The following treatise doth represent an excerpt from documents found in the personal study of the late respected Doctor Thadeaus P. Q. Molnar, E.D., M.Q.S., K.Q.S. It is your servant's humble hope in presenting these writings to add a small contribution to the great corpus which doth survive the esteemed Doctor. My learned reader will undoubtedly note that the discourse below narrowly parallels Doctor Molnar's published account, in his Voyages about Midsea: Being an Investigation and Introspection into the Culture and Geography found Thereupon, of his travels around Midsea and, in particular, his visit to the realm of Taltheran (amongst myriad other destinations graced by his wisdom).
However, the observant reader will remark certain divergences between this treatise -- being his original notes (indeed, I do have the original document, in his very hand, before me!) inscribed in situ, as it were -- and the version promulgated some years before his much lamented passing two years gone by this Autumn. The variances principally pertain to the frankness with which he doth treat Taltheran society, particularly with regard to the Wizards Guild. It doth seem self-evident that the venerated Doctor did entertain hopes of another excursion to Midsea, and realized (being, as we well know, a man of overarching intellectual dexterity) that publication of his travelogue in its unedited form would likely render any return to Tal -- one of his favorite cities, if I may venture to postulate such a judgement -- a permanent, possibly fatal, event: such is the reputed power of the Wizards Guild.
Your humble scribe, however, holds no such ambitions, and consequently no such inhibitions. Therefore, I have herein faithfully transcribed the noble Doctor's notes verbatim et literatim, adding only such flourishes and visual enhancements as my clumsy quill can attain. With respect,
R. Intopci, Areneth (Celpalar), 1402
A fair wind propelled the "Sea's Grace" into the harbour at Tal, capital of the trading nation of Taltheran. The journey from Elanbur has been easy to the point of boring: the Northern shore of Midsea offers little to relieve the eye, consisting predominantly of dry, mostly featureless, coast. The touch of green on the horizon ahead which signaled the first approach of the Taltheran coast was welcome.
Due to the situation of the city, which I will detail momentarily, one does not see Tal itself until after first clearing the harbour mouth. My first impression of the city was of a jumble of white, sunwashed buildings, mounting one upon the next up the landward side of the great bluff which protects the city from the sea. The seemingly haphazard roofing is primarily of light colored reddish or brown tile, presumably derived from river clay.
The bluff itself is notable, in that it is the reason and cause of Tal's excellent natural harbour. The bluff is a curving geographic feature, concave to the South West, which (in a region of gently undulating fields and dells) rises uncharacteristically abruptly. This obstruction creates a sort of natural amphitheatre, which cradles the city, and also absorbs the impact of the main thrust of the Tal River, hollowing out a deep sheltered bay for mooring ships once they navigate the rivermouth south of the bluff.
(That the city and the river share the same name is at first disconcerting. However, context usually makes usage clear, and it does not prove to be a great hindrance.)
To the immediate South of the harbour stretches the Tal River delta, such as it is -- a marshy treacherous area criss-crossed by brackish channels. I'm told by Captain Aivell that, if the wind is wrong, the city can get a blast of foetid air which is not at all pleasant. Fortunately, he says, it rarely lasts, the prevailing breezes varying seasonally between Westerly and Easterly. (At that point in our conversation, his duties betook him elsewhere; but I hope to obtain additional information about the climate during my stay.)
It was dusk before a boat was made available to transfer the supercargo -- consisting solely of myself and my possessions -- to the shore. In the mean time, I had ample time to study the city from the harbour. My impression of a disordered cacophony of buildings persisted, but I was able to sort out some distinct elements.
The quay itself, backed apparently by ranked warehouses, is similarly disordered, but with a sense of purpose. The brisk activity present notwithstanding, however, it is clear that the facilities provided are intended to service a much greater number than the few vessels moored in the harbour or at the docks.
