The Problem of The Purloined Parrot
Flocktime 15, 642 CY
When my master, our friends and I arrived in Zief we found a whirlwind of excitement. The grand bazaar was even more active than usual. People swarmed booths that offered protective amulets and charms. Merchants barked, called, huranged and haggled over all manner of considerations that involved hexes, the removal of hexes, charms, protections, incantations, bindings and defenses against evil. I rode in the front of the group and heard my master laugh mildly to himself at some of the more obviously false offerings. .
Serena, who had pulled up next to him on her horse, “Flocktime 14th,” she said, “Celene is dark tomorrow and until the 18th. On the 18th Luna is dark. The double dark…Dark Night. I would think Jeremy that your people of all people would know the fear of it.”
He laughed again, “We understand the power of it, but the thing about living on the edge of what people see as evil is that you know where the line is that is too far. You don’t need a special night to worry. I assume your “people” know this in reference to other concerns.”
“My job,” she admitted, “blurs the line of morality from the common perspective.”
“I think,” Quinten added, “that we all have that as part of our lifestyle.It is not like society views a necromancer, his bodyguard and mob messenger and an illusionist as trustworthy company.”
“Most of what they are selling would work,” Jeremy said, “Some of it is charmingly false.”
We approached the palace and saw a less hectic but equally impressive flurry of activity. They were preparing for some grand event. I looked back at my master, who was trying to recall if he knew the tradition involved. Our nanny, Hawa had filled out childhood with stories of Baklunish customs and myths. We both search our minds for what could be going on the week of Dark Night at the palace to necessitate this kind of action. We both came up empty and exchanged blank expressions of confusion when we heard a familiar voice call out, “Jeremy! Frederick!”
It was Gamal Al’ Razi, the 47th youngest daughter of the sultan. She was a genius. The only person, in my opinion, who had equaled my master in observation and the reading of people. She coordinated everything. As her sister told me when we first met: “She arranges all the banquets of the state with 51 children, over 200 grandchildren…ambassadors and dignitaries. She has never made a mistake. She knows who must not be seated next to whom. Who is in a feud, who lies, who tells the truth…who is a danger and who is harmless.”
She came down the stairs smiling. The last time we were here, years ago, we all embarked on an adventure that ended with her nanny, who had been an undead Guhl in disguise…changed the very nature of who she was and died as a human for the love of the children she raised. I was the one who drove the sword through her chest, by way of my left lung, as she grappled me from behind. Even so, Gamal had deep affection and thankfulness for us. I knew my master kept in contact with her, under the guise of keeping aware of western events. However the real reason was to discuss problems and insights with an equal. And, I had come to believe, for reasons and emotions that are generally alien to him.
Gamal embraced us both and we introduced our friends. Jeremy started the questions, “So what’s all this? Is it for Dark Night?”
She shook her head, “Not really, although it helps to distract our more superstitious population with a joyous event.”
“Joyous event?” I asked.
“My sister Fadia, head of the family guard, is getting married after the Dark Night. The groom is the Madi of the Dervishes to the south. The kingdom is growing closer to having a Caliph again and not just a Sultan. Someone to lead in both faith and state. This will be the role of my brother Banyamin. You and your friends are welcome. I have many extra places ready since I have no idea who many will be coming with my brother Kareem and his wife princess Everdawn of Geoff.” She seemed slightly put out by her brother’s lack of specificity in the number. “He would only tell me that they are bringing many orphans to see the Sultan for the first time as well as see the grand event. When I pressed for a number he told me it was a long trip and maybe they would find more…so he only gave me a range. So, I added many places beyond reason. Thankfully this benefits you.”
My master nodded, “It would be an honor. Of course we have an important reason for coming.”
She held up her hand. “Dinner tonight. All of you are invited. We can discuss it then. Does it involve magic?”
“Oh yes.” Said Serena.
“I will make sure my brother Imran is there then. An hour past twilight, in the family hall. I am sure you remember the way.”
She summoned servants to take us to our quarters and we all looked forward to baths to wash off the sand of the voyage.
Later, as my master and I waited for our friends in the family hall, we discussed how we should present our information.
