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Monday, 3 May 2010

"More Precious Than Gold" - part 2

ARRIVAL IN SARDONYX

The barge is moored at a jetty of moss-clad marble and the protagonists approach the city through half a mile of sculpted gardens and domed pavilions. All are reduced to staring about them in awe. Nothing they have encountered in their whole lives has prepared them for this vast, shimmering city. Their senses are staggered by the sweeping avenues of white stone, the monumental buildings, lawns and colonnades of the great Houses. The streets are vastly empty.

Coming to a canal where an Ancient lord sits in a punt trimmed with gold and gems, they get directions to the House of Ruash. It may be their first face-to-face encounter ever with a pureblood Ancient. Ancients tend to be pale of skin with white or golden hair. They are a couple of inches shorter than Invaders on the average, and slighter of build. Their clothing is elaborate and impractical, as they customarily do nothing more strenuous than sit being served by their habdigar servants all day.

Beyond a plaza flanked by two rows of grimacing stone idols, they find a collection of colossal buildings set in carefully tended grounds that are dominated by a single trapezoid manse. From the scale they could be rock formations rather than human edifices. The party make their way up a wide stairway that leads up to the main entrance on the third floor of the manse. There they are greeted by a habdigar major-domo who takes the letter of introduction from Seedob before showing them to a side chamber.

"Please wait here," it says in its burring voice. "I will show your document to Lord Tian Zi-Yastu."

IN THE HOUSE OF RUASH

Shortly the major-domo returns with several other habdigars. "These slaves will attend to your needs," it says. "Lord Tian Zi-Yatsu invites you to lunch with him on the South Terrace when you have washed the grime from your bodies.”

Habdigar slaves come forwards with jars of perfumed oil that in Deliverance would fetch a good sum. Their orders are to clean the Invaders thoroughly before they are allowed into the presence of Lord Tian. The characters are likely to find the sensation of being massaged by a habdigar quite unpleasant, and Seedob at least insists on washing himself without their help.

As they are led to their meeting, they pass through the cool shadows of the great hall, a space as large as a cathedral. Standing against the wall below the massive stairway is a ten-foot tall statue consisting of plates of jade armor decorated with golden bosses on which runes are inscribed. It looks like a giant, empty suit of armor with a visor resembling the face of some frightening demon out of myth. The major-domo will tell them this is the House Vaal. “A statue?” asks Sootan. “A living sentinel,” insists the major-domo, though admitting that the Vaal has not stirred from its place in living memory.

The Vaal will only come to life and fight if the House itself is endangered. The protagonists will want to avoid that. Combat stats, etc, should be redundant, therefore, but if you really need them then consider something that would give the Malgash a workout. Aficionados of Prof M.A.R. Barker’s work will recognize the Ru’un as the inspiration for this creature.

AUDIENCE WITH AN ANCIENT LORD

They are taken to the South Terrace, where white marble masonry shines dazzlingly in the noon sun. A trellis of blue-leafed vines provides shade for a low table set with viands and pitchers of cool wine. Lord Tian Zi-Yastu Ruash sits waiting for them, sucking at a hookah from which wisps of omatique smoke escape to leave a heady scent in the air. He smiles a trifle distractedly and gestures for them to join him.

This scene should be played to accentuate the huge cultural gulf that exists between the Invaders and the Ancients. Even superficial details display the pervasive otherness of Sardonyx: the low chairs in which Invaders find it difficult to sit comfortably, the intricate glass goblets and the array of specialized eating-utensils, the bitter wine and the odd disharmonious music that drifts up from the plaza below.

As the conversation proceeds, it rapidly becomes clear that, in addition to superficial differences, the two cultures also cannot see eye to eye on a fundamental level. Lord Tian Zi Yastu has no interest in forming trading links with the Sovereign states, and in fact holds all mercantile affairs in deepest disdain. To demonstrate his disregard for wealth, he reaches into a coffer and produces a huge pearl which he drops into the wine-jug. "Wealth dissolves," he muses. "It evaporates. It becomes meaningless. By this action, do I destroy a great pearl, or sully a fine wine?"

"Both!" snorts Seedob. "If you can describe this rotgut as wine!"

