I haven’t forgotten about Cadameria in my rush to play Ironsworn Starforged. Here is a second draft of the story I wrote previously, and I think I’m at the point where a fresh set of eyes would help. So if you have any criticism, please leave a comment! It can only help me improve.
In this city is a man I must kill.
He would not be here, among the people of the great city of Cadameria, who at a simple first glance seemed to come from every corner of the map. Brightly dressed people rubbed shoulders with the mages of the Schola Arcanum, who all seemed to have a predilection for loose fitting, drab coloured robes. Merchants and labourers jostled each other, calling out and cursing in a guttural language. Occasionally the telltale blue glow and tinny chime of a Glintstone releasing its charge would drown the hustle and bustle of the street for a brief instant, before the noise of the crowd ruled the air again. None turned their head save those whose clothes denoted them as obviously foreign, and even they turned away almost immediately, giving the display of magic no second thought.
No. He would be there, in the most impressive structure in the whole city. Tall spires crowned by gold and blue domes stood guard around a central dome seemingly made entirely of glass, as it reflected the sun almost perfectly. Around the building was a beautiful garden full of green trees and small seeming people milling about, Glint discharges suddenly interrupting their walks. In Cadameria there could only be one thing this impressive building could be; the Schola Arcanum. The tiny figures milling about the gardens, then, were scholars, mages and perhaps even politicians. Magic ruled in Cadameria, in more ways than one. The people took to it like bees to honey, and since they loved magic, it made sense for the most learned of them to wield power. The Schola was where all the most learned mages congregated. Therefore, the Schola held the most power in Cadameria.
Somewhere, among the rows of books and piles of scrolls, among the laboratories and Glintstone refineries, somewhere past the lecture halls and discussion rooms, was Grand Lord Magus Vykstra of the School of Abjuration. I had learned what he looked like, how he dressed, his speech mannerisms. I knew what spells he was known to know, though the best would obviously be to catch him before he even touched any Glint. But there were too many variables. Too many unknowns. In my profession, too many things left to chance was too many things that could get you killed. Best to be prepared for something and have it never happen than to be unprepared.
I turned away and headed to my first destination in this city, which was somewhere one could get the information I needed and not be dragged into an interrogation cell. To get the information I needed, a visit to the black market of Cadameria must be paid.
The black market of Cadameria wasn’t a proper market, per se. I know the stereotype – it’s been perpetuated in novels and bard songs for as long as I can remember. In these tales, the black market is often a seedy part of the city, with many a scum and villain loitering about looking especially shifty for no reason. Shadows hang about even at midday. A scream, maybe, implying the criminal element kills people just because they don’t like their face, and not professionally for a living like I do.
Indeed, the black market of Cadameria was right where its actual market was. The difference was, of course, who you talked to. The right contact would, after you talked to them, lead you to someone who knew someone else who knew the guy you were looking for. Those are the streets and alleys of a black market. Knowing to navigate that was key to getting what you wanted from the criminal element of the city. That, and caveat emptor, of course. These people are thieves, after all.
My first stop was a place called Waheed’s Emporium of Spice and Dyes. Even before I stepped through the front door, I could smell his wares. Inside, a large pile of carpets as thick as my foot stood waist high in the centre of the room. Against the walls were various cabinets stuffed to the brim with jars, pots and bowls which seemed to me was where the smells were coming from. I took three steps in when a large man with a fez too small for his head appeared from the back of the shop.
In fact, everything looked too small on him, but that wasn’t his fault, I think. His wardrobe was probably measured in yards and feet as opposed to feet and inches. As he appeared, he smiled and began laughing.
“Ah! Friend! Be welcome to Waheed’s Amazing Emporium of The Spice and Dyes! And yes! I am Waheed! I am pleasured to meet you!” He reached out for a bear hug but I stepped back, smiling, extending my hand out instead. He laughed and shook it, giving it a vigorous shake. “Ah! Apologies! This is the personal space I have heard about! Very good! So what can I do for you?”
