Agora – our city, our home, our whole world. We have lived here, within the bounds of the grey city walls, for as long as anyone can remember. Some call it "the great marketplace", and with good reason. For this is the city where anything can be bought and sold.
                Take the Central Plaza, at the heart of the metropolis. A vast arena, the hub around which the city turns. This is the place where all the districts meet to mingle and trade – a circular island, surrounded by the mighty river Ora. If it exists, it can be traded here, beneath the shadow of the clock tower.

                But you will never learn about our city if we stay here. Come, squeeze through the closely-packed stalls, and come to the edge of the plaza. Cross one of the twelve bridges that span the Ora, and pass under one of the twelve archways that lead to the districts of the city. Do their names sound familiar to you? Gemini, Libra, Pisces? Yes, our city mirrors the night sky. They say that the whole city was planned like an astrologer's chart – perhaps it makes the stars smile upon us.
                So, let me tell you of the twelve districts – each one with its own character, its own place in the grand scheme of the city. Which would you like to visit first?




                Agora's seat of learning is a grandiose place. The district is dominated by the University, one of the few places in the whole city where buying and selling can be temporarily forgotten. Of course, no programme of study has ever been invented that would not aid the sons and daughters of the wealthy in their future professions, but from the towers of the university, the city can seem a less cut-throat place.
                At street level, the museums offer a glimpse into a world of luxury and sophistication that no-one will ever see outside the rich houses of the Leo district. On dry days, the artists hang their work outside for all to see, and buy, and orators stand on the street corners, promising they can solve all your life's problems and philosophical doubts – for a fee of course.
                But the tallest spire in the district does not belong to the University. The Astrologer's Tower, with its famous glass dome and telescope, has been the home of Count Stelli and his family for as long as anyone can remember, a great edifice, reminding the whole city of the power of the stars, and of the Astrologers' Guild. Of course, that family has never been the happiest, and they have had a tendency to disown each other. Nowadays, the tower is nearly empty, and they say the stones are beginning to crumble. But I doubt it – the Astrologer's Tower will still be standing when you and I are dust.




                It is not quite right to call this a district of the city. Very few people live here. This is the place where the river Ora enters the city, surging through unknown passages in the mighty city walls and emerging to flow down towards Central Plaza. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, this part of the city is devoted to growing, and grazing, our food. The fields of grain and orchards are not large, of course, and yet somehow they manage to feed the remaining eleven districts of the city. The growers are a cagey group – and they guard their secrets jealously.




                The Leo district is where the wealthiest live, strutting around between the fields of Cancer and the old houses of Virgo. The streets are wide and clean, and the houses grand. It is one of the few places in the city where you might possibly find some peace and quiet – where the elite bribe stall-keepers to stay away from the walkways before their houses. The whole district is a monument to the egos of those who live there… except, of course, for the Gardens. I must admit, even I am impressed by the Leo Gardens. Some call them the soul of Agora. They say that when you walk amongst the fountains and trees, placed for beauty and not food, it is like stepping into the world in the distant past, before the outer lands turned barren, and the first stone of Agora was laid.
                It is not surprising that only the wealthiest are allowed to enter. If I were in their position, I would not share my paradise either.




                The Virgo district is the home of the artisans – those who provide the elite with their fine furniture, decoration, and jewellery.
                It is also the place where some of the older families live. Once, this was the richest part of the city, but as the Leo district rose, with its beautiful parks and gardens, only those who had little but their reputation and their family homes remained in Virgo. Many of the artisans who live here were once high in society. But we need only look at the mute violin-maker, Signora Sozinho, to see how far they can fall. It is a faded place, beautiful in its way. But there is a melancholy there that I would greatly like to bottle. It is the most refined emotion I have ever felt.




                Libra, the scales of Justice. No district's symbolism is quite so strong. This is the heart of the law – where the courts hold their sessions, and the city's government, what there is of it, carries out its tasks. It is a stately place: the Sun Court, where the most important cases are heard, is awe-inspiring. But even the Sun Court pales beside the most important building in all of Agora.
                Sometimes, it is easy to forget that the Directory of Receipts truly exists. No-one speaks of it, except in whispers, so wrapped is it in legend and rumour. It is said that the scribes who work there, listing the thousands of daily trades, are never allowed to leave. It is said that the Director keeps a giant book, in which is written every secret in the world. All we truly know, though, is that very few people who go through those vast doors will ever return. And, apart from the highest of the elite, no-one has ever seen into its inner sanctum. In my opinion, that is how it should be. Some mysteries are best left alone.




                The Scorpio district is the place that the thieves dread. With the receivers' barracks on one side, and the prisons on the other, this is not a cheerful place. Strangers are viewed with suspicion, as any prisoners who are released are usually kept here for a few months, under the receivers' watchful eyes.
                Like any place, life goes on, but anyone willing to do business in the streets around the prison must be truly desperate.




