and against the blazing red rose the mighty shape of a great, round, crenelated tower of formidable construction.
“What is it?” Lem asked.
“A barracks and fortress for the city guard. Its walls are twelve feet thick. It also happens to mark the line of The Seacleft. We will be making our way slightly northwest, toward a series of switchback streets and tunnels that make their way along and down the cliff, linking Summit to Shore the way a precipitous trail traverses the walls of a canyon. The Seacleft itself incorporates part of the city, for the limestone has been carved to accommodate shops, warehouses, guard posts, even some residences. It is a fascinating feature: A portion of the city almost entirely vertical.”
It was dark by the time their horses began the slow descent, though the streets were wide enough to easily accommodate carts carrying goods. Sometimes the avenues passed into the cliff face itself through dimly lit tunnels; at other times the way was exposed to the precipitous drop, barricaded only by a wall of some four feet height, or sections of sculpted colonnade. The particular switchback road they traveled was one of several along the Seacleft face. Iron braziers set into the walls helped light the way, and even after sunset the traffic of citizens remained somewhat robust. Guards bearing polearms patrolled occasionally with the practiced deliberation of an experienced constabulary. Nevertheless, Lem estimated that the steps, corners, and ramps would make excellent ground for dextrous thieves, or prove an opportune location for assassins pushing victims to their death from the heights.
When at last the horses emerged from an archway at the lower city level the party found themselves amidst bustle, bluster, and vibrancy that seemed as alive at night as most population centers did during the day. Torches, lanterns, candles, and magical lights dotted throughout the dense buildings painted sometimes in garish colors, sometimes in fanciful mural, sometimes in clever pattern. The streets here were cobblestone, well-worn, densely traveled, and more aromatic than the clean-swept paving stones of The Summit. On one corner a troupe of tumblers and jugglers had attracted a crowd who cheered as balls, daggers, and torches whirled from hand to hand in deft display. Minstrels gathered in murky plazas to collaborate or compete, and on every block was a tavern or public house from whence issued the sound of lively conversation, poetic recitation, cheers, jeers, and all manner and hue of smoke from hookah and pipe. The air smelled thick with alchemical aromatics, strong alcohol, and the vast variety of anthropoid olfactory expression.
Rahab swept one arm around in a grandiose gesture: “Behold the Lowcleft! Art! Music! Theater! Dance! Poetry! Burlesque! Acrobatics! The experimental! The bizarre! The novel! Fine drink! Strange smoke! Breathy brothel!”
Kara and Gloriana rode along wide-eyed. Abby noted the conjurer’s catalog omitted smuggling, gambling, bloodsport, and murder, but she reasoned they had not yet reached the waterfront, so there was still time to update the list. At that moment Lem spied a halfling riding up the street on the back of a great, black Wavewalker.3 Her hair was arrayed in complex, be-ribboned braids and her gauzy costume sparkled with bits of dangling brass that jingled as she moved. After a moment the gardener realized she bore neither livery nor brand nor collar: Nothing to indicate she was servant or slave. She rode casually, as if enjoying the spectacle of the city and her unhurried pace through it. From her carriage it seemed that whatever business, errand, or inclination occupied her was her own and no other’s. As the gardener passed she looked boldly at him and favored him with a smile that would have stirred a statue. Lem nearly gasped. There are sapphires that would be jealous of the blue in her eyes, he marveled. He craned his neck around in an effort to mark her path through the throng, but she was already gone, lost among the crowd and leaving an image the gardener could not shake even if he had wanted to: A halfling her own agent, beautiful, and all the more so because she was free.
Rahab reined up at an intersection and the others gathered around him. “Tomorrow we begin investigating,” the wizard said quietly. “Tonight we find suitable lodging. This district holds the most promise. We convey neither too much nor too little wealth, and our motley band appears eclectic enough to belong in exactly this section of the city.”
Abby smiled. “You want to stay here precisely because this is not the district where residents quietly retire to bed after a sober dinner and nightly prayers for peaceful sleep.”
