The paved streets of Zhe'Khar were smooth. It is a simple thing, but one noticed first by visitors about the Divine City of the Slain God. Other cities were paved with cobbles, the very richest with flagstones. But even those from Behlclaer City, Hel'lynorsk, or Eyx knew only bumpy, uneven roads because even flagstones cracked or became worn over time by weather and constant traffic. The city of Zhe'Khar was ancient, yet its streets were as smooth as if they were laid the day before by exacting artisans working with liquid glass.
And once one noticed the streets' lack of wear, one noticed the other oddities. The buildings were pristine, even in the poorest of neighborhoods. They were made of some material that resembled fine white marble with gold dust glimmering throughout. And no matter how new the building was, it had the same classically antique style of architecture as the rest of the city.
The pall of malodorous odors usually found in cities of any size was also missing. Amidst the smells that were noticeable was missing the usual perfume of the locale's method of light generation. Be it coal in the regions close to the East and West Wall Mountains or whale oil near the coasts or the pitch and naphtha that was more common throughout Asteria, one could usually scent it before even entering the city. Light in Zhe'Khar was made, instead, by what the citizens and frequent visitors of the city called God-glows, containers of exquisitely shaped glass found throughout the city that gave off a steady light that could be dimmer than the feeblest candle or nearly as bright as the noonday sun and range in color from white to midnight blue and every shade in between. They were found on fantastically wrought, rust-free iron poles as street lights, in heart-rending creations of gold and crystal in the palaces of the wealthy, and in common, everyday lamps in more common homes and public buildings. Were Zhe'Khar not Zhe'Khar, it would likely have been named the City of Light.
Then again, probably not. It was because it was Zhe'Khar that the light and the buildings and the streets were so striking and extraordinary.
All of that said about the city without even mentioning its unique people and their place in it. It was the city's people that allowed it to be Zhe'Khar, and all that meant.
Such thoughts often meandered through Pzerraji's mind on such perfect days spent walking in the glorious sunshine that sparkled off the streets and buildings and lampposts of his adopted home's wondrous thoroughfares with his grandchildren. His youngest, Pzerra, walked beside him that day, the bright, inquisitive boy sent to keep his youngest daughter's doddering father company. Lilliana loved him; he knew that with certainty if only by her youngest boy's name. She was, however, very concerned with appearance and class. She, a mere bard's daughter, had married into the family of the Lord Marshal of the City, one of the Houses that ruled and governed Zhe'Khar. She found it embarrassing when her husband's siblings or (the Slain God forefend!) his parents heard tales of Pzerraji Silver-Tongue entertaining the masses in this or that square or market or pub.
Thus Pzerra's company as he walked through his South Bank neighborhood as it echoed with the sound of the Spice Market, the air perfumed with the heady aroma of fennel and cinnamon and rosemary and cumin and scores of other substances that gave the market its name. Merchants in rich robes called out imploringly to passersby, describing the quality and benefits of their wares or denigrating their neighbors'. The old man loved the market. Its vibrancy. Its smells. Its potential.
Pzerraji had made a lot of money in places such as this. Not only here in Zhe'Khar but also in his birthland far to the southeast, the Ynjarri Empire. He missed that one aroma Zhe'Khar would never have: the sea! His former home of Port Vrezzassi was somewhat like this neighborhood, only on a larger scale, for it was a port city with all that implied. The old man looked down at his youngest grandson and wondered what the boy would become. The odds that he would become the next Lord Marshal were slim. The families of the oligarchs were necessarily large, for they were required to produce a suitable heir or risk losing their position. So Pzerra's chances, when weighed against the array of competition, were remote. And then there were the tests of suitability themselves that the potential heirs had to pass to assume the position of Lord Marshal. Pzerra was one of six children Lilliana bore the youngest brother of the current Lord Marshal. The youngest brother of sixteen siblings and half-siblings, all producing their own offspring. Never mind the cousins!
Pzerraji looked up at the sun with a squint. "Well son, what do you think? About time for lunch?" his mellow, oddly musical baritone inquired jovially.
