Honouring a promise to the feral Esmalia and her hoodlum friends, Swampy smuggles Gretchen into the city of Merkabar. The main gates are guarded by Elyon Knights and detect chaos is routinely used on disreputable travellers – and Gretchen is very disreputable – so Swampy approaches the River Elves to find a barge willing to take them through the River Gates and drop them at one of the Silent Wharves with the usual contraband.
Escorting Gretchen through the sewers, Swampy is unnerved by the growing crowds of rats that emerge and shadow them. Once inside the city, they follow a storm drain into the Nether Courts where a boat is waiting for them, crewed by four Cauldron-born with their eyes and lips sewed shut. Gretchen boards the boat like visiting royalty but then turns and speaks to Swampy for the first and only time.
“Are you coming with us all the way?”
Swampy is curious but a wise head overrules a burning imagination. He watches as the boat passes through a curtain of water from an aquaduct high above and vanishes.
Up in the Arcane Sook, he rescues another Swamp Elf, Achachak, from abuse by a crowd that dislikes his preaching. The prattling Achachak reveals that the Elders are receiving prophetic visions again and asks Swampy if he has seen omens in his descent into Stonehell.
Swampy sends money to pay the Elfin Dignity to Molimo, but with the rest he goes gambling and befriends a plated-ghoul named Silvernose who is pursuing a gambler with unpaid debts. Swampy hires Silvernose to investigate Gretchen.
His friend Horatio contacts him with a request. Horatio wants to visit the Swamp Elf Deepings to purchase Sweetsedge for Molimo. This aromatic reed is treasured by the Myrhaku and adorns their holy places. The shaman Bemidye is reluctant to sell any but an Myrhak woman named Huyanah is willing to help. She is the widow of a sedge harvester, owns her own skiff and knows the craft. The three of them travel into the swamps, avoiding cockatrices and lizardfolk, and find a crown of Swampsedge, which Huyanah cuts down with a single sickle-stroke, letting now reed touch the water. Swampy collects a fallen flower as a good omen.
On their return to Merkabar, they see the city is ablaze.
Sick of high-handed and oppressive treatment from the ruling Ellyon – and especially the Dowager Sheryna of the Stainless Spire – the Danaan of the Western Paradise have risen up in riot and revolt. Their protests are joined by an Unseelie insurgency from the Nether Courts: boggarts and bugbears and troops of Cauldron-born. Patrol groups of Eunuch Guards are set upon and hanged in the streets. Ladies are pulled from their divans and abducted. Homes are broken into and babies snatched from cradles. The pleasure gardens of the Hekaloth of Virgins (or at least its lower apartments) is invaded by toadstool people and handmaidens and at least one Virgin Sheryna are dragged shrieking into the night.
Dawn rises over a stunned city. Realising the scale of the riot and its likely consequences, the O’Tigernaich are is first to respond. Sagard Credne orders the first barricade of the district’s main throughfare, cutting off the Western Paradise from the central courts of the city and sending pickets to block the viadicts to the Northern Paradise. The O’Niall Clan is quick to follow, closing down the bridges to the Southern Paradise.
Many Danaan join the barricades, adorning them with banners and the corpses of the hated Eunuch Guards. However, the Clans are divided. Laird Tyron O’Tigernaich is in the Heavenly Palace at a banquet. His high priest acted without his order. Laird Fiach O’Domnhaill bides his time, reluctant to act against his Ellyon friends.
Then the Unseelie Jest is revealed. Babies in their cots that had been so quiet for the last couple of days reveal themselves to be changelings: mere bundles of twigs animated by a fey glamour. Among the kidnapped infants is the newborn son of Laird Fiach O’Domnhaill – also the grandson of the Sher Adnazzar, a powerful Ellyon, and the twin daughters of Laird Quinn O’Fergus.
Dian observes these events with alarm and visits Suibne O’Niall and his lady Marain. The lord and lady are losing control of the situation, since they seem powerless to retrieve either the abducted infants or the kidnapped Ellyon virgins. Dian knows that Urisk the Satyr has perpetrated these outrages as insurance, to make sure Dian gifts him the Philtre of Love he craves. However, Dian doesn’t have the Philtre…
Meanwhile, the agents of Aofe O’Moen and the other Lairds comb the Nether Courts for the abducted babies and the crowds start to abandon the barricades in grief and confusion. Sensing advantage, the Ellyon muster their cavalry. Rumours swirl that the Satrap of the Western Paradise has been executed for incompetence, that Tyron O’Tigernaich languishes in a dungeon, that Fiach O’Domnhaill has committed troops to help the Ellyon restore order upon his own people.
The Dawn of Danaan pride begins to look like the Dusk of Danaan exile and slavery.