In the flickering light of a nearby brazier Rahab’s devil grin flashed like the teeth of a bat poised to snatch a moth in flight.
They found available rooms over a tavern called The Fat Cat situated across the street from an open air theater featuring a ribald comedy that had drawn a crowd of cheering, hooting revelers well lubricated from a nearby merchant’s mulled wine wagon. With their horses stabled and their gear stowed in their rooms, the adventurers settled around a small table in the crowded ground floor public house. Tobacco smoke hung thick and pungent in the air, and the noise of tavern-goers was boisterous. They ordered food and drink from a zaftig barmaid, paid coin, and returned to their rooms after dining. Lem and Abby had long since learned to sleep despite the noise and distractions of environment, and Gloriana had grown up among the wagons, campfires, and music of a people for whom celebration was ritual and art form alike. Rahab collapsed onto his bed as if falling back into the welcoming arms of a lover. Kara lingered awake, listening to the city. She found the intense sensations not unpleasant, necessarily, but neither could she call them comforting. There was something heightened about the very air, as though the metropolis itself breathed deep, urgent, hungry. The measured and gradual experience of traditional elvish life instilled a perception of pace akin to cycles of seasons or the growth of forests. Magnimar’s atmosphere seemed very different. She had never been in a place that felt so human.
At breakfast the next morning they made plans. The one link they knew between the Skinsaw affair in Sandpoint and the City of Monuments was Aldern Foxglove. They set out into the city, leaving the horses stabled and taking to foot.
“The area around the Bazaar of Sails would be a good place to begin,” Rahab recommended. “It is not only the largest free market in the city, but also the largest in Varisia. It is in the Dockway District, to the north, at the waterfront.”
“Tough neighborhood,” Abby remarked.
“The Dockway as a whole, yes,” the conjurer assented. “The Bazaar? No. It is actually one of the safest areas in the city.”
“The guard has a strong presence in the waterfront?” The warrior sounded surprised.
Rahab chuckled. “No indeed. The guard have found maintaining the peace in The Bazaar to be beyond their patience and capabilities.”
“So who watches the Bazaar?” asked Gloriana. Abby and Lem had already guessed the answer.
“She is called ‘Princess of the Market,’ and her name is Sabriyya Kalmeralm,” observed the wizard.
The oracle was incredulous. “One person?”
“A syndicate,” Lem explained. Gloriana was nonplussed.
“A crime lord,” Abby said. “It’s a protection racket, Glo.” Realization unfolded in the oracle like a flower slowly opening to the sun’s rays.
“Which makes the Bazaar of Sails the worst place to be a thief,” Rahab added. “The Princess maintains excellent control, and is rightly feared. Her enforcers ensure trade continues in peace and prosperity.”
“For a cut,” Lem noted. The wizard spread his arms as if to say, But of course.
They heard the Bazaar before they saw it. A collected noise rumbled up in a hubbub that became voluminous as they neared. Then the expanse came into view: A wide stretch of packed dirt upon which were erected every kind of tent, stall, wagon, table, cart, pole, rack, blanket, and lean-to. Pack animals stood among great throngs of people and the array of goods was dizzying: Fruits and nuts, bolts of cloth, spices, teas and coffees, lumber and tools, jewelry, artwork of diverse provenance, oils and fuels, baskets and jars, paper and parchment, inks and dyes, rope, horseshoes, cookware and utensils, cuts of meat, bricks, wines, alchemical devices and preparations, saddlery and leather goods, grains, pastries, gardening supplies, sacks, vegetables, poultry and livestock, songbirds in cages, fish and crustaceans, potions and salves, magic trinkets, clothing, armor and weapons, horses and dogs, and more. At every turn and step merchants shouted the value and superiority of their wares, prices, service, and expediency as customers haggled ferociously, made arrangements to transport purchased items, or browsed. Pigeons and gulls winged overhead singly or in numbers, while terriers and cats roamed freely on the hunt for rodents. The air smelled of fish, animal droppings, and the closeness of people assembled together.
