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As we prepare to launch Mythic Constantinople on an unsuspecting world, we bring you the first in a series of posts that we call...

Istanbulletins....

21st November, in the 28th year of the reign of His Majesty Henry, fourth of that name; or the 1450th year of Our Lord and Saviour

Constantinople! Queen of Cities! Roma Nova! I have finally arrived after months on this accursed ship. My soul yearns to be unburdened from the unspeakable events that have been forced on me since departing from England; but even these horrors cannot diminish my wonder at seeing Constantinople for the first time! Its fabled Sea Walls stretch beside me as the foul captain of this vessel guides us from the Sea of Marmara into the mouth of the Bosphoros. I see several harbours on the way, but the sailors laugh and spit into the sea when I ask if we are docking there. Instead we sail around the peninsula and into the Golden Horn that forms its northern shore. I can hear the hubbub of the city even from out here, a thousand voices competing with the barking of dogs and somewhere, a bell calling the faithful to prayer.

Just then there is an almighty boom like the heavens rent asunder. I cower 'neath the gunwhale, only to attract more laughter from the crew. Apparently, the district we are sailing past is Mangana, where Constantinople has its gunpowder factories and bombard foundries. The bell I had been hearing was a warning of a bombard test. Byzantine churches do not even use bells. Needless to say, not one of the foul creatures that have been my travelling companions these past months saw fit to warn me. I will be glad to be rid of this ship and its crew.

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Instanbulletin #2

[...continued...]

We sailed between two mighty towers, one on either shore, and I could not help but be reminded of the clashing rocks that nearly destroyed Jason and his Argonauts. I could see the famous chain slung between these towers yet lying slack; we came to trade and yet my heart was still in my mouth as we crossed that line.

We docked at a harbour called the Neorion. I was eager to disembark, but was forced to wait until the cargo was unloaded, since I was not prepared to use the ropes slung over the sides of the ship. Instead I stood at the fo'c'sle and drank in the city. I never conceived a city built by man could be so vast and have so many people! My histories tell me that this city housed a million people once – that's over half the current population of the whole of England!

And what people they are! From my vantage I could see Greeks and Europeans, but also Arabs and Turks, pale Vlachs and dark-skinned Ethiopians, and several more I did not recognise. I was boggling at the sheer size of the men approaching our ship when I realised they were not men at all, but monsters! They had the bodies of men yet the heads of bulls. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Yet no-one ran in fear or drew a weapon, instead they were shown into our hold and emerged carrying crates of cargo. These terrifying creatures were merely the labourers employed at the docks. Truly, Constantinople is a city of wonders!

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I had already wondered about this from the product descriptions:

Quote

A melting pot of cultures and non-human species

So there are minotaurs, it seems ... the setting will probably be much more fantasy-flavored than I expected, which is probably a good thing. the main question: will we see acephalytes? I love acephalytes, and no one ever seems to use them in their fantasy settings.

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and... I only just now got the pun in the topic... doh!

I'm definitely looking forward to this. Not that I can predict I'd ever play it as-is, but it's sure to be chock full of inspiration for areas where the familiar rubs elbows with the strange and 'exotic'.

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Quote

So there are minotaurs, it seems ... the setting will probably be much more fantasy-flavored than I expected, which is probably a good thing.

The fantasy elements are actually quite low key, and done so well that they integrate absolutely perfectly with the historical subject matter. Mark Shirley has done an astounding job mixing the mythic with the historical.

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the main question: will we see acephalytes? I love acephalytes, and no one ever seems to use them in their fantasy settings.

Yes. Known as blemmyai by the Byzantines, they're just one of several inhuman species inhabiting the city. My personal favourite are the astomatoi...

 

 

astomatoi.jpg

Edited by lawrence.whitaker
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Istanbulletin #3

[...continued...]

