The paved streets of Zhe'Khar were smooth. It is a simple thing, but one noticed first by visitors about the Divine City of the Slain God. Other cities were paved with cobbles, the very richest with flagstones. But even those from Behlclaer City, Hel'lynorsk, or Eyx knew only bumpy, uneven roads because even flagstones cracked or became worn over time by weather and constant traffic. The city of Zhe'Khar was ancient, yet its streets were as smooth as if they were laid the day before by exacting artisans working with liquid glass.
And once one noticed the streets' lack of wear, one noticed the other oddities. The buildings were pristine, even in the poorest of neighborhoods. They were made of some material that resembled fine white marble with gold dust glimmering throughout. And no matter how new the building was, it had the same classically antique style of architecture as the rest of the city.
The pall of malodorous odors usually found in cities of any size was also missing. Amidst the smells that were noticeable was missing the usual perfume of the locale's method of light generation. Be it coal in the regions close to the East and West Wall Mountains or whale oil near the coasts or the pitch and naphtha that was more common throughout Asteria, one could usually scent it before even entering the city. Light in Zhe'Khar was made, instead, by what the citizens and frequent visitors of the city called God-glows, containers of exquisitely shaped glass found throughout the city that gave off a steady light that could be dimmer than the feeblest candle or nearly as bright as the noonday sun and range in color from white to midnight blue and every shade in between. They were found on fantastically wrought, rust-free iron poles as street lights, in heart-rending creations of gold and crystal in the palaces of the wealthy, and in common, everyday lamps in more common homes and public buildings. Were Zhe'Khar not Zhe'Khar, it would likely have been named the City of Light.
Then again, probably not. It was because it was Zhe'Khar that the light and the buildings and the streets were so striking and extraordinary.
All of that said about the city without even mentioning its unique people and their place in it. It was the city's people that allowed it to be Zhe'Khar, and all that meant.
Such thoughts often meandered through Pzerraji's mind on such perfect days spent walking in the glorious sunshine that sparkled off the streets and buildings and lampposts of his adopted home's wondrous thoroughfares with his grandchildren. His youngest, Pzerra, walked beside him that day, the bright, inquisitive boy sent to keep his youngest daughter's doddering father company. Lilliana loved him; he knew that with certainty if only by her youngest boy's name. She was, however, very concerned with appearance and class. She, a mere bard's daughter, had married into the family of the Lord Marshal of the City, one of the Houses that ruled and governed Zhe'Khar. She found it embarrassing when her husband's siblings or (the Slain God forefend!) his parents heard tales of Pzerraji Silver-Tongue entertaining the masses in this or that square or market or pub.
Thus Pzerra's company as he walked through his South Bank neighborhood as it echoed with the sound of the Spice Market, the air perfumed with the heady aroma of fennel and cinnamon and rosemary and cumin and scores of other substances that gave the market its name. Merchants in rich robes called out imploringly to passersby, describing the quality and benefits of their wares or denigrating their neighbors'. The old man loved the market. Its vibrancy. Its smells. Its potential.
Pzerraji had made a lot of money in places such as this. Not only here in Zhe'Khar but also in his birthland far to the southeast, the Ynjarri Empire. He missed that one aroma Zhe'Khar would never have: the sea! His former home of Port Vrezzassi was somewhat like this neighborhood, only on a larger scale, for it was a port city with all that implied. The old man looked down at his youngest grandson and wondered what the boy would become. The odds that he would become the next Lord Marshal were slim. The families of the oligarchs were necessarily large, for they were required to produce a suitable heir or risk losing their position. So Pzerra's chances, when weighed against the array of competition, were remote. And then there were the tests of suitability themselves that the potential heirs had to pass to assume the position of Lord Marshal. Pzerra was one of six children Lilliana bore the youngest brother of the current Lord Marshal. The youngest brother of sixteen siblings and half-siblings, all producing their own offspring. Never mind the cousins!
Pzerraji looked up at the sun with a squint. "Well son, what do you think? About time for lunch?" his mellow, oddly musical baritone inquired jovially.