"Both or neither." Tian Zi-Yastu shrugs languorously. "In my library there is a casket containing ten great rubies each the size of a slazzart's egg. My great-great-grandfather Koya En Yastu Ruash brought them back from the Sacred Volcano in the seventh year of the sidereal veil. You could buy the ten best boats on the Scarab with them, and their cargoes also, but I have never even troubled to open the casket to look at them. I doubt if my father did, either."

Sootan is looking very troubled. Sharper witted than his brother, he has realized by now that their hopes are turning out to have been a house built on sand.

Seedob still thinks Tian is just negotiating to gain an edge. "You're worried about your cut," he says. "It's understandable. You Ancients have been in a lot of deals with us Sovereigners over the ages, and it seems you're always getting the worse side of things. But this deal has enough for us all to profit. My brother and I, we aren't greedy. It'll be one for us, one for you, all the way down the line."

Tian exhales a curl of omatique smoke and laughs. "We shall have equal shares in nothing, then, for that is what the venture must come to. It is all very well, but I have my comforts seen to quite adequately as things stand. In my thickest omatique dreams I want for nothing at all. Furthermore, as I have no great wish to see Sardonyx's streets filled with lice-infested and stench-ridden Invaders - my pardon for the discourtesy - I shall have to refuse your offer."

"We could take this offer elsewhere..." suggests Sootan. "To another House."

"Do you have introductions to the heads of other Houses? I doubt it. And without them you would be ejected forcibly by the habdigar gate-keepers. In any case, to pursue the matter would be futile. Your concepts depend on a crucial misunderstanding. Our interests do not coincide in any substantial particular, and commerce between Sardonyx and the Invaders is thus an impossibility.”

SKULDUGGERY

The rest of the day is spent under a cloud of disappointment. They may see other Ancients around, and conversations can be extemporized using the source material for Sardonyx. They go early to their beds, intending to depart back to Tamary on the morrow.

They have all been put in one chamber, a room partitioned with lacquer screens, on beds made up of thickly padded brocade cushions. In the early hours of the morning, the protagonists are woken by hushed voices. Seedob and Sootan are discussing something in tones of great urgency. When they realise that they have woken Hodansyr and the protagonists, they whisper for them to come over.

The brothers are crouched together beside a candle in the darkness. Its flickering light sends ominous shadows across the decorative screen behind them. They have the look of two men caught in the act of discussing something of great wickedness. The protagonists see at once that Seedob is fully clothed, and in his lap he has an open casket. Inside, on a velvet mat, lie ten large, gleaming rubies.

"Okay, so I stole the family heirlooms," grunts Seedob. "What of it? What's the Ancient going to care, seeing as he never looked at them anyhow? He won't know they're gone."

"His habdigars will," says Sootan. "They patrol the House at all hours. They might come looking for us at any moment, and they will come with drawn knives. We cannot expect Lord Tian to care if his uninvited guests are butchered for thievery in the dark of the night."

Hodansyr eases his sword from its scabbard. "Let them come. Knives aren't a problem."

It is up to the protagonists to point out the shortcomings in such an approach. Since it is unlikely anyone could get back to the library without being spotted, the rubies cannot be replaced – not that Seedob has any intention of allowing them to do that anyway. Sootan and Hodansyr have already begun to see the advantages of the situation, in that at least they don't end up empty handed. The protagonists have no choice but to go along with the others (presumably some of them, at least, will need no urging) and must now argue over their share. Seedob will maintain strenuously that these rubies do not count as "spoils" but fall more properly under the heading of "profit". He needs the protagonists, though, and he knows it. Finally even he will agree to equal shares for all.

MOONLIGHTING

With the jetty area well patrolled by habdigar guards, and populous agricultural lands to the north and south, the only escape route lies across the Wastes of Gizen. The hostile, scorching heat of this region is well-known and Sootan has Hodansyr fetch pitchers to use for carrying water.

The party make their way across the plaza to the Tessellate Causeway – the mosaic funeral roadway that runs out of Sardonyx into the desert. Everything has taken on an unreal cast in the moonlight. Somewhere, far out in the desert wastes, an unknown creature raises its voice in a solitary, mournful howl. The faint mist veiling the moon is considered an ill omen in Invader folklore, and the protagonists ought to feel that the very stars are looking down in horror at their greed and their betrayal of hospitality.

Come back in two days for the concluding installment.

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