Federation-Apocalypse 67a, The Merchant Prince

   Oddly enough, the Crusader Kingdoms were pretty ecumenical when it came to religion; prayers, rituals, sermons, and other religious services all tended to provide sacred enhancements for those participating – the more worthy the quest, need, or situation, the greater the effect. As expected, the actual moral worth of the people performing the blessing or being blessed didn’t much enter into the equation.

   Well, that would explain why the blessing had apparently worked on Kevin and his Thralls. It also went a long ways towards explaining why the locals were still around. A good thing it was near-impossible to revise the rules of a realm except by following it’s plotline – and that the four Horsemen had apparently left the clean-up to their minions.

   Well, they probably weren’t ready for a direct fight with the Horsemen of the Apocalypse anyway.

   With A’ikana off healing people and evaluating the situation, and Marty off on the political side of things, Kevin headed for the Temple. None of the normal folks had much information on how this had started, or the tactics of the Horsemen, or the nature of their realm, or how the Death Knights soul-stealing swords worked, or how the souls had been funneled into the realm and kept there. In fact, they didn’t seem to know much of anything worth knowing. Perhaps the local commanders or mystics would know more, and it was pretty obvious where they’d be. The Thralls were already out making themselves useful (and incidentally recruiting) anyway.

   Besides, he could see if the Silmarils reacted – and if there was one already hiding there, which might account for things. The notion that they’d run across two of the things at random in separate universes was just too hard to swallow.

   A’ikana didn’t bother trying to convert anyone. When you came right down to it, the Unified Church was a syncretic faith; there really wasn’t any point in trying to convert people as long as they were getting along anyway – and it was hard to say whether the locals would turn to it out of desperation or attempt to burn her at the stake anyway.

   The Silmarils started resonating as Kevin approached the temple. He wasn’t getting smacked down by any celestial beings – good, since that would have been hell to explain – but they were building up a power surge and emitting some sort of tone. His wards were holding for the moment, but a few more steps and it was going to be pretty obvious – and who knew what it would do a few steps after that? Hopefully nonfatal, but you never knew with random artifacts and weird interactions.

   Besides, it was a bit early to be sending power surges across the kingdom.

   The resonance faded a bit as he backed off, but he could still feel a distinct pulsing and a slight tug towards the temple mount. Apparently the Silmarils either wanted to go there or were being drawn.

   Maybe he’d be better off just recruiting; if he could get enough local Thralls, they might be able to spam most of the attacking army to death with cheap magic. Marty and the locals could probably hold off any infiltrators for long enough for that, it wasn’t like minor corporeal undead and animated corpses really blended into the population very well.

   Kevin went to check with Marty and A’ikana, describe what went on, and see what they thought – even if it did mean having to admit to A’ikana that was carrying around some holy relics.

   With everyone wandering around the city, they got a good look at the demographics; kind of medieval-rural. It looked like the city populations had gotten virtually exterminated when the plagues, famines and armies came through. The wandering knights and other military units that were missed in that sweep had gathered up everyone they could while burning every body they came across to keep from being wiped out piecemeal. Lots of farm families, merchant convoys, ship crews, and small town folk. Around a million people in total, and better than half of them kids. An average life expectancy of around 40-50 if you made it out of childhood – but about a 50-50 chance of that. Families averaged 6-7 kids, but the population was fairly stable. (Well that sucked – especially by current Core standards, although there had been times – say London, around 1740 – when nearly 75% of the kids died before age five). Religiously, about 30% Christian, 20% Jewish, 40% Muslim, 8% Zoroastrian, and 2% Mithraism, with a minuscule number of other faiths – but one whale of a load of superstitions. The city had divided itself into religious quarters, with religious knights on guard at the entrances – but the Temple Mount complex had been declared a multifaith quarter as a part of the truce. Still, it was easy to see that the place was a powder keg and the knights were barely keeping it from igniting.