Lem had already spotted several enforcers, dressed unobtrusively and casually making their way among the chaos, and the gardener recognized in their carriage a sharp-eyed awareness and efficient brutality beneath a pleasant façade. Abby saw them, too. Now this feels like Riddleport, the warrior mused.
The adventurers began making their way through the crowd, observing and listening. Gloriana took the lead, and stopped periodically among some of the merchants, pretending to browse the goods while making conversation, mentioning the Foxglove name and gauging any reactions. An hour later they gathered behind a feather seller.
“His name generated some recognition,” Gloriana said, “and someone mentioned The Captain’s Club nearby that Aldern might have visited.”
Rahab shook his head. “We won’t gain entry there. It is a very exclusive establishment, catering only to ship captains and their guests. Our maritime credentials are lacking.”
“Aldern was no ship captain,” Kara remarked.
Rahab nodded, and his eyes narrowed as he stared in thought. “His destination was elsewhere.” The wizard nodded resolutely and motioned to the others. He led them away from the Bazaar of Sails, east into the Dockway. Here buildings of timber and plaster outnumbered those of stone, and the structures situated more closely together. Alleyways became narrow and more twisting, and everything took on a grubbier aspect. The smell of the sea grew more prominent, and the faces and dress of citizens grew more rugged, more ragged, and more poor. Rahab drew up outside a waterfront building.
Lem glanced at the sign and began to chuckle. The shingle above the door advertised The Shucked Oyster.4
Gloriana smirked at Rahab. “You take me to all the nicest places.”
The wizard sarcastically mimed laughter. “I can recommend several other establishments I would endorse over this location. But this,” and Rahab pointed at the door, “is a much likelier candidate for Aldern’s visitation in this district than The Captain’s Club. It is at least worth asking.”
Gloriana eventually nodded acknowledgement. The party went inside where they met the house madam, who at first guessed them for clients and proceded to expound on the delights available, workers of diverse sexualities and genders, human, elf and half-elf, dwarf and halfling, gnome and half-orc. Gloriana interrupted to explain the search for information, and suddenly found herself at disadvantage. As soon as business was no longer in prospect, the madam called for bouncers to return the interlopers back onto the street. In the end the oracle produced gold to forestall ejection, and a petite Varisian woman dressed in a gauzy camisole and nothing else offered the location of the Foxglove townhouse in the Grand Arch neighborhood of the Naos district.5
Back in the street the party made their way south toward one of the winding ramparts that joined The Shore to The Summit.
The wizard could not resist, and sidled next to Gloriana. “Masterfully done.”
“Ten gold coins—enough to buy three-year’s worth of bread for a family—and all for the location of the townhouse.” The oracle sighed ruefully.
Abby was pragmatic. “It’s more information than we had.”
“Is the cost the same?” Kara suddenly inquired. All eyes turned quizzically toward the alchemist. “For different genitalia, I mean?”
Gloriana gaped. Rahab drew a conspiratorial arm around the alchemist’s shoulders and with fiendish delight began to explain that pricing was typically based on type and frequency of activity rather than morphology of participants. Abby and Lem’s guffaws accompanied them all the way to The Seacleft.
1 Spark orison.
2 Important to note that many maps of Magnimar are oriented so that north is to the left. The city’s longest geographic axis is east-west.
3 Golarion equivalent of the Newfoundland: Massive working dog, thick double fur coat, webbed feet, superior swimming and water skills, calm, reliable, lovable, and tremendously strong. Since Golarion doesn’t have a region called Newfoundland, I based the name on the idea that the dogs regularly perform water rescue and lifesaving with such power, ease, and reassurance that the animals might as well be “walking on the waves.”
4 Subtle. And not my title.
5 This was not one of Gloriana’s better diplomacy efforts. When charisma fails, there’s always cash.