The Goblin and the Peppercorn
The Halfling Thief found the bag of peppercorns on the goblin’s body.
An argument ensued. The Fighter wanted to keep walking toward the ruins and fulfill their benefactor’s request. The ruins were full of treasure, he said. The party got to keep whatever they found as long as they killed the monsters and returned with the ruins secrets.
Peppercorns weren’t treasure. They were food.
But the Thief wanted to understand how this little bag of black spices ended up in the goblin’s pocket. Goblins don’t cook with peppercorns.
Black pepper makes the traditionally bland food of the region interesting and flavorful. When peppercorns appear in the market – rarely – people pay more gold for small bags than for major magic items. The poor crave them. The rich kill for them. Sure, this small bag of peppercorns is not a Cap of Underwater Breathing or a Potion of Heroism, but it can buy them. This bag is better than gold.
Can we indulge in Halfling curiosity? The ruins have been ruins for thousands of years. That’s why they’re called ruins. The secrets aren’t going anywhere.
When the Wizard and the Bard sided with the Thief, the Fighter caved. Fine. We will follow you on your so-called mystery. And then we will head to the ruins and discover some real secrets.
The goblin’s trail lead to the bandit’s massacred bodies not more than a day old and rotting in the open air. One bandit carried small, empty sacks smelling strongly of pepper and a letter of free passage on this road between the Lord of this land and the True and Free City Republic. From the look of the site, the goblins jumped the bandits while they were camping and cooking. Of course, the goblins ate the well-seasoned and peppered steaks.
The party left the bandit’s bodies to rot while promising the Fighter that he could massacre any future peppercorn-stealing bandits. They took the letter.
Further along the road by another two days (and the Fighter made noise about ruins and secrets) the party discovered the overturned carts, dead horses, and bodies of the traders. They were dressed in merchant’s red robes. The sacks were empty. The cargo stolen. But the Halfling Thief found a manifest of good and prices. Prices higher than the party could command for spelunking and murder expeditions.
Maybe the ruins could wait, the Fighter said.
The party buried the traders.
This land’s gold, the Halfling Thief said, was flowing east down this road to the Free City Republic. We, adventurers, root through ancient cellars and dig through old ruins, risking our lives and very souls, to haul out chest after chest of easy gold. We cheerfully hand that gold to rich merchant and wizard guilds in return for armor and baubles and magic. Lords wrest that gold from guilds by taxation. Then, those Lords send that gold down this road east in return for this.
Let’s follow the money, the Halfling Thief said. Let’s follow the peppercorns.
And we went east.
The Free-City Republic
The Free-City Republic stank. For all its glamour architecture and glorious history, humans demi-humans pressed together in the streets with little sanitation and less space. They climbed over each other for space on this tiny island nation. The temple entrances reeked of urine where supplicants voided themselves before climbing the steps. Merchants dumped their garbage into the streets.
The Transmuter Bankers, members of the mighty Exchanger’s Guild, ruled above the stench from their black towers and behind their long red masks. They were rarely seen but always felt. A Republic in name only, the immensely rich ruled this plutocracy with an iron fist in a velvet glove. They were more interested in their constant wars with the other Free City Republics ruled by other Transmuter Bankers than the daily government rhythms and wrapped themselves in bureaucracy.
Down on the streets, enormous customs houses squatted among the warehouses while armies of armed customs agents took their due. Long ships with short triangular sails bobbed in filthy waters while moored at a mile long dock. Thousands of merchants and porters unloaded their wares into a market of uncertain prices and taxation. Purchasing agents bartered loudly with street merchants for their Lord. Spices. Silks. Porcelain. Bails of cotton and linen. Ivory. Pearls. Cases upon cases of rare and precious magic reagents.
The Halfling Thief thrust her arms into a barrel of peppercorns, worth more than the land she was hired to serve, and drew in a deep breath. She asked how much.
“Only the Gods and Modrons know the prices of the day,” the peppercorn merchant told the Halfling Thief. “Today might be a good day. It might be a bad day. We don’t know until we sell.”
Pirates, horrible and wealthy, plied the profitable waters offshore. They preyed on lightly armed merchant ships and took their cut by force. Smugglers and a far flung powerful Thieves Guild made good use of sewers to avoid the customs house and the hated head tax. The Navy pushed out into waters to find more fertile trading grounds and pursue the Republic’s endless wars.
This was not the peppercorn’s source, the Halfling Thief said. This is the terminus. This is wonderful but merely the city where the merchants collect the land’s gold and send it further east. I want to find the source of the peppercorns. We should press onward.
But when she turned around, the Fighter was gone. He found his source of endless money, booty, magic items and glory far beyond mere run down ruins in a backwater country. He left to fight the pirates of this sea until he conquered them all and they acknowledged him as their King. He took the Ranger with him as backup. The Fighter wanted to make it a buddy movie.
Yet the Thief still had the Wizard, the Cleric and me, the bard.
And we went east.
The Old City
This old city at the desert’s edge was a relic of an ancient time. Once, it made its wealth by shipping grain north into great open markets of hungry cities. Now, by conquest, it shipped its grain south to less discerning and wealthy consumers. Its sand stone walls told stories of ancient battles and grand Kingdoms and the magnificent adventures of Murder Hobos long dead.
Centuries ago, this city ruled Empires. Centuries hence, its power forgotten, it would be shriveled, an open air theme park for tourists pretending to experience its grandeur and power. This city was fated fade, remembered for its art and music but not for its heroes and power. Its sewers infested with monsters and converted to adventuring dungeons. Its marvelous temples turned into adventuring ruins with dark secrets for rich rulers to plumb.