   Those demographics made it clear to Kevin that there were an awful lot of POSSIBLE recruits, but a high percentage might have religious objections. Still, you never knew; survival, power, and comfort spoke in an awfully loud voice – especially to children who hadn’t yet reproduced – and there might be a good deal of doubt about just how well their various versions of god were looking after them at the moment. They knew that Death Knights were stealing souls rather than letting them go to paradise – and THAT was a huge crack in the foundations of their beliefs.

   The group shared some information and tried to decide what to do. They wanted information about just how the world had “ended”, the Horsemen, what bound souls to this world (although it was quite possible that only the most powerful priest-types had any inkling – if even they did), and they wanted to defend the city. Secondarily, of course, Marty wanted to hobnob with the merchants and see what he could pick up there, A’ikana was trying to evaluate the holy sites and local doctrines, Jamie was already out on the wall pitching in on the defense, and Kevin – as always – wanted to recruit. A’ikana actually didn’t have many objections this time; it; being bonded to Kevin was hardly ideal for a soul, but being stolen and imprisoned in a Death Knights sword didn’t look so good either – and someone seemed to be stealing the souls of those who died otherwise in this world at the moment, and there was no telling what they were doing with them. The pesky boy had – once again – somehow managed to position himself as the least of the evils! She had to admit it was clever – presuming that it was intentional – but it was a hell of a thing to be building a career on.

   Jamie was fitting right in on the wall – even if she wasn’t as throughly blessed as most of the defenders (although attending some of their regular functions would soon fix that) and was less skilled with the local weapons and tactics, most of her internal boosts were still functioning and were quite compatible with the aura-enhancements of the local knights. It looked like she might even be having fun – and she always did try to avoid involving herself in ANYTHING that smacked of a “command decision”. Tactics, yes, strategy and mission objectives, no. Could that be an intentional constraint? It would kind of fit in with what little she’d said about her creators. Something in her training or programming perhaps?

   Regardless, the walls were under attack twenty-four hours a day, and Jamie was helping out quite effectively there. The undead didn’t have the numbers to press an attack and break through the defending knights – but they were providing plenty of harassment and keeping everyone on edge while maintaining the siege. Hunger and thirst would break the siege in their favor soon enough; the undead were in no hurry.

   A’ikana decided that she could best help out by trying to hold the city together – setting an example of interfaith communication. After all, if she could put up with Kevin she ought to be able to handle anything. Healing, calls for unity, subtly stressing the fact that the vast majority of the people in the city all worshiped the same god (if only by picking the bits that they all agreed on for emphasis), mediating disputes as a newly-arrived outsider with no stake in the outcome, and noting the fact that the undead were killing EVERYONE ought to help. It was a bit hard to call for general peace in the middle of a holy war against unnatural atrocities, but a call for peace between the human defenders certainly made sense!

   Besides, her approach and style should be different enough from the locals to attract notice and inspire thought.

   After A’ikana had made a few initial speeches, she went with Marty and Kevin to see the Merchants. It would need time to collect a larger audience – and the merchants might have a lot of information, and probably didn’t have much to do but talk at the moment. Besides, at least some of the potential flashpoints seemed to center on them – and they’d probably know of more. The Temple Mount was the focus of everything of course, but the Knights seemed to have things there firmly under control by simply maintaining a major presence at the site itself. There were plenty of generic conspiracy theories about the plagues being spread by the Christians, the Jews hoarding supplies, Muslims being behind disappearances, and pagans on holy ground being the cause of the entire mess, but they didn’t seem to have anything really specific to back them up. The most specific rumors were about one of the Hospitalier Doctors. They needed to find sources for specific rumors, the general stuff would be impossible to deal with as long as the city was packed with people under stress.

   Kevin sent most of the rest of the Thralls – the ones with more combative talents – out to mingle with the kids who were trying to assist and support the defenders: There were quite a few of them doing what they could – and the Thralls would shortly be drawing questions from them about how they learned to do all those useful things.

   No doubt the knightly authorities would want to talk to them soon enough – especially after that display while they were getting to the city – but they probably had a good day or so to work in before the locals got that organized.

