Far to the west of Naressina and the old kingdom of Annaen, across many leagues of ocean, lie the lands of the Dragon Empire. Much of the coast line is deserted, a dry no man’s land of grey-white salt flats, rocks and brown emptiness that stretches unto the horizon. Towards the south, past the great bight of Aldakar and its salt gardens, the coastline begins to rise until green mountains tower over the sea behind the city of Esperek. The Esperekki are corsairs, raiding across the Wild Waters and along the Dragon Coast, and they have a reputation for spitting in the emperor’s eye. As yet, the great distance to the capital has prevented the emperor from sending his dragons to reduce them to a pile of smouldering rubble, but this southern insolence will not be tolerated forever.
The reason why traders from half a world away come to this inhospitable land perpetually teetering on the brink of open war? Two reasons, in fact: Silk, and incense. Three, if the legendary wealth of the capital to afford any luxury counts as well.
The port town of Moklea, on the northern Dragon Coast, glitters lika a diamond among ashes. Moklea is the port of call for traders from Annaen and the north, and considered the ‘Jewel of the Dragon Coast’. Inside its high, thick walls, a lively city welcomes travellers from all over the world. The bazaars are famous for selling everything that can be had in the Dragon Empire, and anything else that can be brought there, and for those seeking entertainment and rest after sampling the merchandise, there are tea parlours, public baths and theatres. Not to forget the lavish ‘rest houses’, where a long, slow pipe of Moklea’s tobacco can be enjoyed on soft cushions scattered around the low tables.
As the twin suns sink, the night markets open, offering, some say, everything that is best kept away from too much light, as well as some of the best story telling,music and dance performances in the empire.
The governor of Moklea rules this sleepless, vibrant city with an eye to making business easy and profitable, knowing that with a steady flow of taxes, the emperor will be happy and keep his attention on the troublemakers in the south.
Humans and the tentacled, cat eared ‘children of Hefanu’, known as zereshi in Annaen, live in Moklea in separate quarters, as is the law in the lands Overseas. But although walls and gates separate them, in Moklea both species mingle freely in the bazaars, public places and at the night markets, and it is not unusual for customers to seek out craftsmen in the respective other quarter. Marîq Baz, considered by many to be the finest armourer and bladesmith not only in Moklea but in all the empire, is human, but his customers are warriors of both kinds. And some say that he enjoys a reputation among a certain select few of his non-human customers that require very special attention. The kind given by one master to another, and no questions asked.
From the joyful celebration of everything good in life that is Moklea, the Silk Road runs westward towards the city of Kyassa, where it crosses the caravan route that leads south to Aldakar, and on into the Eternal Desert. Along it move creaking waggon trains drawn by sturdy humped buffalos and the caravans of niddjin, the horned, shaggy, long-legged pack and riding beasts of the desert.
As the road continues westward, the long-necked niddjin have it all to themselves. ‘Ugly as a niddjin’, ‘stubborn as a niddjin’ and ‘cunning as a niddjin’ are phrases used all along the Silk Road to describe these enduring beasts, without whom crossing the desert would be impossible. Without the much cursed, much admired niddjin the Dragon Empire would collapse, and the evil smelling beasts with their prehensile black tongues know it. They also have cruel teeth, sharp horns and a well deserved reputation for survival. They can go without water longer than any other living member of the caravan, and they know this, too. They can also eat anything from thorny shrubs, grass and dry rations to carrion. As the saying goes, there is very little a niddjin cannot eat, and less it won’t try. They also never give up, and never forget, and their yellow eyes gleam with intelligence, and some say, sheer, undiluted malice.
Handling the niddjin is best left to the experts, the people of the desert who breed and ride them. Many a Moklean on the Silk Road has wondered whether niddjin and sand folk are part of an ancient conspiracy against the ‘wet toes’ of the coast, as the same shaggy, bleating, hissing nuisance that would bite the hand that feeds it repeatedly and with relish, suddenly rises gracefully for no apparent reason at all to blow lovingly into some sand hopper’s face. Calling the ill-fathered get of a mangy goat out on his superior smirk would, of course, only lead to a cursing contest with the pipe-loving son of a Mokleanni weed whore, who could consider himself lucky that the sun-shrivelled milkdrinker’s dear mother, who crafted this blade with her very own hands, did not see it fit to sink into the bloated sorry gut of a fish whoring dung beetle.
Overseas, cursing is a form of art. And the Mokleans and the tribes people do not like each other. Nor do the Esperekki and the Mokleans, although nobody likes the Esperekki, except maybe for those unmentionables from Kyassa — both the niddjin wrangler and the Moklean trader nod sagely at this, momentarily united in their dislike.
The Golden City, Ehâla, is the seat of the Dragon Emperor’s throne. At the end of the Silk Road, where the road has long ceased to exist and is only a route through the sand, there lies a blue lake. And on its far shore, lies the white walled imperial city, home of dragons.
