Golden Huzuz. Home of the Grand Caliph. Gem of Zakhara. City of Delights, where all can excel and succeed.
So they say. You wish you felt that way. Today, it does not look like Huzuz will be particularly forgiving.
It’s not the hardship that you will inevitably be facing that has you thinking this way. No, youâ€™ve been through a lot and are confident you can face anything.
No, it’s not yourself you worry about, nor your fellow adopted siblings.
Samnit bint Jarella and her husband Johanin took you in when you were at your lowest: an unwanted orphan with nowhere else to go. Knowing of Huzuzâ€™s reputation, you made your way there, hoping to find opportunity. You didn’t, not really, but you found something better: Auntie and Uncle.
Auntie Sam and Uncle Jojo, the elderly couple who had been married as soon as it was legal. Whose Fate had been to never have children of their own. Who embraced that fate to instead look after the abandoned and unwanted. They had made a lifetime of taking in orphans, loving them as their own children and seeing them enjoy the opportunities Huzuz had to offer, to make something of themselves.
While Auntie had some skill in pottery, especially in the creation of heroic figurines, it was Uncle Jojo who was the breadwinner. While a kind, loving man, and generous to a fault, Jojo was always after a way to get rich quick. That he should ever turn away an orphan in need was not to be considered, so instead he worked tirelessly to make sure they had the funds for their sometimes enormous family. He was a labourer of some skill, and most people knew of the kind of family he and Auntie had built and so tried to hire him as much as possible. It was hard not to like Uncle Jojo.
As he got older, though, it became increasingly difficult for him to work. Merchants started to regretfully hire him less often. Some continued out of charity, but Uncle Jojo sensed it and would not hear of it. As a result, he would use what money he had to make investments in merchant caravans, hoping to make a profit from their business.
It rarely worked out. Most times, Johanin would be lucky enough to make his initial investment back, but usually little more. He began to look for more dangerous caravanserai to invest in, such as those headed to the Ruined Kingdoms in the south east, or the sea lanes of the Crowded Sea. It never worked out. The Jarella family didnâ€™t have two dinars to rub together.
Maybe thatâ€™s why he entered into that crazy contract with Gogol al-Misal, the merchant. Gogol was known as a â€œprocurer of talentâ€ which meant he dealt in slaves. While slavery is perfectly legal in Zakhara, Huzuz is known to be the most enlightened regarding slavery; the story of the Grand Caliph in his early days as a prince buying a slave only to free him (and become a military advisor later on) is a well known one and the people of Huzuz try to imitate their beloved leader. As such, there is no official slave market in Huzuz.
In practical terms, this just meant there was no real competition for Gogolâ€™s business. Truth be told, there was also plenty of demand, enlightenment notwithstanding. Not that anyone in Huzuz would dream of mistreating a slave, and certainly not one procured by Gogol; the finest cooks, meticulous gardeners and enticing dancers were always found by him.
Uncle Jojo also thought he had something going for him: one night he awoke from a dream, certain that the familyâ€™s financial woes would be over. He knew of a caravan that would return from the World Pillar Mountains laden with treasures never before seen. He knew that if he invested in that caravan, his family would be set for life.
But one needs money to invest, and he had none. While everyone was kindly predisposed to Uncle Jojo, no one wanted to lose their money on such a foolâ€™s errand; everyone knew those were the lands of the Yikaria, and few had returned from there. Uncle Jojo dismissed such fears and even volunteered to do labour on the caravan himself, so confident was he.
Confident about the journey, but desperate about the money, Jojo approached Gogol and under what circumstances Fate only knows, drew up the contract that was no hanging like an executionerâ€™s scimitar over their heads. While it was filled with legalese that only the wisest of qadi could navigate, the end result was that if Gogol was not paid his loan back with interest before a year had passedâ€¦
â€¦â€Johanin and all members of the Jarella family shall present themselves to be sold as slaves to pay off the debt owing.â€
Now, Huzuz was known to be one of the few cities that did not have the practice of enslaving people who could not pay their debts. Gogol and Uncle Jojo knew this, which is why the contract was drawn up to specifically allow this. Several qadi verified the contract and signatures, and it was found to be binding.
