The Crossroads, Chapter 4: Marko

The saga continues. Those who have been following Rale for some time will recognize the pieces of the original Crossroads story here.

The Crossroads had always been between.  Of the townsfolk who still remembered, there were yet many versions of the town’s history.  Brill the Apothecary’s was closest to the truth: It began as a tiny trading post, a makeshift connection between the waterways of the Riverlands and the mountains and woods to the north, situated at a crossroads which existed in every sense but the literal.  That enterprise which would become the town was built at the northern mouth of the Lifeline, where the Riverlands’ greatest highway became just another minor stream from the Gravestone range and where, incidentally, the eastern prairies and western hills were separated only by a thin stripe of dry, firm ground, more hospitable, certainly, than whatever hid between the trees of the Bloodwood to the north.  As the rickety post became a place, merchants and enterprisers would enter by each of these routes of convenience, transient but somehow still fixture, carrying lumber and pelts and cloth and ore.

Sometimes they would pass through; sometimes they would return the way they came, but those who settled, those who came to call the place home did well for themselves in those days.  They made fortunes in trade, and anything they could want in return somehow found its way there from afar.  And of course, those plagued by wanderlust had no shortage of opportunity to escape.  All they had to do was jump in with the next caravan that came to town, and they would most assuredly see the world.

The War was not kind to the place, but even that was mitigated by its betweenness.  The town was far enough south that it saw its share of the roaches’ horrors but still northerly enough that its people, broadly speaking, survived.  Its young men and women proudly aided the forces of Harmony at the Battle of the Ouroboros, weathered the devastation of the “bloodsick”–the Dragon’s parting gift to those who deposed him–then returned to a peaceful existence at their Crossroads.  For a short, in-between time, things were as they had always been.  But soon, new wares began to make their way through the village, and with those wares came news.

It seemed Lord Ka of the Roaches had kept a secret from the world.  It was a stone, rough, heavy to hold, unimpressive to the eye.

But the power.

To the mystics, the magically inclined–no matter their inexperience–it was a sun.  At the fall of Bloodhull, soldiers of Harmony who had never once in their lives channeled mana held this stone–the Hellstone, as it came to be known–and felt that power, that gruesome possibility thrumming in their hands.  They said that Harmony destroyed the Hellstone, that its power might never be unleashed upon the world again.  Some did not believe that story, but they missed the point.  The Hellstone’s legacy was not its power–rather it was a realization: Such objects could exist, objects that would make gods even of petty fools like Lord Ka.  

The art of putting magic into inert things was not new–hedge mages had been quietly crafting oddities for centuries.  None had possessed such power as the Hellstone, but after its discovery, that hardly mattered.  A plain man with ten or twenty weak but useful magical artifacts could play at the same superhumanity.  A new order was materializing then about a delicate but ruthless balance between mankind’s lust for power and a fear among the powerful that they may at any moment be devoured by those seeking their possessions.  In this order, the Crossroads, which had always been between, became an in-between for a different sort of trade.

At first, the artifacts were simply commodities.  Merchants who previously sold spice or textiles would arrive at the village, carts laden with curios and magical knickknacks they had bought at a pittance from looters and refugees.  Most of them were useless: stones that would chirp birdsong when thrown to the ground, a silver fish sculpture that bled an endless stream of effervescent crimson from its eyes; but the ones that weren’t found purpose with alacrity.  One villager–Sam, the cooper’s son–was murdered in broad daylight by one of the merchants’ customers, who had used a pair of gloves that rendered his hands and their activities unnoticeable.  And when the guards simply failed to apprehend the assailant, the proper merchants saw the signs.  Most left the trade.  Many left the region entirely.  Either way, the village saw fewer of them from then on.

Of course, lust for power and the knowledge that enabled it would never fade away simply for lack of sellers.  Even then there were those hovering at the fringes of civilization with fearsome arsenals and stores of wealth, willing to make very rich the one who brought them a means of surpassing their rivals.  But they were murderers.  For all their wealth and power, everyone knew they were cutthroats, and no trinkets, no magical elevation could change that.  It was no secret they would just as soon save their money and kill for what they wanted if it was an option.  What was missing, then, was a class of trader capable of persuading them toward the latter.

It was Marko who solved this problem for the Crossroads.  He had always been a scoundrel, well-connected in spite of his sclerosed reputation, surviving on his ability to find buyers for the occasional item the merchant overclass knew it should not have.  His arrival there had been timely.  In another era, Mayor Bergen might have had him jailed for one of his violent altercations at the tavern, his lewd demeanor, any of his all-too-public vices; but with the town’s mercantile lifeblood crowded out by the “scav trade”, Marko’s ability to sell the artifacts–as a middleman for the merchants who were no longer willing to face their buyers themselves–saved the livelihood of everyone there.

So it was that the Crossroads remained between: between Holme to the east and the Reach to the south; between the Bloodwood and the Riverlands and the plains and the hills; between the desperate scavs and the respectable merchants and the mercenaries who protected them and the townsfolk who made that place function and the “False Gods”, those buyers of the scav trade who propelled the entire system on with gold in one hand and abject brutality in the other.  And somehow, Marko was between it all, his greasy promises and fine-tuned survival instincts connecting those trustless, unconnectable lines which made the town a town.  Of that in-between place, Marko was its most between part.

