by Den Valdron
THE PERFECT CANDIDATE
“Indeed,” I said. Truth to tell, I was rather less interested in what Markath Khan had done once upon a time than in what he was doing now. And mostly, I was interested in avoiding him.
“Oh yes,” Haja Obol said, “and it is quite a remarkable story.”
“I would imagine,” I replied politely, signalling boredom and disinterest.
“To appreciate Markath Khan, you must appreciate the situation of Diome. Once, Diome had been a great nation, and a strong ally to its neighbors. But in the course of time, even neighbors have their differences and Diome found itself at war with Bukrah, a neighboring city state. The worst enemies are former friends, and the war with Bukrah was savage, even for these degenerate times. Diome fought hard, but unfortunately, not hard enough. Its fleets were driven from the sky, its armies smashed, and in time even its walls breached. The city was sacked, its inhabitants slaughtered, women raped, children sold into slavery. It was forced to pay heavy reparations to Bukhara, which drove its people into suffering and poverty. A terrible story, but hardly a remarkable one.”
“Diome was a land of misery and suffering,” he said, “but as it turns out, for Markath Khan it was a land of opportunity. For one day, he appeared in Diome, a humble merchant driven they say from remote Farad, dressed in little more than rags, with no more fortune than a thin handful of jewels.”
“Luckily, a jewel cutter in Diome, took pity upon this poor destititute, and the two became partners. Their partnership prospered, and soon Markath Khan was a successful merchant. Having little interest in gems, he branched out, investing in other businesses.”
“In particular, he ventured into trade with other cities, traveling in Caravans much like this, to sell Diome’s poor wares. Indeed, I myself traveled in some of these same Caravans and came to know Markath Khan quite well. Well enough to call him friend and occasionally partner.”
“In those days, the Caravans of Diome did poorly, but remarkably, Makath Khan always managed to prosper beyond all reckoning. It was a strange thing, as I found him a poor haggler, with little grasp of buying or selling. But that did not seem to make a difference, no matter how bad a deal he struck, he always seemed to profit immensely.”
I sensed a certain amount of malicious spite here, I thought, dryly. Haja Obol continued.
“It was here that Markath Khan’s genius came to the fore, for it soon became apparent that he had a magical touch. All his investments, without exception, reaped immense profits. No matter how doomed or bankrupt a venture, under Markath Khan’s touch it became a fountain of wealth Soon, Merchants of all sorts were clamoring to enter partnerships with Markath Khan. His money flowed everywhere. Before too long, he was one of the richest and most influential men in Diome.”
“And his first partner?”
“Died tragically, I am told. They say Markath Khan was overcome with grief. Diome in those days was a lawless place, and I am told that many of Markath Khan’s peers, whether partners or enemies also died.”
“But perhaps it was the loss of his friend and mentor,” Haja Obol speculated, “that turned his mind to the suffering of his poor adopted countrymen. Or perhaps it was merely concern for his own security and well being. By this time, Markath Khan was already one of the wealthiest men in Diome, if not the wealthiest. Surely, that made him a target for those whose greed and ambition was not accompanied by similar talent.”
“And yet, Diome was a city of ruins, with public buildings fallen or in disrepair, the very streets crying out for repairs, much of the population was idle, crime and murder ran rampant, and starvation was common. He began to feed the poor, to construct public works, to pay the wages of soldiers and pathans to guarantee the safety of all. Soon, Markath Khan was the best loved man in Diome.”
“Indeed, his popularity aroused the wrath of the Jeddak of Diome, a weak man who had no greater ambition than to placate Bukrah. In turn, Markath Khan was forced to support the Jeddak’s political rivals, and eventually found an ally in Japhrus Farl, an officer of the infantry. Or perhaps I have it backwards, perhaps it was his embrace of Japhrus Farl’s faction that turned the Jeddak against him.”
“Japhrus Farl gathered the disaffected, both soldiers and commoners, to himself in a movement he called the 'New Citizens.' He preached a new era of glory, a restoration of Diome’s military might, an age of conquest. Of course, in a city broken and dispirited, he was considered to be no more than an angry crank full of wild ideas and spitting malice. But suddenly, with Markath Khan was by his side, he became a force to be reckoned with, suddenly his name was on everyone’s lips, and his star rose rapidly, as did the fortunes of his movement.”
“Eventually, his movement swept aside the Jeddak and ruling royalty. There was, I admit, considerable bloodletting, but this is always the way of things. Old Royalty must give their lives so that new ages may commence. And indeed, a new age dawned upon Diome, the people had hope, they were filled with martial spirit. Bukrah demanded reparations, and Japhrus Farl refused. It was Bukrah that backed down.”