There's trouble in the Western Paradise. Abbot Cormac's envoy to the Dowager Sheryna has been snubbed. Instead he has been invited to attennd the forthcoming Betrothal Feast for the Sherinina Zahd, one of the Dowager's favourite maidens at the Stainless Spire. Dian and the other Danaan are furious about the treatment of Murnach the Inker and other tattooists abused by the Elyon nobility. They are planning a riot.
Swampy makes his first visit to Merkabar on a Myrhak barge, passing through the water gate and dropping off good at legitmate wharves and contraband at the 'silent wharves'. He meets his friends at the Paradise of the Seven Yews, their regular rendez-vous.
Swampy wants to visit a Myrhak merchant named Molimo 'Tallgrass' who holds the contract for his people's Dignity, a sort of tax they ,must pay to the Myrhak homelands. Dian hopes Molimo will help fund his planned insurrection, while Horatio knows that Molimo holds the accounts for tarifs on Lotus-dealers in the Nether Courts and this will help him get to the bottom of his friend Medea's harassment by the Stainless Spire. Getting in to see Molimo through the Heavenly Courts is difficult so they use the back door through the Nether Courts.
The group disembarks from the canal and negotiates a way past a group of Unseelie Hags who occupy the tower basement. The next floor is a giant laundry in which the filth from clothing is extracted by gremlins and used to make Scurrilous Ink. The lift takes them up past clerk halls to the luxury apartments where they talk their way past a Plated-Gul and into Molimo's apartment.
Molimo is a River Elf and two Gnomes are dressing him for the forthcoming party at the Stainless Spire. Waiting on the balcony, the party meet Molimo's sardonic daughter Quanah. Swampy pays a portion of his people's Dignity to Molimo then Dian tries to make the case for his people's grievance with the Dowager Sherya. Molimo is unwilling to help but mentions the possibility that Urisk the Satyr has an interest in opposing House Isha and the Stainless Spire, prehaps because of his general hatred of virginity. Horatio uses a flashbomb as cover to steal some ledgers and a valuable paperweight. He is detected by Quanah, who amuses herself by introducing him to Molimo as a horticulturalist who can replace the demolished Sweetsedge plants.
Dian and Horatio head over to the South Paradise to visit the Fane of the Radiant Falls. This is a River Elf temple where plumed dracotrices fight so that auguries can be read into the outcome; the practice has spawned a lucrative gambling institution. Nemelil, one of the priestesses, is a renowned beauty and Urisk the Satyr is known to lust after her, but to no avail. Dian and Horatio suggest to Urisk that they can obtain a Philtre of Love for him. In return, Urisk promises to assist the insurrection, but warns that the infants replaced by changelings during the turmoil will only be returned if they make good their promise to deliver the Philtre.
Finally, Dian and Horatio collect their captive, Malfrecas Null, and take him to the Paradise of the Forsaken Children, to meet with Lamesh and his Stygian cultists. Lamesh takes possession of the mad hermit and offers scarabs as "gifts from Lord Sutekh." Horatio's scarab confers invidibility and Dian's a form of animal control. However, neither scarab can be removed, since they dig into the flesh. Lord Sutekh's gifts are not to be trusted.
Things are coming to a head between Abbot Cormac of the Danaan and the Dowager Sherya of House Ishar. The Sherya rules over the Hekkaloth (Palace) of the Virgins and is the main matchmaker and power-broker among the Elyon nobility. She is known as Queen Spider, because she sits at the heart of many webs. She wants to purchase a part of the Western Paradise to create a private pleasure garden for her maidens, but the Abbott has rebuffed all her offers, because the glade is sacred to the Danaan people.
Dian the Cleric has asked to join the Abbot's envoy which is going to visit the Hekkaloth of the Virgins to negotiate with the Spider Sherya. He asks his friend Horatio the Street Mage to help him do some research into the Sherya's dealings.
Dian follows a rumour that girls from the Hekkaloth are seeking out Danaan tattooists in pursuit of a new and illicit fashion. The Elyon regard their bodies as divine and disapprove of tattoos, piercings and even cosmetics and hair styling, but of course beauty and fashion have a higher imperative. Dian visits an upmarket tattooist called Murnach Mac Erp and learns that Elyon ladies are indeed booking clandestine tattooing sessions, all in the upmost secrecy. Murnach is uncomfortable about sharing this - and rightly: a squad of Eunuch Knights led by Captain Farb arrive to close the shop down, smash the inks and break Murnach's fingers.
Horatio takes on the role of a Danaan trader named 'Arturos the Honest' and visits the Arcane Sook down in the Nether Courts. This market operates under sheets because of the water falling from the aquaducts and fountains overhead. 'Arturos' knows a dealer named Medea who trades in Black Lotus petals. She admits that the Sherya's Vizier has been buying Lotus for medicinal purposes, but recent orders have been for the Virughan Violet Lotus. Is that medicinal too? "The Virughan Violet is smoked by those seeking pleasure, wisdom or death and they learn that they are all the same!"
