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The Letter

There is no easy way out of this. You of all people should know that this is going to haunt you until you obey its call. Yes, you are scared, no you’re not the first, and there’s plenty of others wedged in the dragon’s smile. But if you manage to break through, if you manage to ignite and shine, for just a second, for just a flare… But yes, it might not even be real; that moment of glory might not even be perceptible once you reach it. Though, if it is, if that sensation actually exists, how could you not try to feel it?

There are so many paths to truth, there are so many roads to follow, and everyone does have to find their own. You were never a follower, even if you’ve felt the temptation of that solace. You cannot succumb to it; you can’t let yourself be drawn by the comfort of not being to blame for your own mistakes, for your own failures. When you’re not a follower, part of the herd, you can choose the rock that will be your stepping stone, or the one that breaks your back.

Yes, it is a selfish desire, private and dark. It’s craving recognition, absolutely, but you have to understand that it’s still born from your own strength. You can’t speak to an empty room and expect to get a reaction. Language needs someone to receive it for it to be alive, and like it, you need someone to notice that you’re speaking. Though, be clear; do you want to smash their apathy, or do you want to slash the veil to some universal truth? Do you write for vanity, or for revelation? Don’t bother with the semantics, with the weight of those words. They are your own, and that should be good enough. That question needs an answer; you need to know exactly what you’re craving. That will determine the trail ahead, the obstacles you’ll face, and what you’ll disdain.

Regardless, the visions are there. What comes of them is entirely up to you. Don’t despair, they’ll always keep you company.

Prisoner M-19

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Prisoner M-19 was patient; he was trained to be. The dark closed in around him in his perfectly featureless cell as the guard’s boot-steps faded a little slower than the light.

When he finally moved, he did so by inches, tracing the seam on the floor panes he had squatted on until he came to the wall. The same subtle edge continued upwards until it was crossed by a horizontal break. As quietly as he was able, M-19 shuffled along the wall on his bare feet until he found the tiny bump of the rivet he was looking for. Once he found that, he traced its shape and smiled.

The right block, the right layout, the proper tool. That tool he had he made out of metal shavings and beaten wire he had molded with his bare hands over the course of weeks. With his patience, he was able to stave off the despair, the boredom and distraction of an idle mind in the dark.

He had the means, now might have opportunity…He had been waiting for it since he stepped out of the armored personnel carrier and Outpost Theta 3 stood before him. The Terra Novan sun, came through the clouds with beams of sunlight he knew, some time ago, someone had called “the fingers of God”. It was a moment of beauty that ended when he stepped into the shadow of the gateway of La Oubliette. The Republican soldiers handed him off to men whose uniforms didn’t have any distinguishing marks, no unit or rank insignias, just an arm-band with one half of a bone-white skull. M-19, Gregor Manette before he stepped into the dark, knew who they were. He knew he would need his patience then.

“This one?”, one of the arm-banded guards asked another as they drew Gregor’s sleeve up to his forearm and pressed a device with a pistol-grip onto the inside of his wrist.

“M-19”, the other guard replied. “Cold storage.”

The cool metallic surface of the device seared Gregor’s flesh for an instant, and he was Gregor no more.

After that, darkness was all there was for M-19. He held on to the memory of that day with both hands.

Now, however, his plans were going to come to fruition, half a season after he had been incarcerated. The building’s innards didn’t put up half the fight the panel did. For that moment, he was thankful for his nation’s unshakeable determination to always hire the lowest bidder. A properly built cell would he much better isolated. His work was still slow, though, as he had to time it with the guard’s patrol so that the sliver of light there would be when he turned on the camera connected to the monitor on the door wouldn’t reveal anything untoward.  It was the definition of a monotonous routine. Forty-five minutes of work per hour, five to conceal it, five in complete silence, and five more to get back to where he left off. Seventy two hours later, M-19 would finally be able to reach through the crawlspace between their cells and rap his knuckles on the wall of his neighbor.

