The bogatyrs spend a peaceful night in Perska. The next morning, Zilya and Kovor reappear, offering to put them in contact with the captain of the river barge Mistress Angekka. The captain looks the adventurers over when they arrive, and offers them a free ride to High Miska on the basis of their reputation.
The trip upriver takes roughly a day and a half, thanks to the power of the giant catfish towing the barge upstream. The catfish fascinates Anfisa, though Kostya is somewhat less impressed. Gennadiy spends part of the time grooming himself meticulously and encouraging Yerek to do the same.
During their arrival in the capital of Miska the bogatyrs take the opportunity to observe the local populace from the barge. They see a mix of people very unlike the residents of Tyurin; even a number of pale-haired goblinkin mingle with the other citizens. They reach the docks and begin gathering their gear. As they’re unloading their mounts, they see a pair of the Mistress Angekka crew backing away from a fish-barrel that has begun to move. The barrel falls over, the top rolling away, and a woozy wolverine drags his way out. One of the bargehands asks “…but where are all the fish?”
“It’s a long story,” replies Gullet. He shakes his head. “I am so sober right now.”
Gullet tags along with the bogatyrs as they disembark. A small contingent of guards meets them to look them over. The largest guard, a near-seven-foot-tall shaggy man, greets and embraces each one, sniffing them as he does so. Mika attempts to warn the guard away with a poisonous look which he promptly ignores. Once he’s embraced and sniffed each one, he breaks into a broader grin. “Welcome to Miska,” he says.
Gena asks the huge guard, one Sergeant Gulka, about potential places to say. He cheerfully offers a few suggestions. “If you want the bear with you, not the Golden Elixir. The Silver Crown, maybe… the Elegant Rat if you’re fine with the company… The Bear King, the Devil’s Dice…”
Anfisa gives Gena a nod. “The Bear King sounds great,” he says. Sergeant Gulka nods, and has one of his guards show the bogatyrs the way.
The Bear King is a rougher-looking building in a more rustic part of the city. The barkeep, a dour-looking Kos man with a hook for one hand, gives the lot an appraising eye as they enter. Anfisa starts a tab for Gullet, Gena begins by ordering a nice Magran whiskey, and the group makes arrangements for their rooms.
Anfisa produces the parcel given to her by Hetman Tarska himself, unwraps it, and shows the axe to the barkeep. The Kos proprietor Tursk, clearly impressed, says that it’s a fine weapon but not immediately known to him. He recommends that Anfisa contact Irska Redhoof, a Kos hetman who spends time in both the Kosvodd and Schuka.
“Where else might we go for work?” asks Gena. The barkeep shrugs. “Where do you want to work?”
“We do pretty well at bargework,” Gennadiy continues. “Are other riverboats hiring? How about the Ninth Wish?” Tursk gives him a blank look, and then shrugs. “Oh, you’ll want to talk to Zel. He knows everything that goes on on the river. He keeps an ear out for good work, so he can point you in the right direction.” He pauses for a moment. “And there’s Huntmaster Koden. He’s the tsaritsa’s head of intelligence. If he likes the look of you, he’ll know where the trouble is.”
After a simple and filling meal at the Bear King, the bogatyrs set out to the waterfront on Tursk’s directions. They find Zel, a slender man with silver scales about his neck and damp, reedy hair, sitting on the pedestal of a broken statue and smoking a hookah. Though Zel seems distracted through much of their conversation, he does indeed know the Ninth Wish. He tells them the riverboat tends to anchor a bit beyond the city’s walls, either upriver or downriver, in the name of discretion. He tells them that it’s currently north of the city for a few days. The man in charge is Irikya, and Zel stares out into nothing for a moment before saying “He’s an odd one.”
Zel hands the group a few cards as their means of introduction to Irikya. He then returns to his hookah and wishes them well. The bogatyrs retire to discuss their options. After a brief debate on whether to approach the tsaritsa and gain sanction, they agree to set out for the Ninth Wish that night.
Mika chooses to be the representative player of choice. She dresses like a down-on-her-luck noble, though the overall effect makes her seem a little more… displaced than she’d intended. The other three plan to pose as her hangers-on.
That evening they ride out of the city walls to the north. Half an hour’s travel takes them to a tiny village on the river’s side, where they see the lights of the riverboat shimmering on the water. The local ferryman agrees to stable their animals, including, after a little negotiation, Kostya. He then takes their payment and ferries the four across to the Ninth Wish.
The riverboat’s furnishings display a comfortable touch of luxury, if somewhat faded. The main room has several game tables set about, including a wheel of masks, as well as a servicable bar and a small platform where a trio of musicians play. Just over a dozen customers play at the various diversions. Four broad-shouldered bruisers in respectable clothing watch over the customers, one positioned by the stairs to a second story.
The bogatyrs mingle a bit, and take note of one desperate-seeming gambler who loses a critical bet. A woman at the same table speaks a few words of consolation to him, and when he goes to the outer deck to contemplate his loss, she follows after. Kazimeer studies the decor a bit more, and notes the pattern of several constellations or astrological signs subtly worked into the wallpaper. Various paintings adorn the gambling room, and the sorcerer takes note of one featuring a beautiful rusalka pulling a drowning man below the surface.
Mika picks out a table and begins to play. She throws coin around like a bully, forcing her neighbors to fold early rather than meet her ridiculous raises. Finally, one player stays in, likewise seeming too desperate to have his stake whittled down any further. Luck favors Mika, though, and Gena gently but firmly encourages him to go have a drink at the bar. He pays for the unfortunate soul’s liquor while Mika continues to throw around the weight of her coin purse.
Not long thereafter, a man descends the stairs from the second story. The fellow is built like a scarecrow, with a barely tamed shock of blond hair and a wide, lazy smile. He wears the same black and green as the other staff of the Ninth Wish, though in a much finer cut. He stops by Mika’s table to inquire how the players are enjoying themselves. She complains about the low level of play, and he obliges her by inviting her up to the more exclusive table above. “Finally,” she huffs.
The scarecrow offers her his arm, which she accepts. The two proceed to the stairs as he introduces himself as Irikya.