At the other extreme of the city, at the top of the Eastern aspect of the bluff, is the ex-Ducal Palace, now residence of the King. In the wake of the Fall of the Cedonian Empire, the ascension of the house of Milarandos to the Kingship (from their former position of Cedonian Duke) appears to have gone virtually unchallenged, and Taltheran is generally acknowledged -- tacitly, if not overtly -- as an independent power. Indeed, the South of Midsea was so devastated by the Ice Demons and the consequent retaliation by the Dragons of Mir that there are none to the South able to contest Taltheran's independence, and few North of Midsea who care, for the nonce. Most folk, from what I've gathered thus far, are simply glad to see Taltherani traders keeping goods moving and some measure of communication active.
In any event, the palace is a dominating complex, occupying a goodly portion of the ridge, and separated from the masses below by an imposing wall. Size aside, though, the Palace buildings distinguish themselves little from the typical Taltherani architecture.
Between the waterfront and the Palace, moreover, there is little to define different regions of the city to a stranger's eye other than perhaps a slightly dingier and more unkempt look towards the lower and landward reaches of the city.
My trip via pullchair from the docks to the dwelling of my prospective host did little to clarify my view of the city. The one thing which struck me as we navigated a variety of twisty blank-walled lanes in the half-light was the bustle and sociality of the open squares we passed periodically.
My arrival at my host's residence gave me a clearer understanding of Taltherani architecture. But my candle is guttering; more on that tomorrow.
Reports of the hospitality of the Taltherani people have not been exaggerated. My host has been to great pains to see to my comfort, providing his best bedroom, excellent food, his own person as a guide for the day, and a generally convivial atmosphere. I do not believe this is solely due to my letters of introduction -- it is my understanding that my host, a respected merchant, is only a business acquaintance of my referrer, who in turn I myself know only through a mutual, albeit close, friend.
It seems hospitality is an integral part of life for the Taltherani. As my host guided me about the streets today, pointing out various points of interest, I noted even relatively minor transactions, such as the purchase of a kettle, include an offer of a cup of tea by the proprietor.
For a trading hub, it is surprising how much of the city is comprised of narrow lanes and alleys. Rather than wagons or carts, one is more likely to burdens being born up the often-steep ways by human porters.
The city would doubtless be unbearably claustrophobic were it not for the countless squares and plazas which are scattered seemingly at random throughout the city. These are magnets of activity, with shops, foodstalls, and open-air taverns and teahouses lending a pleasant bustle. The squares often bear a name reflecting the dominant business, such as Upper Candlestickmakers Square, or Butchers Square.
The air is alive with smells, including various incenses, food aromas (often pungent and spicy here), sun-heated brick and stucco, and the smell of dried herbs, all with the undercurrent (if the reader will forgive a small pun) of sewage and waste which are found in most large cities.
The day's activity starts early, but as is common in warm climes, stops for two or three chimes in the early afternoon, resuming as the sun lowers to the West. The main meal of the day is taken around noon, and today consisted of an excellent -- if highly seasoned -- baked fish (called Tarhit, a local delicacy according to my host), served with a stew of beans and other vegetables, and accompanied by a glass of an excellent local wine. Bread is consumed at every meal, even breakfast!
The late afternoon appears to be the time for snacking, and the street stalls offer a bewildering variety to choose from. One innocuous little cake I tried was so spicy I was unable to eat it, but instead rushed gasping to a nearby tavern for something to clear my palate -- much to the detriment of my dignity and the amusement of the passers-by. In any event, the meal schedule is rounded out by a light repast taken shortly before retiring.
Which reminds me that I promised some commentary on the residential architecture of the Taltherani. Their love of plazas extends to their homes. As I understand it, my host's dwelling is typical. You enter through a nondescript gate in an otherwise almost featureless wall (other than a couple small windows higher up).
On entering and traversing a short passage, however, one finds oneself in a charming and carefully maintained patio-garden, cooled in some magical way by a small fountain which -- in addition to a spout of water -- emits a cooling mist which permeates and refreshes the enclosure. On all sides are doors leading to various parts of the dwelling, the whole having an open and welcoming feel to it.
Doors and windows are often left open to the air, and the patio is conduit as well as focus for the activity of the home. The bit of overhanging roof around the periphery presumably offers shelter and dry passage in the event of inclement weather, but the patio is otherwise open to the elements.