“Hey!” M-19 called to the other side, his voice echoing through the empty hall outside his cell. “Is anybody there?”

“Leave me alone”, a voice, dredged up from some deep well replied in broken Universal French.

“Listen” M-19 told the voice, gritting his teeth with the fierce thrill of nigh-impossible success. “Do you have a name? Tell me your name.”

“Leave me alone! I don’t know anything!” the voice insisted, desperate and guttural.

M-19 took a chance and spoke in Anglic, the Earthers’ language, executing the next step of his scheme. “Over hill, over dale, through bush, through brier, over park, over pale, through flood, through fire, I do wander everywhere.”

There was no reply from the other cell, not until the thrill had begun to sour.

The voice, a louder than it was at first, though now devoid of any emotional inflection, called back to him.

“Either I mistake your shape and making quite, Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite, Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he?” The voice spoke the verse with confidence it lacked a moment ago.

“No, I am Oberon”, M-19 replied, victorious once again as he finished the cipher, “and you are a bearer of my seal.”

The knowledge of that sequence of verses and its reply was one of the most closely guarded secrets the Southern Republic had extracted from the remains of the Colonial Expeditionary Force. It yielded control over these living weapons, the G.R.E.L.

“Oberon, sir, you have my allegiance.”

“Report your status, soldier”, M-19 demanded in his curt, harshly accented Anglic.

“Sixty percent operational, sir”, the voice replied.

“Are you a Mordred-class?” M-19 asked.

“Yes, sir. Generation IIf revision a”, the voice replied.

“Good”, M-19 said. His patience was yielding its dividends now. The adrenalin made his blood boil. With a growl he added “Rip down this wall, soldier.”

The G.R.E.L. went unquestioningly about his new task, and it was a moment too late that M-19 realized that he had grown impatient. His innate sense of time gave him a pang of dread against the thrilling prospect of escape. The sound of a guard’s boots coming down the hall was late. The Mordred’s fists beating the wall, each with the same brute force of a dozen men armed with a half-ton battering ram, nearly masked the quickened thumps of the guard dashing down the hall towards the noise. It was too late now, M-19 realized. He had crossed the Rubicon, the point of no return, too soon. There was no going back. All there was left was to go faster. M-19 yanked clumps of wires, propping his foot on a structural girder for the leverage.

Klaxons began to wail outside his cell.

Right at that moment thick purple fingers curled the sheet of metal between the two cells back, and the halogen light from the Mordred’s cell poured through the opening, blinding M-19 with its flash before he could close them. He cried and recoiled away from it.

Writhing with the heels of his hands pressing down on his eye sockets, M-19 was given a moment of clarity. M-19 could hear the Mordred tearing down a piece of pipe out of its fittings, boiling steam washing over the monster’s hands. He could hear the voice of the guard outside, speaking urgently just outside the door to his cell. Another voice spoke outside the door, booming over the P.A. with the thunder and severity of God himself.

He forced his eyes open when the sweet smell began to fill the cell.

“Gas!”

The colorless haze was already making M-19’s head swim. His thoughts tried to wrestle with the lethargy he breathed in.

The Mordred stood over him, numbly waiting for M-19 to put the next thought in his mind. The halogen glare from the next room shone on the purple-skinned behemoth. One of the Mordred’s eyes and a couple of his fingers had been surgically removed, leaving a concave wound past his eyelids. That was the forty percent that was missing.

“Break that down”, M-19 managed to croak, pointing at the door.

“Sir!”, the Mordred replied with crisp, fierce docility. He charged the door, making it buckle. His fists kept it shaking, with the force of each blow rippling through the floor. The hinges began to give way as M-19’s grip on consciousness finally began to slip.

The last thing he saw before he let go of it completely was the magnetic seals and hinges breaking. The last thing he heard were the weapon of the guard going off. The last thing M-19 felt was the Mordred picking him up and flinging him onto his shoulder.

The Mordred began to run down the hall, taking M-19’s unconscious body with him.