“Well, we can’t just tell it all upfront.” I said.
“Why not? Gamal is trustworthy.”
“She won’t be in the room alone, master. But I am sure we can arrange time with just her and her brother. The larger question is what do we want to know and what do we need from them?”
“We need information on areas in the Ataphad Islands to hide a fragment of something destructive. But somewhere where later it can be retrieved. Perhaps much later. But then they will know where. So we need to get multiple places and not tell them which one we choose. Then leave a clue for those who will come to find it.”
I sighed, “Oh they will love that. Which do you think our unnamed heroes will find more frustrating: The traveling to dangerous places and ferreting out clues or the chess game with dragons or dragon agents?”
“Depends how much they like travel. Besides, it won’t be dragons. They can’t get along. I am sure even Tiamat’s heads fight. They will also not sully themselves to play against a mortal. Or risk losing to one. They will have proxies. And if they can, they will cheat.”
Soon we were joined by Serena and Quint and informed them of the plan. Serena agreed that the dragons would not be able to get along. They key for those in the future would be identifying who the various chromatics might pick and how.
After some time Gamal came in with her brother Imran. He was a tall and imposing Baklune who wore the clothes of a genie binder. His magic had left telltale marks on him. His eyes had an aspect of living smoke that those who dealt with the Djinn often acquired. He walked with the amazing confidence of one who commands the elements. This six and a half foot desert whirlwind crossed the room quickly with open arms and wrapped my master and I each on one and lifted us off the ground.
“Ah!!!! The two who helped lay our beloved Anisah to rest these many years ago. I was not here to thank you!” He squeezed us so tightly that I began to be worried about air. He set us firmly on the ground. “And now you are here at the time of a wedding! Such a good time!” It was like taking the exuberant sultan and placing him in a man mountain body. “But please, let us eat!” he bellowed.
My master had noticed something about Gamal. And as he sat down he met her eyes, “What’s wrong Gamal?”
She looked shocked that he had noticed something and was about to deny it but just said, “How could you tell?”
“While your brother was hugging us you almost sat in the wrong chair. Something must be wrong because that’s not something you would ever do.”
Imran smiled, “We should have known that we could not proceed as normal with such perceptive friends. You must forgive us, hospitality demanded we not burden you with our troubles. But if you ask…..” he trailed off and spread out his hands wide with his palms up.
“We are indeed asking.” said my master.
Gamal sighed. “Someone has stolen one of the wedding gifts…and I use gift loosely.” She thought a moment, “ Also I use stolen loosely since I suppose the proper term is kidnap.”
We exchanged wary and confused looks. My master thought for a moment. “So someone stole a talking bird.”
Quint laughed softly to himself, “How in the hell…”
“As he said,” Imran marveled, “I did not see the spell you cast to discern that.”
“No spell,” my master replied, “but you do not give people away. And the jinn are bound as property. So that left a few possibilities. The great camels of the pearl, a flying cat or the talking bird. Any would be a lavish and special wedding present. But the Camels will not suffer ownership only partnership. No one can own or kidnap a cat…let alone a genius one who flies. But the talking birds have a special relationship with the sultans family. And they will suffer the stigma of ownership as long as it is just and of their consent. So it is obviously a bird. In addition someone just kidnapped the gift from the father to the daughter…am I correct.”
The two siblings exchanged a marveled glance.
“I’ll take that as a yes. The sultan is the only one who could broker such a deal…or at least authorize a proxy. Of course a high ranking cleric of Istus or Al’Akbar could as well. But that doesn’t fit here. So the Sultan, in an act of love to his daughter, respect for his son in law and to cement an alliance that would recognise his heir as Caliph rather than just sultan was giving them an advisor of unequalled skill…a talking bird. As a species they have been made by the gods to advise the worthy, so the choice is not only perfect it is irreplaceable.” Sighing my master stood up, “I suppose you had better show us where this happened so we can fix it.”
Serena interrupted, “Um…are you forgetting we have a rather pressing issue.”
“It’s waited for the better part of forty centuries, it will wait till later in the day.”
Imran inclined his head, “Forty centuries…I am now hungering for your story.”