The boy eyed his grandfather, then squinted at the sky himself and nodded, his naturally serious mien cracking slightly with a shy grin. Like many in the House of Hamish, Pzerra was lanky with long legs, wavy ash brown hair, and round face. From his mother he got the seriousness and his gray eyes, which in turn came from her mother. The smile was also his Lilliana's, if a bit more reserved than Lili's was when she was a girl. "That would be good, Poppy, but what shall we eat? I did not notice a lot of food in your house."
Pzerraji grinned mischievously. "That is because my food is stored here," he said grandly, gesturing to the market around him, nearly knocking the feathery hat from a very short merchant as she scurried past them. The boy looked around suspiciously. His momma had warned him Grandpa Pzerraji was a little odd. "Unlike your family, my lad, I cannot afford wizards to enchant my larders to make chill boxes. Therefore, I have some grains, some tubers, and some fruits and vegetables but the rest I get from this and other markets around the Merchants' Quarter.
"Today, however, I think we will drop in on a friend at The Spiced Wine," the old man added with another grin, his brown eyes sparkling impishly. Pzerra saw that and swallowed nervously. He was supposed to keep Poppy out of trouble. How, mother never quite explained since he was only eight. The roguish elder saw the mental fight going on inside his grandson's head and offered as support to the rebel he knew lurked within the boy, "I am pretty sure Andorros said he was getting a load of sap melons in today and he can afford to hire a wizard to make a rather large kitchen pantry into a chill box."
The boy's eyes lit at the mention of the sweet, spice fruit. "All right, Poppy. Lunch at The Spiced Wine sounds good."
The Spiced Wine, in one form or another, had existed in that spot since the outer walls of Zhe'Khar formed themselves one night some six centuries earlier. Originally, it was the gathering place of foreign caravaneers and diplomats, pilgrims and outlaws. Over time, as the Foreign Quarter transformed itself into the Merchants' Quarter, The Spiced Wine also changed in character, going from a sometimes rough establishment for those from foreign lands looking for a drink and a place to do business away from prying eyes to a more upscale pub for merchants on their way up, families from the Quarter, and the off-duty guardsmen assigned to the Quarter.
The tables and benches were sturdy, clean, and sanded and refinished regularly to keep the wood gleaming in the light of the 'glows. The floor was swept twice daily and mopped every other day, much to the grumbling of the barmaids. Said barmaids, grumbling aside, were beautiful, buxom blondes and red heads who served their grandfather's customers cheerfully and efficiently, secure in knowing they were safe from unruly customers (despite their rather revealing clothes) thanks to their hulking cousins. The barkeep and the bouncer, the aforementioned cousins, were twins built along the lines of mobile mountains. Both retired members of the Zhe'Kharan Army, strawberry blonde Andor the barkeep and red haired Landros the bouncer were well above average in height with a musculature that made even the drunkest lecher keep his hands to himself around their cousins.
At lunchtime, however, few felt the need to overindulge The Spiced Wine's potables enough to need such formidable protection, so the twins were still abed. Andorros grinned widely as Pzerraji entered the dinning hall, the grin widening when he saw the boy enter behind him.
"Welcome, my old friend, welcome!" he shouted across the room, the thin, wrinkled, gray-haired man scurrying from behind the long oaken bar that stretched the length of the back wall of the pub. There was an enormous fireplace in the middle of both adjacent walls with large logs crackling merrily, warming the large room comfortably filled with round tables and curved benches full of the early lunchtime crowd. Two of the barmaids grinned cheekily at him as they dodged between the tables and their occupants with trays of food and drink. The diners craned around the servers, trying to see who rated such a welcome from the owner and his kin. "It has been a while since I last saw you. Have you come to grace us with the Silver Tongue's enchanting words?"
The old man's eyes darted down at the alarmed look on his grandson's face and assumed a sad expression. "Sadly, I am merely here to have lunch with my gaoler. My daughter becomes distressed when her in-laws hear of me entertaining the masses in such 'low places.' I promised my namesake some sap melon," Pzerraji said, his tone dripping with facetiousness, earning a grin from Andorros who was having trouble keeping a straight face. "After some lunch, of course. What have you on the menu today?"