Struggling under the weight of my luggage, I was searching for a place to stay. In any western port one will find all manner of hostels by the docks, but not here it seems. I eventually stumbled into what I thought initially was a tavern. The patrons were unsavoury in smell and unfriendly in demeanour, and I turned to depart, but alas, Lady Luck had departed me. I gathered from the gesticulations of the proprietor that I was obliged to him for a sale. I drank the contents of the small cup he gave me in an attempt to leave as quickly as possible. Swallowing the drink was like taking a hammer blow to the head. "Phouska" I was assured by the landlord, helping me to a stool and pouring me a second. "Phouska!" saluted the other patrons as they drained their cups. "Phouska…" I whimpered as I drank again, this time a mere sip. The flavour was vile, and the drink clawed its way straight into my head without leaving me anything to swallow. These Greeks – sorry, Romans -- must be tough indeed if this is what they drink.

I was joined at my table by a lady. Any sense of scandal that I had at being in the company of an unrelated woman dissolved into the mental fog brought on by the phouska. I know now that the striped headscarf she wore was a sign that her favours were for sale; would that I had known it at the time!

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[Hi, Mark here, author of the Istanbulletins on the TDM forum; and, as it happens, author of Mythic Constantinople. I'll continue posting the new episodes here as well]

23rd November, in the 28th year of the reign of His Majesty Henry, fourth of that name; or the 1450th year of Our Lord and Saviour
 
The next thing I clearly remember was my forehead being washed by a foul-smelling wet sponge. It was morning, I was in a gutter, and a dog was licking my face. Some invisible imp was driving nails into my head, and my stomach felt like it had become the refuge of a family of belligerent frogs. To my dismay, both my purse and my luggage were missing, as was one of my boots. As I stood, the mangy cur who has woken me to this nightmare fortunately lost interest in me, and returned to chewing something unspeakable some ways down the alleyway. The change in posture was too much for those angry frogs, and I purged suddenly and violently. When I was done, my mind had begun to clear. I patted at my doublet and was relieved to feel the padded pouch that my mother had sewn into the hem: within were a few reserve shillings along with a much more valuable cargo. I was not saved, but at least I was not destitute. Once I had finally decided my legs would carry me, I set off into town, aiming a kick at the dog. Its meal turned out to be my missing boot. I retrieved the half-chewed footwear after a short tussle with the hound, and newly fortified by my minor victory, strode bravely on.

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 [...continued...]
 
I decided to go to the Church for succour and support. I grabbed an urchin, showed him the smallest of my reserve coins, and asked for a church as clearly as I could. Fortunately that word remains unchanged, and although he corrected my classical pronunciation he did at least lead me to a church – although not one that I would recognise as such. Rather than being the shape of a cross, it was a simple square in plan, and was adjoined to two other buildings. It lacked a steeple or a tower, having a dome instead. I rapped on the door, and a man dressed entirely in black, with a cylindrical black headdress and long beard opened. He gave me the merest glance and then slammed the door and refused my subsequent entreaties.
 
The boy that I had enticed with the promise of a coin took me to several other churches, only to receive similar treatment. Where I got a greeting in, my Latin seemed to enrage them even more. Several called me "azymos", which I translate as "without yeast", but I don't understand the significance of this insult. One gave me a wooden coin but still refused me entry. I'm not sure what purpose I can put the coin to, but I'm sure it was meant as another insult. My erstwhile guide eventually took me to a market place rather than another church, and I was obliged to spend the coin with which I had been teasing him all morning on food and drink. The food was a pie; I was sceptical at first but the paste – rather than being tough and inedible coffin for the contents – was flaky and buttery and delicious. The filling was also a surprise: not meat but cheese mixed with some unfamiliar herb. I was nervous about the drink after my experiences with phouska but the vendor poured me a cup of wine from an amphora carried on a yoke on his shoulders, and it was weak but refreshing. The clay cup it came in was apparently disposable, for the vendor did not wait for its return.

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[...continued...]
 
When the street boy disappeared after his meal I thought that perhaps our business was over, but he returned within minutes with another urchin in tow, this one a girl; or more accurately a young woman. I tried to explain to him that I had no interest in companionship, when the girl spoke to me in Latin. I could not have been more surprised, for it is universally understood in English schools that girls have no capacity for the Latin tongue; yet here was a street urchin that spoke it better than some priests I knew back home.
 
