The markets of which Tuku speaks are a sight, indeed. Here, the sprawling port has left an expanse of nothing, like a grand plaza, with a fountain in the middle - and then someone said “Let there be capitalism”, and there was, and it was good. The free room is crammed full of ramshackle stands, clad in a full-blown visual offensive of colorful cloth to protect shopkeepers against the sun. The cacaphony of murmuring voices is pierced by a few vendors who put their vocal chords on the line to scream out their daily bargains to anyone who will listen. It certainly seems like everything is for sale here, except for peace and quiet.
“So!” Tuku says. “Souvenirs, or information?”
“Well, considering my financial situation, I’m thinking information first is going to be the most prudent course.”
“You are such
a stick-in-the-mud,” Tuku says. “Prudent, pah. But fine, since you saved my ass...”
Tuku leads Aiko through the market stalls, maybe hoping she’ll stop and buy something - no doubt he’d get a cut. Leaning against the central fountain but shaded from the sun is an old man dressed in rags, fast asleep. Tuku gives him a soft kick to startle him awake.
“Whu?” the man babbles. “Tuku, what in the Hells...”
“Wake up, old man,” Tuku says. “My friend has coin and questions.”
“I can fix that,” the old man says, sitting up straight, throwing a glance at Aiko. “Now, why don’t you run and buy me something to drink so the lady and I can conduct our business
“I’ll be back in a bit,” Tuku tells Aiko. “Try not to let him talk you to death.”
As Tuku leaves, the old man fixes Aiko in his gaze - which isn’t easy, as his eyes don’t seem to be quite willing to do so. “Now, what are you looking for?” he asks. “Come on, I don’t have all day.”
“Just how well tapped in to the local goings on are you?” Aiko asks. “Hate to think I was wasting my coin.”
“Little lady,” the old man says, “the whole damn city’s here, every day, shouting over each other to tell me their business. What they don’t say, they act out, thinking I ain’t watching. If it’s happening, I know about it. Ask your questions.”
“I’m looking for a man, a northerner like myself whom I ‘m told most likely came here over 10 years ago. He would have had the bearing of a noble, even though he might have been pasing himself off as a common man.” She proceeds to give an accurate physical description of the Emperor -- not as he would have been known to the public, but as his inner circle would have known him, stripped of the artifice of office and pared down to the man who ruled the nation as you would ride a spirited steed.
The old man starts nodding absent-mindedly in the middle of Aiko’s description, then finally gives her the “Get on with it” hand gesture. What a rude fellow! “Lady, I didn’t figure you for one of those people, but here we are.” He sighs. “Like clockwork, I get one every year, rolls through here asking questions about this guy. Emperor something or another. And I’m gonna tell you what I tell everyone else: get out of this city. Get as far away as you can. I don’t know if he’s here, but I know asking around about him gets people disappeared. And here comes the part where you tell me it’s too important, or that you’re not afraid of a fight, or whatever, but I’m telling you, if you take my advice and leave, you’d be the first, and it’d be real good for my conscience if you’re the last to ever ask about this guy. Don’t feel so good watching all you young’ins get themselves into trouble for that.” He sighs. “I suppose you’ll want to know where all the other guys said they were going next in their search, or am I actually getting through to you?”
Aiko shrugs. “Actually the idea of a fight I don’t need to get involved in terrifies me. But not as much as the idea of one I do. I literally have nothing left to go back to: my enemies have killed everyone I called kin or friend, they have cast me down from the calling I once dedicated myself to. Dying is something I figure I’m due to do pretty soon, and if it happens then I might as well do it this way and hope I piss enough of them off before I go down as I can. Actually succeeding at this point would be gravy.”
The old man raises an eyebrow. “Okay, that’s a new one,” he says. “I usually get the ‘destiny and honor’ speech. Well, however you want to do it is fine by me. Turn around, do you see the cross on that building way down that street?”
A brief visual inspection does indeed reveal a building with a cross mounted on top. A place of worship built by the foreigners; Aiko knows them well from her time in Kargbeck.
“Supposed to have hidden in there at some point,” the old man says. “Don’t see a lot of people coming or going anymore. Nobody who went looking for him there came back to me, so...that’ll be fifty silver, good luck, thank you, come again.” The old man reaches for a bottle of sake fashioned from a squash and takes a swig.
Aiko raises an eyebrow. “I take it that they just turned around and went straight into the Church as soon as you told them about it?”
The old man nods. “A couple even ran. Honestly, it’s been years, do you think a couple of minutes are going to change anything? Young people, pah. Always in such a damn hurry.”