“Then I suppose,” I said standing, “You better show us the scene of the bird napping.”
Soon we were in a large opulent room. This was the guest room for a king not a bird. Serena whistle a long note, “Wow. This is one amazing room.” She turned to Jeremy. “If people liked you better we would all have rooms like this.”
My master was putting on a pair of glasses with interchangeable lenses on rotating tines that he could flip through. I knew the device well, it allowed him to scan energies, magnify, see ethereal and many other modes of vision. The downside was he looked like a crab whose antennae had been split into multiple stalks by a lightning strike.
He cycled through lenses, alternating randomly between crawling and looking at minute details and taking in the entire room while spinning. After a few moments he cast a spider climb spell and scaled the wall to a high window. It was an odd location for a window, and looking now around the room I saw there were dozens of small windows very high near the ceiling. The other odd thing was that each window had differently colored glass.
“What are these for?” my master yelled down, “it seems some artistic form rather than structural function.”
Gamal yelled back, “At times of the day different colors and hues are cast. It is to make the ceiling pleasant and to encourage different states of relaxation.”
“So not locked then.” My master said, walking down the wall.
“No” Imran said, “constant airflow is needed in the desert. They can close in an emergency. But in general we leave them open.”
“Surely,” Imran said, “no man can get through and it is warded against magical things.”
“There is negative energy in a trail, but not undead type…per se. I assume it is not warded against magical birds though, since there was one in here who had the freedom of the place.”
“This is true. But he would not have left without saying so.”
“No but, as you thought, he was kidnapped. But by an unlikely foe.” My master paused and sniffed the air. “Was the parrot a cleric or someone who could wield positive energy.”
Gamal nodded. “A Paladin.”
Serena and Quint laughed and then waved their hands in apology. “Sorry,” Serena said, “I really am…but a Paladin Parrot? Is anything stranger?”
“Yes,” my master said, “The anti-paladin one who kidnapped him.”
It was several hours later, after my master had convinced Imran and Gamal that he was right, that we found ourselves in the grand Bazaar. He had sent Serena and Quint to investigate some things about the trade route for a reason he did not mention to me. I had learned to trust my master in such things. It also allowed me to be surprised by outcomes. It was, however, from the standpoint of a bodyguard: Frustrating.
I scanned the multitude of brightly colored booths that that decorated the scented air. I loved the Bazaar. We had grown up on tales of it. It always seemed so different in our minds than the aesthetic of the Bone Market of Hollowfaust. And, in reality, it was. So seldom do the imaginings of our childhood, with all of their colorful fantasies, match the reality. But here, in the Grand Bazaar, they were exceeded. I only allowed myself so much wonder, I was still an Unfailing and my charge was to remain aware of danger. As my mind shifted from childlike joy to the calling of my profession the bright colors, raucous noises, and frenetic pace of the merchants and patrons took on a more menacing aspect. Although wonders beyond the scope of dreams filled the Bazaar, so did danger. A congested area in a foreign land where magic not only hung in the air but was cast about with reckless abandon. This was a land where assassination was a craft. And we were looking for an anti-paladin talking bird. Such a thing, although comical to most ears, was dangerous. To someone who knew the depredations both an anti-paladin and a parrot could sink to; it was like saying it was a dragon whose breath weapon was economic collapse.
My master sighed, “You’ve gone from look at that shiney to…oh dear god look at that shiney.”
“Well,” I replied, “Shinies are dangerous when you have an inquisitive child who may touch them.”
“How much do you remember about the tales of talking birds?”
I searched my memory but it didn’t talk long. The stories had been some of my favorites. “The first was associated with the first Caliph. They are always good. They are wise and advisors to kings. Many think they are gifts from Fate to the people of the desert who help by guiding the leaders and heroes. They come in all forms but parrots or parrot-like are the most frequent. They tend to live in singing trees.” I paused, “That’s mostly it…except they can be a bit sarcastic, territorial, arrogant, and aloof.”
My master held up his hand with the single finger next to the thumb raised, “Always good. We’ve never heard of an evil one.”
“Not until now.”