L’Oubliette and The Executioner’s Hood (Heavy Gear RPG Module)

This was written in the Heavy Gear Universe by Dream Pod 9. It appeared in issue 4.4 of Aurora Magazine in July, 2010.

Introduction:

Like other hegemonic nations in history, the Southern Republic has gone to great lengths to secure its power, creating places where those who might threaten it, from within and without, can simply disappear and never be heard of again. Like the Gulag of the Soviets, like Abu Ghraib of the United States, most know, but don’t speak openly about L’Oubliette. It is a place where secrets, men, and horrors are sent to be forgotten.

Prison Complex – L’Oubliette.

L’Oubliette was an unofficial name used by the rank and file to describe the quasi-mythical prison where the most significant prisoners were sent to. The official name was Outpost Theta 3, which was originally built as a small scale proof-of-concept of the Gamma Base design. It is a self-contained military outpost built into the side of a natural cliff on the inside of a igneous rock mountain, a stronghold meant to be impregnable. Outpost Theta 3 was built in TN 1789 by the South Republican Army Engineer Corps, consisting of an above-ground, domed and turreted structure with automated defenses, and an underground complex that mirrors the layout of its upper half. At the time, there was no clear purpose for the outpost, as it was too small to house an army and its equipment in a practical fashion, unlike the Gamma bases that would follow. The 4th MP Regiment, using the political notoriety of its mission, chose Outpost Theta 3 as its base of operations soon thereafter, deeming its location away from most population centers, though still well within Republican territory as ideal. The underground half of the facility was promptly converted into the facility it is today.

L’Oubliette receives its prisoners and supplies through either the road that splits from a local maglev station some 200 kilometers away, or by air through the small airstrip that is within its defensive perimeter. Very few people have ever left L’Oubliette alive, guard or prisoner, and there have been no recorded successful jail-breaks, with attempts numbering less than a dozen.

The rolling plains that surround the solid rock mountain where L’Oubliette is cradled are subdivided into farming plots and grazing fields all the way to the horizon. The farming communities in the area are sparse and rural, making a point of being incurious about the small military base. In their mind, just as with any other Republican citizen, they saw L’Oubliette as the place where the most terrible secrets went to die.

There are a few persistent rumors that L’Oubliette was the site of experimentation with captured G.R.E.L. soldiers. Those rumors have never been publicly confirmed.

Military Defenses:

Although L’Oubliette is a military base in its own right, given the conversion of half of its functional space into a prison complex, the SRA detachment that’s stationed there is woefully underpowered. Single regiments from the Infantry, Cavalry and Gear branches of the SRA do the best they can in very confined quarters. In recent years, temporary buildings have been built around the outpost, encroaching on the plains below on either side of the road leading to the distant maglev station. Service at L’Oubliette is often seen as a test of loyalty for units that fail to inspire confidence in the higher rungs of the chain of command. It’s a chance for those disfavored units to prove themselves as steadfast soldiers of the Republic.

A single pair of automated defense turrets flanks the outpost with the typical, overlapping kill-zones cover the approach from the road and the airfield. There are other turrets mounted on the base itself, but their field-of-view is more limited due to their emplacement. Meanwhile, the regiments on-site can fortify and dig themselves in, if given enough advance notice of an attack. However, due to its location and relatively minor strategic value, a full-on assault is considered unlikely. At best, the Southern High Command argues, it has to be well defended enough to dissuade a commando raid. Given the nature of the base, such operations that would target it are assumed to be highly impractical, if not outright impossible to carry out successfully.

Capote du Bourreau – 4th Military Police Regiment.

