Monday, 3 August 2015

Districts of the Wicked City 3: The Great Bazaar

A century ago, before its name was lost, the place that is now the Wicked City was a great centre of trade. Every caravan that passed along the road, from west to east or east to west, stopped at its caravanserais and restocked its supplies in the city's hundred markets; and down to the city came traders from many nations - nomads from the steppe, hunters from the taiga, great merchants from the golden cities of the distant south. Wealth poured through the city like a river. Its streets heaved with merchandise; and its merchant-princes built great palaces to advertise the extent of their fortunes, and raised great temples to show due gratitude to their open-handed gods.

Well: now the times are changed, and the temples lie in ruins, and the palaces have all been looted to provide rich furnishings for the towers of the Cobweb. The population of the city has fallen by more than half since the Wicked King came to power, and much of the trade once controlled by its merchants has now fallen into other hands. But trade still goes on there; and in the shadow of those towers, the lamps still burn late into the night over the hundred markets, ever-busy with buying and selling. Nothing is banned in the Wicked City: not drugs, not weapons, not poisons, not stolen goods, not slaves. Anything can be purchased for a high enough price.

Merchants of the Great Bazaar. Painting by Amadeo Preziosi.

The Great Bazaar is the largest of the markets. Around it are the enormous foundries where smiths and artificers labour, night and day, to manufacture the fantastical clockwork machineries for which the city has become famous; and in the square between them, illuminated by the hellish light cast by their ever-burning furnaces, the great merchants of the Wicked City ply their trade. It is the heart of the city's economy, and the streets which surround it are the least ruinous in the whole city, packed with clerks and traders and porters and stevedores and craftsmen and guardsmen and the great swarms of lawyers who compete to turn the unjust and often contradictory laws of the city to the greatest advantage of their clients. Here are the opium factories of the serpent folk, and the great brothels presided over by the Murder Harlots; here are the workshops of the Steel Aspirants, who will manufacture any kind of war machine, however deadly, for clients capable of bankrolling their hunger for ever more extreme forms of clockwork body modifications. (Their high priestess is basically just a head in a tank, these days. Not a glass tank: a battle tank. It would be inadvisable to interrupt one of her sermons.) To these markets come thieves from many lands, looking to sell their treasures in a place where no-one will care if they are stolen; and to them also come villains and addicts and perverts of all descriptions, looking to buy goods and services which no other state would ever allow to be sold.

Foundries of the Wicked City. Painting by John Ferguson Weir.

In these streets the statues of the Wicked King are ubiquitous, standing on every street corner, watching and listening for sedition; but commonplace corruption and dishonesty are, it seems, beneath their notice. Anyone who speaks against the Wicked King within earshot of one of his statues can expect to be dragged off by the secret police a few hours later, but every other form of criminality blossoms around them, regarded by their stone eyes with benign neglect. Order (of a sort) is provided by the King's Men, who ensure that business is able to proceed in relative peace as long as everyone pays the right bribes. In some areas they sub-contract the job out to local criminal gangs. No-one notices the difference.

PCs might end up at the Great Bazaar because they have something they need to buy or sell which cannot be obtained or disposed of anywhere else; they might come there on the trail of a thief trying to fence her latest score, or a friend who has been captured and sold into slavery, or an addict looking for his fix. The Great Bazaar district also represents the single greatest concentration of clockworking knowledge in the world, so it might be necessary to go there to get a particularly complex bit of clockwork technology identified or repaired. Its frenetic, 24-hour economy should be quite a shock to characters used to the quiet of the steppe or the desert; the King's Men will harass them for bribes whenever they think they can get away with it, the serpent men will offer them 'free samples' of a whole range of horribly addictive chemicals, the Murder Harlots will try to empty their pockets and then entrap them into making seditious statements where the statues can hear them (because they think that sort of thing is hilarious), and the district's traders and criminals will attempt to take advantage of their ignorance at every turn. For PCs who can learn to swim in these treacherous waters, however, the potential rewards are great: not just wealth and technology, but also introductions to the families of the Cobweb, with whom the merchants and gangsters of the Bazaar take care to remain on excellent terms.

Just don't sign anything. Ever. Especially if lawyers are involved.

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