I thought on that for a moment. “It is said they are gifts from Fate.”
“And,” my master finished for me, “Fate is neutral, not good. True they may be the more generous aspect of Istus the Fateweaver, but she is concerned with what is and must be. Not necessarily gifts of flowers and sweets. If an antipaladin parrot is needed for the design of the great weave…then she will have one.”
“So,” I asked, “what are we looking for?”
“We are looking for somewhere opulent. Somewhere where creature comforts and decadence were not born but migrated with all of their friends such as greed and sloth; and in doing so are acting like drunken sailors in a temple. But…parrot sized.”
“And what leads you to that conclusion?”
“Taking into account the temperament of both components that make up our villain a chaotic desire to be spoiled, particularly after a victory, is a solid guess. That’s why the others are checking on the trade routes. There are some delicacies for parrots that come only from the lands of the Olman and Touv. I am hazarding that either to be delivered or recently delivered to a location are supplies for a celebration. And I would think it is in the Bazaar itself because he would want to be close to conveniences.”
We sent the next hour or so asking questions in order to find out where our hostage may be. There were dozens of comments about minor things like the price of squash or the scarcity of magic from old desert ruins. We were about to give up when Quint found us,
“Where’s Serena?” My master asked.
“Family business while she’s here. She said she wouldn’t be long.”
“Did you find anything in the trade records?” I asked.
“Yes and yes and yes and yes….and yes. Meaning many possibilities.” He handed some papers to my master. “The thing is,” he continued, “So many people are having parties right now with the royal wedding..it’s almost impossible to narrow down.”
My master began setting some papers aside in his one hand while dropping others to the ground. When he was done he held up three sheets of invoices. “30 lbs of squash, butternut, paid for with Olman coins that had to be converted. Also on the invoice, one small cage with to quote..odd and queer markings. Money from where many parrots originate, and a place where you could see one being more evil…also the cage would be transport for the paladin.”
I looked over the pages. “That’s an enormous amount of squash.”
“If we can get there in time,” my master said, “we can catch the vile creature eating.”
“And eating.” I said.
“Then we can liberate the paladin and see what the reason is for all of this.”
“And eating.” I added.
“30lbs Jeremy! That is not even sane.”
Quint got a far off look in his eyes. “Where I lived, 6 people a month sometimes would vanish because the were rats were hungry.”
“See,” my master said, “now you’ve put him in the dark place.”
“I’m sorry but I think that’s an awful lot of squash.”
We moved in silence the rest of the way to the suspected booth.
Whoever resided in the tent we were looking at, did not lack for comfort. Even the sultan would ask them to tone it down a bit. There was gold fabric with silver thread embroidery, benches of ebony with ivory inlay and chilled container with squash, dates and other delicacies. Lounging outside, waiting to be called on to perform, were all manner of musicians, actors and jugglers. It was a mini court for a would be king. This parrot…had coin.
“Alright,” my master said, “Quentin, are you up for some illusions?”
Quint shook his head, “I’m an illusionist not a baker or milliner…i’ve been dying to legally use my skills all week.”
“Good, what I need is…” my master paused and looked a Quint, “What do you mean legally? Have you been illegally using them?”
“Good gods of course not, I would never do that or admit to it.”
Letting go the fruitless line of inquiry my master explained that he needed illusionary outfits for each of us. He wanted us to look like we were salesmen of the finest wares, in particular those that pamper pets.. Quint obliged flawlessly. Soon we were in a waterfall of opulent excess with a motif that focused on pets and pet products.
We began to pass the tents crying out loud about the wares we possessed and the fine animals who could benefit from their use. Within seconds a retainer from within came out to us and approached my master.
“You! Salesman!” He called.
My master turned, “Yes O Noble patron…are you interested in pampering for those who make your dark days bearable?”
“Well,” the man sneered, “I would never put it like that but do you have anything a stuck up and self centered bird would want?”
“Oh most assuredly great one. We have golden cages, the finest treats, perches of diamond and other items beyond imagining.”
“Well he will probably want the last ones.” He motioned to the musicians to clear the way, “You had better follow me.”