When an officer who has proven himself to be otherwise competent, disciplined and bloodthirsty commits a capital offense, they’re sometimes given a reprieve from the usual punishment. If such a reprieve is given, the offender is presented with a choice between an executioner’s hood and a firearm loaded with one bullet with which to carry out his own sentence. Choosing the Capote du Borreau entails forsaking all honor for the sake of either continuing to serve the Republic, or merely saving one’s life. If the prisoner chooses the hood, he is still labeled as deceased and a grave is marked with his name. The newly anointed executioner is sent to L’Oubliette, where he will serve the Republic’s interests as a torturer for an indeterminate number of years. They carry out the duties that are too unsavory or dishonorable for regular officers, either in hopes that they will be released from service eventually, or merely because it appeals to their baser, crueler nature. In practice, they are not a military unit since they would never be deployed on to the field. Their role usually confines them to L’Oubliette. If their services are urgently required elsewhere, for whatever reason, they will be escorted by a detachment of regular Military Police officers who never let their charge out of their sight, for their protection as well as to prevent them from escaping.

They serve as interrogators, torturers, and executioners for the special category of prisoners L’Oubliette is meant for. That category of prisoner is usually comprised by those individuals whose incarceration would prove politically difficult for the higher spheres of Republican authority and society, including their most bitter rivals, blackmailers, and political hostages. From time to time captured spies are sent there in order to be debriefed before being interrogated and disposed of. This last type of short-term imprisonment is colloquially referred to as “retrieval” by those who order it and those who carry it out. It involves anything and everything an experienced and unscrupulous interrogator would think useful for extracting (or, indeed, retrieving) every last piece of pertinent information from a prisoner. Technically speaking, the Capode du Borreau recruits from the same pool of candidates as Les Etrangers, the irredeemably disgraced, but with a different skill-set. This skews the membership of this regiment heavily towards shamed Military Police officers, which keeps both unofficial branches from competing with one another.

The regimental situation of the Capote du Borreau is similar to that of Les Etrangers, operating in a gray area outside of the usual chain of command and with little regard for honor, doing what is necessary, as ordered by the highest political echelons of the Southern Republic, but still within the bounds of a loosely interpreted Law. Notably, the Capote du Borreau will not execute a prisoner unless they are ordered to, nor will they subject a prisoner to any treatment that wasn’t specified by those ordering their arrest. Very few prisoners in the care of the Capote de Borreau will be put on trial for their alleged crimes, for whatever reason, and so they operate under a different set of guidelines where they are merely the instruments of the will of outside civilian and military authorities, and it’s those authorities who would have to answer for any crimes that the Capote du Borreau carried out on their behalf. Those crimes would be part of the Les Temoins files on a prosecutor’s desk, in the unlikely event that a member of the political elite would be brought to trial as it, technically speaking, was committed by a dead man in their name. More likely than not, such a criminal would be a guest of L’Oubliette instead, where the Capote du Borreau would dispense its own form of retribution.

Conscripted Personnel:

The Capote du Borreau have several tiers of convict personnel, ranging from commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted personnel, all of them guilty of crimes that would usually carry a death sentence. They fulfill the roles they did before their crimes were committed, in most cases, except for the tasks that require contact with the outside world. Those tasks, such as prisoner intake and transportation, complex repairs, and so forth, are handled by whatever unit is garrisoned in the upper half of the prison. Technically speaking, the Capote du Borreau is subordinate to the particular SRA unit that is stationed at L’Oubliette. That unit is authorized to summarily terminate any of the personnel it’s guarding, but, in practical terms, the Capote du Borreau act independently within the confines of L’Oubliette.

It isn’t uncommon for a prisoner, usually sent there for life-long extra-judicial sentence, to switch sides and join the Capote du Borreau. The matter of which side of the bars they are on is largely inconsequential, they will most likely never regain their freedom.