   The biggest rumors about the Merchants of course was that they’d hidden away a lot of supplies in the chaos during the rush to get as many people and supplies into the city as possible before the armies came back. The rumors – of course – focused on the merchant princes; the smaller concerns had quickly had their stuff confiscated and stashed in the main warehouses, but the larger convoys might have had an opportunity to hide quite a bit of stuff before the knights had a chance to confiscate it. Merchant Prince Hauser had definitely had the largest convoy and the most time before the knights took over; he’d been in Jerusalem for nearly two weeks before the knights had consolidated their control.

   They’d visit him. There was a fairly strong chance that it was just a rumor with a convenient target of course. After all, if the city collapsed, what good would a stash of supplies do him? Still, it might not be – and they could always appeal to his good nature and enlightened self interest.

   Marty felt that that was a decent plan; after all, if the Jews he knew back home are any indication the man was likely to be pretty sensible – unless he was just obsessed or something. Come to think of it, Gelman never put that goddamn BlackBerry down… He’d probably have to take a balanced approach to this one. Start with appealing to his good nature and enlightened self interest, then resort to strong-arming if that didn’t work. He’d tuck his knife into the dimensional sheathe first; no need to let on that he was armed.

   Unsurprisingly, the Hauser stronghold was to be found in the Jewish Quarter, not far from the market square. It was one of the larger residences still intact, a villa in the old roman style with a couple of big guys – it looked like ordinary mercenaries – guarding the entrance.

   Fortunately, the word hadn’t yet spread that the other Thralls were giving out food and supplies for free down in the market – which made it easy enough to get in to see Prince Hauser since they had a ready source of supply.

   Besides, Marty would need local merchant contacts – and a bit of sharp practice would just get more respect in a medieval setting.

   Prince Hauser was a very well dressed man, wearing silks of a wide variety of colors. No big surprise there…

“Ah, welcome, please make yourself comfortable. I heard you wished to discuss a business transaction?”

“Yes, I have a supply of cloth and food available for purchase. Would you be interested?”

“Rare things to have in excess around here. Might I ask how you managed to get into the city with such a supply? I imagine that siege outside must have made for quite the tale.”

“My aides have a talent for creating basic supplies. Good in peacetime, indispensable now.”

   That produced a momentary look of shock – and then a smile.

“And here I thought only the priests could do such a thing. Most talented aids indeed.”

“Would you like to see some samples, Prince?”

“Of course.”

   They sent for a couple of the Thralls… There were only about fifteen who could produce supplies of course, but having a few of them who could do it was quite sufficient.

“That is most impressive, and is a most profitable talent. (He slumped his shoulders and sighed) Sadly these are not profitable times. Well, shall we start negotiating for these then?”

“Gladly.”

   Kevin had been keeping an eye on the servants as well as on Hauser (even if his psychic senses were pretty well swamped with Silmaril resonance at the moment) – and A’ikana had been focusing her psychic senses on Hauser. The passive stuff was pretty well undetectable. As far as the servants went, they were being treated decently enough, and were about half free and half slaves. It looked like the local Muslims and pagans tended towards keeping slaves, the Jews tended towards employees and indentured servants (although – as usual – the more money, the more tendency towards slaves), and the Christians mixed things as convenient.

   Hauser did seem to have quite a stash. On the other hand, he didn’t seem to value it all that much, and was mostly trying to get as much use out of it as he could… almost like he’d stashed a lot of things he no longer thought were valuable – but hoped that Marty would think were valuable. Artworks, coin, rare metals, jewelry, fine wines and other alcohols, rare and exotic pottery, rare woods, and such. He’d started off trying to buy one of the thralls at first but had shifted towards maximizing food and cloth gains – and trying for distribution rights and services – when it became apparent that Marty wasn’t intending to sell any of them at the moment.

“You have an impressive inventory, Prince.”

“Why thank you, I have been trading along the Mediterrean and the lands south of the Suez for many years now. Lots of lucrative trade to be had in those days.”

   Marty was wondering how to bring up the subject of hoarding. Jews were sensitive about that stereotype, even in the middle ages. In fact, it was probably worse.

