"Are you taking the piss or what, Pietro?"

Isabelle swung the chair round as she sat, putting the wooden back between her belly and the ferret-faced little man across the table. Behind her Rico and Carmen loomed, hands resting easily on their blades. Pietro didn't need to look to know that Levy and that weaselly new mountebank the gang had taken up with would be by the door.

"I don't know what you mean, Dizzy." There was a quaver in Pietro's voice he couldn't mask. He looked desperately around for help but everyone else in the inn was studiously ignoring him.

"Only my friends call me Dizzy," said Isabella, still smiling. Her pleasant expression made the scar that cut across her mouth more pronounced. "Answer the question."

"I don't know, Isabella. I can't tell you what I don't know." Pietro fell back on whining. He knew it annoyed the bravos, but the more pathetic he appeared the less inclined to kill him they seemed to be. They might rough him up, but they never seemed to think he was worth the trouble of actually cutting. Tonight though it wasn't putting Isabella off. He might have to fall back on sniveling.

"Bite, Pietro. The Merrow" - the capitals were obvious - "says you and that pack of scorpions you tag along after are the ones turned over Buenos. Took his cashbox, which was not theirs to take. Took his stash of bite, too. And now I find you in the Fighting Cock and Carlos tells me you're dealing. Is it not enough you stole from me?"

She'd stopped smiling now. She took out a knife and laid it flat on the table in front of her.

"Selling my own product to my customers takes a steel spine and we both know you haven't got it. Aldo put you up to this, right? Where is he? Where's the rest of my bite?"

Pietro moistened his lips, nervously. He had three wraps of bite in his coat pocket - but revealing them would confirm the rumour, and it wouldn't satisfy Isabella or her gang. It'd probably just encourage them to beat him until he rolled over on Aldo, and Aldo wouldn't like that. He could be a right-

Someone walloped Rico around the back of the head with a stool. The big man went down like a house of cards. At the same time, someone else jumped on Carmen howling and yelling, legs wrapped around her chest, pummeling her on the head and shoulders. Isabella snapped her head round to see what the commotion was and Pietro saw his chance. He pushed away from the table, hard, toppling off his chair as he did so onto the sticky, foul smelling floor of the Fighting Cock.

Rolling over onto his hands and knees, he glanced back to see Isabella and Marco - who still had his stool - engaged in a vicious tussle. Other patrons were joining in - a brawl was a brawl after all. Briefly Pietro considered trying to help Marco, but it was everyone for themselves right now and he was never all that useful in a street fight anyway. Instead he rose into a half crouch and scuttled toward the door, weaving between the fighting bravos.

Two steps from safety, though, something smashed into his side with a force like an ox-wagon. He felt ribs crack - howled - reeled - and then discovered he couldn't move his feet. Carlos - Isabella's new mountebank - raised his rod and his blade warily.

"Where do you think you're going, weasel?" asked the horned magician, hard eyes glinting. "Dizzy isn't done with you yet!"

Pietro desperately tried to run for it, but his feet were glued to the wooden planks. He knew the spell wouldn't last long, but he also knew Carlos wouldn't be wasting breath on talking if he didn't think he had the upper hand.

"I've got some, Carlos." Pietro said desperately. "Six crowns worth easily - that's all I've got, but I know where you can get more. Dizzy doesn't need to know. If you let me go...."

Before he could finish something brushed past the side of his head. The unarmoured cambion spun away from him, a wooden shaft sprouting from his shoulder, and collapsed in a heap on the ground.

"Not rolling over one me, I hope?" It was Aldo, framed in the doorway. He was quickly reloading his crossbow.

"No, no, of course not Aldo. It was Dizzy... she and her lot... I told you ..."

"You can tell me all about it later, little lad." Aldo was grinning, dark residue still visible on his teeth and gums. "Right now we need to send a message to sweet Dizzy! And to all the other rats who think they can push us around! We've got what they need and if they want it they're going to pay! And pay well!"

Aldo stepped over Carlos' prone form, coat swinging, and fired another bolt into the melee, whistling.

Someone out on the street was shouting for the militia, but Pietro knew from long experience that by the time anyone in authority arrived everyone who mattered would be long gone. He considered running then, but if he did Aldo wouldn't forget it, and his old friend knew all his bolt holes.

Oh well, he thought. In for a ring, in for a crown.

Grimacing, he fumbled in his pocket for one of the remaining wraps, tore it open with nerveless fingers, and noisily inhaled several crowns worth of coarse blue crystal. He felt as if he had been punched in the heart - all his senses flared - everything seemed to slow down. All of a sudden, he wasn't worried about Aldo or Dizzy. He wasn't worried about anything at all. His face stretched into a wide grin - not an expression he was used to wearing - as he grabbed two bottles of beer off a nearby table and followed Aldo into the thick of it.