Her name was Semne, and her friend was Spiro. It was she that educated me about the significance of the striped shawl, the difference between the Ancient Greeks and the inhabitants of New Rome, and that an "azymos" was a Christian of the Roman rite who used unleavened bread in the Eucharist unlike the Christians of the Byzantine rite. When I expressed my admiration of her Latin, she told me that she learned it at school, which she attended despite being homeless. There was a state orphanage which bribed children to stay for a lesson in exchange for a meal. The wooden coin I had been given could be exchanged for a loaf of bread at a state bakery – another example of Byzantine charity; although it galled me that the priest had thought me a beggar. Semne explained that the people of the city have still not forgiven the 'Franks' for the pope's Fourth Crusade, even though that was nearly 250 years ago. I tried to explain to her that I was not a Frank, to which she asked "Were there English amongst the Crusaders?" I answered yes. "Then you all share in the blame."

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 [...continued...]
 
I asked Semne if she would be my guide in the city. She looked at me with arched eyebrows, and I hastily clarified that I would pay her, which just doubled my embarrassment. However, she asked me where I wanted to go, and I told her I would need an inn to stay. She looked confused. "Why would you pay for a room, when you can have a house for free?" I didn't understand, so she beckoned me to follow her.
 
We walked for what seemed like miles, through alleyways and streets. Eventually we came to a wide boulevard, lined with shops. The paved street was crowded with people and carts, and the pavements either side were shaded by a roof held up by stone columns. As we walked through the crowds, I noticed that my feet were traversing mosaics laid into the pavement. This, Semne explained, was the Mese Odos, the principal street of the city. It ran through its very heart, stretching from the Hagia Sophia far to the east to the Land Walls around the western reaches, a distance of over four miles. The district through which we were walking was Kainopolis, the "New Town"; a name I found ironic, given it was built a thousand years ago when the English were still living in mud huts.
 
We soon left the Mese Odos and its crowds behind, and I realised how wrong my initial impressions of the city were. In the commercial districts and down on the docks the city throngs with life, but that is just a façade. Leave the busy streets and you find a wasteland of ruins and deserted buildings. Only a fraction of the city's former capacity dwell here now and there are ten or more empty homes for every one that is occupied. According to Semne, in districts like this there is no regulation as to who inhabits what building, as long as it has no strategic importance you'll be left alone. She took me to a place she knows, a tenement partially occupied but with a vacant apartment. None of the other inhabitants were currently present, but apparently none were natives of the city, and one was an Englishman. I should be at home here. One of the apartments in the tenement is a 'taberna' — a government-licenced wine shop — and she left me here, saying she will return in the morning. I dine on a fine fish soup and at dusk when the taberna closes I retire to my bed, eager for a good night's sleep.

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[...continued...]
 
An animal bellow, a flash of flame, a sharp sensation in my side. I was woken rudely from my sleep — again! — in the midst of a commotion. Light blossomed in the room from a smoky flame, and I saw the identities of my assailants. Most terrifying was the bull-headed giant with a massive spear longer than I am tall. No less worrying was the knife pressed into my side and the other at my throat. And the flame...at first I thought it a brazier until it moved: an imp, as black as Hell, with glowing red eyes and fire emanating from his mouth like a flickering tongue. I swear I am in some terrible nightmare, until the knives threatening my tenders relaxed, and the tension diffused. 
 
The Englishman with the daggers is a merchant adventurer called Master Thomas.  After he sheathed his knives we got talking. He seems like a nice enough chap, and after all these months it is nice to speak English, although his accent is a barbaric brogue from the northern marches. The minotauros and the imp are two of his companions; fellow misfits in the city of wonders. I gathered from his guarded comments that Thomas may be in a bit of bother, and my mistaken presence in Anchistos's home was misinterpreted. Of all the beds in which I decide to sleep, it has to have been the one belonging to the monster! I apologise profusely and resettle in the vacant apartment, although sleep came slowly to me as I fancied I could hear their voices speaking in the room below me, wondering if it was safe to let me live...