   Kevin recommended not bothering. If he’d had a massive stash, he wouldn’t need to trade for the stuff – and why give up stuff that, even if it was no longer really of value, would still be a wrench to an old merchant’s heart, in trade for it? The man might have a small horde, but it looked like he was mostly “hoarding” stuff that was of no real use to others; the people of the city couldn’t live on gold and artwork.

   A’ikana had to agree; this didn’t seem the most profitable use of their time.

   Marty was coming around to that opinion himself.

   Kevin did wonder how the man had known that the Thralls were potentially purchasable. He might just be good at reading people of course, but he might have some kind of a sixth sense for that sort of thing.

   Well, they made it a good deal, even if others would be getting free supplies, Mr Merchant would have more – and some Thrall-services later on if the city survived the siege; Marty always needed local trading partners. Besides, a few handouts would help defuse the rumors. They’d trade for luxury items, with a stipulation that he contribute a bit to the communal pot.

   Kevin pointed out that they could offer to train some of his existing young slaves, servants (and offspring, if any), in basic magic.

   Marty seized on that; THAT would be something they could deal over – and that the man would have a hard time feeling cheated over later on.

   Ergo, trade supplies for luxury goods, artworks, and similar items, and provide training for his servants with a stipulation of minor charitable donations for the city dwellers and eventual freedom for any slaves or indentured servants that they trained.

   Hauser gave quite a bit on the charitable side, but drove hard on the training. All in all, they left Hauser with the feeling that he’d maximized the value of his riches – and the belief that he’d gotten more than he’d paid for on the magical training (they’d settled on “freedom” – well, Hauser didn’t know it, but the freedom to report to Kevin for re-assignment – after 30 years or Hauser’s death, whichever came first). Hauser would send them over for training tomorrow… Marty felt pretty good; he was fairly sure that he’d gotten a decent chunk of Hauser’s treasure and gotten him to donate a lot more to the city than he’d originally planned.

   The guard was quite polite on the way out.

   Meanwhile, Kevin had been exploiting multi-tracking again. The Thralls around the city had been busy providing supplies and medical care (especially for the stray kids and such who are probably going short), some had been helping with the defense (and hopefully attracting questions from the ones who want to make an active contribution to their own survival), and one had been taking a peek at the temple with minor divination magic – at least where it didn’t seem too likely to blow him up.

   The Thralls abilities had been drawing a lot of interest, especially from the local kids – although a few of the Hospitaliers had begun asking questions about the their powers as well. Food and medical care were in short supply, and the priests were losing ground as the stores ran low… The Thralls gave it a week or so before the problems got obvious though, and maybe two before the city started to starve. It looked like the locals would be able to hold the wall until the city behind them collapsed though – but there was no hope of them breaking the siege.

   The Templars had begun asking questions too. The Temple itself was radiating vast amounts of holy energies that blanketed the city, and there seemed to be something going on underneath the temple itself. Not as strong as the temple, but definitely something radiating energy.

   There was a market of sorts, mainly less-than-vital goods being traded around in an effort to keep people busy and to provide the officials watching the markets with a continuous inventory of the goods in the city. It was also serving as a social network to try and catch anyone who might be sick at home – or dead and about to rise within the walls.

   Hm. The Thralls they’d arrived with could do a lot of good – but keeping the city supplied would require hundreds of them. Still, if Kevin could recruit four or five hundred local kids, they could stabilize the supply situation fairly readily.

   They needed to get quite a few of the local kids interested and gathered together tonight, before any of them spent too much time talking to the adults and they got interfered with. Fortunately, kids tended to have their own gossip network and subculture. Kevin had the Thralls get to work on that – including making some minor treats and such for the orphans and smaller kids. The Thralls already had twenty possibles – and a few local agents would help a LOT – so they got them together, arranged some privacy and security (and to forget-spell any who refused), and Kevin made his spiel with some communications magic. They didn’t have TIME for the longer version.

   Evidently survival trumped doubts at the moment; they all signed up – and promptly got sent out to recruit more.

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