“Bloody Palarn,” Arsaces swore as a small stone struck the wall above his head. He had just past through the Hill Gate and into the city only to find that the city was in the midst of a riot. Another stone whized over his head, breaking the peacock feather in his cap. Arsaces ducked behind the nearest wagon. He was joined a moment later by a washer woman who was clining to her basket of clothes.
“What in blazes is going on?”
“Food riot,” she panted and peaked around the corner.
“Food riot? There’s plenty of food in this province.”
“Not any more – they say there’s a plague on the fields. Haven’t had a good piece of bread in a week.”
Arsaces twirled his fluffy black mustache in thought for a moment. The daily news report at the University of Magical Studies certainly hadn’t mentioned anything about a plague.
There was a sudden thump of blades on shields. Arsaces and the washer woman both peaked around the corner. The city guard had shown up. The rioters regrouped behind an overturned turnip wagon. The guard made a slow advance across the square, marching smartly; showing off their training. One of the rioters, a small boy, started to sling stones at the guards.
“Put down your arms!” the leader of the guards called out.
Another stone flew at him.
Arsaces glanced up the street behind the rioter’s wagon. More troops were quietly decending.
“Give us good food!” someone demanded.
“Idiots,” Arsaces commented. He caught a whiff of cayanne pepper mixed with the clean scent of lemon and looked down. The washer woman was crouched below him, watching the scene from her knees. His gaze slid down the front of her smock. He could see the smooth white curve of each breast and the enticing valley between.
“I don’t suppose you’re a succubus in disguise?” he asked her. She looked up at him in shock and clutched her basket to her chest.
“Am I what?” she asked in her thick country accent.
“Nevermind child, nevermind.”
She glared at him and moved a little farther away.
There was a scream. Arsaces peaked around the wagon again. The troups had sprung their ambush, and the rioters fell to their clubs.
“Well that’s done. Can I escort you somewhere, my lady?” he asked, offering his hand to the washer woman. She ignored it and scrambled to her feet still awkwardly holding the basket to her chest. With one quick glare back at him, she ran off down the side street.
Arsaces sighed and reshouldered his pack, “Definitely not a succubus.”
He made his way across Palarn to the castle and into the Office of the Council. The hallway outside of the Secretary’s Office was crowded with farmers who smelled of fertilzer and sweat. Postings about the plague decorated the walls of the hallway.
“Why post when most people can’t read?” he wondered aloud.
“Reading’s a requirement to vote here,” a voice behind him said. He turned to see a man of the Sun God behind him.
“Really? When did Palarn become so civilized?”
The priest chuckled, “Since she took over.”
“Haven’t you heard? Palarn has a new Chancellor; Iriny of Goldford. She took over about two months ago.”
“Iriny of Goldford. Never heard of her.”
“You should have. She’s well connected.” A commotion at the end of the hallway made both men look. The Council of the city of Palarn walked out of a room, followed by a tall woman with slanted eyes, skin the color of graphite and pale lilac hair piled atop her head. She wore stately black robes and carried a golden rod. She nodded regally to Arsaces, who shut his mouth and quickly doffed his cap.
“Impressive eh?” the priest asked.
“A grey elf as Chancellor? How odd.”
The priest nodded. A group of farmers gathered around the Chancellor, voicing their complaints.
Arsaces took that opportunity to cut the line and slip into the Secretary’s office.
“Yes?” the Secretary said without looking up from his pile of papers.
Arsaces looked around the office. There were more plague warnings posted, as well as some wanted posters. The desks were piled high with loose papers and books. It reminded him of his junior apprentice’s work area. The boy was a complete slob which belied his keen attention to details during summoning spells. The Secretary looked like he’d been sleeping under the table. His clothes were rumbled and his short grey hair was sticking up at an odd angle. He had an monocle tucked in his left eye.
“I’m on a scholar’s quest, and I need to hire a team to help me get to the swamps in Kalix province.” He handed over the documents that authorized him to hire a team.
“Impossible,” The man replied and handed back the documents without looking at them.
“Impossible? What do you mean?”
“I mean that not only is it impossible to hire a team at this time, it is also impossible to travel to the Kalix province. There’s a plague in the way.” The man pointed at the warning on the wall. His monocle popped out and fell to the desk with a thump.
“So I’ve heard. What does a sickness of the grain have to do with borrowing a guide and some muscle?”
“All of our ‘muscle’ is busy.”
“Okay. What about a guide?”
“No one goes to Kalix.”
The man squinted at him and didn’t respond. Arsaces pulled his credentials from his papers and flashed the page with the King’s seal at the man.
“I must got to Kalix,” Arsaces said slowly, emphasizing each word.
The man shrugged, “We don’t have the staff to go off on some scholar’s quest. We’ve got riots in the streets for pity’s sake. If you want to go to Kalix, you’ll have to hire your own team.”
Arsaces twirled his mustache and frowned at the man.
“I’d try asking around down near the docks,” the Secretary said, and turned away.
He sat with his back to Arsaces and started to go through some paperwork.
“A pox on you and your plague!” he said, turning on his heal and stomping out.
“That’s probably what started it,” the man’s nasally voice followed him, “Try the Sea Bitch on Firth street.”
The Sea Bitch Tavern turned out to be just as seedy as it’s name suggested. The enterance was a small door next to a fish monger’s shop. The plaque above the door had no words, but graphically depicted a green haired, fishtailed woman with breasts prominantly displayed making a rude gesture. Arsaces smiled to himself and went in.
The door openned on to a hallway. A bored looking porter sat in a chair, balanced on its back legs. A stairway went upward behind him, and a doorway to the right showed a stairway leading downward.
“Women or gambling?” The boy asked.
“Both, but not just yet. Where would I post a notice?”
“Main bar – upstairs.”
“Thanks,” Arsaces tossed him a copper coin and took the stairs two at a time.
The stairs let out into a large room filled with tables. Various games of chance were being run by an assortment of interesting looking individuals. One table had a lively dice game going. He stopped to watch for a moment. The game was not familiar to him, but it seemed to include a lot of drinking. Each of the players had a hand grasping the edge of the table. They didn’t let go no matter what the roll of the dice indicated. One man finally let go of the table. The others pounced on him verbally.
“You’re Three Man!” They cried.
“Fine. After I pee.” He stumbled off.
One of them spotted me. “You – with the faggy hat and the fluffy mouth – come sit down!”