Andorros smiled down at the boy, winking. "We have a nice venison goulash soup on the fire and we just took off a haunch of boar my grandsons we lucky enough to wander across the other day while out riding with some friends. Gretta has also baked some spiced humble pies and a pan of broiled river pike with lemon and pear wine. If none of that suits you, we always have Ellienna's famous sandwiches. I got an order in from the butcher yesterday, so the meats are fresh."
The old man looked down at his grandson. "Well, what do you think? Anything sound appetizing to you?"
"Not humble pie!" Pzerra answered hastily, blushing. "Cook made one the other week and I nearly threw up. Goulash or boar sounds good."
Pzerraji chuckled. "You will love Gretta's goulash. She is the best cook in the Quarter and Andorros is lucky to have convinced her to marry him or he would be a pauper," he told the boy, wrapping an arm over his shoulder. "Let's have two orders of the goulash and a loaf of Ellienna's fine brown bread. Milk for the boy and bring me a goblet of Kcistyrian white."
"I'll send Ellienna out with it in a minute. I know she will want to say hello to her favorite customer," the owner said with a nod, turning toward the kitchen door next to the bar out of which the serving girls kept coming and going.
Pzerraji steered his grandson to a table on the left side of the room with a view of both doors and most of the patrons to The Spiced Wine. He watched the people eating and talking and generally enjoying their meals and each others' company.
The boy saw a contented smile stretch his grandfather's face and turned to look at what made the old man so happy. The room was much as it was when they entered, but that smile did not appear then. The people were the same as well. Mostly they looked like Zhe'Kharans. There were a few that were obviously not from the city, their dress wildly different from most of the others in the room. There was a table of four Shoalers, obviously foreigners just by their brief loin cloths, sharkskin boots, and sea flax vests. They had bandoleers strapped across their chests from which hung various pouches and tools and weapons. Their speech was fluid and musical, sounding almost like the sea itself. There was also a family of what appeared to be Wind Raiders, two teenaged boys, a young girl, and their parents. They wore the leathers their kind always wore and they were armed to the teeth, even the girl who glared at him when she caught him looking at her. Other than them, everyone else looked like they were not only Zhe'Kharans but from the Quarter.
A beautiful young woman in a brown homespun dress spattered with flour and what looked like brown mustard came out of the kitchen with a tray holding two large bowls, two spoons, a glass of milk, a goblet, and a loaf of brown bread with a knife sticking out of it. She smiled fondly at his grandfather as he rose.
"Sit yourself back down this instant, you old lecher. I know your tricks!" she ordered with a silvery laugh after hugging him with one arm. Her sapphire blue eyes sparkled in the light of the 'glows as she set the tray on the table and doled out its contents with quick efficiency. Then she slid the tray off the table and bent down to give his grandfather a kiss on his wrinkled brow. "Glad to see you, old man. It has been too long since you came around. Grandfather has missed you. You are the only one left from when he first came here and he misses the old stories. 'No one tells them like they should anymore, ' he grouses. 'Only the Silver Tongue remembers how to do them justice these days.' You should have seen the smile on his face when he came to give me your order. It went all the way up to his eyes, making them practically shine like a 'glow. Eat up and don't leave without coming back to say good-bye to Granny. I had to wrestle her for the tray; she wanted to bring it out herself so bad. But she is in the middle of stuffing a bustard and if she stops now the cat will sneak in and carry it away. Enjoy!"
And she was gone, a lingering hint of her flowery scent remaining. Pzerraji looked at his grandson and saw the odd expression on his face. "What's the matter, boy? I thought you wanted goulash."
Pzerra hastily picked up his spoon and shoveled the first mouthful into his mouth without thinking. It was hot! "Ow, ow, ow, ow! Yikes, that was hot!"
"Slow down, boy! Blow on it and you will enjoy it more," the old man advised sagely, his eyes twinkling as his grandson shot him a dirty look for mentioning the obvious.