Auntie would never speak against her husband. Whenever the topic came up, she would smile sweetly and say she was sure he would return with all that was needed to make everything all right. In the meantime, she began to produce more of her figurines, hoping to make a few more dinars and pay off some of the debt.
Knowing of the sad situation, people would buy out of charityâ€¦but that lasted only so long, and eventually Auntie lost her tiny space at the Grand Bazaar to another merchant, named Yodfah.
Every night, youâ€™d go to bed, with some of Auntieâ€™s figurines by your sleeping roll, and youâ€™d imagine yourself as one of those heroes. Your adopted brothers and sisters all had similar dreams, you were sure: To study geniekind under Adnan al-Raqi, Master of the Invisible. To apprentice oneself to the enigmatic magi, the White Agate. To return to the Haunted Lands as a sheik with a tribe of oneâ€™s own.
It seemed like those dreams were to remain firmly dreamsâ€¦
One year to the day Uncle Jojoâ€™s caravan departed Huzuz, you all took up silent vigil by the same gate he had left. With no shared words but plenty of shared looks, you knewâ€¦yet still you waited. Finally, when curfew was announced, you returned home, not knowing what the next day would bring. No shed tears; you had been through too much to cry now; instead, it was like walking through a void, not knowing what was on the other side or if you would even make it through.
A small crowd had gathered the next morning outside Auntieâ€™s little house. Miracle that she is, she wondered aloud how she was going to make coffee for all the people assembled, and began gathering beans to grind. Before long, there was a knock on the door. It was Gogol and the dwarf qadi, Mutamin al-Subvir.
To their credit, neither looked very pleased at what was about to happen; everyone loved Auntie after all. Nevertheless, with a small contingent of the city guard ready to enforce the contract, the dwarven qadi was about to render judgment, when all of a sudden, an excited cry from the back of the crowd drew attention to a new visitor to Auntieâ€™s home.
Walking a bit hunched over, but with eyes as alert as they were 200 years ago, the most powerful priest in Huzuz, the ancient elf Imam Renn min Zann, approached the proceedings. Everyone was shocked, including Gogol and Mutamin. All fell over themselves offering respect, prostrating themselves, and making holy signs of Zann, god of wisdom.
He took quiet council with Mutamin and Gogol. No one could hear what they were saying, but it was obvious that the latter two were having instructions given to them. After disengaging with them, Imam Renn turned to Auntie and held a brief, quiet conversation with her. She would not speak of it afterwards.
What you remember most of that day was that the venerable wise elf turned to look at all of you, winked, and said simply â€œYou have much to do,â€ before leaving.
As it turned out, someone in the Golden Palace has gotten wind of Gogolâ€™s contract with Uncle Jojo. While it could not be undone, it went â€œsignificantly against the spirit of the law and culture of Huzuz,â€ and so it was decreed from the Grand Caliph himself that while the trip may have been a year, the payment was only due a year after the caravan was due to return. Certainly, someone spent enough time with the contract to come up with that interpretation. Was Fate smiling upon you after all?
The happiness quickly turned to despair when Mutamin informed Auntie of the debt, once interest was applied. Thirty thousand gold dinars.
That was more money than you had ever dreamed ofâ€¦but then you remembered your dreams. Dreams of being free men and women of adventure; didnâ€™t the heroes in those tales come across treasure such that could engulf a man? Mountains of gold and silver, magical items that commanded genies, staves that summoned sandstormsâ€¦
A year. A year of professional treasure-huntingâ€¦could it be done?
Making a vow amongst you that you would all rather die than see the kindest woman, the one who loved you when you thought none could, fall into slaveryâ€¦you decided that you would forge your own way to free yourselves from this yoke. There are treasures aplenty left over from the World that Wasâ€¦you would find them and finally pay back Auntie for all her kindness over the years to you allâ€¦
Which was surely worth much more than thirty thousand gold dinars.
You set off to the bazaar to see what rumours you could pick up, when you heard the shouting of Babazadeh, one of the porters youâ€™ve come to knowâ€¦