Overview

Like any nation, money is the life-blood of the Empire. It pays for the armies and fortifications that protect it. It provides wages to the workers who dig in its mithril mines, and in its white granite quarries. It turns the wheel of commerce and trade, and it even serves as a common tongue in which visitors from foreign shores can converse with their Imperial counterparts.

For all its worries, for all the orcs biting at the borders, the Empire has rarely been richer than it is at the moment. Foreign trade flows to the Empire - through the Black Sails Quay, through the Cavabianca Docks, and through the Pallas Docks. Foreigners come to marvel at the Colossus of Sarvos - and to spend their money in the markets of Sarvos. Little Whittle brings a bounty of green iron from the Mournwold to the shops and the artisans of Tassato. New ports have been opened to Imperial captains, bringing luxuries and trade-goods from the Iron Confederacy and Axos to eager shoppers across the Empire. The Towers of Anduz secure trade routes even through the Jotun-held territory, bringing the Faraden traders to the Empire, to their enclaves in Moonwater Hall - and who knows, perhaps elsewhere soon. And across the whole Empire the Blood Red Roads mean that traders and businessfolk have no lack of opportunity to make their fortunes. Yes, the Empire has barely been richer than it is in this brave new year of 382YE.

And yet, ask any business owner or farmer and they will tell you that no matter how much money one has, one never has enough.

A Little Extra Help

The completion of the Blood Red Roads has bought a boost in trade and commerce right across the empire - more than the civil service had original predicted. On investigation it appears that these additional gains are short-term. They are unpredictable and will not last more than one or two seasons at most. They are also difficult to entirely predict - some people have gained more than others - but almost every farm and business in the Empire seems to have benefited. The gains have spread far and wide as everyone has adjusted prices and profits to take account of the new opportunities presented by the roads.

In fact it is not just farm and business owners who have benefited - almost every citizen has a couple more rings in their pocket heading into the Spring Equinox. Well... almost everyone...

Biting Back

  • Bravos and mountebanks suffer a penalty to their personal income of 18 rings but gain a dose of bite

Leading up to the Winter Solstice, the drug bite began to appear on the streets of the League cities. Embraced by bravos and mountebanks alike, it proved extremely popular. It fills users with confidence and a sense of superiority, but after an hour or so they are left drained and lethargic... and craving more. Bite users also find it increasingly difficult to keep control of their tempers which, in the crowded confines of the League cities, is proving less than ideal.

From the point of view of those who enjoy the experience of taking bite - or those who have developed a physical craving for the substance - supplies appear to be comparatively limited. As the drug becomes more popular, street vendors have begun to increase their price. In some parts of Sarvos, a dose of bite can fetch as much as three or even four crowns! There have been violent incidents in which dealers have been beaten up, even killed, for their supplies. Bands of bravos enjoying the drug become reckless, and prone to outbursts of violent temper, often directed at other bravos. Especially other bravos competing with them for control of the bite trade in their part of the city.

The situation is under control for the moment, but it is clearly deteriorating. As a consequence, during the coming season every character whose archetype is bravo or mountebank will lose their normal personal income of 18 rings. In place of this they will receive a single dose of bite in their pack (you can hand this back to GOD if your character does not wish to have it). This reflects the fact that life on the streets of League cities is a little tougher than usual at the moment; either your character has bought a dose of the unusual drug - or an associate has paid you with a dose of the valuable resource because they are short of funds. Magistrates continue to monitor the situation, but there is some concern among the militia about the likelihood of the situation deteriorating.

Bite, a highly addictive drug, is making its way around the Empire. This is an unwise drug to take as it encourages disloyal actions.

Iniska Ashwood, General Assembly, Winter 381YE, upheld 529-272

The drug bite is still of unknown origin. It seems not to cause immediate harm, but it would be unvigilant to consider it safe. Citizens should be vigilant to the potential for danger, and pass any information back to myself at the Ashen Tower of The League.

Isabella de la Torre, General Assembly, Winter 381YE, upheld 529-40

The street-level violence is particularly marked in Tassato: a rumour that a group of mountebanks in Tassato Regario had intercepted a shipment of bite intended for Tassato Mestra spread like wildfire through the eastern half of the city. Incensed bravos took to their boats and crossed the river, resulting in armed clashes that left two dead and dozens seriously injured. No source can be found for the rumour, but the general attitude of many of the Mestrans is that this is exactly the kind of thing the thieving Regarians would do - while for their part the Regarians dismiss the anger of the Mestrans as more evidence that they are drug-addled swine barely better than... well, something derogatory. Resentments continue to simmer away.