Prison Life:

L’Oubliette is not like other penitentiary institutions. There are no guidelines that apply to every prisoner. Because of this, the life of a prisoner could range from quiet, uneventful confinement in a small cell until a change in the political climate returns their freedom, or it can be a regimented Hell the likes of which haunted Dante’s nightmares. Prisoners are not allowed to comingle; they’re kept in their individual cells, which have facilities in accordance to their status, where they sleep, eat and live. Some of these cells could pass off as tiny, constrictive apartments, with bathrooms and a window that pipes in natural sunlight from the surface through fiber-optic conduits. Others, known as isolation pods, are no more than a suspension tank where prisoners are caged, fed intravenously. Some are allowed to slip into unconsciousness, while others, in accordance to the vindictiveness of those who sent them to L’Oubliette, denied sleep through a variety of drugs and techniques. The treatment prisoners receive is entirely dependent of the whims of the authorities that sent them there.

Despite express prohibitions against it, prisoners do often manage to communicate with one another through contiguous cells. The guards often engage in smuggling, for themselves as well as well as for the prisoners. This black market is tolerated by the higher-ranked officers of the Capote du Borreau and by the SRA units stationed in the upper level of L’Oubliette. Smugglers often use an alternate entrance through a nearby McAllen tunnel network to deliver their goods to L’Oubliette clandestinely.

G.R.E.L. Experimentation:

L’Oubliette was the site where the oft-rumored experimentation with captured G.R.E.L. soldiers took place. The purpose of those experiments was to find ways three-fold: Find the abilities, limitations and weaknesses of the G.R.E.L. in order to develop tactics and weapons meant specifically for them, discover the extent of the Earth Concordat’s genetic technology, and attempt to replicate and adapt those techniques for their own use. The experiments were led by hand-picked scientists in medical, biological and psychological fields, and ran the gamut from toxin exposure to invasive surgeries. The results of these experiments are ranked as most secret and have yet to be visibly influential in other Southern technologies. Some of the scientists that assisted in these efforts became inmates of L’Oubliette themselves.

Gamemaster Resources:

NPCs

Warden Reynaud Lachenal (Knight):

The Warden of this particular prison is a disgraced Southern Republic Army (SRA) Officer, who was assigned to this post as punishment for political indiscretions – namely his political ambition and scheming. He was caught red-handed, quite literally, in an attempt to blackmail his betters. The resulting embarrassment to his political superiors compounded his crime, although he was never criminally charged.

He is the senior officer in the Capote du Borreau, given that unenviable distinction due to his rank when he was “recruited” into the regiment in TN1925, and became its leader soon thereafter. Before being named warden, he was Sous Prefect Reynaud Lachenal, a name he was forced to abandon when he chose the hood as punishment for an attempt of intrigue that went catastrophically wrong. He had proved himself in the field during the War of the Alliance, leading his infantry regiment meritoriously. That, and the private humiliation he would suffer when his name was stricken from the Republic’s annals, made him a great prospect from this peculiar unit. When confronted with his choice, he took the hood as he saw suicide just as cowardly as surrender. At times, while he carries out the more distasteful aspects of his duties, he wonders if he didn’t make the wrong choice.

Even so, he never lost his pride, but the experience did break his ambition. All he aspires to now is to live out his dishonorable life until he is truly forgotten or pardoned, both of which are unlikely, if not impossible. He does not accept defeat easily, and while he enjoys complete obedience from his regiment, as they fear to be subjected to the same punishment they dispense on their prisoners.

Archetype: Senior Officer

Attitudes

On the surface, he seems calculating, with a frigid, deliberate approach to his day-to-day duties. In the more quiet moments, when the work is done and he doesn’t have to play the role of warden, he withdraws into fantasies of his past, taking up the bruised pride of those days.

Combat Reactions

Warden Lachenal was an effective infantry leader, and he still retains that edge when pressed. If he is threatened directly with violence, he won’t waste his time with a prolonged confrontation. If he cannot immediately subdue his attacker, which he still could do, he will go for the cleanest killing blow available to him. If he is facing a military threat, he will pull his forces back to draw his enemy into a trap, setting up kill zones and other such ambushes. In a stalemate, he is not above negotiating.

Contacts

The highest echelons of Republican politics know of him and have something to fear from him. Despite that, his influence is limited to L’Oubliette, where his authority is absolute. If he were to reach out to the outside world, he can intimidate anyone of political heft, but not so with anyone below the rank of Prefect.

