Chapter 77: Entertainment
Ember stared glumly at the bowl of stew in front of her. It was full of hard lumps that floated in a thin broth. Looking at it made her feel it was just as well that she didn't feel like eating.
Twenty thousand gold.
That was how much Gaelan Bayle, Yoshimo's contact, wanted in payment for his organization to help locate and rescue Imoen. Crossing the Cowled Wizards was not done lightly, he'd told them, and the fee was not negotiable.
"Are you sure there is nobody else we can turn to?" she asked Yoshimo, who was sitting across the table from her and thoughtfully stirring his own bowl of stew.
"Gaelan's people were the best choice," he replied. "Any other group I know of would be less able to handle such matters, and they would demand an even higher price for their services."
"I understand," Ember muttered. Unable to stand the sight of her stew any longer, she glanced around the common room of the Copper Coronet. The cheapest inn in the city was, if possible, even seedier than she'd imagined; the air was so thick you could almost cut it with a knife, and every surface was covered in grime. Most of the clientele were coarse men, as run down as the inn, who were busying themselves with getting drunk and having loud arguments with each other, but she also saw at least one group of what looked like adventurers, as well as a few men dressed in fancier stuff who were sipping wine with a disdainful air.
Then, she saw Minsc. The giant ranger had gone to ask the surly bartender for some nuts for Boo, but now he was arguing with some of the rowdier looking men. "It think Minsc is in trouble," she told Yoshimo, and started to get up from the table.
"So it seems... no, wait, I believe reinforcements have arrived," Yoshimo said. A brownhaired young man in chainmail had taken up position beside Minsc, and was gesturing at the thugs with a warhammer. They immediately backed away, and by the time Ember and Yoshimo reached Minsc, he was deep in a conversation with the man in chainmail.
"Minsc is a force of righteousness, and so is Boo!" Ember heard the large ranger proclaim.
The man in chainmail smiled. "Perchance I have found worthy companions, then. There is foul play afoot, and I seek to expose it. Will you join me in this task?"
"Minsc is always ready to show Evil the light of Justice! But we should ask little Ember first."
"I see. Where might we find this Ember?"
"Right behind you," Ember said with a grin.
Startled, the man in chainmail turned to face her. After a brief moment, he bowed deeply. "Greetings, fair lady! I am Anomen Delryn, warrior priest of Helm."
"I am Ember, and this is Yoshimo," she said, gesturing at the Kara-Turan. "Thank you for helping Minsc."
"Ah, 'twas nothing," the cleric scoffed. "Those foul drunkards were easily dissuaded once they were not confronting a lone target." He paused, as if reconsidering his response. "Of course, your gratitude is most appreciated," he added with a polite bow.
Ember smiled. "Now, on to business. You spoke of foul play?"
"Indeed I did, my lady. This inn is a cesspool of corruption, but I have reason to believe that its depravity goes beyond that which is readily apparent. Rumour has it that vile and illegal practices take place in the back rooms, for the entertainment of the weak-spirited. Observe how they guard that door." He gestured towards a side door; two heavily armoured guards were posted in front of it.
"I see," Ember said. "Maybe that's why there are so many wealthy people here, too."
"An astute observation, my lady!"
"What practices in particular have you heard of?" Yoshimo asked.
"The ugliest rumour is that they have a fighting pit in the bowels of the inn," Anomen said. "Moreover, I have overheard conversations that imply that the combatants are less than willing participants."
Ember frowned. "Slaves, you mean."
"A dishonourable practice," Yoshimo muttered.
"Nobody should be treated like that! We must find them and free them and let them smell the fresh air of freedom!" Minsc cried. "Even if it smells nicer in the forest than here in the city."
Ember looked at her friends, then at the young Helmite. "Where do we start?" she asked.
For the cost of a few pints of thin ale, a pair of drunks proclaimed Yoshimo their new best friend. They presumed anyone with Yoshimo's wealth was there for the special entertainment, and when Yoshimo knew nothing about that, they were more than happy to tell him to ask Lehtinan, the innkeeper. It didn't matter that he wasn't the nobbly type, they said, for Lehtinan would serve anyone who had coin a'plenty.
The drunks were proven right only a short while later when the small group talked to the innkeeper. Lehtinan was a large man with sallow skin and a voice that sounded like wet gravel, and he grumbled about strangers when they first approached him. However, once Ember mentioned taking their large amount of coin elsewhere, he perked up and offered to fulfil their every need, be it drink, rest, or other sorts of entertainment.
"What other sorts of entertainment?" Ember asked.
"Ohh..." Lehtinan made a sound deep in his throat, "...one is always able to provide the small pleasures of life. Things like companionship, perhaps, or gambling on battles, and other things. There is more to my little place than meets the eye."
"Of course there is," Yoshimo said pleasantly. "Isn't there always?"
A brief discussion and fifty gold pieces later, Ember held in her hand a brass token that would provide access to the back rooms for herself, Yoshimo, and their two bodyguards in the form of Minsc and Anomen. The four of them headed to the guarded door, and Ember handed the token to one of the guards.