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24th November, in the 28th year of the reign of His Majesty Henry, fourth of that name; or the 1450th year of Our Lord and Saviour
 
By the time I broke my fast, Thomas and his comrades were gone. Semne and Spiro arrived midway through, and I invite them to join me, ordering more bread, honey, curd cheese, and a delicious drink made of boiled water and green herbs. I noticed that Semne took part of her dinner and fed it to one of the stray dogs. When I ask her why she did this, she said cryptically "dogs are the soul of Constantinople".
 
After we have eaten, Semne asked me where I would like to go. Given that I was still wearing the clothes I had disembarked in, not to mention a badly chewed boot, I suggested that the market should be our first stop. She asked me if I wanted proper clothes or Frankish clothes. I told her that I cared little. In no time at all we are at a clothing merchant and I am dressed in a tunic, trousers tucked into hose, and an overtunic with fitted sleeves. Next door I find sandals and socks to wear beneath. I am shocked when I'm told the cost — in London I could have bought twice as much, and of higher quality, but I am told that a hefty tax is put on all imported goods. I hand over the coins grudgingly, conscious of my dwindling supply, but fortunate that my English shillings are accepted at all.
 
Semne asked why I came to Constantinople in the first place. I told her of my uncle's business and his need for a factor he can trust. A carefully-rehearsed story that I have repeated a hundred times so that the lies come easily to my mouth. I embellished the story further, expressing my need to recover my losses before I present myself at the offices of his partnership. In truth, I really do need some coin, but thanks to my mother's forethought, I can at least address that need immediately. I asked Semne if there was a Commissary of the Knights Hospitaller in the City. She made a face. "Yes, in the Venetian Quarter."

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 [...continued...]

As we passed through the gate into the walled quarter, it was as if I had passed through some sorcerous portal and been transported to the Serene Republic; were it not for the lack of canals. All the buildings here were of the same age — unlike the chaotic mix of ancient and modern in Constantinople — and they were tall and overhung the streets just like in Venice. It was not just the buildings, but the people too, all arrayed in the dark colours and western fashions of that land. There was refuse piled high in the streets and rats — so many rats! The language here was Veneto, a tongue with which I have a passing faculty, and finding the Commissary of Saint John took no time: a large house with the eight pointed cross of the Order. I noticed the stone walls, lack of windows and the heavy iron-bound door. Entering alone, my business was swiftly concluded. From the pouch sewn into my doublet I retrieved the square of parchment with the seal of the London Master, detailing the deposit of moneys with them. I gave the cleric the pass phrase that corresponded to the promissory note, and he used his cipher book to confirm it. "It is illegal for me to issue this money in local currency," said the clerk, counting out stavrata and aspra with the emperor's face, "But this is Venice, where only the law of the bailo holds, eh?"

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1 hour ago, Der Rote Baron said:

 SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!!! :P

No, definitely keep posting that story. Take the money anyway.

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[...continued...]

I left the Venetian Quarter flush with money, but acutely aware of another problem. What had started as an itch yesterday had become a terrible burning sensation in my nethers. It appeared that my coin spent with the whore had bought me more than just a hangover. I thought I had been discrete, but Spiro saw me scratching and whispered something to Semne. She gave me a scornful glance and then lead me through the back alleyways until we stood before a small door painted with a faded blue and white eye. I entered with some trepidation, into a tiny room. Hanging from the rafters were hundreds of amulets and vials, herbs and animal parts, and a stool. As I sat, Semne spoke rapidly in Greek from the doorway — there was scarcely enough room for me, let alone another — alerting the proprietor of the shop, who I had mistaken for a bundle of rags cast into the corner. So swaddled with strips of coloured cloth were they that I could not tell if it was a man or a woman, and they made no sound that I could interpret as intelligible language.