Sous Adjuntant Jacqueline Milliard (Bishop):

Sous Adjuntant Jacqueline Milliard is not a member of the Capote du Borreau, she is the personal assistant to the Adjuntant in charge of the outpost that rests on top of L’Oubliette, who in turn answers to the Warden below. She is, by all accounts, a loyal yet unremarkable officer. Her assignment to this particular regiment came during an inauspicious time for the unit, which through circumstance and bad luck, it was assigned to man the outpost resting atop L’Oubliette. They have been stationed for a few cycles now, and he has settled into the secretive routine of patrols and receiving newly arrived prisoners. Like any other Republican officer entrusted with a burdensome duty, she bears it with discipline and stoicism. In time, she has learned the ins and outs of the legitimate and clandestine functioning of the base. The prison itself is largely unknown to her, but she is very familiar with everything around it.

Archetype: Junior Officer

Guards:

The members of the Capote du Borreau are outnumbered by their prisoners at least a hundred to one. They have to maintain perfect control over all of their prisoners at all times, or risk being overrun in the matter of an hour. This leads to a very tense and stressful environment for the guards, who have to follow the others of the Warden while keeping the tightest grip possible on the inmates. This, while being prisoners themselves of L’Oubliette. That peculiar set of circumstances culls the weak-minded very quickly, cracking them in a matter of weeks. Most of the guards have military backgrounds, and have at least basic training in military police procedure and tactics. The only true benefits a guard of L’Oubliette receives are time outside the prison’s walls, under the strict supervision of the SRA units stationed in the upper half of the outpost, and direct access to the black market. The shore leave comes once every season and only for a short period of time, and being able to procure smuggled goods does give them a few luxuries to treasure in an otherwise miserable existence. Thus far, these two advantages have proven enough to maintain order in L’Oubliette.

Archetype: Military Police

Political Prisoners (Pawn):

The AST’s political arena, both in and outside of the Republic is fraught with treachery and intrigue. The higher the sphere of power, the more ruthless and malicious the game becomes, and nothing is off-limits. There are all kinds of political prisoners in L’Oubliette, for all sorts of reasons, but political prisoners are usually there through no fault of their own, aside from being seen as leverage on someone prominent and unruly. This strategy isn’t used to silence casual dissenters. However, the staunchest critical voices might find a family-member or a lover might gone one morning, picked up by the local authorities. By mid-afternoon, a Republican official might be asking leading questions, and advising caution. This type of prisoner is usually kept in the most comfortable cells L’Oubliette can offer, often permanently, but separated from the rest of the prisoners. In the rare instances that one of these prisoners is released, they are returned to their homes, traumatized by their experience. Political prisoners have always been the exceptional minority of L’Oubliette’s population.

Archetype: Varies.

Criminal Prisoners (Pawn):

Criminal prisoners have earned their visit to L’Oubliette; their guilt of some terrible crime is all but certain. They are sent to L’Oubliette whenever their death isn’t the immediately desired outcome. These prisoners can be military personnel or civilians who have somehow victimized the upper echelons of Republican society, knowingly or not. Usually, their life sentences at L’Oubliette are cut short as they succumb to the treatment proscribed by the Republican official that sent them there. In other cases, these prisoners might be recruited as the lowest-ranking guards at L’Oubliette, trading in the last of their pride for the few perks they might receive. This class of prisoner is usually housed in small 2.5 meters by 1.5 meters, typically, but this can be escalated to the isolation pods, depending on the prisoner. A majority of these prisoners are expected to suffer some type of psychotic episode within a year of their imprisonment. The majority of L’Oubliette’s prisoners fall under this category.

Archetype: Varies.