I wondered how I might approach the subject. Gatekeepers to black markets tended to be alert to who they let in, lest they unwarily let the fox in among the hens. Tact was called for, here. “You have the most splendid array of spices. I could smell them in the street.”
“It is free marketing!” Waheed laughed, and I thought I saw the jars in the cabinets behind him rattle as he did. “One pass, and you are captured by curiosity! Why, here, let me show you some of them.” He turned and pulled out several jars from a cabinet behind him, plonking them on the counter before him. He opens one and pours a small amount into a small dish. “This mixture, ah, this mixture!” He sighs, as if recalling the memory of a loved one, lost so long ago. “This mixture!”
“What…does it do?”
“Ah! It preserves the meats,” he says, taking a pinch and letting it fall from his sausage like fingers. “And for how long! And once the meats is boiled…” he falls into a long litany of foreign words, lilting and musical. Judging by how both Waheed gesticulated as he spoke, this was the sort of language one cannot speak without using hand gestures.
“Amazing,” I interrupted him. “But ah, I am not looking for such things.”
“I thought not!” It was as easy to trigger a laugh in Waheed as it was to find Glint in Cadameria. “You had not the air of the cook about you. But this mixture, ah, this mixture! Many have profited from its use. And I, I profit from its sale!” More laughing. Perhaps Waheed needed to be prodded.
“Well, my new friend, I am…shall we say, new to the city. Perhaps you could help me sample some of the more…magical delights available.”
Perhaps it worked a bit too well. Waheed’s smile vanished like a candle’s flame in a strong wind. He reached behind him, and pulled a long rope that caused his front door to slam shut. “I am sorry for the surprise, friend,” Waheed said, his smile returning but not quite the same. His foreign accent did not return. “Words have legs and can run away from you before you can catch them, hey? It seems you are only here for the exceptionally rare delights.”
I smiled back at him. “Am I still speaking with Waheed?”
He laughed, and this time it didn’t travel beyond my own ears. “One must always behave a little foreign where it’s expected. It creates a…what’s that term, where one doesn’t pay attention to one’s surroundings too well?”
“Lower their guards, you mean?”
Waheed nodded. “Quite so. It’s easier to pretend to be foreign when you aren’t too familiar with the language.” He turned and pulled a different set of jars from the cabinet. “These are ajarram from my home country. Yes, I still sell spice and dyes. But things change when one crosses the border. What was legal back home becomes illegal here.”
He nods, opening a jar and pouring some of its contents into another dish. “Yes, friend. Here, with the Schola and the mages controlling all the magic, one can’t be too certain whether some things are allowed or not. And to file the proper paperwork…” he waves a large hand dismissively, “It’s easier to say things like ‘be rubbing of the tits with the unsavoury caste’ and pretend to be a stereotype than to actually go through the trouble. Here, smell this one.”
I oblige him, if only to stay on his good side, but immediately regret it. The smell was overpowering. It was difficult to describe. My nose thought it smelled cloves, but it was far sharper than that, and had an earthy tang to it. Waheed laughed.
“Ah, this ajarram mixture has a kick to it, no?”
“Yes,” I snorted away from the counter, pinching my nose to squeeze out whatever spice had attempted to colonise it. “What’s it used for?”
“This mixture is placed inside a food,” Waheed whispered. “But a pinch – just a pinch, no more, or terrible consequences ensue. Then wait. Most people lie with their women to activate it, but waiting does the same. Ah, you will experience pleasures as none have felt before!”
I smiled and stood back up straight. “I have no issues in that department, but thank you, Waheed.”
Waheed laughed, and this time it seemed the old foreign Waheed that greeted me earlier had returned. “All right, I deserve that. Foreigners and their virile spices, eh friend?”
“It’s just a joke,” I said, holding my hands up. “Pardon me if I have offended you.”
