“Oh, I see. They were surprise ghouls.” — Ettorio Iluni
As the group prepares to depart Zantira once more, Opilio elects to remain behind for a short time to offer a bit more assistance to the victims of the brigands’ raid. He lends his strength and near-preternatural agricultural skill to the families of the deceased couple, ensuring that their farms will help them bear the losses. The rest drive on to Ladona. Some rains follow them through the towns of Gescolo and Horntowers, but the skies are clear and the air misty as they reach the City of the Dragon.
The guards at the gate are somewhat brusque, but respond quickly to Prince Temagli’s letter of passage. At the palace, they meet the silver-armored spartoi Captain Argonest, who brings them into the presence of Prince Lazzaretta. The prince receives them cordially, investigates the contents of the coffer, then has Argonest give the couriers writs for three nights’ stay at the inn of their choice. As the ostensible guide, Vesper opts for the quiet of the Pale Maiden.
Each settles in differently. Vesper has a good meal and a hot bath, and retires to read for a time; Ettorio wanders the streets for a few hours, getting to know this new city as one might court a new lover; and Carenza, her curiosity getting the better of her, decides to head to Rovino stomping grounds for news of her family’s fortunes. She makes for the Cranequin, a bar popular with archers, bowyers and hunters that some of her family frequents. First, though, she stops by the Head On a Hook, a nearby dive where Rovino-hired muscle often drinks while their employers frequent the Cranequin; seeing none of the expected thugs there, she moves on to the more reputable establishment. There she finds her cousin Basolo drinking with a pair of hangers-on.
Carenza makes discreet contact with Basolo, and discovers from him that the House is having some troubles. Having decided to lean on the Tamsharn smuggler Kagall, “encouraging” him to put his resources to work for them, the Rovinos ran into a nasty setback. Their muscle, a small band led by the long-term associate Buso, was found torn to shreds and partially devoured. The Rovinos suspect that Kagall may be involved in the incredibly illegal practice of smuggling ghouls, and are worried about how to proceed — they can’t go to the authorities or House Sespech without tipping their own involvement in the business, ghouls would make things too dangerous, but they can’t show too much weakness by kowtowing to Kagall. Carenza confides that she has a friend among the Sespech, and offers to see what they can do.
Vesper takes little convincing to get involved; Ettorio just a touch more. The next morning, they set out for the western side of Ladona to look for Kagall’s operation. They find a stall in a market where the operator mostly has useless junk for sale, but does a covert trade in unusually expensive silver charms shaped like gamecocks. Ettorio presents himself as a potential buyer of rare components for a Sespech, and manages to purchase three tickets to an upcoming “exhibition” of potential wares.
The audience for the exhibition gathers at the Hydra Fountain at nine bells, where pairs of prostitutes lead away groups of four at a time, discreetly taking them into the underlevels of Ladona. The group comes into a small underground arena, where Kagall’s operation is clearly setting up some sort of gladiatorial show. Three drugged pit-fighters enter the arena, to be met not with ghouls, but with a variety of man-eating apes from Ibrydos. The display (in which the apes tear apart the three men, though losing one of their own) disgusts all three, who then discuss about what to do about the situation: clearly, the imperative that ghouls would have provided is no longer present, but the operation is still a hideous affair. Returning to the Cranequin, the three speak a bit more with Basolo. They agree that they are still committed to the task: Carenza wants to get back in her family’s good graces (and perhaps avenge Buso’s crew), Vesper finds the whole thing revolting, and Ettorio is happy to have an opportunity to have the Rovino owe him sufficiently to forget the whole “I slept with one of your daughters” business. The only question, though, is how to proceed. Nobody is particularly enthusiastic about the thought of potentially having to fight Kagall, his bodyguard, a few of his thugs, several drugged pit fighters and a variety of man-eating Ibrydos apes all at once. Therefore, a plan is required.