Special Prisoners (Pawn):

These individuals are considered to be prisoners of the State, mostly for security reasons. These include the G.R.E.L. and other Earth invaders that were captured during the War of the Alliance, as well as spies from other leagues. At L’Oubliette, these prisoners are subjected to different kinds of interrogation, torture and experimentation. The most unspeakable acts ever committed at L’Oubliette were probably the series of experiments conducted on the G.R.E.L. held there, some of which survive even today. The most peculiar prisoners who fall under this category are the researchers that were deemed as a security risk by Republican authorities, suspecting that these scientists could sell or otherwise divulge the findings of their work.

Archetype: Varies.

Further Notes:

L’Oubliette prison is meant to be a dungeon for role-playing campaigns, which players could explore or escape from. Consider the possibilities of the storylines tucked away into each cell, the secrets every door could reveal. The archetypes presented here are, therefore, purposefully vague. The Gamemaster is given absolute freedom to create whatever characters within the categories described above to suit the needs of their campaign, while L’Oubliette serves as a rich and tense backdrop for the storyline that is being developed. The Archetypes noted above are suggestions for the statistics each NPC should have, mentioning archetypes contained in the Heavy Gear Player’s Guide.

Author:

Cesar Mateo Gonzalez

At Sea

The bow of the ship rode the waves confidently, sped along by the power of twenty four broad-shouldered men from the frozen North. Their ship, with the dragon’s head rising at the prow, wasn’t one of the elegant vessels that plied from one coast to the other of the Mediterranean. No, cured by the frigid weather of the Atlantic, gouged in battle, it was much like its crew, rustic, scarred and indomitable. A man with long braids of red and blond hair hung onto the rigging on the prow, with one booted foot on the edge and his scowl focused on the crowded horizon of the Persian city. It gleamed in the distance.

“Merchant!”, he growled over his shoulder. A much shorter man, dressed in robes that must’ve once been expensive, though they were now weather-worn, shot onto his feet from the stern.

Walking briskly along the spine of the ship, he replied with a thick accent. “Yes, Captain?”, he said, hanging onto the rigging. Though he wasn’t a Viking, he was comfortable at sea.

“Is this the place? Where riches overflow and fortune beckons?”, the Viking asked, reciting that last verse with incredulity. Each new claim the merchant made about the city he had led them to was punctuated with that reprieve.

The Italian merchant grinned. “Yes. Al Khalid is where a pauper can stow away to and return home a banker. By my mother’s eyes, I’ve seen it more than once.”

“And all those other stories were true as well, I expect?”, the captain inquired sarcastically, “Animals that predict the death of men, men with the heads of dogs and spices worth twice their weight in gold?”

A voice rose from the rowers. “Don’t forget the women! Sweet as honey, eager like flowers for Spring!” Laughter boomed across the ship, loud enough to startle fishermen on boats they were passing by. Those tales were popular during long weeks of travel.

“Yes!”, bellowed the Italian merchant, grinning widely. “All of them true, Captain. Here, the Sultan will enlist your men, heap you with as much wealth as your strong shoulders can carry, for no more than a few trifling chores”.

The Captain was still young, as was his crew. It was at their goading that he’d had agreed to listen to their captive, a trader they swept up in a raid on a coastal town in the North of France. Quick-witted, the venetian traveler spun tales of these faraway places to the ambitious young men, who, trusting the strength of their sword arms and the stoutness of their shields, set out further than they had ever intended. Giacomo, as the merchant had introduced himself when they held an axe to his throat, claimed that he already had secured employment for him and his men doing what they did naturally. Messages had crisscrossed while they made their journey South to the pass into the Mediterranean.

“All of that, just because we would be unusual?”, the Captain asked again, just to make sure he fully understood. He wasn’t a fool by any means, but the posturing of royalty still perplexed him.

“Like lions pulling the chariot of Charlemagne!”, Giacomo exclaimed. The crew laughed again, roaring like the beasts in the tales told around the fires of their childhood. “You will be a prize for him as his personal guard”, Giacomo added, “living testament to his wealth and limitless kingdom. Savage men from the North! I dare say the lot of you will make a fine spectacle by merely being yourselves.”