The stall is closed down by a squad of Plated-Ghouls in gold trim. These animated suits of armour are the product of a long-vanished fey sorcerer's designs and now they seek purpose in existence by hiring themselves out to wealthy employers. The 'Tin Men' confiscate Medea's stock of Lotus and Ledger and take her along with them, accusing her of smuggling and non-payment of tariffs. 'Arturos' follows at a distance in the company of another customer, a Gnome named Mackenzie.
The Tin Men take Medea to a canal and load the Lotus and Ledger on board. 'Arturos' uses a smoke grenade to distract the Plated-Ghoul on the gangplank and shoulder-barges it into the water, freeing Medea. Mackenzie uses an illusion to change places with Medea and flees, with the Tin Men in pursuit. 'Arturos' uses his extendable hand to grab the Ledger and a bale of Lotus and then escapes with Medea. An embittered Medea intends to take her Ledger to a crime lord, a Shadow Elf named Caelic Killwhisper, to blackmail the Spider Sherya: someone in the Hekkaloth of Virgins has an addiction to Virughan Violet Lotus that is going to be exposed.
Dian throws some of Murnach's ink into the fireplace, causing a small explosion, and sets fire to the drapes. In the smoke and confusion, he escapes with Murnach. Outside, he rounds up drinkers from the tavern over the road to douse the fire, forcing Captain Farb's Eunuchs to escape out of the back.
Murnach takes Dian with him back to his private house, where his wife bandages his fingers. Neighbours and business associates attend a serious whisky-drinking party to commiserate: other tattooists with similar stories, Danaan Clerics from the Western Paradise, businessmen and a Bard named Fionna Mac Fionn who rouses everyone with ancestral songs of pride and defiance. The Elyon nobles need to be shown that the Danaan cannot be pushed around! A riot is in the making!
Horatio the Street Mage adopts his persona of Wickham Winmore the Northron knight and goes Carousing in Merkabar the City of Paradises with Halwen the Lucky, fellow Northron William of Melcott and "Scratchy" Bonfilh (three NPCs). Halwen, a keen gambler, gets drawn to the House of the Cracked Mirror and a high stakes game of Shibolbo with some robed Stygians. She confides to Horatio/Wickham that she's in over her head and is staking her life as an illicit human sacrifice for some Stygian cult. The game is set to resume at midnight.
Horatio sends his familiar to fetch friends. Dian of the Danaan has been doing the 'Water Tour' of the city, blessing fountains and wells and aquaducts - but really an excuse to attack and harass the Eunuchs of St Jezriel over an escalating property dispute between their religions. Horatio and Dian meet in the Paradise of Seven Yews (a walled cemetery) to discuss their options.
They considering delving into the Nether Courts to find a slave market to buy an alternative sacrifice, but this doesn't sit well with them. They decide instead to visit the Church of Ahrumon to see if the city's established evil religion knows what these Stygians are up to.
Since the temple-ziggurats are massive abattoirs, Dian leaves his hearth-companion Rasher the Boar with another cleric, Wicwyn Yorne.
The pair arrive at the Ziggurat of Smiling Shadows just after evening services and watch the (animal) blood being cleaned away by acolytes. Patriarch Zabulon is in prayer, so they are asked to wait on the Patriarch's balcony, sipping sherbet and eating figs while enjoying a spectacular view of the city.
A young woman joins them and her beauty entrances Horatio. Before she can lead him away, Dian exposes her for a Succubus and curses her. She leaves in a fury but they are reproved by Patriarch Zabulon: "Please don't insult my secretary."
Zabulon is silky sophisticated and deeply corrupt. He reveals that the Stygians worship Ahrumon in the aspect of Sutekh of the Tombs, but their paperwork is up to date and they have observed all the rituals. Zabulon will not take action against them but observes that the Stygians are very interested in the Stonehell dungeon so perhaps a deal might be struck. He gives Horatio a diptych, a hinged tablet granting him some authority from the Church of Ahrumon.
Back at the House of the Cracked Mirror, Horatio and Dian interrupt the Shibolbo Game and approach the Stygian priest to negotiate for Halwen to be released from her debts. Thotmosis the High Priest in return instructs them to return to the Quiet Halls of Stonehell and track down an ancient, evil mystic hiding there who must be made, whether he wishes it or no, to assist the Cult of Sutekh of the Tombs in their Great Work...
All of which explains how a night of Carousing for Horatio turned into an extended evening, with great expense, but resulted in him acquiring a good reputation and a favour from someone influential.