Two mornings after returning from the rescue of the lion cub Mathur, Arjuna receives an anonymous note, delivered to his room in House Víkpe by a timid serving girl. It reads as follows:
“News from home is always precious. Southern Bazaar, Merchants’ Circle.” The note also contains a neat drawing of a plaza with streets intersecting it on all sides and at the corners, with an X at the NE corner.
Arjuna shows up early (cloaked), cases the local area (looking for skulkers, parties of hit jánah and familiar faces) and then waits in the middle of the square. At the appointed time, he walks over to the corner.
It is the last of the three weekly market days. The scents of jasmine, roasting suthra, cinnamon, flowers, incense, and underneath it all the odors of jánah of every description fill Arjuna’s nose. The air is filled with the noise of musicians, raised voices, children crying for their parents, priests chanting, and the bleating of suthra. Although most speak with the Tishínian accent, Arjuna hears occasional snatches of what he assumes must be a Paksin language, as well as a few Sarpah accents. Merchants sit or stand in booths with colorful awnings, shouting at passersby to tempt them with their wares — clothing of every color and type, ornaments to decorate one’s fur, feathers, or scales, brightly-colored fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish caught fresh this morning, mounds of fragrant spices. The street is a riot of color and chaos, though Arjuna seems to generate his own little bubble of stillness as jánah part to let him pass. Those jánah that accidentally bump into him are quick with their apologies.
Harthuk’s had a day to prepare the outfit so he’s carefully fatigued some new clothing… 3 or 4 stone washings are usually enough to make things look used without becoming “low class”. The used slippers have been bought shortly after he arrived at the market. He’s been buying samples of different perfumes for “his lady”, not specifying whether he means a wife or a house mistress, and he’s carrying them in a small basket also with some random food purchases to go with the spiral arena cake he has in the bottom of the basket. He gets a couple of fresh fish wrapped in paper to add another scent to the basket and a couple of brightly colored
fruit that can go squish when thrown… just to make things fun if things get weird.
At the northeast corner of the marketplace is a slightly smaller but higher booth than most. Young jánah are crowded in front of it. Older jánah, some of whom are admonishing their offspring to behave, stand behind them. A sign on the booth reads “Three shows every Market Day at the 4th, 6th, and 8th chimes!” Another sign reads “Muítal, Master Puppeteer”. A male donkey, presumably Muítal since he is holding a puppet in each hand, is squatting at the edge of the crowd of children, talking as enthusiastically to them as they are to him. After a minute or so, he gets up and ducks into the booth, disappearing from sight.
The puppet show begins soon afterwards. The puppets are the type that are worn on hands, although some of the skinnier ones are manipulated with sticks instead. There must be at least one more puppeteer, as sometimes as many as four puppets are visible on stage. The play is the legend of Bloodhorn, Zésri, and the Vürtach. There is a lot more swordfighting between Bloodhorn’s corsairs and the city guard than is strictly necessary, but it is a well-done show. Zésri in particular is so graceful in her movements that it is sometimes difficult to remember that she is only cloth and stuffing. The children are entranced.
After the rooftops have been painted blue, but before the climactic scene with the Vürtach (which has been briefly foreshadowed against the backdrop of the sky several times already), something catches Arjuna’s eye. Someone is standing in the shadows behind the booth, beckoning to him. Although Arjuna is unable to see what type of jánah is there, his nose tells him that it is probably a weasel, or perhaps a stoat.
In for a shard, in for a dalán.
Arjuna edges around the crowd and follows the jánah, warily.
Argh! Why’d this have to be in daytime?!?!
The stoat has planned this out well. Anyone who leaves the show before the Vütarch shows up in the puppet show isn’t here for the show and is either a target or an interloper. Having most of the street blocked means that anybody who wants to follow needs to go through an obvious choke point.
Okay, Stoat, it’s on.
The good news is I don’t have to follow the Stoat, I can follow Arjuna. I’ll have to wait a few seconds and make my way casually out of the market by a side street, and then scurry around the block until I can shadow Arjuna. He’s easy to spot with that cloak on, well, that and the way he walks and his height and… you get the idea. This’ll keep me at a really, REALLY, good distance from the stoat, too.
I’m not here to interfere, just to observe (cough spy cough), whatever is happening needs to go on.
Hmmm, I don’t see the Snow Leopard, Rize. I’ll check to make sure I’m not being tailed as I shadow Arjuna.