It is here that guests are received, meals taken (weather permitting), and socializing performed. I must confess, I have thus far found this city much to my liking (spicy food notwithstanding) and look forward to exploring more on the morrow.
It is small wonder the Taltherani are successful traders: they seem to take great delight in haggling and deal-making of all sorts. Even the smallest transaction is the subject of expressive bargaining in spite of the fact that both parties appear to know before they start what the eventual price will be!
More substantial deals involve protracted, animated discussion, sometimes, it appears, including at least one meal, over which the protagonists may question each others' judgement or product, discuss the weather, insult each others' lineage, comment on politics, deplore the other's lack of character, bemoan overpricing, all without apparent lasting effect: once the deal is done, wrists are clasped, backs slapped, to all appearances as amiable and well meaning as if never a harsh word were uttered!
And yet ... I confess myself uncertain as to which of these facades is the more true -- like their dwellings, I begin to suspect the Taltherani do not reveal their true selves to casual enquiry.
Another thing that struck me as I wandered the streets and squares was how few goods of any sophistication appear to be of local construct. Conversely, I was amazed at the variety of imported wares available. I saw a Celpalan wood-worked chair which not only was exquisite by any standard of my homeland, but moreover bore the mark of a friend and contemporary whose work I had not imagined had strayed far beyond our hometown in Celpalar, much less to a far corner of Midsea. By what circuitous route it got here I can only speculate.
Works of similar quality can be found from other regions; but try as I might I could find naught of local manufacture save a few simple items such as candles or basic smithware. (And for the latter, I imagine much of the metal must be imported -- I have not heard that Taltheran was rich in ores even before it contracted after the Fall.)
The Taltherani seem to take great pride in being able to evaluate, acquire and own articles of both practical and artistic merit. However, responses vary from amused to contemptuous when I enquire after local artisans of quality. It is strange indeed that a people who value quality so much would have so little regard for the practitioners!
It is clear that they do not hoard their wealth solely in gold and silver (though there must be plenty of these metals accumulated too, to back a strong currency in an ore-poor region); rather, they take pride in accumulating items rare and precious. The statue in my host's patio fountain, for example, is I am certain an expensive stonework from the Tavar Mountains, which must have been difficult to transport in addition to being costly to acquire. Almost without exception, the rest of his furnishings (for he is the patriarch and heir to one or Taltheran's foremost merchant families) are rare imports from around Midsea and beyond.
Today again I spent much of my time on foot, exploring the city. This led to a couple of less pleasant, but revealing, experiences. The first transpired as I was stepping away from a conversation with a fruit vendor. I suddenly found myself gasping for breath, as if struck hard in the stomach, and paused my stride. In the same moment, the fruitseller grabbed me by the arm and jerked me back to the shelter of his cart, hushing my protest with a nod at the rust-robed figure into whose path I was about to step.
I had seen numerous similarly-garbed individuals as I've explored the city, and assumed they were members of some religious sect. All wear a variety of amulets and emblems strung around their necks in various quantities. Besides these, their garb is uniform, except that some wear white sashes about their waists instead of a sash matching the robe color. A particular oddity is that only those with the white sashes have their faces exposed.
After I got my wind back and the hooded figure had swept by without a pause, I pressed my erstwhile interlocutor for an explanation of why he restrained me so vigorously, which he reluctantly gave. These robed figures, it turns out, are not priests at all, but rather members of the Wizards Guild. I had heard reports of this Guild, which has been a factor in the city for generations, but had not appreciated the measure of control and fear they inspire.
Crossing a member of the Guild, my companion explained in so many words, is generally regarded as a life or death proposition. Even obstructing a Wizard in the street is perilous. All folk give them a wide berth, a fact which I later confirmed through observation: a Wizard in the street walks as if surrounded by a bubble some four or five spans across, into which no one intrudes willingly.
