Khôltar, Part 13: High Khôltar
Back again for more? Good! Well, I'll fly thee invisible this time, for our mutual comfort and safety. The Munificent Belarkh's guards are all too apt to fire their crossbows first and ask questions of the pin-cushioned corpse later.
We're bound for the very center of the Iron City: the dark, grim fang of a fortress called High Khôltar. 'Tis built of black stone (the gray marbling upon it is made by soot, but no one's about to wipe it off) in a curious double tower shape. The taller tower thrusts out a deck over the spire of the smaller one (whose spire in turn serves as deck support) to allow griffon or hippogriff or even -- rumors say -- wyvern-back traffic to arrive and depart -- but years have passed since the time of the last Belarkh who enjoyed such travel, and his guards regularly cast weighted nets out over the deck to snare plumphaers for their stewpots.
Aye, his guards. The Belarkh and his three principal tax collectors (the Darbrael) and the Onsruur are far too mighty to have mere garthraun protect them; instead, they hire their own loyal, armed-to-the-teeth bodyguards. These are usually former mercenaries, but they include a smattering of adventurers -- and a small but poisonous number of Thayan, Zhentarim, and Cult of the Dragon agents, as well as spies for various Tashalar and Calishite satraps and rulers. Most are human, but ye may even meet some yuan-ti, if ye stray into the wrong mansion.
The Munificent Belarkh, however, prefers human guards. He has his real ones and the guards he chose for appearance more than might (lads and lasses whose armor won't turn anything but male and female heads, though the Belarkh himself prefers to watch the lasses), and they all strut around the mirror-polished floors of High Khôltar with their armored, flashy boots clicking sparks from the metal. Ah, yes, the floors here are plated with metal -- flame-orange copper in the private chambers and "brightsteel" alloy elsewhere. The taller tower of the fortress is where the Belarkh and his wealth and personal guards dwell, and the shorter tower is where the armories and officials are, as well as where the Onsruur meet with him.
The fiction, ye see, is that the Belarkh rules the Iron City like some sort of overlord -- not quite a king, but a Supreme Merchant. In reality, he's the mouth-trumpet of the Onsruur, who rule as a council and let him front for them -- and any Belarkh who forgets that is apt to suffer a sudden and fatal "forge accident." (Three have, to my knowledge, died in this manner, and if I'd been paying more attention to the affairs of this benighted city, I'd probably have noticed more, though in recent times poison seems to have replaced accidents as the favored method of unwanted-Belarkh-disposal.)
Perhaps I'd best give ye some idea of the present Belarkh. Picture a heavyset, short, fair-haired man with two floor-drip spikes of a moustache and glittering green eyes. His tanned skin is usually oiled to display his rippling muscles, and he loves shattering the sculptures of others with a great iron bar but does no real work of his own. He holds grudges and never forgets a face, and he loves to make profits by shrewd investments and by "getting even" with anyone who bests or crosses him in matters of trade. However, he is never foolish enough to cross the Onsruur, who tolerate his endless sculpture purchases and pretty personal guard acquisitions (slaves, most of them, and the rest soon discover that's what they're treated as, once they "settle in" and receive their armor).
One Enklaevur Rostigror by name (CN male human Exp4/Ftr3/Rog6), the Belarkh is a native-born Kholtan, the son of weavers who died well before their son's . . . errr . . . greatness. Rostigror spent some years as a caravan merchant and a few more as a thief and vagabond trader knocking around the Tashalar before his chance discovery of a portal made him rich on a few timely runs of wines and medicines to Waterdeep in a harsh winter. He bought some poison there, came home and poisoned his older brother Urlingh and his elder sisters Evendove and Ithriya, claimed the family business (which he promptly sold), land, and wealth -- and befriended some of the Onsruur just as the Belarkh of the time made himself a difficulty to them.
A man after my own heart -- and gizzard, and vitals . . .
As are the three serpent-hearted humans -- sly, tall, thin men all of them, though as far as I can tell not blood-related -- who are the city Darbrael. They regularly submit to spell-probings by mages the Onsruur hire to find thefts and swindles, so these Darbrael don't steal a coin -- instead, they bully extra coins out of working folk as "waiting payments" so those folk can be late with their payments. This graft the Darbrael are allowed to keep, and they do so gleefully. One day I believe I'll turn them all into oxen and sell them for spit-duty at one of the city inns. Cheap.
Ahem. Well, now. Recall ye the two streets I mentioned that cross the city from wall to wall: Erethorn's Ride and Suldroon Street? Well, Erethorn's is the more southerly, and once ye pass through the greatfists crowded with socially ambitious Kholtans, going in from either North Way or Orntathtar Way, ye come to what Kholtans call "Deepcoin." 'Tis the relatively quiet heart of the Iron City, where garthraun and private guards are numerous and klathlaaedin line both sides of the Ride. At the very center of the Ride, an arrow-straight street called the Iron Way branches off north and runs to High Khôltar. It circles the fortress and runs on to meet with Suldroon, in the heart of its smaller cluster of Onsruur mansions.
Ah, but I've said more than enough, so let's leave off looking at things. In columns to come we'll speak together of Iron City laws and rumors and the like.