“Together, Japhrus Farl’s followers and Markath Khan’s money transformed Diome, restoring it to its former greatness. The fleets were rebuilt, new weapons were forged, an idle population set to marching. The city was awash with martial fever. But not even Markath Khan’s vast wealth could sustain Diome. The war with Yukhara began.”
“Sadly, Japhrus Farl died during the war--”
“No, at home. The details are rather vague. But with the death of Japhrus Farl, there was no one else to step forward. None who lived, anyway. And so, reluctantly, Markath Khan was forced to accept the throne as the new Jeddak of Diome, and leadership of the New Citizens, which in some ways are the same thing, and in other ways are two very different things.”
“But yet, no one seems to remember he is a refugee from an alien land, or that he came in rags from who knows where. To the people of Diome, he is barely short of a living god, this city has become a reflection of his own image. The conquest of Yukara was followed by the conquest of Bukrah, Dukor, Az-Lium and soon Shiaze. Even the Orgus and Green Men bow to him. Some say that before he is done, even fabled Helium shall bend its knee, and his rule will extend from Omean to Okar.”
“It is a remarkable story,” I said politely, concealing boredome. “Markath Khan must be a remarkable man.”
“A remarkable man in truth,” he said. “I would even venture a brilliant one. We live in an age of remarkable genius. We have heard of scientific masters, such as Ras Thavas, Fal Sivas, Phor Tak, accorded geniuses. But there are other kinds of genius. Jonkar Tur, for instance, must be acknowledge to be a genius of the blade. But Markath Khan is a different kind of genius. Think of him as a genius of men, of the ways and motives of men. What animates men? Fear, greed, lust? These are the tools of any petty tyrant, and Markath Khan employs them skillfully. But what of pride, of love, of patriotism and loyalty. These too he plays upon, as a musician upon his instruments. The world only rarely sees the like of a man like Markath Khan.”
“Indeed,” he said, “it is a story that any in Diome will be happy to tell you. But for myself, I wonder. How does a simple, and apparently not terribly gifted, trader, turn so many barren prospects into profitable fortunes? It seems to me that success of that sort requires a backer, a greater source of wealth, hidden or anonymous.”
I started to pay attention.
“Who or what lies beyond a Markath Khan? How can he come out of nowhere, to rise so high. Surely there must be an unseen hand behind him. I was never able to fathom the mysterious source of his wealth, even in those days, he guarded his secrets carefully. However, I find myself wondering now, if perhaps the benefactor might be some... group, perhaps a sect, which had wealth and needed an agent to operate through. There have always been certain rumours about the man...”
Looking back, I should have asked about those rumours, as much might have been explained. Alas, I did not.
He was watching me now, as carefully as I watched him.
“These are interesting speculations,” I said carefully. Was Markath Khan a catspaw for a Thern cult? This seemed to be what Haja Obol was saying. I hazarded a glance at Vadak Eth, but he simply shrugged.
“It would be interesting,” Haja Obol said, “to speculate on the state of this partnership. Does Markath Khan still act as agent, and were his masters to appear, would that presage some radical new developments?”
“Or perhaps, the dog has slipped the leash and now runs free. The agent is no longer a pawn, but a power. This too might be a recipe for interesting developments.”
He took a sip, reminding me that my mouth was dry.
“Perhaps Masters who had lost control of their pawn might devise a new strategy to bring him to heel. Perhaps they might even manufacture stories of a Demon Princess, and eventually send someone to play the part.”
He stopped speaking. A deathly silence fell over the room.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. I sensed traps laid in his words. He was clearly probing, but I had no idea what answer to make. And worse, if he was right, then showing up as a Thern in Diome would be an even bigger mistake than appearing there as an Orovar. More, it suggested that genuine Therns were playing a game I could not begin to fathom.
“Those are remarkable speculations,” I said dryly, clearing my throat. “What do you intend to do with them?”
“Do with them?” Haja Obol replied. “Priestess, I am but a simple trader. My only concern is profit. I don’t plan to do anything, except quietly see to business, with malice towards none, secure in the knowledge that an honest merchant has no enemies.”
“I am sure that no matter what, you shall prosper. It appears though,” I said, “that either way, matters may become capricious. What advice do you have?”
“Playing it close, Priestess,” he said. “I respect that. You have asked, I shall give it. My advice is that it is very bad to be Markath Khan’s enemy. But sometimes it is much worse to be his friend.”
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