The booth blocks an entrance to a street that runs into the marketplace. The jánah heads down that street. Close to the marketplace, there is a fair amount of traffic with jánah coming and going. After a while, however, the jánah (a female stoat, Arjuna realizes, after at least some of the smells of the bazaar are left behind) turns down a side street, which is relatively deserted. She stops and waits, leaning against one of the walls, setting down a cloth bag that looks like it’s full of market produce. She wears somewhat baggy pants gathered at the ankles, a long-sleeved tunic with a high neck and a vest over top of it. Everything is worn and faded, except for the dark green vest — that looks like it was bought at the market just today.
Once the street crowd thins and before the stoat turns off Arjuna will probably slow down and be cautious. This buys me time.
That’s when I’ll check to make sure there are NOT any rooftop Paksin, take to an empty side alley, put the shoes in the basket and tie it into the belt sash (I just bought these shoes, dangit!), and climb. I don’t know this city, or this section of it, but I know how cities are built and laid out. (THIS is why Assassins have Architecture as a skill.) Depending on how well the underworld is organized there may even be obvious routes across the rooftops and through certain balconies that are only there if you know what to look for.
Either one of them might smell the fish or fruit so I’ll leave the basket on the rooftop where I first climb up. I’ll take only one of the sealed perfume samples with me.
Besides managing to keep to the shadows on the rooftops and being small Harthuk packed a very lightweight blue cloak to wear while on the blue rooftops to avoid being seen by flying janah. How kind of the city to make it easy for me to stay camouflaged!
“I’m here. Talk.”
Arjuna takes off his tunic top, revealing the closely shaven scarred and tattooed forearms. Not threatening, but not defenseless, just… poised. Exits are back to the marketplace or right over top of her. What does she smell like? Afraid? Excited? Worried? Happy?
She has a fear smell, but not wild panicked fear.
She pulls back the neck of her tunic, baring her throat. She is branded just at the base of her neck, which indicates she is a Hardazi slave. The brand is from Arjuna’s tribe.
She lets the tunic go, keeping her eyes downcast. “Lord. I bring a message from my master, Jyoti.” She stops, the fear smell is a little stronger now, and she is trembling slightly.
Arjuna freezes at that name. He stares at her for a long beat, ears flicking. Takes a breath and huffs it out.
“Jyoti?” Darts a glance at each end of the alley, still empty, and then relaxes, some. His eyes are question marks.
“What does your Master— Jyoti say?” His hands clasp his sword belt, deliberately casual. He is still nervous, but there is no sense in spooking a slave.
“He says— " she darts a quick look at Arjuna, then looks back down again. The words come out in a rush. “He says your honored father, may his name be remembered, is dead. He says he would speak with you. He says he will declare Jaya’s Truce for this day, and he sends you this as a token of his good faith.” She reaches down to the bag at her side, her hands spilling the vegetables on the ground as she fumbles for what she seeks. She comes up with a package, wrapped in oiled suthra leather and tied with cords, about the size of a grapefruit. It smells of brine. She places it on the ground before Arjuna, then takes a step back, clasping her hands together tightly to keep them from shaking.
Arjuna leans over and sniffs the package.
“Jaya’s Truce, huh.” He relaxes a little more, flame and ash had he had ever been so tense as when he heard the mink speaking Tongue of Fathers. The lilting cadences had brought back a rush of memories, some good, some… not. Probably a head. He prods the package with a sandaled foot. Well, they knew he was here, but how much else ? He was curious, he had eaten recently and aside from the thrice-cursed heat it wasn’t a bad day and now it had gotten… interesting. Interesting like your saddle cinch getting cut in the middle of a Jikoni match interesting.
“I accept the Truce for this day, my honor and my sept upon my oath.” The words come just a bit awkwardly at first, then more easily. He has not spoken the Tongue of Fathers in… a while. He had been among the hotlanders a while now, what was it, a year? Two?
Then the realization that his sire was dead hit him. Father. Chief. The one who walked like a god, a pillar of strength and the one Janah by whom he measured everything that mattered… Dead. His muzzle ripples. How? Why was not as important.
Maher’s little messenger had foretold this, but without the actual confirmation. Hearing this now unsettles him, he has all of this energy, that doesn’t know where to go. The fur on his back is rippling as he ponders this and the slave is just waiting. She will be reporting back.
The Chief is dead, let there be bloodletting. He snorted explosively.
pout Of course they’re talking in Hardazi, at least I can read their body language and tone of voice.
The slave hesitates, then squats down and unties the cords. It takes a bit of time, for she has no knife. Finally it is done, and she folds back the wrappings. Salt spills onto the street.