The boy eyed his grandfather, then squinted at the sky himself and nodded, his naturally serious mien cracking slightly with a shy grin. Like many in the House of Hamish, Pzerra was lanky with long legs, wavy ash brown hair, and round face. From his mother he got the seriousness and his gray eyes, which in turn came from her mother. The smile was also his Lilliana's, if a bit more reserved than Lili's was when she was a girl. "That would be good, Poppy, but what shall we eat? I did not notice a lot of food in your house."
Pzerraji grinned mischievously. "That is because my food is stored here," he said grandly, gesturing to the market around him, nearly knocking the feathery hat from a very short merchant as she scurried past them. The boy looked around suspiciously. His momma had warned him Grandpa Pzerraji was a little odd. "Unlike your family, my lad, I cannot afford wizards to enchant my larders to make chill boxes. Therefore, I have some grains, some tubers, and some fruits and vegetables but the rest I get from this and other markets around the Merchants' Quarter.
"Today, however, I think we will drop in on a friend at The Spiced Wine," the old man added with another grin, his brown eyes sparkling impishly. Pzerra saw that and swallowed nervously. He was supposed to keep Poppy out of trouble. How, mother never quite explained since he was only eight. The roguish elder saw the mental fight going on inside his grandson's head and offered as support to the rebel he knew lurked within the boy, "I am pretty sure Andorros said he was getting a load of sap melons in today and he can afford to hire a wizard to make a rather large kitchen pantry into a chill box."
The boy's eyes lit at the mention of the sweet, spice fruit. "All right, Poppy. Lunch at The Spiced Wine sounds good."
The Spiced Wine, in one form or another, had existed in that spot since the outer walls of Zhe'Khar formed themselves one night some six centuries earlier. Originally, it was the gathering place of foreign caravaneers and diplomats, pilgrims and outlaws. Over time, as the Foreign Quarter transformed itself into the Merchants' Quarter, The Spiced Wine also changed in character, going from a sometimes rough establishment for those from foreign lands looking for a drink and a place to do business away from prying eyes to a more upscale pub for merchants on their way up, families from the Quarter, and the off-duty guardsmen assigned to the Quarter.
The tables and benches were sturdy, clean, and sanded and refinished regularly to keep the wood gleaming in the light of the 'glows. The floor was swept twice daily and mopped every other day, much to the grumbling of the barmaids. Said barmaids, grumbling aside, were beautiful, buxom blondes and red heads who served their grandfather's customers cheerfully and efficiently, secure in knowing they were safe from unruly customers (despite their rather revealing clothes) thanks to their hulking cousins. The barkeep and the bouncer, the aforementioned cousins, were twins built along the lines of mobile mountains. Both retired members of the Zhe'Kharan Army, strawberry blonde Andor the barkeep and red haired Landros the bouncer were well above average in height with a musculature that made even the drunkest lecher keep his hands to himself around their cousins.
At lunchtime, however, few felt the need to overindulge The Spiced Wine's potables enough to need such formidable protection, so the twins were still abed. Andorros grinned widely as Pzerraji entered the dinning hall, the grin widening when he saw the boy enter behind him.
"Welcome, my old friend, welcome!" he shouted across the room, the thin, wrinkled, gray-haired man scurrying from behind the long oaken bar that stretched the length of the back wall of the pub. There was an enormous fireplace in the middle of both adjacent walls with large logs crackling merrily, warming the large room comfortably filled with round tables and curved benches full of the early lunchtime crowd. Two of the barmaids grinned cheekily at him as they dodged between the tables and their occupants with trays of food and drink. The diners craned around the servers, trying to see who rated such a welcome from the owner and his kin. "It has been a while since I last saw you. Have you come to grace us with the Silver Tongue's enchanting words?"
The old man's eyes darted down at the alarmed look on his grandson's face and assumed a sad expression. "Sadly, I am merely here to have lunch with my gaoler. My daughter becomes distressed when her in-laws hear of me entertaining the masses in such 'low places.' I promised my namesake some sap melon," Pzerraji said, his tone dripping with facetiousness, earning a grin from Andorros who was having trouble keeping a straight face. "After some lunch, of course. What have you on the menu today?"
.... There is more of this story ...