Waheed waved it away. “My skin isn’t as thin as that. But for this mixture, ah…it contains Glint, and some special herb grown with glint infused fertiliser. Don’t ask for the name, you couldn’t pronounce it. What it does is weaken the barriers of time. When you lay with your woman… you will find yourself transformed, into who you were in a past life. The experience is truly a magical one.”
“I… see.” I did. I was a bit disappointed. I had heard of a merchant selling less than legal items without the need for an introduction from a fence. That was what led me here. As it turns out, less than legal didn’t mean what I thought it meant.
And yet. Perhaps there was a way to squeeze the information I want out of this shrewd merchant. I reached into my pouch, and said as I did, “How much?”
“Fifteen gold for a bag,” Waheed said, producing scales from behind the counter. He quickly began pouring several scoops of the earthy spice onto one side, and when he was done he scooped it up into a small leather bag.
I placed far too much gold on the counter. Waheed’s smile disappeared.
“That is far too much, my new friend.”
“So sell me something else, friend.”
“Information. Tell me where else might I procure things of less than legal nature.”
Waheed stared at me, drumming his large sausage fingers on the counter. At length, he sighed, and pushed the excess gold away from him until only fifteen gold remained on his side. “I am no cheat,” he declared. Then he laughed, suddenly. “My wife maybe, but not me, hey?”
“I am no cheat,” he insisted, but he slid a slip of paper across the counter along with my purchase. “I do not sell information. It is air blown from the mouth. It is not a product, and not one I advertise in selling. I will not receive payment for it.”
I waited as he paused and sighed. “But…I do know where one can buy it. Here. Follow these instructions. You will meet a man by the name of Hadrian. Perhaps he can sell you the information you are looking for.”
I took my purchase and nodded at him. “Thank you, Waheed.”
“No! I am thanking you for your patronage!” Waheed laughed, the jolly foreign shopkeeper façade returning. “Pleased I shall be if you shall come again! ”
I made to leave, but before I did, I turned to him. “A…pinch, you said? In any food?”
“Just a pinch! No more, or suffer the consequences. I warn you, friend, and this is one warning you should heed.”
“Right. Thank you again, Waheed.”
The shop whose address was written on the paper Waheed had given me looked more like a library than a shop. Where Waheed’s place was open and sunlight streamed through, this was closed up, any windows either blackened with tar or blocked by books. Stepping inside felt comfortable, but only because I felt more comfortable in darkness. While normally people would ask why there weren’t more lights around in a dark shop, this is one place they’d make an exception. Even a small ember was liable to set the whole place ablaze. While the centre of the shop was covered in a dusty, moth eaten carpet that had in a past life been coloured red, the walls were slammed with books. They lined shelves from the floor to the ceiling, no exaggeration, and there were several piles of them standing perhaps a head taller than I was. Scrolls covered the wooden counter before me, such that I only found the bell by looking for the blue glow of Glint. I touched it, and the crystal discharged.
“Please don’t touch that,” a soft voice spoke from somewhere behind the counter. A dark figure approached, and I could tell from his manner of dress that he either charged extravagantly for his wares or he was running a bookshop to keep busy. Though his robes were as drab coloured and plain as anyone from the Schola Arcanum, they were obviously of exceptional quality.
“Hadrian, I presume?”
“Saw the sign above my store, did you?” Hadrian chuckled, easing himself onto a stool I hadn’t seen behind the counter. “Yes, I am he. What service may I perform for you today?”
I waved at the books arrayed around us. “I wouldn’t be here without reason. You seem to be in the business of knowledge.”
“Aye,” he nodded. “We are in Cadameria, are we not? Magic rules here. If you wish to stay in the city, you would do well to acquaint yourself with at least the basic workings of Glintstone and its applications throughout our society. I have a few primers I can recommend, if that is what you wish.”
I leaned closer, and Hadrian, sensing I was about to make a request that not every customer who walked in through his doors would, leaned in as well. The shadows seemed to deepen around us as I whispered, “What I’m interested in isn’t in any primer you can show me, if you catch my drift.”
