This city, the capital of the realm of Zamora, is the bastion of a culture alien to the Hyborian nations of the West. The streets of the city burst with life. Garish nobility followed by pandering sycophants, wealthy aristocrats carried on high-borne litters, exotic merchants haggling with thrifty buyers, hungry soldiers parading forth in black armour, greedy mercenaries looking for fortune and glory, all jostle with diseased paupers huddling in filthy alleys, odorous livestock herded for frenzied consumption and contaminated rats surrounded by a swarm of flies in the streets of this ancient city. Over the teeming streets hang odoriferous miasmas; sweet smells rising from countless ovens, malodorous incense burning in bizarre temples and the cloying stench of local industries. The unending surge of life brings an eternity of clamour blaring with it; clanging gongs and banging bells resounding from distinctive temples, laughing children and shouting parents playing in littered streets, bleating sheep and lowing cattle booming in fruitless outrage, foreign crowds and local throngs pushing through narrow alleys, shouting criers and screaming servants bellowing out unheeded announcements and lamenting mourners and begging cripples sharing their pitiful woes.
In Shadizar, it is cheaper to dispose of an incriminating corpse than to buy a horse to escape from the law. The sweltering city is a den of vice and sin. Shameful things done behind closed doors in other places are proudly done publicly and openly in Shadizar the Wicked. The most horrible acts of man can find a patron or a supplier in this unholy city. Murders are taken as a matter of course and given only the most perfunctory of investigations, if any at all. Theft is such a routine of life in Shadizar it does not warrant much mention in the discussions of the denizens, nor do the authorities care to do much about it. A man does not walk unarmed in the city, day or night, and a woman is advised to do the same.
Shadizar, with a population that averages 38,215 permanent inhabitants and averaging over 60,000 people on any given day, is a dangerous city. Predators hunt prey and, if they are not careful, become prey themselves by even more powerful predators. Scavengers lurk in the shadows, ready to strip the figurative carcasses of a predator’s hunt or the abandoned property of the prey. The drunken king cares only that none usurp his authority even as he allows sorcerers and priests to manipulate his every decision. Loud and boisterous, this is not the city for those in dire need of peace of quiet but for those who desire to carouse until unconsciousness, Shadizar is a veritable paradise.
The maul of Shadizar is known as the Desert. It is not called that because it is sandy and hot, but because nothing worthwhile comes from there. The sharp smells of damp sewage, the reeking odours of unwashed masses, the gamey stench of animal pens and the overpowering tangs of food and alcohol all compete for attention as one walks down the winding mazes of the Desert’s alleys and streets. Death and disease are evident wherever one looks. Rotting beggars, stricken with venereal diseases and worse, sit beside murdered corpses, oblivious to their neighbours’ fate. Pigs, chickens, dogs and cats run underfoot, as do the ragged youth of the district. The air is thick with the fumes of cooking fires and chimneys. Noise is constant. Screaming, singing, carousing and laughing all vie against the omnipresent bell ringing from the prophets and temples as well as the noisy beat of the craftsmens’ hammers.
Just two among the many denizens of the Desert, Danyo and Darius made their way to Ninochka’s Bordello. This brothel is a ramshackle affair and has two floors plus an attic. On the ground floor is the main parlour where the whores are chosen. The kitchens and a few rooms are also located on the ground floor. Above are the sleeping rooms. Crumbling taverns sit on either side of the brothel, providing music through the thin walls of the seamy whorehouse. Across the street a food stall where slabs of roast pig and baked lizards mounted on long sticks are sold to those who are hungry, but want to spend most of their money on sex or alcohol. Within, sleek girls with round hips, soft breasts and willing dispositions allow any who walk into the building to play with them as desired, willing to explore any excess or taste. The prostitutes are young, but they all have a tired, world-weary look about them, doubtless gained from long nights spent as outlets for the debauches of foreign men.
Upon entering the brothel, the two found themselves in the parlour. Several girls in varying states of dress (or undress) lounge about, some talking to (and being toyed with by) potential customers. A beefy Kushite bouncer named Ubah watches the room like a gargoyle as the pair make their way to the bar. Along the bar, a collection of individuals converse in hushed tones over drinks. Some of these individuals appear to be thugs, others appear to be soldiers soldiers, and two are richly attired. The group is accompanied by one of the house’s girls. Brushing politely past the group, the pair lift the purses of the richly dressed men with an unnoticed and delicate touch. As Danyo and Darius reach the bar, they are greeted by the pretty Zamoran bartender who introduces herself as Tamara. Darius orders wine, telling Tamara he’d be happy with whatever vintage is the least watered down and willingly paying the slightly higher fee from the silvers in his newly acquired purse. Danyo decides to play the bumpkin. Pulling a single coin from the purse he had only just lifted, Danyo explains that this is all he has in the world. Tamara’s eyes light up at the sight, and it is only then that Danyo notices that the coin is gold!
While this exchange is going on, the pair hear bits and pieces of the conversation which the other group at the bar is trying so desperately to have without being overheard. There is talk about a ritual and a sacrifice and a secret temple before the louder one of the group is hushed by his compatriots. While what little they have heard arouses their suspicions, it also motivates them to avoid the group entirely. Darius and Danyo are small time thieves, and this sounds dangerously beyond them. They find little time to think about this before their coins garner attention. The gold coin which Danyo produced in the midst of his bumpkin routine easily attracts attention far beyond his plans. A pair of prostitutes from Khitai approach him, offering their attentions. Unsure himself whether it is real or simply part of his bumpkin act, Danyo sputters that that single coin was all that he had and that he cannot afford their company. Without looking up from his drink, Darius sighs, “You must excuse my cousin. He is a bit…simple.” With the help of Tamara, Danyo manages, after several minutes, to convince the girls that he is not the worthy they seek. Tamara quietly offers herself to Danyo, and the surprised cutpurse accepts. With a smile, Tamara leaves the bar for a few moments to find a girl to cover for her for a while, returning to collect Danyo and lead him upstairs.
Darius did his utmost to suppress a grin while watching the display. He had not managed to pass unnoticed himself. While his use of coin was far less obvious than Danyo’s, it did catch the attention of Harasym, one of the richly dressed individuals in the other group at the bar. Whispering into the ear of the raven-haired girl with the group, his eyes fall upon Darius. The small girl nods her head and sinuously approaches Darius. She is a small girl, standing only five feet, four inches in height. Her raven-coloured hair cascades over her shoulders and down to her waist, save for a topknot of hair she affects to keep her bangs out her eyes. Darius cannot help but observe that the raven-haired beauty has dark, almost black eyes, long limbs, small, pert breasts and a small waist. Introducing herself as Vilena, she slide up against the thief and asks if he would like to buy her a drink. While he can see that this is clearly a trap of some kind, Darius is still not certain of the purpose. Clearly the richly arrayed individual (who Darius just noticed is wearing brigandine and is armed with at least a short sword beneath his expensive cloak) is in charge of the group. This moustached and beardless figure was unusually tall. His light eyes, sickly foreign, showed the cold arrogance which foretold and easy brutality. This was not a man that Darius wished to cross. Darius almost regretted lifting the man’s purse only moments earlier. Almost. If he found himself facing this man, Darius knew that he would have to do everything he could to kill him, or else he would be killed himself. Smiling at Vilena, he signals for another drink and says, “What man could refuse such a beauty?” The smile this elicits from Vilena is surprisingly genuine. As they finish their drinks, Darius and Vilena move towards the stairs and proceed to the rooms above with unspoken agreement. Unable to resist the temption to practice his art, Darius deftly lifts the purse of a fat Corinthian who brushes past him in the opposite direction on the narrow stairwell.