“So they never asked you to tell them what else you knew. Say about that church, and the priests that run it, and which ones haven’t tried to proselytise their strange faith.”
“No, they didn’t,” the old man says. “Like they think I’m just here to point them at that church. But I’m gonna need to see some coin before I say anything more about the church, lady.”
Aiko smiles a touch grimly. “Like I said, I want to take as many of them with me as possible. Now, I could
just run off to that church without giving you a backwards glance or a handout, like I figure most of the others have done. And that’s probably not going to end well for either of us. Assuming, of course, that you’re not simply the bait in a long laid trap. So why don’t you tell me all about what I’m going to end up walking into, because telling me it’s death trap when we both know I’m already essentially in it is worth exactly squat. Now, telling me what I need to get out of it on the other side? Well, that’s worth something. Consider it an incentive, because I’m not going to give you anything right now. You can keep quiet, sure, and you’re not going to get anything more than you’re already getting. Talk to me, and you’ve got at least an even chance of coming out ahead.”
The old man reaches for a crutch and rises - unsteadily - to his feet. He sizes Aiko up, then takes another swig from his bottle. “Lady,” he says, “you better pay up, now.”
(Sense Motive: 1d20+15=25
The old man is clearly past his prime, but seems quite willing to fight. Besides, even if you win, do you want to be known for beating up the elderly?
Aiko moves away, well out of range of both crutch and any particularly fortuitous displays of drunken mis-coordination. “So, a likely fatal visit to the church it is, that neither of us stand to profit from,” she shrugs expansively. “Shame, but such is life. Guess you’ll have to spend another year wondering what might have been.”
“Come back here, you cow!” the old man shouts, but doesn’t seem willing to follow you. You now note that his right foot seems to be missing. “I won’t forget this! You’ll be sorry you cheated me!”
“No. As you said yourself, I’ll be dead, and, as such, beyond all caring. The only one who’ll care is an old man that life has left cowed, who’ll probably be cheated next year too, if the drink and the fear and the shame that he had nothing left inside of him worth the risk of spitting in the face of fate or the 50 silver you’re trying to wheedle out of a dead women hasn’t claimed you first.”
The old man glares, then sits back down in the shade of the fountain. This is Tuku’s cue; he appears from the market with a new squash bottle and sets it down next to the old man before following Aiko.
“That was a pretty loud business transaction,” Tuku says.
Aiko seems genuinely disappointed at the old man’s failure to rise to the bait. “Salvage jobs, especially failed ones, are never exactly quiet,” she answers as the pair move off. “What’s the story with his foot?”
“Gangrene,” Tuku says. “The surgeon had to take if off. He’s been a drunk layabout since.”
“Ah. What can you tell me about the church?”
“Not too much,” Tuku says. “Foreign traders hang out there every seventh day, when they ring loud bells. The priests keep to themselves for the most part. To tell you the truth, I’ve never been inside.”
“Have many of the locals been swayed to the gaijin faith?”
“A couple, I guess,” Tuku says. “Nobody I know, though.”
“How long until the next gathering?”
“Should be tomorrow,” Tuku says. “Um, Shimura...it’s not that I don’t trust you or anything, but you’re not going to stiff me on my fee for the tour, are you?”
“Only if I’m unavoidably killed.”
“Yeaaaaaah,” Tuku says. “I’m gonna have to ask for my money up front.”
“I’m not surprised you’ve not been inside there, he of little faith,” Aiko jokes.
“What, I’ve totally got faith!” Tuku protests. “I go to the temple and light the sticks and everything. I mean, when I have the time. I don’t get paid to pray, you know.”
“No. You have to be a priest to do that.”
“But if I was a priest, who would guide you?” Tuku says. “See? I’m just playing my part in the eternal path of the Heavens. So I won’t have you complain about my lack of faith.” He smiles. “Besides, you’re a manipulative tightwad. I’ve got to make sure we both still know what you owe me when we’re done talking.”
“It’s 10 silver against your continued good health, isn’t it?”
“It’s 10 silver, and if you’re fishing for a discount, forget it!”
“Well, we can’t have your life being worth anything can we,” Aiko teases, poking out her tongue.
“Careful, Shimura,” Tuku says. “The last girl who teased me like that is still stuck with me. Now, are you sure you don’t need anything else from the market?”
Aiko shakes her head. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Well then!” Tuku says. “The next part of the tour are Shinju’s famous thermal baths...if you’re interested.”