"Pay the thaumatourgos," said Semne, her declension at least telling me the sex of the person before me. From my Classical Greek I translated the name as "wizard" – literally a "worker of wonders". Even here, in this God-guarded City did these charlatans ply their trade. I handed over a mean-sized coin, but it seemed to bother him not. As he pulled down my britches, Semne closed the door on us. The thaumatourgos mumbled some words, and I was surprised that I understood them – even recognised them – as an Orphic hymn to Apollon, the destroyer of pests. A tickling sensation in my tender regions startled me and I dared a peek, only to see a line of fleas and lice marching off my body and into a small vial held against my leg! I could see them squirming and wriggling at the bottom of the pot, before it was stoppered and pressed into my hand. The man mumbled at me again, and I heard Semne's voice from the other side of the door, doing a very poor job at concealing her laughter.

"He says that they are homesick and you should give them back to their mistress!"

 

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[...continued...]

I got back to my tenement to find Master Thomas in the taberna with his comrades. I was introduced to the two unfamiliar faces. Father Rodrigues is a priest from the Kingdom of Aragon, visiting Constantinople on a scholarly trip. The Union of the Churches, east and west, has supposedly made this easier, but when I asked him how he has found the attitude of the Byzantine rite priests he had nothing ill to say, which is certainly not my experience. The other new face belonged to Vladislaus, a Wallachian boyar or knight, although his accent is so thick that I had trouble understanding him.

Anchistos asked if I would join them for dinner. This earned him some sharp looks from his companions, but I hardly felt it polite to turn down a meal. I notice that the priest Rodrigues was eating meat and drinking wine even though it was Friday and a fast day. As he drank, his topics of conversation became increasingly more salacious, and I have strong suspicions that he is not what he claims to be. The other one that worries me is Mavros, the imp — or "Three-cubits", as Thomas calls him, on account of his tiny stature. He did not engage in conversation around the table; I'm not even sure he can speak. Every time he opened his mouth I could see the fire that burns inside him, as if he were made of iron and had a forge-fire stoked in his belly. The little creep was always watching me; and I could read no emotion in his dim-yet-glowing red eyes.

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25th November, in the 28th year of the reign of His Majesty Henry, fourth of that name; or the 1450th year of Our Lord and Saviour

It was my fifth day in Constantinople, and I was aware that, while there was still much to see, I had business that I would have to get around to eventually. I could admit to myself that my procrastination was partly my distaste for the real reason that had brought me here, but also partly because I enjoyed spending time with Semne.

I asked Semne to take me to her favourite place in the city. I did not expect a climb up to the summit of the Third Hill, but it was worth the effort. Here, above the hubbub of the city was an oasis of calm; a well-kept park around a large fountain formed of three nymphs. There were a few others here, taking their comfort amongst the gently singing waters. To the north and west I looked down on the top of Constantinople's famous aqueduct, which spanned the gap between this and the Fourth Hill. The fountain, Semne told me, was fed by this conduit which brought water to the city, from here it plunged underground through miles of pipework to serve the thousands of pumps, cisterns, fountains, and spigots.

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[...continued...]

Considering luncheon, we walked down the north face of the hill into the Platea district. We found a street vendor cooking skewers of lamb basted in oxymel, and sat a while at the feet of a marble statue of a dead emperor and ate them. Semne told me some wild tale about the statues coming alive on moonlit nights, but I was only half-listening. I was more interested in the unusual behaviour of a dog. It was standing with tail erect and head cocked, facing into an alleyway. It looked remarkably like the mutt who had been breakfasting on my boot; but its growling did not appear to be directed at me. I went over to see what had caught its attention. It was just a heavyset man dragging a large package down the alleyway. He went down some steps to a basement door, and that's when I saw the package twitch. I mean, I thought I did, I couldn't be sure. He suddenly hove back into sight and for some reason I ducked back into the street so as not to be seen. Was it because the bundle could have been a body? I didn't think he had seen me, and sure enough when I looked back he was gone and so was the package. Semne had seen nothing, and I didn't mention it to her for fear that she would be scared.

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