The Tower: Prologue
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The Spring thaw brings the usual flood of merchant adventurers down from the Corinthian city states through Ophir and Koth, heading for Argos and the sea. Guarding the caravan of Hakiem the Shemite is easy work for a hardened sell-sword, and if the pay is little more than subsistence en route, there is the chance of a bonus at the end of the trail.
But the Spring rains are unusually heavy this year, and the roads are difficult and the rivers high. Hakiem's caravan arrives in Messantia a week late...
"Wine! Bring me wine!" The fat man is sweating, and not just from the heat of the bazaar. Hakiem's swarthy face is pale, and he stumbles as he makes his way rather unsteadily to the pile of cushions beneath the brightly-coloured awning. Having regained his accustomed seat in front of his wares, he seizes the wine-cup proferred by Anteus and drains it in one draught before tossing it carelessly aside.
The morning's trade, you gather, has not gone well.
"Ishtar preserve us," Hakiem mutters. "We were but days too late. Veredan has cornered the market. My silks are worth a fraction of what I'd hoped. A fraction!" He shakes his head. "It took all of my skill to persuade that spawn of Bel to take them off my hands, and at a price that will barely cover my expenses..." He gestures towards a group of approaching men, each wearing a white sash across his tunic. "Even now his porters approach to bear away the spoils."
Without a word the porters shoulder Hakiem's bales of silk and retrace their steps across the marketplace, its crowds slackening now as the afternoon wears on. Only a giant black remains, staring impassively down at Hakiem, clad in a warrior's harness but wearing the same white sash.
"The price that you agreed," he says in the liquid accents of the Black Kingdoms, tossing a leather pouch to your employer that he catches deftly. You hear the clink of coins. "And this to cover the wages of your guards." A smaller pouch follows the first.
Hakiem's eyes widen. "Your Master is generous," he says carefully, pulling at his beard.
The negro bows, and then looks at each of Hakiem's four guards in turn before speaking again. "My Master has work for stout blades," he says. "If you would learn more, be at the Silver Eel after midnight." Then he turns on his heel and strides away without a backward glance.
Anteus looks to Hakiem. "Well Hakiem it appears our contract is concluded. I'll take my payment now and see if I can find a room somewhere. I'll send word of my whereabouts should you be in need of my services again."
Hakiem, still seated, empties the smaller pouch into his lap and divides the contents equally amongst four watchful sell-swords. "'Tis little reward for those who have served me well," he mutters. "Take it with my gratitude." He shrugs his shoulders. "Ishtar gives, Brothers. Ishtar gives."
The youth Sittius takes his pay and bows stiffly to Hakiem: "May the Earth Mother smile upon you in your travels."
"Thank you, young Master," smiles the merchant. "And upon you also."
Sarrencius of Aquilonia looks searchingly around the bazaar: "Do any of you worthies know where the Silver Eel is to be found?" His voice is brisk, business-like.
"On Water-Rat Road," says Hakiem, eyeing him shrewdly, "Near the docks, bordering on the thieves' quarter. You intend to take up Veredan's offer then?"
Sarrencius says nothing. The youth butts in: "What know you of the Kushite's Master?" he asks Hakiem. "As you say, he is generous. But I trust little a man who is over free with his coins - he is likely a fool or a noble and I have little use for either."
Hakiem shakes his head. "Veredan is neither fool nor noble," he says, "Although if you have any sense you will address him as Lord to his face." He sighs ruefully. "Nor is he over free with his coins, as you put it. He may pay well, but I doubt not that your pay will be well-earned."
One by one the warriors disperse, moving slowly through a bazaar that is now quiet in the heat of the day. Last to leave is Tamas. "Fare you well, Merchant," he says, offering his hand.
"And you, Gladiator," comes the reply.
And seated behind some barrels a few feet away, out of sight but well within earshot, a blonde-haired girl with bright blue eyes wrinkles her nose a little, licks a finger and daintily rubs a little dirt from one tanned thigh below the hem of her tunic.