Some people are more worried about bite than others. Iniska Ashwood and Isabella De La Torre of the Ashen Tower have raised concerns in the Imperial Synod regarding the origin of the drug, and gained the support of a number of similarly interested priests. Iniska has warned citizens against the drug claiming that it encourages disloyal actions while Isabella has urged citizens to remain vigilant, and asked that anyone with information about the provenance of the drug contact her as soon as possible.

Declaring war on bite

The Imperial Senate have the power to make the ownership, sale, or use of specific substances or items illegal, but the magistrates do not have the resources to arrest the dealers, and investigate the chains of supply. In the short term, the magistrates will need significant resources to deal with criminality and civil unrest. If the Imperial Senate votes to increase their budget by 25 thrones a season for as long as the demand for bite remains at its current level, then that will be sufficient to ensure that there are no significant economic or military consequences caused by the criminality and unrest associated with the drug. This will be sufficient to ensure that the impact of bite will remain restricted to the League bravos and mountebanks who are the people most likely to come into contact with it.

Should the drug remain legal, the magistrates and militia will do their best to combat the results of its presence on the streets of the League, but they will be unable to significantly address any problems it causes.

The Glass Parador

  • Businesses in Madruga receive increased production in the coming season
  • The parador mistresses of Siroc offer to help fund a new shipyard
  • The Commonwealth Ambassador believes her government will help to build a fortification to defend Siroc against the Grendel
  • The League National Assembly could prevail on the devout Menno Van Ritsjhof to offer his services in designing a coastal fort for Siroc

With Atalya and the whole of Free Landing in the hands of the Grendel; with Quzar looted and raiders looting north and south along the coast of Lightsea, it seemed only a matter of time before the orcs struck against Siroc. With that in mind during the Winter Solstice a representative of the Full Sails Carta of Sarvos, approached Safya i Kalamar i Guerra, the Mistress of the Glass Parador, about a potential business deal. The exact details are between the Mistress, their advisors, and the Full Sails, but it is believed that the League carta requested endorsement from the Mistress in the hopes of purchasing the homes, parador, workshops and warehouses of any Freeborn in Siroc who wanted to leave in the face of a potential Grendel occupation. Opportunistic? Certainly. Distasteful? Perhaps. Ambitious? Surely.

Yet Safya declined the offer; a polite but stern refusal referencing the virtue of the inhabitants of Siroc and a heartfelt encouragement to those Freeborn who might otherwise have been minded to flee to ignore the League hyenas and stand firm. By extolling the virtue of the paradors of the City of a Thousand Sails, she has encouraged them to demonstrate their courage and to persevere in the face of potential invasion. And when the Grendel flee Madruga without setting one foot within the bounds of Siroc, her wisdom is likewise demonstrated.

The result has been an increased enthusiasm for trade despite the constant threat of orc invasion. Every parador, shop, and market in Madruga will see increased profits over the coming season - equivalent to an additional rank of production.

Defiance

Many business owners in Siroc look to the Mistress of the Glass Parador for inspiration and advice, and their refusal to flee has not only strengthened the will of the wealthy in Siroc but it has made them defiant. The Grendel have burnt the shipyard at Atalya? Fine. Let them think they have won. They have not won. Madrugans, more than any other Freeborn, see the wealth and prosperity that comes from the sea. While the Freeborn Storm may have burned, nothing is ever lost while there are people prepared to stand firm and fight for it.

The merchants and traders of Siroc have put their hands in their pockets and are prepared to pay for the construction of a new shipyard - but this time in the City of Sails, in Siroc itself, rather than on an island on the edge of the territory. This enthusiasm will persist until the end of the Summer Solstice, after which the opportunity will be lost. Rather than the standard cost, with the support of the people of Siroc the shipyard would require 20 wains of weirwood and 20 wains of white granite. and 80 crowns. It would be built in a single season, and would provide all the normal benefits of a shipyard.

Sea Defences

There are other people in Siroc who are impressed by the Freeborn spirit. The Commonwealth Embassy stands here - and while the Commonwealth has no particular quarrel with the Grendel, they despise slavers and bullies. They have seen, some of them first hand, what the Grendel are about, and they appear to feel honour-bound to offer their assistance to their hosts. The ambassador herself appears to greatly respect the Freeborn refusal to surrender to despair in the face of their recent loss - and is an outspoken supporter of the construction of a new shipyard.

The Commonwealth Ambassador, Mila Eisenfalke, has suggested that it is only appropriate that they contribute to the protection of Siroc given that is where their embassy is. As such, she has suggested to the civil service that the Imperial Ambassador to the Commonwealth make a formal request to the government of that distant nation for assistance fortifying Siroc against the depredations of the orcs. The ambassador will do the same herself. She is confident that if the Senate were to commission a fortification to protect Siroc, her government would offer assistance - after all their own interests would be likewise supported.