Thus was the power of trade. Far more powerful than any army, religion or ruler, trade builds empires binding together humans and demi-humans under one banner. And trade lays them to waste.
The old city was still a vibrant trading force. Its power had not completely leaked out its walls. The great camel caravans came in through the east gate. The merchants unloaded and made transactions with rapacious middle men. Dockworkers loaded precious cargo by the ton on the long ships and sent them west to the Free Cities to feed their endless wars. The tax men with their thugs roamed among the merchants taking their due for an Emperor thousands of miles away.
The open air markets were full of peppercorns. They were cheaper here than the dead merchant’s lists back home and cheaper still than the Free Cities. The Halfling Thief watched the peppercorns come in through the gate by camel and be delivered by the half ton to the merchant’s stall. Gold exchanged hands.
Gold still flowed east.
Comprehend Languages and Tongues helps with travel negotiations between cultures. Without the Fighter and Ranger, we were vulnerable to bandits but if we traveled down the river instead of overland and with other caravans we could make it east to the peppercorn source. Overland trade, we learned, was phenomenally dangerous. Outside, in the desert, banditry was tribal. If we flew the wrong colors, we would be forced to give bribes at best and attacked at worst.
The Halfling Thief ensured the caravans that our Wizard and Cleric would keep us safe.
The Thief turned to the Cleric but the Cleric was gone. Taken by the mash of cultures and nations passing through this trade city, she was determined to proselytize. What better place to create converts than a trade nexus between Empires? Even if she converted a handful, her God’s Word would spread far to new corners of the world. Her God would grow. What is better than a big, fat, well-loved God?
Yet the Thief still had the Wizard and me, the Bard.
And we went east.
The Ocean Market
The great oceanic trading city was made of magically bound sand. Enormous limestone and coral fortresses towered over a sprawling dock reaching across the horizon. Houses five stories high stood over packed market-filled streets. Impossibly thin golden minarets topped bright white temples of a strange God. The mash of cultures, languages and beings, many never seen in the Halfling’s land far away across a sea and a desert, pressed together in the great bazaar beneath the Sultan’s uncompromising eye.
And the market! The sights! The smells! Uncut rhinoceros and elephant horn of pure ivory. Bizarre animal skins. Gold stacked in bars. Huge towers of wax for candles and supplies. Enormous bushels of grains. Plates and bowls of purest white. Cloth so smooth it barely caressed the skin. Ambergris, pulled from the bellies of murdered whales, and fragrant incense. Brightly lacquered wood. Magic items with strange and new properties. Elaborately crafted magical weaponry and armor dyed bright colors and adorned with ostrich feathers. Endless shelves of rare magical reagents and jewels. Bizarre fruit. Slaves, driven to open air slave markets, by the thousands. Fragrant spices, including the peppercorn, heaped in enormous baskets in huge open air stalls. An unimaginable bounty from the nexus of trade.
Gold coins from a dozen unknown and distant lands passed through the Halfling Thief’s hands.
The Halfling Thief, with extensive help from Tongues and a bit of prodding with Detect Thoughts, asked about the origins of peppercorns. Did they come from this land? Is this the terminus of all our gold, our sweat, our tears, our hard work?
The merchants laughed. No, no, no. We bring great bushels of grain and these strange animals to the market. We supply incense and skins. We send wax and wood. But the peppercorns? The peppercorns come from the far east across the ocean on the other side of the monsoon winds. They come here on the bottoms of boats. See, the Westerner Agents will give us all their gold for the peppercorns we import at great cost.
Farther than the horizon, the merchants said. Farther than the sun and moon. But you can follow them, if you wish, on our boats held together with coconut twine and adorned with great lanteen sails. Board one of our great trading dhows and follow the rising sun. There, you will find the peppercorns where they grow wild and abundant on enormous vines. That is where your golden money flows, Halfling. Your source of infatuation, madness, and black gold lies over the sea.
A sailor on the open ocean has only one true companion: fear. Wizards help to keep the skies clear. Clerics of the storm and sea provide grace to the voyages. Past the shore pirates are not a threat but the sea itself kills. But even with prayers and spells, many voyages are lost with all hands. A trip across the sea was much more dangerous than a dungeon crawl through ancient ruins looking for lost secrets. But on the other side of the ocean, what secrets we will find!
The Halfling Thief turned to consult the Wizard about the voyage but the Wizard was gone. Seduced by the allure of new knowledge and new spells, the Wizard found his way into the city’s enormous libraries filled with thousands of books. Dazzled, the Wizard no longer had to crawl through filthy dungeons and dangerous ruins to learn new secrets. He had a lifetime of research here where spells came to him from all points of the world. He didn’t need to kill for this knowledge. He simply waited for it to be unloaded off ships from distant lands.
I asked the Halfling Thief if she was prepared for this journey. Our Fighter, Ranger, Cleric and Wizard were gone. We were all that was left. The voyage was long and dangerous. Who knew what we would find on the other side?
The Halfling said, how can a Bard turn down stories and adventure?
And we went east.
Writer’s Note: I’m an enormous fan of road stories and the Silk Road is the best road story in history. This one follows peppercorns over sea instead of over land simply because the sea route has fewer major stops. The cities involves are Venice (Italy), Alexandria (Egypt) and Mogadishu (Somalia). The influential Ajuran Sultanate of Eastern Africa is a huge, often unmined source for adventure and exploration. An easy way to get players out of their Western European adventures and into somewhere like that is to simply… follow the peppercorn.