Hadrian chuckled and leaned back. “That is a dangerous path you walk, my friend.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“They all say the same. And yet, look at Azkag the Necromancer. Buried a thousand years in a tomb with an unbreakable seal.” He stared at a far off wall as he said this, as if remembering. “Still. Azkag was a prolific compiler of the necromantic arts. If you wish to go down that route, remember the lesson his unlife teaches, and be sure to learn the right ones. Too many potential Grand Necromancers repeat history, having learned the wrong lessons.”
“Such a great depository of knowledge this is,” I said, “if the Grand Necromancer’s works are available for purchase. What does the Schola think?”
Hadrian’s face turned into an unpleasant frown, “The Schola Arcanum claims that magic is meant to liberate us, to usher us into a great new age of plenitude and prosperity. They tell us that magic is the key to proper governance, a thriving society and an enlightened government that does the will of the people.”
He shook his head. “No. I believe the same as they. Where we disagree, however, is in the limits the Schola enforces upon the populace. I believe that by limiting how much magic, as well as the kind of magic one is allowed to study, they do Cadameria a great disservice. I also believe they do this,” he snorted here before continuing, “only to maintain their own grip on power.”
“So Cadameria should be ruled by a Grand Necromancer?”
“If they are the most powerful mage in Cadameria? Yes.” He smiled again. “Hence, why the complete writings of Azkag the Necromancer, Kazbaul the Dragon Caller, and even of Mad Magnar Teufelsson, Son of the Daemon, are available for sale. Copies, of course,” he said, attempting to be reassuring and failing, “Magnar wrote his grimoires on the skins of the sacrifices to his father. You can imagine that human skin pages aren’t exactly available in great numbers.”
“Unless one means to make sacrifices to Magnar’s old man,” I joked. “But I am not interested in any of those, sadly.”
Hadrian raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Did you not say that you walked in here because this place sold knowledge?”
I pushed back my cloak, revealing my daggers. “Don’t call it knowledge, then. Call it…intelligence. Call it information. That’s what I’m here for.”
“Assassin,” Hadrian practically hissed the word. “Well. I can’t say none of them have it coming. What do you wish to know?”
“Nothing too original,” I said, covering my daggers again. “Easiest point of entry to the Grand Magus Spire, patrols of the guards and their change schedules, perhaps even the Grand Magus’ itineraries, if you have them. And I’ll pay extra for anything else that might be helpful.” I plopped my pouch down on the table, the gold coins jangling inside them. “Price to be negotiated after I determine the usefulness of my information.”
“And how do I know you’ll pay a fair price after you get it?”
“You wound me, Hadrian. I aim to be one of your most loyal customers. I wouldn’t bite the hand that fed me. And besides,” I smirked. I love this joke. “I’m a killer, not a liar.”
Hadrian snorted, not amused. They never were. He reached under the counter and produced several sheets of parchment, an inkwell and a quill that I could see was tipped with Glintstone. He tapped the tip and laid the quill down on the parchment, and the pen stood upright, dipping itself in the ink bottle, ready to take dictation.
His information was good indeed, if it were all true. I paid him his gold and took the parchment that contained all the information I’d need to memorise. “Thank you, Hadrian. Here’s to a lasting relationship.”
“Before you go…” Hadrian said, stopping me just as I was about to leave. “Whose neck do you intend to sheathe your blades in?”
“Do you sell or buy information?”
“Both,” he said, wincing when he realised his mistake. He immediately pushed a small stack of gold my way. I grinned and took it, and told him who my mark was.
His eyes widened. “Him? If anyone deserves it…wait,” he held up a hand. “Let me give you this one, for however much you may pay me. Take it for free, if nothing else.”
“I’m listening, but I doubt your motive now.”
“If I knew you were going to kill that senile buffoon I’d have given you a discount. Listen closely, then. Go to the Red Light District, and find Alma, the courtesan. She works at the Silk Dragon Tea House. She has carte blanche access to all the Schola, something not even available to the Grand Maguses. Don’t ask me why. It seems she’s their favourite. She may be privy to information I am not.”
