Hyboria! H4E65 Kothic Intrigue: Fast Times in Zamboula

The Looting Soldier caravanserai

Arrangements for food and shelter at the caravanserai concluded, Bardic and Morath settled back: the evening’s entertainments were developing. Three attractive, skimpily-dressed dancers began gyrating to the soft, full-bodied sounds of hand-drum and gourd-flute, and the plangent yet sensual sounds of the local version of a lyre. With the day’s profit earned, the crowd relaxed, and eating and drinking and ogling reigned.

The caravanserai manager seemed annoyed. Bardic, who had picked up a mere smattering of the trade-talk dialect, caught “where… Katrusha?” – to which one of the dancing girls shrugged and pointed up, then smirked and mimed a lewd act. Above was the roof, Bardic knew, and most guests would sleep up there.

And before long, the cause of Katrusha’s absence emerged. A western or southern Hyborian perhaps, dark hair gleaming with oil, white smile twinkling. Well satisfied with the world and himself in particular he swaggered to a table next to Bardic’s and leaned back to enjoy the show.

Morath decided to head outside. He’d used up his supply of Yellow Lotus in Shushan and his head was too clear and his nerves were twitchy. Besides, since he was working to learn how Burit might welcome his half-sister, it would be better to listen in local taverns rather than this caravanserai. He sauntered out.

Inside the Looting Soldier caravanserai, the crowd welcomed the arrived of Katrusha at last. A lithe, splendidly-built woman bounded to the fore of her three backup dancers: the music picked up its tempo, the girls gyrated more swiftly and acrobatically, and copper and silver coins began to be tossed onto the floor at their feet in appreciation.

He was not yet far beyond the door when Morath noted a police patrol – a half-dozen Pelishtim, well armored – shaking down a stall holder. None of his business, he decided. The dusk streets were populated much more lightly, it seemed. Knots of people were still abroad but most had a “closing business for the night” demeanor. He noted a group of burly slaves, Kushites as most of them here were, shuffling quietly along. Heavy clubs were at their waists and their hair was caught up in curious topknots, almost like horns. Ever alert to the possibility of a Flame Knife chapter being present Morath tried to catch any suspicious markings, but none could be seen in the dusk.

Inside the caravanserai Bardic put his cares on hold and ogled Katrusha unashamedly. He classified this dancing girl as of the “brazen” variety and decided to advance their acquaintance. An idea that had germinated while looking at the other dancing girls was beginning to grow in his mind. He tossed several silvers at Katrusha’s feet and grinned broadly at her. She smoldered knowingly back.

A dark-clad man with the look of a warrior though carrying no visible weapon passed Morath by on the other side of the emptying street. His looks were of a western or southern Hyborian. His servant was of much the same mold as Buto or Rollo, and led a horse well-laden with saddlebags. The man appeared to be making for their own caravanserai. Marking the man down in his memory Morath turned his attention to deciding which tavern to try.

The bounty killer

Bardic’s attention was drawn to the dark-garbed stranger, perhaps western or southern Hyborian, for he had the look of a fighting man but bore a scroll. He stepped over to the manager’s bench near the entrance, and unrolled the scroll for the man to see. Though Bardic’s hearing was sharp, the language in the exchange was too fast for him to follow. It seemed that the stranger was not well pleased. He grabbed the manager and pulled him close, locking his gaze to the other’s. The manager’s eyes, seemed to travel over to where Bardic – and the oiled Adonis – were now rising.

Bardic strolled over to the counter, loosening his shoulders, while in the background the other man eased away to the stairs. By the time Bardic reached the counter the dark-clad man had turned and was regarding him with a cool, steady gaze.

Bardic peered at the scroll: most of its surface was occupied by a fair depiction of the face of Katrusha’s lover. The dark-clad man addressed him in Corinthian.

“His name is Esud. He’s wanted in Koth.”

“You’re a bounty hunter then?”

“I am a bounty killer. My name is Keros.”

“This is not Koth’s jurisdiction, friend.”

“Koth claims some hegemony over Shem and this is near enough Shem for me.”

“This is a long way to travel… a serious crime?”

“Serious enough. It seems Esud has a fatal way with the ladies.”

Both men possessed keen hearing, and both cocked their heads as the sound of running feet above, and of a final thump as someone jumped, came to their ears.

“It sounds like he’s running”

“Yes, it does. Excuse me.”

Keros stepped quietly back out the doors and was lost to sight. Bardic shrugged, deciding he had no part in the matter, and returned to his plans for Katrusha. Which, over the course of the evening, he made clear to her, and with which she fully cooperated.