As we followed and entered the tent, if we did not know that an intelligent parrot lived there…we would have been speechless. The entire room centered on the bird. It was designed to serve and radiate from him. Retainers busied themselves, not only in his service but in anticipating his whims. Squash was being prepared, obviously his favorite food. Grapes and dates were set to the side. Music was being played and planned. Conversations between the entertainers centered on what he would want next. And in the whole tent was a feeling of oppression and fear I have seldom felt, even in the court of a lich king.
I am used to my master’s pace. I know that he likes to resolve things quickly. But even I was caught off guard by the rapid nature of his assault once in the door. Before any of us, he saw the magic cage hanging in the corner of the ceiling. Only in hindsight do I now notice that I noticed it subconsciously. But I saw my master make a deep bow and come up with spell that caused everyone in front of him on the ground begin to suffocate. This took care of nearly all security near the anti Paladin. As he made an offensive move I yelled for Quint to duck as I spun with my netherblade and threw it through the largest guard at the door behind us.
At that point insanity ruled. The bird took flight directly at my master. Quint began casting spells and cursing. My master did not even pay attention to the anti paladin as he focused his attention on the cage. But as I was waiting for him to cast a spell I saw he was watching the cage, not preparing to aim for it. In a moment I saw why. Sliding up the interior of the tent was a living shadow carrying a package of some kind. Obviously this was a undead in my master’s control, but what package it carried was unknown to me. I had little time to consider the contents as I saw the anti paladin flying toward him. I unhooked one of the holy symbols of Leara from my belt and threw it at the charging creature. Just the proximity of the holy symbol, one blessed by the first priestess of the goddess, made him vere to the right. It now had its’ eyes set on me. In the moment I had I decided to attempt to either confuse or infuriate it. “How can you eat so much squash?” I asked. “I had expected to find a parrot the size of a rhino, consuming 100 times its’ weight in squash and being carried by sea cows on a floating bed.”
In a screech of joint confusion and insult, it charged. But it was cut short by the explosion from the corner of the tent. The shadow had finished its’ climb and opened the package. Burning as it removed the holy symbol of Al’Akbar it placed it on the cage. The paladin within took the opportunity to smite the cage with all his force. The resulting explosion destroyed the cage and freed a rather angry bird, who happened to be a Paladin, into the air.
If you have never seen a paladin and an anti paladin fight, it is a clash of opposing wills contained in two physical paragons bent on the destruction of the very ideals of the other. If you have ever seen two birds fight…it is far worse. So what unfolded before us was something that defies most explanation. As the whirlwind of hate and feathers began, we eliminated the human muscle the anti-paladin had employed. Right on time Serena arrived, following a trail arranged between her and my master, with the palace guard. In short order we had a captive and a freed hostage; and a story no one would believe.
Imran and my master stood over a map of the Ataphads. With the parrot found we were free to consult on the best place to hide the first group of pieces of the chess set. As they remained deep in conversation I sat with Gamal.
“Your master has helped us again,” she said, “He has earned my respect twice now.”
“Well,” I can say, “you are one of a handful of people he generally considers and equal and respects as such. So I’m sure it would mean a good deal to him to know that.”
She laughed, “He’s not much for extending trust is he?”
“Well, he’s not one to tolerate fools, even if he pretends to be one at times.”
“It will be hard then for his parents to find him a match.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “We don’t do it that way. We sometimes have arranged marriages but in Hollowfaust we choose our spouses. It can be hard because if they are not from there they need to eventually live there since we are fairly strict about where our valued citizens reside.”
“And,” she added, “there are your rules about what happens after death. I would think anyone coming from outside would need to truly want to be there.”
“Sounds like you’ve looked into our rules in these matters.”
We looked at each other for a few moments before my master came over with a map. “I have it narrowed down to three places for you to record in your writings Frederik. The Isle of the Roc king, The Isle of Weeping Trees and the Isle of The Last Breath. I think we can use one of those and those following us will have to figure out which one.”
He looked up from the map as Gamal and I nodded to each other as she left. “Did I miss something?” He asked.
“For once,” I said, “yes. But keep missing it, that may be your best chance for it to work out.”