No magic in the city is performed except by the Guild. The intrude into all facets of city life. No business is started without a divination by a member of the Guild, no significant venture undertaken. Much of this, I infer, is not by desire on the part of the citizens, but rather a reluctance to challenge the Guild's power. None of the Guild's services are free, either -- although there are no set fees as such. Instead, one 'donates' in exchange for the Guild's services, trying to balance the cost incurred with the risk of disfavor should the donation be too trivial. Wealthy individuals can obtain special comforts, such as my host's cooling-mist fountain; but conversely, due to their more prominent position in society, must take greater care to avoid affronting the Wizards.
The Guildhall, which I revisited after my encounter (having passed nearby my first day but not given it proper inspection), is a massive, ornate structure, decorated uncharacteristically for Taltherani architecture with elaborate swirls and arcane symbols on roof and walls. Precious metals and other materials appeared to be used in the decoration. The massive doorway in the middle of the wall fronting on the street stands wide open to darkness inside, as if daring the rare passerby to enter. No one does, however, except for the intermittent stream of Guild Members, especially apprentices (for such I'd been informed the white-sashed, barefaced individuals were). (It had been explained to me that only the apprentices interact with people outside the Guild. It is they who make arrangements, deliver messages, and do scheduling.)
As I stood watching, one of these apprentices emerged and strode straight up to me. "You will accompany me," he instructed, and turned his back to return towards the entrance.
Although I had a curiosity to see the inside of this edifice, I liked not his attitude, and responded to his back: "You may find a better response should you try courtesy."
He turned back to me unperturbed. Rather, he seemed slightly pleased. "You will come," he repeated, this time as if stating a fact. He fingered something in his sleeve, and then paused, as if waiting. Moments later, I felt an itchy feeling on the soles of my feet, and then found myself, to my horror, being frog-marched by an invisible force towards the gaping black maw of the Guildhall.
I won't bore you with the details of my sojourn within the Guildhall, except to say that I saw nothing other than a couple short dark passages and an unlit room, and spent a considerable amount of time explaining my presence and my purpose to a disembodied voice which commanded responses by causing a burning pain to various parts of my anatomy when I was less than adequately forthcoming.
Eventually I satisfied my inquisitor that I was neither mage, nor spy for magicians, and that my purpose in town was merely as a tourist and culturist, and I re-emerged blinking into the early afternoon light, feeling both worn and disillusioned by this brush with a darker side of Taltherani life.
For many religions of my acquaintance, this day of the week would be regarded as a holy day. However, the Taltherani don't seem much bothered by the prospect. It is true that most shops are closed, but many stalls and drinking establishments opened after the afternoon Rest as on a normal day.
I did see Taltherani attending shrines and paying various homages, but it struck me as being more a matter of going through motions. There was a brief ceremony at the small shrine in my host's house -- attended by about a third of the household -- to pay respects to the Family's patron god, Sialg. Perhaps inevitably, Sialg is a patron of commerce, along with two or three other similar patrons also worshiped by the Taltherani.
There are a variety of religions practiced in Tal. Perhaps because the Taltherani do not take their religion so seriously, they have less difficulty accepting a diversity of beliefs.
For myself, I spent much of the day in contemplation and reverence, as is my custom.
Today, feeling a need to get out of Tal, if only briefly, after my experiences of day before yesterday, I prevailed upon my host to take me on an excursion into the country. This he was glad to do, and we set out forthwith.
On our way out of the city to the west, we passed through a portion of the city I had not visited in my wanderings. If I thought the upper portion of the city was contorted, it was nothing compared to this maze of alleys and passages. The area is so overbuilt as to be without daylight in many areas, and the folk are obviously poor and struggling. Many eyed our fancy conveyances with a narrow look which made me uncomfortable, but we passed without incident.
On the first stretch of elevated flat land west of the bluff is a sprawling caravansery. Much of this complex has gone to ruin, but my host explained that in its heyday this was a major terminus for trade to the north and northeast. It is little used now, with only the occasional caravan making its way to nearby destinations.
Trade to the west (such as it is), conversely, goes by way of the Tal River. The river meanders slowly up through flatlands and low hills, and is reportedly navigable for some 30 or 40 leagues before it widens out into an area of shallow rapids. This location, my host explained, is the site of Pran, the second-largest city in Taltheran. This city used to be a major nexus for travel to all points west of Midsea. Goods were portaged around the shallows and carried by river many leagues further into the hinterland, or were assembled into caravans at facilities on either side of the river, and forwarded by land.