Somehow, the Captain’s pride didn’t agree with the idea of being a trophy, a thing to display like those jeweled swords that’d shatter with the first swing. The scowl came back. Greed could only go so far, even less for someone who doesn’t crave gold, but glory.

Giacomo, as a haggler, could read that expression, and though he was not much older than his captors, he was one for gold. He sidled in closer. “Captain”, he said in a half-whisper, “I must admit that, though this is an opportunity for you to fill the coffers of the house of your father, I would fear for you.”

The Captain looked down at Giacomo. Somehow, through storms at sea and opportunistic night-time assaults on lonely manors along the coast, the man had been able to keep the cap he wore the day they took him. Even now it sat atop Giacomo’s black curls. His eyes gleamed with mirthful treachery, as if he was about to laughingly reveal a close ally’s secret. He knew no one sang songs about palace guards.

“Being who you are, Captain, you might get an audience with the princess…”, Giacomo confided. “I’m certain the name Thane Sversson has rang far and wide already! King of his people, leader of warriors; they’ll want your allegiance, your obedience! Yes, they’ll surely give you an audience with her, and you’ll be forced into tender servitude.”

“Beautiful, is she? Armies dare not march when faced with the radiance of her face or somesuch?”, Thane asked, accustomed to Giacomo’s storytelling flair. He listened, nevertheless.

“Mock me and my tales all you wish”, Giacomo scoffed. “But you’d be a fool to underestimate the power of her beauty. Why, when we were aground near Genoa, one of my cousin’s business partners told me, upon discovering that we were travelling to Al Khaled, that the crown prince of Mur had thrown himself off a cliff in her name!”

After glancing over his shoulder towards the crew, Giacomo cupped a hand next to his mouth. “Prince Muhammad of Mur had come to Al Khaled to declare war, Captain! Tribute or strife, it was rumored he was planning to tell the Sultan. However, as he marched with his honor guard to the palace, he came across the Princess’ palanquin in the market, he was struck to be as stiff as a granite statue. It is said that she was visiting her goldsmiths in regards to a dress fashioned entirely from gold thread, and that at that very moment, she was pointing out the window, with two delicate fingers…” Giacomo rolled up his sleeve, gesturing caricaturesquely with his calloused money-counting hands. “…And that was what Prince Muhammad of Mur saw. It was all, my cousin’s partner assures me, that he had to see in order to lose his mind for her.”

Giacomo pulled down his sleeve and, as he had done all those nights for the Vikings over the fire, gripped an imaginary sword in both hands, and slashing away theatrically. Sea snakes, thieves and giants fell before the very same strokes. This time, it was a prince’s honor guard.

“Immediately, he set about killing his own men before they had a chance to even blink! Then, he threw himself on his knees next to her hand, still dripping in the blood of his own servants, and held up his sword to her, crying out in the tongue of devils, ‘Mistress, I’ve killed men who wished your kingdom harm! Accept their deaths as a gift, as proof of my devotion. All I ask is the boon of a glimpse of your face.’ She refused him”, Giacomo hissed. “I don’t know whether she did it out of cruelty or horror, but she did, and he was inconsolably heartbroken on the spot… So, he rode to one of the cliffs facing the sea on the outskirts of the city, carved a love poem to her name, and he threw himself to be swallowed by the waves.”

Thane grunted. “At least he left a poem”, he said. And yet, despite himself, Thane was intrigued. They were well within view of the city now, and the busy rows of ships coming and going suggested that there was a grain of truth to Giacomo’s exaggerations of gold and fortune. So, it followed that there might be a grain of truth to this latest story as well. Surely, Thane thought, even Giacomo’s stories only scratches the surface.

Thane hung on to the rope, watching the triangle-shaped sails get out of their way, parting to let the city shine in all of its life and bustle.

“Merchant”, Thane said. “What is her name?”

Giacomo smiled.

More to come