Inside, packed in salt, is a hand, neatly severed at the wrist, fingers curled, with the little finger missing down to the first joint. There is a ring on the first finger, a gaudy and oversized thing that looks even more ridiculous on the dead hand of Maher. For Maher it has to be — Arjuna remembers the ring, which Maher always used to wear, and the missing bit of finger. He himself had bitten if off in a childhood game that ended in both blood and tears. The smell of brine is strong, but there is an edge to it, the underlying smell of rot making itself known now that the flesh is exposed to the air.
Arjuna looks closely at the ring as he unconsciously wrinkles his nose. The hand is Maher’s no doubt.
He makes a wry grimace. So, Maher was being judged now. Hunh, better you than me.
Then again, if this was a trick, it certainly deserved some respect. Cutting off your own hand to lure your prey into thinking you were dead? Too sophisticated for Maher, he was more… more direct, for a Son of Hardaz, which was saying a lot since “I charge and kill it” seemed to be the Hardazi battle mantra.
Maher is dead, Neelam is dead (“Because you killed her” his mother’s eyes bored into his and he winced internally) and so, now Father. The weak and unlucky were being weeded out.
In what order? Neelam had slashed first.
Father is dead. The bodies were stacking up and it was starting to resemble one of those long, gory stories of clan history that they would all beg out of Druna, the old priest who kept the oral histories straight. Father is dead. Arjuna thought about Druna for a second, with his milky staring eyes and his brown blunt teeth, silver muzzled. His hearing worked fine though. His siblings had feared Druna, who seemed to know everything there was to know and could teach lessons about anything, anything at all.
“I wonder if that tough old bastard is still alive?” he rumbles.
The slave looks nervously at him, properly, her gaze never going higher than his chest. Arjuna looks down at her, crouched there. A little piece of home. With a severed gift hand in tow. Hardazi charm. Inspiring what, he wonders. Part of him is asking questions, thinking, measuring. This hotlander place must be starting to stick to him. Words.
Arjuna clears his throat, “Tie that back up and take me to Jyoti, and don’t flinch so, I’m… I’m not going to eat you.” She had been respectful, she had acted correctly as to his Clan status and Jyoti hadn’t sent him some lifeless trull as a messenger either. Her eyes have a glint of intelligence as she re-ties the skein of knots on the truce offering. Knots. Nets. Traps. Plots.
Druna knew just about every kind of law and exception to every kind of clan ruling that had ever happened. Demons, he had been there for most of them, in Council with all those other Priests and Chiefs and their Silents, all the moots and trials formal and informal. He would talk about them, and how justice had turned on this phrase, or the way a duel had been set into motion by that action. Word tricks and then, invariably blood. Councils. The fur over his necked rucked when he thought about them. Now he wished he had listened better on some of those long winter story days. Customs were just as dangerous as knives.
The slave is bent over, re-wrapping his brother’s hand. His dead brother’s hand. Two down at least, since he has no idea if the others lived or not. This was getting most interesting. He licked his nose, thoughtfully.
His eyes darted at the alley exits and then came to rest on her rounded ass as she kneeled and carefully lifted the bundles. Minks were volatile as stirred up girfbugs. Although she is kind of cute.
The package re-tied, the slave heads back the way she had come. She has a lilting walk, as did many of the weasel jánah. Her brand had been old, so she had probably been a slave since she was a young girl. She didn’t look to be much over 15 (weasels did not tend to live much past their 40th birthday). But weasels and stoats, as well as minks, were favored Vajrah slaves. Naturally fearless, they were able to handle the sudden violence of Hardazi life much better than most others. They were often entrusted with more important tasks, as this stoat had been. Mongooses were the exception among the mustelids, however — they were just too crazy. One could never depend on a mongoose.
This slave was not to be despised for her fear — it was reasonable under the circumstances. She had no idea how Arjuna would react to her news, and she would have had to account for herself if Arjuna had decided not to accompany her.
When she reaches the intersecting street, she stops. A black bear stands some little distance away, watching the street traffic. When he sees Arjuna and the slave, he starts over to them, his hand moving to his weapon, a large two-handed axe. The stoat quickly calls to him. “He has accepted Jaya’s Truce.” The bear grunts and takes his hand away again, and stops a few feet away from Arjuna. He makes an odd sort of coughing noise, then gestures down the street. Arjuna recognizes the noise — this is one of the Silent, bodyguards who have had their tongues cut out so they would keep their master’s secrets. They were not slaves, and they were proud of their disfigurement. Trusted with their master’s life, they had significant status among other Hardazi. This one would be a good fighter, and unlikely to yield to anyone unless directly ordered to.
The bear walks off, not bothering to see if either the stoat or Arjuna follow. The stoat trails him at a distance of perhaps five feet, still carrying the package.