However, as with Tal, trade was severely curtailed during the latter years of the Cedonian Empire due to political infighting, corruption which siphoned off funds, and a general decadence. Consequently, my host says, there has been no commerce further west than the middle reaches of the Tal.
This is a matter of no small import to the Taltherani. They regard themselves as master traders as a matter of destiny, and now that they have their independence, there is much talk of a future in which Taltheran regains its position as the trade capital of Midsea and beyond. It will presumably take a few years, perhaps a generation or so, before existing trade routes are consolidated and stabilized, but judging from the fire in my host's eyes as he expounds on the subject, Taltheran has great ambitions and the drive to achieve them.
As my host described this vision, we traversed a delightful countryside. Taltheran is not lush, but it is fertile, and a variety of crops and orchards were visible, including grape vines, olive groves, oranges and other citrus trees, and various grains and vegetables. Not all is cultivated, however, and the plots spread out as we gained distance from Tal.
Scattered among the fields are various small towns and villages, usually perched on a hilltop and circumscribed by a defensive wall. My host remarked that the towns enjoy a fair degree of independence, often being more closely associated with the major merchant families of the region (who, likely as not, either maintain a house in Tal, or now actually live there fulltime) than with the crown. The walls have been used variously to repel inter-town raids, bandits, and were most recently strengthened in anticipation of goblin raids during the Fall of Cedonia.
We entered one of the larger towns for lunch, and I found it to be similar to Tal, albeit on a smaller scale. The main gate follows on to a street which winds its way to a large central square. This is fronted on by a variety of largish buildings including a pair of manor houses, a temple, and a Wizards Guildhall, but is also crowded with shops and other vendors. Off the main street and the square, lanes and alleys twist away into the dimness.
We returned by the river, my host having arranged for a boat to meet us. The banks of the river are quite swampy, but the main channel, although muddy in appearance, seems navigable enough. In addition to barges poling their way up or down river, there are a variety of fishermen, some setting traps, others using nets or rods. The most notable thing about the river, however, is the insects, which seem to descend in biting swarms around dusk. I was grateful when we pulled out onto the harbor and left the worst of the pests behind.
Enroute I learned a bit more about Taltheran's climate. The hot, dry weather I've been experiencing during my stay is typical of the Taltheran Summer. The heat gets even more intense as the summer progresses. Spring and Autumn are milder with warm days and cool nights. Winter has cool days and cold nights, but frosts are infrequent, and snow is virtually unknown. Rain is unusual during the Summer, but comes and goes during the rest of the year.
Today being my last day in Taltheran, my host took me with him to a session of the Merchants Council. Along with the King and the Wizards Guild, this institution is one of the major powers in Taltheran. Although I did not understand much detail about the particular subjects overtly under discussion -- being a review of trade arrangements between some merchants based in Pran, and also a discussion of whose olives would be included in a forthcoming caravan and in what proportion -- I found the experience fascinating.
Although we spent the whole of the morning at the Council, the actual public discussion can not have amounted to more than an hour's time. The balance of the session was taken up with quiet discussions in corners, messengers slipping back and forth, and deals being made, brokered, and broken. This is a strange organization, where the alliances and enmities seem to be constantly shifting, and the art of outflanking your rival without ever seeming to oppose him is an art form.
The King did not put in an appearance today -- though my host assured me his messengers and informants were present and active -- but apparently he not infrequently does. In this forum, however, it would seem he struggles to be more than just another power broker trying to protect and further his interests. The Wizards Guild is also, of course, not disinterested. I have only had a hint of Taltherani politics, but I suspect this is a treacherous morass best avoided by the faint of heart!
In any event, I am now back on board the "Sea's Grace" for the night. We sail at first light, assuming the favorable morning breeze for navigating the river mouth arrives as expected. I look forward to returning to Taltheran one day. My stay here has been a fascinating study in contrasts and contradictions, which I would like to explore further.