                You've seen the gateway to the Sagittarius district? The great beast, half-man, half-horse. Neither one thing nor the other? Yes… that sums up the district well. No-one knows quite how large the Sagittarius district is, how many people live here, or what they'll sell you. But the one thing we can agree on is that if you can't find it elsewhere in Agora, it'll be here somewhere. Sagittarians deal in everything and anything, the whole district is a wondrous bazaar, filled with strange curiosities and doubtful splendours that do not quite fit anywhere else in the city. I find myself quite at home here.
                I keep my own establishment in the Sagittarius district. I am, you know, a glassmaker by trade, but I find increasingly that my customers are more interested in my other profession – as a purveyor of bottled and extracted emotions. An unusual trade perhaps, but nothing compared to the building next to mine – the temple.
                Dr Theophilus's father built it. He called himself a "priest", and bought quite a lot of stained, coloured glass for its windows. Since his death I have been in there a couple of times, in my role as caretaker. It is certainly an arresting experience, to stand amongst the wooden pews and smell that strange, sweet incense. But I have never known what it was for. Certainly, there was very little that he could sell.
                And of course, many try their luck in this district, and when they fail… Well, then they find they have something to sell to me. Disappointment is not an easy emotion to trade, but I always have a use for it.




                The Capricorn District is an unpleasant place. Of course its trades are necessary, but this is the home of the tanners, the metalworkers, and other professions that fill the air with foul odours and smoke. I lived there for a time, when I was learning my glassblowing trade, and I am still sometimes troubled by the permanent cough that all residents have. Perhaps in compensation, this is one of the better places in the city to trade for cheap food and lodging. Anyone willing to stay here is treated well. But even so, a place to be avoided, if at all possible.




                Aquarians' lives are intertwined with that of the river Ora. After circling the Central Plaza, it takes its course down towards the walls between Aquarius and Pisces, with hundreds of small canals flowing into the Aquarius district. This is where the water is cleaned, filtered, and pumped to other parts of the city for washing and cooking. This is where the Riverboat captains – transporting heavy goods to Central Plaza, store their wares in the vast warehouses, and dock their boats. This is where the fishermen make a good living.
                And yet, for all of this, it is a threatening place. Some believe that the riverboat captains know where the Ora leaves Agora, disappearing behind warehouses and towers built into the city walls, to flow to the unknown, barren lands beyond. Aquarius has more than its fair share of drifting debtors too – not quite defeated enough to settle down in the Piscean slums, they look around for any heavy work on offer. And the warehouse owners are always ready to take them on – they know that the desperate will accept far less than their work is worth.




                It is said that as the River Ora flows through Agora, it washes all of the detritus and filth of the city along with it, to its final destination – the Pisces district.
                Actually, the water-front is not so very bad. Mostly poor fishermen, scraping by, working for the riverboat captains when they can, taking out their own little boats if possible. But further into the district it becomes truly dangerous – where the alleyways twist and turn, and the slums grow ever narrower and darker. Even receivers think twice about venturing in here. They say that thieves and cutthroats hide amongst the debtors, crowded into crumbling doorways, ready to spring, if the disease doesn't get you first, that is. Of course, there are plenty of reasons for visiting this lawless place, but no respectable citizen will admit to going there. One thing is certain – the Pisces district holds more than its fair share of dark secrets.




                Some districts' boundaries in the city are hard to spot. You can walk directly from Leo into Virgo, for example, and the only sign will be that the frescoes on the buildings are beginning to fade, and the plaster facades are less well-repaired.
                But some are very easy, and none is more obvious that that between Pisces and Aries. The Arians have practically constructed a barricade. Hastily-built houses crowd up against the edges of the slums, and Arian residents lock their doors against their undesirable neighbours. The residents of the Aries district lead ordered lives. Some might even say a little dull – the Aries district is known for producing the basics by which our lives are run – paper and ink for our contracts, bread and cheese for our food. It is necessary, but not an exciting place to visit.
                The district also holds one of the largest orphanages in the city, though you could never tell from the outside. Matron Angelina produces very well reared children, docile enough for servitude. Of course, there are always exceptions…




                Perched between the writers' stronghold of Gemini, and the paper mills of Aries, it is not surprising that the printers and journalists have set up their presses in the Taurus district. Perhaps coincidentally, the newssheets are written in the same district that is famed for its public houses, and other watering holes. No wonder the gossip here is so rich, and the drink flows so freely. Any Taurean who is not a journalist, a printer or bookbinder, is probably a labourer – working by day in other parts of the city, but coming home to his family in the Taurus district in the evening. Stopping at a couple of the taverns on the way, of course.
                The Wheel of Chance, where customers stake their possessions on winning ever more lavish trinkets, is a particularly popular taproom. Convivial, but more than one visiting scholar from Gemini has ended the night face down in a gutter, fleeced of all their possessions – perfectly legally, of course.

The Agora Travelogue

Website and content © David Whitley - 2013

Author photographs by Gordon Ward

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