No one remembers who brought the first dragon eggs to Ehâla, or when, but dragons carry the imperial family during parades, dragon riders arrive at the city bearing important news for the emperor, and leave again to deliver the emperor’s personal orders, and should the High and Mighty One find that one of his governors has displeased him, dragons carry his heralds to investigate. Should his herald meet with an unfortunate accident, the emperor might well send his feared Golden Guard, on the backs of war dragons, to deliver a terrible punishment. Green and golden, dragons circle above Ehâla, enjoying the furnace heat of the twin suns and playing dragon games of chase in the skies. From the Imperial hatcheries comes the fabled Ehâlese silk, spun from the lining of dragon eggs, and traded as far as Naressina.
Dragon silk alone would not account for Ehâla’s wealth, but the city is literally built on a gold mine. The mountains behind the lake of Ehâla are rich in gold, and gold can be found in the lake itself. Sifting is only permissible with an imperial license, and supervised by an imperial officer and his dragon.
In days past, the Dragon Emperors used the legendary wealth of Ehâla to build temples, schools, galleries and the famous Academy of Learning, and turned their isolated desert city into a centre of art and education. The great public library of Ehâla, a gift by the emperor Almadir to his people, is still open at all hours, and to all who come. To a visitor from across the ocean, the revelation that almost everyone can read and at least write a little, comes as a shock. More so, the Ehâlese are proud of their schools of calligraphy. Each year, a contest is held before the emperor, and the winner can look forward to the title of Imperial Scribe.
Similar contests exist to determine the most skilled fighters, who can hope to join the palace guard, and for rewarding the best musicians and artists. Even without official contests, impressing the emperor is the declared (and always worthwhile) goal of many other craftsmen and similarly skilled people in the city. Not the least of whom are the city's magicians, who, it is said, command the powers of the elements.
If there is one journey that even the desert tribes do not like to consider, it is this: South from Ehâla, away from the well-travelled Silk Road, which is never far from an oasis, through the lifeless hot sands that are the Eternal Desert proper, straight on for what feels like an eternity of silence. Many travellers on this route never reach Birri, the first stop. Those who do, water the niddjin and set out further into death, praying to the gods that the local guides they took on in Birri will not lead them into the wastes to rob and kill them. With luck, the majority of the caravan that set out from the Golden City of Ehâla will live to smell the perfume of Shirma… the end of the Incense Trail.
Here, their zereshi guides — humans are a rarity in the Forsaken Quarter — will bow their leave and vanish back into the emptiness under the stars, making for the mountains where their flocks of niddjin and their families wait for their safe return. The traders from Ehâla count themselves blessed and hurry towards the beautiful green valley of the incense trees, which have been tended by the people of Shirma for a thousand years, if the tales are true. White, snakelike dragons nest among the branches, attracted by the heavy scent that fills the air, and sometimes lapping from the precious sap that is collected from the trees and dried. What passes through the dragons’ digestive tract is also collected and dried, and sold as ‘white incense’ for twice its weight in gold. The dragons also make for excellent guardians of the trees, as they do not allow strangers too close to their nests.
Incense from Shirma is traded to Ehâla and from there to everywhere in the world, where it is a luxury for kings and emperors. Finely ground incense is also used as a medicine and spice, and the dried petals of the trees can also be made into a tea, which is said to cause vivid dreams. The people of Shirma consider the trees to be holy, sprung from the footsteps of Lhaarasha, goddess of night, and say that the tea opens the gates to paradise — to which the Esperekki say, that if drunk in certain company, it undoubtedly will. Both figuratively, and rather literally, considering that this is, after all, Shirma. The largest oasis in the Forsaken Quarter. And the traders from Ehâla look over their shoulders as they walk from the friendly welcome given to them by the baz of Shirma, back to their lodgings in the guest house, as darkness grows about them and the shadows lengthen. Hundreds of leagues of open desert lie between them and the safety of their home. Hundreds of empty leagues, and at one point the Incense Trail draws close to that region known as the Maw of the Beast. A lonely part of this sea of sand, marked by strange rock formations. But the teeth the traders are thinking of are not of stone.
A Taste of Blood
Many things are considered unlucky Overseas, like turning your shoes towards the sunset (where the dead go), but few have the sinister connotation of the Maw of the Beast. The storyteller at the Grand Bazaar in Moklea has heard a thing or two, and for more than the usual fee, the old man beckons his listeners closer when the children have been shooed away… Have you never noticed, he asks, that no one wears the true crimson? It is an unlucky colour, you say, the colour of blood and death. He nods, and adds: So it is, and because of Them.
‘They’ come from the Maw of the Beast. ‘They’ come unseen in the night to kill those who have somehow made a powerful enemy, to tear their throats and drink their blood. ‘They’ are the stuff of legends, a secret organisation which recruits zereshi from the Forsaken Quarter's best hunters and warriors, and trains them to become dealers in death. So how, asks a quiet young man at the edge of the crowd, if ‘They’ are never seen, and they are so secret, how do you know that they wear crimson? He smiles, or maybe not, since he is a fanged, tentacled zereshi. There is some nervous laughter, and the old storyteller joins in. What other colour would they wear, he asks, if not that of blood?
True, says the young man, but wouldn’t something plain be more practical?
As you leave the bazaar, you shake your head at the old man’s tales of terror. For a moment, he almost had you afraid! There is the young man again, with his quiet smile. Does he think the stories are true?
Of course they are not, he says, but what is? What is the truth? Is it what we see, or do our eyes deceive us? He bows his farewell. As you start speaking yours, you notice you are talking to empty air.