I nodded, and placed the stack of gold he had returned to me on the counter. “That’s worth some gold, Hadrian. Thank you.”
“Just kill the gods be damned scoundrel,” he snarled. “You’d be doing Cadameria a great service.”
“The only cause I serve is sitting on your counter,” I replied, and left.
Time to test out Hadrian’s intelligence. I’m no fool, of course. I have no reason to doubt him, but I have no reason to trust him, either. Perhaps this girl Alma might be able to corroborate Hadrian’s information. And she’s in the Red Light District too, which is a bonus. There’s the pouch of spice I bought from Waheed. Maybe I could test it out. No more than a pinch, he said. Well, let’s give it a try.
An idea came to me as I was halfway to the Red Light District. Yes…yes. I was in Cadameria, after all. Magic ruled here. Who was I to naysay it?
Well, that was something. I knew what was rumored to have happened, of course, but Alma told me the whole story when I met up with her again later.
In this respect, Hadrian’s intelligence was good. I found Alma right where he said I would, at the Silk Dragon Tea House in the Red Light District. She was a slender brown haired girl, dressed all in red, and young. I could see why some people might want her as a favourite, but she didn’t do anything for me. I chatted her up, and gauged her reaction when I mentioned Lord Vykstra, Grand Magus of the School of Abjuration, current Head Administrator of the city of Cadameria. It was bad – which was good for me. She wrinkled her forehead, turned away, and seemed to withdraw into herself at the mere mention of the name. She refused to give details but as much as she was his favourite, he wasn’t hers. Perfect.
I prodded her for more information, though she was hesitant to give it, unlike Hadrian. There are two kinds of professions in which you need to be able to size up a mark at first glance – mine, and hers. She had my measure the moment I stepped foot inside the teahouse, and knew what I was. Obviously, she didn’t want anything to do with what I had in mind. But I had her measure, too. She knew what men liked and what they wanted, but in terms of security she knew as much as I did of being a seamstress. Though she thought the information she had divulged was harmless, in truth it was exactly what I wanted.
I paid her for her time, and spent the next two weeks preparing, testing Hadrian’s intelligence. All of it was good, and worth every gold piece. The guards moved almost exactly when he said they would, changed when he said they would, played dice and cards right at the spots he had pointed on the parchment he gave me. In the end, I could have snuck my way past them blindfolded. Of course, the Schola Arcanum proper was sure to have magical defenses, alerts and alarms, making forced entry impossible.
And so, the solution was to enter without force.
Alma had seen me before so I couldn’t be the one to pass her the pitcher. I couldn’t be seen by her at all, in fact, even though I had managed a disguise as one of the kitchen’s serving boys. To the untrained eye I looked like any of the other urchins running about obeying the cook’s orders, but as I said Alma had a keen eye, and so I couldn’t be anywhere near her when she walked into the kitchen.
She arrived just as she said she would. Apparently she thought there was no harm in telling me about Lord Vykstra’s habit of sipping on elderberry wine before laying with her. That was information worth a lot of gold to any poisoner, but I suppose she thought I worked more with my blades than with the subtler art of assassination. Good. That means she won’t suspect I had dumped half of Waheed’s bag of spice into the wine before I passed it to another serving boy, who passed it to her. I snuck out of the kitchen and far away from the Schola when I saw her leave the kitchen with the contaminated pitcher. I was going to miss the moment of the kill, but as long as his heart stopped, it didn’t matter to me.
I must confess to not actually knowing what would happen if one takes too much of that time altering spice. For all that Waheed told me it would just give him a case of mild diarrhoea. I had a feeling, though, that if that were the case Waheed would not have insisted that I take ‘a pinch, no more’. It was also magical enough that the Schola would outlaw its use. That told me that whatever happened to Lord Vykstra after ingesting half a bag of the stuff, it wouldn’t be pretty.