But Captain Lan al’Ver was not about to be outdone by a scoundrel like Marko.

His errands were complete, his modest shipments had all been sold, his generous, dangerous, precisely calibrated allotment of free time had begun, and he could think of no better way to spend it than inserting himself, needed but unwanted, amidst the business of the most between man in the most between place in the Riverlands.  It was only appropriate recompense for such uppity behavior, the Captain concluded, making his way to the door of the sprawling, patchwork building Marko had made his base of operations.  He did not knock, of course–now was not a time for courtesy.  It was a time for welcome surprises.  He pulled the door open and strode into the wide, familiar interior of Marko’s “office”.

The traveler, Naples, had been correct: The build had originally been constructed as a theater by a retired merchant some centuries ago, though it only functioned as one for a short time.  The owner, it turned out, was a rather thorny artist who in short order managed to alienate every thespian in the region, and he soon sold his investment to a consortium of stall traders who utilized the structure far longer–and far more prosaically–as a warehouse.  It was only in the last two decades, under Marko’s management, that it had returned to a theatrical operation, though Marko had shaken up the formula somewhat.

Predictably, in Marko’s new “theater”, he was the spectacle.  His desk sat prominently upon the raised area which once had been a stage, leaving his customers and contractors to address him from the spacious area below, long barren of any sort of seating, though cluttered at the periphery by empty crates and other miscellaneous junk.  But Marko had included a twist in the arrangement of his spectacle: The stage was lit sparingly, a single torch at its edge affording just enough light to discern Marko himself behind the desk and little else of his disposition.  His audience’s floor, meanwhile, was furnished with braziers, torchstands, and even two scrapwood chandeliers, all spilling their revealing shine onto every corner of the space.  It was only appropriate, Lan admitted, for a man who exclusively traded with the untrustworthy.

Today’s visit would deviate little from that setup, Lan gathered, confirming the specificity of his surroundings as he swept into the space, purposefully ignorant to the consternation his entrance had elicited from Marko and his guest, the self-described Khettite monk who had earlier paid for passage aboard Lan’s own vessel.

“Ey!” Marko barked, hefting a crossbow over the top of his desk, unaimed but angled threateningly in Lan’s direction.  “This conversation’s private.  Come back when you’ve made an appointment.”

“Cease your jest, knave!” Lan shouted back.  “Lan al’Ver waits not for petty schedules!  I am needed here–’tis plain.”  The monk’s jaw clenched, eyes darting about the cavernous space, no doubt planning his egress.  Marko, for his part, just groaned.

“Ah, feck.  It’s you.”  Then, to the monk: “Relax, mate.  He’s just saving you the effort.”  The monk blinked, nonplussed.

Lan dragged over a crate and seated himself on the edge, polishing the handle of his umbrella as Marko explained:

“Intel you want’s got a price, an’ the price is a job.  Got a juicy scav tip I need you to follow up on.  You bring back somethin’ good, I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

“I’m not sure my circumstances allow me the time to run errands,” the monk replied.

“Well I’m not sure I have the spare clout to be just tellin’ you where to find my clients,” Marko spat.

“So you did sell it, then?”

“You got what you’re gonna get, kiddo.  Now do I get a yes or a no?”  The monk frowned, crossing his arms.

“Fine,” he caved.  Then, gesturing at Lan: “So where does he come in?”  Marko sat back, the shadows falling back over his face.

“Two details,” he replied, the acoustics of the room giving the words an otherworldly echo.  “First, I’m gathering from my source that this tip ain’t exactly exclusively info.  Second, it’s about a day’s journey upriver by boat.  Much longer on foot.  Y’see where this is going?”  The monk looked again at Lan.

“I’m going to need a boat.”

“Bingo,” Marko said.  “Some muscle, too, case you find competition, I’d say.  Trust you’re game, al’Ver?”

“My appetite for danger is insatiable, dear Marko.”

“Great,” Marko continued.  “Ask around town if you want an extra set of hands.  I’ll pay normal scav rates for each o’ya, along with your intel.”

“We’ll get going, then,” the monk said, reservedly.  “Though I do ask that you let me know before you bring another into our talks next time.”  Marko raised an eyebrow before glancing over at Lan.  He hawked a wad of spit onto the corner of his stage.

“Best get used to the Riverlands, kiddo.  I didn’t call nobody–Captain al’Ver shows up where he’s needed, and that’s all any of us get to know about that.”

Lan beamed, smugly aloof to the monk’s evident dissatisfaction.  But amidst his implicit gloating, he raised a finger, calling attention to a point of order which had now vexed him for some minutes.

“I do of course with to query,” he began.  “Is it your intent that the girl should accompany us as well?”  Both the monk and Marko answered only with a confused stare.

“What girl?” the monk asked.  Lan shrugged and raised his hand in the vague direction of the girl, dirty, ragged, clutching a threadbare stuffed animal, perched on a crate near the edge of Marko’s stage who now stared back at Lan, her face white with fear.  Marko turned, following the gesture.  His eyes went wide.  He reached for his crossbow.