Pzerra took the bread knife and hacked off a hunk of bread, dipping it into the goulash soup. Humming in delight, he picked his soup back up and blew on the soup as he munched the delicious bread soaked in even better goulash. His eyes kept darting to his grandfather, whose air of contented enjoyment had not ceased. If anything, the arrival of the meal made it more pronounced and, as the old man ate, his eyes were once again busy watching the room as if he were sizing it up like a warrior about to do battle. His Uncle Salvatoré looked at his sparring partners in a similar manner but grandfather was no warrior.
There was a disturbance of the easy flow of happy conversation and laughter. All eyes went to the door as a newcomer appeared and Pzerra was alone in his puzzlement as to why everyone was suddenly hostilely interested in the stranger's appearance.
And strange it was. The man was tall, taller than his grandfather and maybe taller than Uncle Salvatoré, who was the tallest person Pzerra knew. The man's skin was very, very pale. So pale you could see a bluish tint under the marble white. The platinum blonde locks that flowed over the broad shoulders and wide chest came down nearly to the narrow waist about which was strapped a broad belt. Hanging from the belt was a massive broadsword and long dagger on either hip. He wore leather clothing dyed black and had two rings on each hand. An acorn-sized sapphire slightly darker than his eyes glinted in the 'glowlight on his left index finger and an onyx ring with a diamond chip design encircled his left ring finger. On his right thumb was a huge steel and gold ring carved with oddly beautiful runes Pzerra had seen before somewhere but couldn't remember where. And on his right ring finger was a thumbnail-sized blood red ruby set in a platinum ring. The odd man also had a half dozen gold rings running up his left ear and a large black pearl hanging from his right ear lobe. The overall picture was one of a wealthy brigand lord who accidentally wandered into the wrong eating house.
The man walked straight back to the bar and whispered something to a grim-faced Andorros. Gone was the jovial and welcoming pubmaster. In his place was a plainly hostile man who wanted the stranger out of his establishment. Until he heard whatever it was the man whispered. A pity came over his face, quickly smothered as he reached under the bar and poured a small amount of liquor from a very dusty bottle into two glasses. The stranger reached for one and Andorros took the other.
"To the Slain God, glory to Him and all his People," the stranger intoned formally, almost prayer-like, as he raised his glass to the room, "May He rise to once more take His place amongst us."
All around the room people rose, lifted whatever they were drinking, and tossed it back even as the stranger did. He placed the glass back on the bar, bowed to Andorros, and took a hunk of gold out of the pouch on his belt. Looking at it, he nodded solemnly and left it on the bar, walking out.
Andorros swept the nugget off the bar and called one of the barmaids over. After whispering something quick to her, she scurried out of the room. The barkeep looked over at Pzerraji pleadingly. Pzerra started when the old man nodded gravely to his friend.
"Who was that man, grandfather? And why is everyone so quiet?" the boy whispered nervously, sensing the hostility that still permeated the silent pub.
The old man smiled sadly. "Ah, my boy, to answer that question would require a story, and you were sent with me today to prevent me telling stories," he chided the torn young warden.
Pzerra missed the barely suppressed amusement in his grandfather's eyes in his anxiety to know what was going on and why the odd man caused such a reaction. "Surely one little story would not make mother too cross," he suggested hopefully, his meal forgotten.
Pzerraji finished the last few bites of his soup and mopped up the last of the broth with a piece of bread, sipping the tart wine to wash it down. He leaned back in his chair, noticing Andorros grinning from across the room. "Perhaps a short story, because you asked," he replied soberly, clearing his throat. "Once, in ancient times, long before the world looked as it does now, there was a group of Human magicians known simply as the Magi. They were favored above all others by Orlamishiko, Lord of Magic, and unto them granted the Lord powers beyond mortal ken. Great palaces and universities built the Magi throughout the land and great riches did they accumulate as they ruled the world," the old man's voice became resonant, carrying throughout the dining room. Heads turned, whispering voices stilled, and all were drawn to the smooth, enchanting words. The dining room seemed to fade as the words transported the listeners to another time and a place long since past.