Morath had decided on a tavern and was near it when a man, running and leaping from building to building, overtook him on the rooftops above him. Running out of rooftops the man tossed down the small bundle of possessions he carried, and made a final agile leap onto the street.

As he picked his bag up ready to run, there came a sharp, penetrative sound and he staggered in a circle, glaring back along the street to see who or what had struck him. There came another “chukk” sound, and a crossbow bolt’s flights could be seen starting out of his chest. He dropped to his knees, gasping some sort of protest. With a final “chukk!” a bolt struck him in the forehead and he collapsed face down.

Morath, too, peered back, and his remarkably keen eyes could make out the dark-garbed man standing near the caravanserai, his servant and horse nearby. The servant appeared to be tucking something back into the saddlebags. [Threat: not confirmed; Threat, confirmed; Threat, confirmed.]

Raising his eyebrows slightly, Morath entered his chosen tavern, ordered a drink to nurse, and found a private corner from which he could listen in on servant gossip. He heard an earful. The night drew on, and it seemed those inside the tavern were bedding down as a matter of course, so the Zamorian followed suit.

Celo rejoins the team

The following day, Bardic’s dancing-girl spy network began its operations. Morath continued to gather gossip.

Vorel returned not far into afternoon: and with him he brought Celo. Having greeted him, the first question, naturally enough, was where he had sprung from.

“I was with the caravan” – Celo

“We traveled about a month with the caravan and didn’t see you. Where were you: inserted up a camel’s bottom?” – Bardic

“No, I was just discreet. Very discreet” – Celo

Prince and ruler

The four comrades exchanged intelligence. From Vorel, Celo already knew that their primary mission was to find out what sort of reception Aasiyeh could expect from Burit. And the pair had thoughts on this matter.

Some quarter-hour’s walk from the city, a strange clattering, trotting sound had come to their ears. Dropping to the ground and masking their features with cloaks, they had witnessed a splendid chariot, the dawn sun glinting off rich gold embellishments, accompanied by standard-bearer, guard-slaves and two strange long-legged spotted great cats. One of the slaves was beating a wretched prisoner to what was clearly going to be a hunting-style execution.

The chariot’s commander, a massive man, his beard carefully groomed and wearing a gold crown, had pronounced some sort of final sentence – not in a language they could follow – and the prisoner had been set on his run. The great cats had been turned loose and had slain the wretch.

Opening plans

Putting this together with the gossip and pillow-talk that Morath and Bardic had picked up, the four decided they had information to set before Aasiyeh, or Rani as they were scrupulous to call her.

“To sum up: Houmekri has just succeeded in killing his last remaining relative… bar you. His second in command is some sort of sorcerer named Iapet. Iapet’s rival is Ma’ay Kheret, who is priestess of one of the nastiest temples going. And another rival is Totrasmek, priest of Hanuman, another evil temple. The town is held down by a brutal police force of Pelishtim, commanded by Zerbaal, who answers to Iapet or Houmekri.”

“I thank you. But I cannot leave without finding out whether Houmekri would aid me. My goal is fixed: I know that one day a child of mine will ascend to the throne of Koth.”

Faced with this determination, the four comrades conferred as to their best plan. Bardic’s instinct was to make short work of the situation.

“There are four heads that need cutting off. Whick, whick, whick, whick, and make Rani Queen of Zamboula” – Bardic

“Yes, someone that executes their family like that is pretty high up on my killing list. I think I’ll charge only pennies for Houmekri” – Morath

Bardic had learned from watching Cass, and counseled the others to keep gathering as much information as possible. And so it was agreed.

Not long after that, a dancing girl approached Morath and told him that her mistress, Ma’ay Kheru, would like to meet him. He was not given a meeting time, but the following day, was told that the meeting would take place in the palace the following night.

A rescue and a windfall

It was around about chucking-out time, Bardic decided to take a stroll through the empty streets to freshen his wine-soaked brain. The work of listening to takes brought back by dancing girls, rewarding them appropriately, and retailing it to the others had tired him.

The streets were deserted – or so he thought, until his razor-keen hearing picked up the sound of a struggle from an alley. Blows, and a sort of muffled clanking, almost like armor. Bardic drew his sword and waited in the empty street. A half-dozen massive Kushites – the ones with the curious topknots – emerged. One bore a much smaller cloak-muffled form on his shoulder. All were armed with short clubs.

“Put it down, and walk away!”