Although her accent is thicker, Harhuk hears the word “Jaya”, it’s something Arjuna said as well.
We wait. We watch. We follow…
Arjuna’s eyes went flat at the sight of the Silent. Proud bastard, he is tempted to flick the bear’s axehandle and challenge him just to see how good he is, and turning his back on him is just. barely not insulting to a Vajrah. Truce, right. He is definitely losing his edge, two years ago he would have been rolling in the street with his teeth in this Bear’s throat. Meh, he wants this trail.
Yawning nonchalantly he pads after them. A tea seller recoils slightly from him as an airship hisses overhead, sails booming as it brakes. It goes out of sight over the tops of the shops here. The Silent doesn’t look up. Hmmm.
Eyes front Arjunah. That Demon infested monkey-mouse would probably love doing this. Cities stuffed with Janah jammed jowl to anus. The smells prickle his nose and all these critters living in close proximity is just weird. Mouse. He took another glance around. No mice, no monkeys.
He wonders how Rizé’s babysitting trip is going. They would talk of the day, later.
The Silent leads him down street after street, watching on all sides. Most jánah go out of their way to avoid him, and those that don’t generally stepped aside after he turns his glare on them. He is watching for something in particular, and Arjuna remembers the rumors he’d heard of other Hardazi in the city. How many different factions are here? Enough to make the Silent wary of crowds, that is clear. Arjuna knows their route is not a direct one, and much as he would like to think so, he knows the Silent isn’t lost.
The stoat follows him quietly, seemingly unconcerned. She has replaced the bundle in her bag, and looks like any ordinary jánah going about her business in the city. Occasionally she looks up at the buildings. Arjuna remembers his own reaction to seeing cities for the first time.
The Silent watches the people while the slave wonders at the tall buildings, he muses.
They pass through the gate, outwards to the Commoners’ Circle, and continue walking.
I might as well go back and get my basket and stuff the cloak away.
I could probably find a way down and a mouse hole through the wall, but this isn’t an emergency escape at night, this is a daytime stakeout an they’re not moving very fast.
Basket full of goodies it is!
Little Blue Rooftop Hood
D’s grandma lives in a little cabin in a nearby village all by herself. A black footed ferret named Ruksi who was married to a fishing otter long ago.
One day D was bringing his grandma some fresh fish from the market when suddenly he was stopped by a large Common Circle wolf guard.
“What’s in that basket?” growled the wolf.
“Some fresh fish and fruit for my grandma who is sick. Oh, and some perfumes. And a biscuit. You’re not hungry, are you?”
“Pah! I hate perfumes! Get those away from here! I will take that biscuit if you don’t mind, I didn’t have time for breakfast this morning what with my pups fussing about going to some puppet show. Thanks and have a nice day!”
And so D gave the wolf a pastry with a spiral pattern on it and went through the gate and into the Common Circle.
The neighborhoods become more cramped, the streets more windy, and the lack of straight sight lines makes the Silent more uneasy. At a gesture, the stoat moves up closer to him. The blue-roofed houses now occasionally overhang the streets, making the light dim. The Silent evidently decides that speed is now more important than avoiding crowds, for he increases his pace and no longer keeps to the less-traveled ways. Knots of jánah talk outside of small dwellings, occasional food sellers with carts shout their wares, and some, the most dangerous, simply watch them as they go by, leaning against walls and following them with speculative eyes.
Harthuk easily realizes when he starts to seem really out of place and needs to keep to the shadows and/or rooftops, stow the colored sash and headwear for something less noticeable, and he can also look for Mouseholes that might be able to help him get to where they’re going if he loses track of them. (It might take a couple repeated signs before a contact realizes he’s in a disguise, but if things get dicey he’ll need to know where the back doors are.)
Finally the Silent arrives at a two-story building, somewhat run down but still sturdy enough. He raps on the door, and coughs.
Harthuk climbs. He dislodges a loose tile on a badly repaired section, but catches it before it falls to the ground. He can hear his own heart pounding as he freezes in place, holding his breath with one hand on the edge of a rain gutter and the other pinning the tile down. The creaking of a nearby clothesline seems unbearably loud right now. Only after he’s sure no one heard does he slowly ease the edge of the tile into the gutter and pull himself up the rest of the way towards the chimney.
Wonderful things, chimneys, you can hear lots of things. Strange, somebody has marked this roof already. Today, not too long ago, because the marks made by what was probably a claw are very fresh and sharp. These are marks that can be seen from the street. Not made by another assassin, at least not an assassin worth his salt.
Harthuk lays low.
The door opens…