"New patrons, eh?" the guard asked. Yoshimo nodded.
"You're welcome to enjoy the exclusive entertainments offered by the Copper Coronet," the guard said. "Feel free to look around. If you seek company, Madame Nin and the courtesans are upstairs and to the left. To the right are the challenge pits... watch and gamble, as you wish."
"Thank you," Ember said, and led the three men down the hallway to the right. She was glad it didn't take too much acting skill to pretend to be a customer; even though all she really had to do was keep a straight face and pretend to be wealthy, the whole charade was a bit unnerving. Imoen's so much better at this stuff. If only she were here... Ember sighed quietly. Looking at her comrades, she was a little relieved to see the young Helmite looked at least as uncomfortable than she felt. Minsc, on the other hand, seemed perfectly at ease with his role; he'd become used to playing the part of a guard during their time in Baldur's Gate, and, as always, he took the disguise very seriously.
At the end of the hallway, a man dressed in dark velvet welcomed the group to the pit. He showed them to the viewing area, and asked if they wished to place a bet at this time. Yoshimo declined, saying he wished to get a feel for the place first, and the man left them.
"You're good at this!" Ember muttered to Yoshimo as they made their way to a vacant cushioned bench.
"It is merely one of my many talents," Yoshimo replied with a grin and a wink before making an exaggerated bow, gesturing at the bench. "After you, my lady."
Ember seated herself, and Yoshimo followed suit. Minsc and Anomen remained standing behind the bench, like any good guards. Several men sat on the other benches, talking loudly about the upcoming match and which fighters they hoped to see. Serving girls flitted in and out, bringing roast meat and goblets of chilled wine to the spectators; Ember noted that the food was of a much higher quality than the stuff that was served in the common room.
Looking ahead, they had a perfect view of a large, circular pit. Its walls were completely smooth and too high to climb, and its floor was covered with a generous layer of bloodstained sand. Two doors with no handles on the pit side blended almost seamlessly into the walls. No escape once you're inside. A chill ran down Ember's spine, making the hairs at the back of her neck stand on end.
"I hope there isn't another raid," a pale man dressed in yellow silk moaned.
"Don't worry," a purple-clad man beside him said. "The last one was barely a tenday ago, and you know Lehtinan takes care of everything!"
"'Tis true enough, but they are such a bother! Last time, my wife almost found out what I was up to!"
The man in purple nodded somberly. "Nasty business, that," he said, and beckoned to a serving girl to bring them more wine.
"He must be bribing the troops from the garrison," Anomen muttered. "'Tis despicable!"
"If I may have your attention once again, gentlefolk of Athkatla!" The man in dark velvet was now standing on a small podium to the front and left of the spectators. "Lehtinan is proud to provide for your amusement once again! Bring your attention to the pit as we see two combatants fighting for their very lives! I trust all bets have been placed!"
The crowd cheered. A hard knot formed in Ember's belly.
"Very well! BEGIN!"
One of the doors in the pit opened, and a dwarf dressed only in a loincloth and holding a wooden club was shoved through it. He stumbled and almost fell, but caught himself and stared up at the spectator stand.
"I will not fight!" the dwarf cried. " How can you suffer this to continue?! How can you --"
"You will fight because you are a slave and you have been told to fight!" the man in dark velvet interrupted. "Refuse and be devoured for the amusement of our guests!"
"We cannot sit idly and allow this to happen!" Anomen hissed.
"Justice is cried for here!" Minsc added.
Ember nodded. "We've seen more than enough." She got to her feet and moved to the back of the room, towards the exit. Other spectators hurled indignant protests at her and her companions as they obstructed the view of the poor soul in the pit with their passing; a young, drunk couple took the opportunity to secure the now vacant bench for themselves.
As Ember reached for the door, the man in dark velvet gestured to someone on the far side of the pit. The second door opened, and a large leopard entered.
The dwarf raised his club.
The leopard lunged.
Loud cheers went up from most of the spectators as the leopard dragged its prey out through the second door.
Ember stared at the fresh bloodstains in the pit with a mixture of revulsion and fascination. "Let's go," she growled.
Minsc shoved open the double doors of the viewing area and lead the small group out of the room. There was a fairly nondescript door near where they'd entered the back rooms; they headed straight for it. Behind it lay a corridor with a few side rooms; a dizzying stench came from behind the beaded curtain that hung across a doorway. "Lotus chamber," Yoshimo said as they passed it.
A solid wooden door blocked the end of the corridor. Anomen yanked it open, revealing a large room that smelled a bit like a stable, only worse. Several dark cells with thick metal bars lined the far wall.
A guard ran up to them. "What are you doing down here?!" he bellowed, his hand on the hilt of his sword. "This is a restricted area!"
Glancing over the guard's shoulder, Ember saw a shaggy face with sunken eyes behind the bars of one of the cells. A smaller and far younger face peered out from another cell. By the gods, there are children here too!
"Leave immediately or face the consequences!" the guard said menacingly.
With one swift movement, Ember raised her staff and smashed it into the guard's face.