The threat and the great naked blade worked. They bared sharpened teeth but dropped the bundled body – which clanked again – and backed off. Bardic could not tell what they muttered to one another, but picked up the names of a few foul deities.

He stooped over the small unconscious form. The cloak concealed a young girl – barely nubile – whose pale limbs were bound in chains. He picked her up – surprised at her weight, for she seemed a mere slip – and carried her to the caravanserai.

Ignoring Katrusha’s catty remarks about street-leavings and boyish figures, Bardic carried the girl through to Rani’s chamber, where Celo could check her for serious wounds and Rani apply any salve needed. Celo carefully unbundled her from her cloak, then swore in astonishment. The girl’s chains were solid gold!

Tunu, her name was, and she was Houmekri’s. Rani translated for the girl, for she spoke only Stygian. Her pale skin suggested she might be a by-blow of some Stygian noble, but slave and chattel she was. It seemed that she had been sent out after dark to deliver some message that could not wait, and the Darfari man-eaters had caught her.

Rani gladly accepted Tunu into her own service, and more gladly, Hobrieca surrendered her ill-fitting duties as acting handmaiden.

“I will find a new name for the girl. As you say, her disappearance will be set down to these evil cannibal slaves, but Burit may notice if my handmaiden has the exact same name as his” – Rani

“I can file off those chains… they must be quite a burden to the girl” – Vorel

“I’ve got some cat’s fur to unruffle… it’ll be a long night” – Bardic

The hired sword

It was well on in the third day, when Morath, working his way through the usual busy throng, heard a disturbance ahead and noticed that the crowd was pushing back and away. Sliding through the nervous locals, he found himself with a good view facing a patrol of Pelishtim watchmen, weapons at the ready. They were all focused on a short red-haired woman.

She was dressed rather in the manner of the Hyrkanian warriors to be seen not infrequently in Zamboula. Her feet were shod in soft boots, perhaps of goatskin, the hair left on the outside. Her trousers were rather baggy, worn tucked and bound into her boots. Her rather loose tunic – a subdued shade of deep green – was caught at the waist with both a broad decorated belt Morath recognized as Bakhariot work and a black silk sash. Her most obvious weapon was a sword about as long as she was tall: it sat at her left hip through the sash. Her posture was tense, menacing, and ready to draw the fearsome thing. Although no more than five feet tall, the lines of her compact frame promised an exceptional strength.

The Pelishtim, though strangers to fear, made an unspoken decision not to push the situation further. They stood down, and marched away. As the red-head turned to be about her own business, Morath caught her face in profile: rather flat, strong, impassive, and green-eyed. On impulse, he followed her at a discreet distance.

It befell Bardic to learn more about this enigmatic woman. In his case, he came face to face with her. While his eyes roved over her face and ensemble, her eyes were drawn to the hilt grips and pommel of his great-sword, riding above his left shoulder.

“Bar-dic?” – red-head woman

“Bardic!” – Kuruk, emerging from the crowd

Kuruk was – inevitably – still mounted on his trusty pony. He hugged Bardic – still mounted – and Bardi fended off the less-loving jaws of the pony. Kuruk introduced the exotic red-head in awed tones:

“This… is Quorra Kang!” – Kuruk (speaking Brythunian, badly)

Morath managed to slide around to Bardic’s side and was duly introduced as “Morath… killer.” Quorra nodded, but seemed more interested in an introduction of weapons. She drew her long blade, bent it in a near-hoop and allowed it to snap back into perfect straightness.

“Vendhyan! Name, ‘River of Steel.’ Also name, ‘Slayer of Ice Giants.’ Your sword – name?” – Quorra (speaking Brythunian, badly)

“Uh, name?” – Bardic, speaking Brythunian

“The Zamoran for it would be ‘pointy-thing’” – Morath, murmuring in Zamoran

“My sword is named <<pointy-thing>>” – Bardic, speaking Brythunian

Quorra and Kuruk nodded solemnly.

The other big player?

Once away from Quorra, Kuruk was able to drop into Nemedian, a tongue he spoke fluently thanks to his months as a hireling with the two comrades he now shared a drink with and exchanged such news as either was prepared to. Neither Bardic nor Morath blabbed their purpose nor who they were working for, merely that they were trying to find out more about Houmekri. While not explaining all, Kuruk intimated that Quorra and he were working for a foreign power.

Back at their caravanserai, the Looting Soldier, Rani helped all four of them sketch out a map. Given Hyrkanian ties to Turan, they concluded that the most likely instigator of Quorra’s presence was Turan, or at least some part of Turan.