There is already a drive among Imperial citizens to secure the borders, which would aid in any plan to fortify Siroc. The Commonwealth offer relates to the garrison and maintenance of the fortification after it is completed. If the Empire concedes the finished fortification to the Commonwealth, they will provide soldiers to garrison it. While they were doing so the Empire would not be required to pay any upkeep on the resulting fort (saving 10 Thrones each season as long as the Commonwealth continued to support it). While relations remained good, the fortification would be identical to any regular Imperial fortification in practical terms. Any Imperial military unit could still choose to support it in the same way as any other fortification built by an allied force in the Empire, but it would be occupied and defended by the Commonwealth.

Such a plan is not without drawbacks. The Commonwealth, not the Empire, would determine how the fortification participated in any campaign in the territory. While it is not possible for the Commonwealth to move an army to the Bay of Catazar - the distance alone makes it unfeasible for either side to invade the other - it is not impossible they could side with enemies of the Empire in any conflict here.

Advanced Sea Defences

A further possibility has been raised as well. Menno Van Ritsjhof, the designer of the grand fortification intended to protect Sarvos from a coastal assault could be persuaded to come to Siroc and work on a similar project to protect the city of sails. Von Ritsjhof has no particular affection for the Freeborn, but he is a reasonably devout man. If the League National assembly were to present and pass a statement of principle with a greater majority urging him to offer his aid to the Freeborn, he could doubtless be prevailed upon to present plans for an equally ambitious defence in Siroc.

Limited Opportunity

It is difficult to say how long the Commonwealth ambassador will support the fortification of Siroc - international politics are volatile at the best of times. There is no practical limit on the opportunity to engage with Menno Van Ritsjhof. The opportunity to build a new shipyard in Siroc remains until the end of the Summer Solstice.

The Kalpaheim Runehall

The Blood Red Roads. Everyone is making such a fuss about them... but it can't be denied they are useful. Since before there was an Empire, Kalpaheim has been just a little bit isolated from the rest of the Empire. Oh, the rivers of gold still flow - crafted goods to the Empire, grain and smoked meat to the tables of Wintermark. But the roads... whether passing west into Hercynia and Skarsind, or south through Upwold, transporting more than a wagon or two at a time was often more trouble than it was worth.

But the Blood Red Roads change that. It is almost as if someone has taken the map of the Empire and folded it! As if Sarvos and Tassato have physically moved closer through the magic of white granite and hard physical labour. Wintermark merchants can reach Holberg or even Siroc in barely a few days longer than it would take them to travel from Kalpaheim to the northern borders of Sermersuaq. The roads are bringing wealth to Hahnmark themselves, of course, but more importantly they bring opportunity. Opportunity that deserves to be seized.

Hahnmark is without a doubt the wealthiest territory of Wintermark. Prosperous halls enjoy the money they make trading with other Winterfolk and with their neighbours in Hercynia and the Marches. Now, however, they are looking farther afield. With a little cunning and some ambition, the rivers of gold might be damned to the benefit of every rich trader in Hahnmark. Let other nations have their Northern Trade Network - Wintermark will look to the whole Empire for its prosperity!

A group of Suaq and Steinr merchants have proposed the construction of a trade hall in Kalpaheim that would allow merchants of Hahnmark to make the best use of the Blood Red Roads. Imbued with the runes of Wealth and Bargains, it could serve to spread subtle runemagic across the territory and perhaps even the nation. The runesmith-engineers Hurik and Manun, perhaps a little disappointed that the Well of Valas did not get built last season, have offered their expertise to the project and are confident that as long as their countryfolk have the will, great wealth will follow.

The Kalpaheim Runehall would require 60 wains of white granite to construct, require a senate commission, and would take six months. At the end of that time it would provide a significant boost to the prosperity of every business in Hahnmark. Precisely how that benefit would manifest, however, would depend on the purpose for which it was built and crucially the runes worked into its foundations. In each case it would provide the benefits of a great work - each business would gain a proportionate share of the bounty provided each season.

If the hall were built and worked with the rune of Bargains, it would provide 1060 coins each season (in addition to those provided by the Blood Red Roads). If it were built and worked with the rune of Wealth however it would instead focus on bringing in more raw materials for use by Wintermark artisans to produce valuable goods - and split a pool of 60 random mine resources between all the businesses in Hahnmark.

Limited Opportunity

There is much enthusiasm for this project at the moment, but as people become used to the roads the support will fade. This opportunity remains in place until the end of the Autumn Equinox. If work has not begun by that point, the opportunity may cease to be available.