The rumors I heard the next morning were terrifying. Everyone had said Lord Vykstra had died of course (died, I noticed the word usage, and not murdered), but the details as to how the Grand Magus met his end were unclear. Some said he had cast a portal and closed it when he was halfway through. Some said he had tried to conjure flowers as a trick but accidentally summoned a giant snake. Some even said that he actually failed to cast his spell – he intended to fly out his window, but forgot to cast the spell, and plunged to his doom. I learned why these tall tales circulated soon enough – the official stance of the Schola as to the Grand Magus’ demise was ‘magical mishap’.
At least I knew the spice overdose worked. Still, I was curious as to what exactly happened, and went to find Alma, who was overlooked in the whole issue despite most likely being the first witness as to what happened. It pays to be everyone’s favourite apparently.
She suspected I had something to do with it immediately, and it took quite some time to assure her that I did not. This wasn’t such a farfetched idea – one as powerful as he had many enemies, of course. I told her I needed to know the truth, if I was to fool my employer into thinking I had done it and thus be able to get the rest of my pay. She believed me, and told me what had happened.
The spice took effect almost as soon as Lord Vykstra drained his first cup. His eyes went wide, his face pale, and he became so unsteady on his feet he was forced to sit down. When Alma went over to ask what was wrong, he didn’t answer. She noticed him sweating, and went into his chambers to fetch a cloth to wipe him down with. She rushed back to him when he heard him scream, and at the sight of the magus she let one out of her own.
I decided the closest rumors got was ‘portal mishap’. From what she described, it sounded like several portals had opened inside the magus’ body. Random body parts started bursting forth from his body, of all kinds – a muscular arm here, a withered leg there, even several heads. All the while the magus was screaming, writhing as he floated in the air, the time traveling properties of the spice running amok inside his Glintstone lined veins. It seemed like hours but was actually more like minutes. When the magic ran out, an unrecognisable mass of flesh made of limbs, appendages and other body parts fell to the floor, unmoving.
Alma didn’t know any more. She grabbed her things and ran straight back to the tea house. I’m guessing that was another reason why she wasn’t a suspect. I paid her for her information, thanked her, and left.
She was actually right about me. I did prefer to stick my daggers in a mark’s heart. But as I said, this was Cadameria, where magic ruled. A little magical assassination helps keep things fresh.
I have to confess that the rush of magical assassination had gotten to me. Why else would I have visited Waheed again? I also have to confess that I wasn’t as ignorant of Waheed’s language as I made out. I knew one word – exactly one word – and it was used to describe my profession.
Waheed wasn’t as jovial when I entered the bright, spice and dye smelling shop. There wasn’t anyone else in the shop – I’d waited until the coast was clear – and he pulled the rope to close the door almost as soon as I’d stepped in, hissing the word at me.
I nodded. “Yes, Waheed, that is what I am.”
“You have…how do they say this? A lot of guts, stepping in here again.”
“And why would that be?” I slid casually up to the counter.
“You dare misuse my wares,” he grunts. “Ajarram are meant for pleasure, not to cause death.”
I bowed. “I apologise, friend. Truth be told, when I bought your spice, I intended to use them as intended. The idea to use them for…business, came later. If it’s any consolation, I trust you, friend. You said you were not a cheat. I would gladly testify to that fact. Used as intended, the pleasure was…exquisite.”
Waheed folded his tree trunk arms and stared at me. “So, you have apologised. All right. I forgive you. Now what?”
“Now I hope we can continue to do business.”
“I do not sell death.”
“No, I do. And I hope I can count on you…as a supplier of my tools.” I leaned in. “All merchants have suppliers, Waheed. Even merchants of death. As I profit…so do you.”
Waheed seemed to be considering it. I let him think it over. After what seemed like an eternity, he sighed, and reached under the counter for a new set of jars. “These mixtures…they may be of use to you, if I can know what you need them for. My soul is clean,” he said to me, “what you sell is your business, and none of mine.”
I nodded. “Of course. I look forward to a long, profitable relationship, friend.”