Night in the garden of sinners

The same dancing-girl messenger had passed the final details of his meeting on to Morath, along with a scarab to enable him access. So early on the third night, Morath passed through palace guards – most of them Pelishtim but some muddy-complexioned Stygian half-breeds or ebon Kushites – to a scented garden, lit with fine tapers twined through the persimmon tree branches. The pleasant scent of the trees and the incense of the tapers made a pleasing and heady combination.

Ma’ay Kheru, priestess of Derketo, greeted him immediately. Her form seemed fair and judging by her hands she was relatively young, Morath thought. Her kohl-darkened eyes gleamed with mystery, her lips with a tinted balm. A musky heady scent surrounded her. She came directly to the point.

“Morath, your words uttering doom to Prince Houmekri were overheard. They are delightful to me. I am a member of the Black Circle. Join with us and take joy in my success. All you can imagine will be granted you.”

Morath felt her perfume, or some other perfume in the air, beating on his senses. Had it not been for the craving for Yellow Lotus itching in his skull, who knows what may have happened? He managed to extricate himself from the scented garden and the evil clutches of Ma’ay Kheru without compromising his employment but while seeming to go along with Ma’ay’s plans in general. He breathed a sigh of relief as he left the palace and purged his lungs of the heavy incense. Even the rank dusty stench of the streets seemed clean by comparison.

Quorra Kang makes her move

The fourth day saw a concerted effort begin to discern a clear path forward. Morath, who spoke the local language, was to seek out local thieves. Celo was to scout around the palace looking for weaknesses and entry points. Bardic, who was fast running out of funds, was to wind up his network, amassing any further information the girls had. Vorel, now rested and recovered from a marathon session of filing manacles, was to try to learn more details of the Hyrkanian plot.

And because the incident occurred not far from the palace, all four were able to hear or notice in some way a growing disturbance about the fourth hour of the day. People were fleeing! Allowing the crowd to leech away past them, all four found themselves with ringside seats to a fight between Quorra Kang, and six Pelishtim.

At first glance the fight seemed one-sided. Quorra, outnumbered and surrounded, seemed to be barely fending off each cut of the ruthless Shemites’ scimitars. Bardic began drawing his sword. Morath restrained him. And Vorel noted that none of the Hyrkanians in easy range looked at all worried. Celo read Quorra’s body language more easily than Bardic had. He slipped around by Morath and Bardic.

“Don’t interfere – she’s gulling them” – Celo

And indeed, even though the guards seemed to be always on the point of putting the diminutive red-head down, they were also being caught leaping back wiping blood off their eyes. River of Steel’s flexibility was allowing Quorra to flick its tip into their faces around their parries, while she always seemed to be able to narrowly block each return blow. The loose tunic, falling away under repeated cuts, revealed a well-fashioned mail hauberk. A look of feral glee had transformed her face.

Then the crowd thinned even more: from the palace a small cavalcade thundered. At its head a bannerman carried the city’s insignia, and a tall, well-built Pelishti fully armored and armed with a scimitar and iron club rode beside the banner, glaring at the disturbance.

This was Zerbaal, captain of the city watch and second in command to Houmekri.

Not waiting to question his men, Zerbaal raised his scimitar and rode his horse at Quorra, but she easily stepped his horse, slapping its muzzle with the flat of her sword, and turned to watch as Zerbaal rode past ineffectually.

Wrathfully, he dismounted and handed the reins off to another rider. Quorra lowered River of Steel to the low guard, and watched him, poised and impassive. The foot patrol, perhaps wisely, fell back further, stanching their cuts.

“So you are Quorra Kang! There’s a price on your head somewhere, and that will make it all the better! Kneel before me!” – Zerbaal

Exactly what Zerbaal had decided to do: what tricky attack he had in mind with scimitar and iron club, will never be known. Quorra exploded from stillness to charging Zerbaal! To Bardic, it seemed she had an extra step of pace or swiftness of hand, beyond anything he had seen. Her hands blurred: there was a loud double clang: Zerbaal’s scimitar shattered and fell. Zerbaal clutched at his chest, where his steel scale corselet had been cut through. Blood gushed out of the cut, and he fell to his knees, then face down. In the stunned silence, Quorra flicked the blood from River of Steel, thrust it back in her sash and walked away.[QK wins init: Great Sunder, wins sunder, Pwr attack+10 crit confirmed, 2d12+38.]

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