Rone and Charlotte turned down a long sloping paved street and the smell of the ocean began to fill their nostrils. The air had the dull stillness that characterized early afternoon near the sea, when the winds began to turn from blowing out to sea to blowing back into shore.
“That smell has been a long time in the coming,” Rone said. His feet fell hard against the uneven paving stones on the slope. As they turned a corner, an opening between two huddled buildings revealed a vast and imposing series of docks, freight-ways, and canals. Rone held her arm as they paused to look. “Impressive, eh?”
“It reminds me of the harbor in Frostmouth, only that city has a river running through it. As busy as a hill of ants.”
They started down the long hill. It descended quickly toward the flat walkway in front of the lattice of docks. The buildings around had grown larger and more packed together, composed more of warehouses, stockrooms, and workshops than houses. Between them and the ocean stood a forest of tall masts and rope riggings. Men jostled about in every free space on the old stone walkways, carting great boxes and barrels, and more than a few people in chains.
“Alright, that looks like it up ahead there,” Rone pointed at an ancient sandstone building with a large front door facing off toward the harbor and surrounded by men. It was large enough to be a keep in its own right, though it lacked the usual defenses.
“My, it is big, though I expected the silver seat of the west to have something a bit more…” Charlotte trailed off.
“Yes. Um… current is more the word I was looking for. This building looks a lot older than the castle, which is saying something.”
“Aye, I’ve heard the keep has been standing since the eighth dominion, and hasn’t been changed for a thousand years.” He stopped walking to turn and look up the hill, beyond the skyline of the twisted buildings of the city, at the massive castle that overlooked it. It appeared black at that moment, looming at the edge of a cliff over the sea. The clouds, blown swiftly over to the highlands by the winds above the marine layer, were casting frightening shadows across it that swirled and swam like a magic haze.
“I don’t know about that, but it was built before the Herecs controlled this city,” Charlotte said. “I do know that.”
“Do you now?”
“Aye. The Herecs had an unenviable title in the south reaches between Golice and Bergen, once upon a time.”
“Are there any titles that are unenviable?”
“Many, at least from a noble’s perspective.”
“Still, I wouldn’t mind the luxury.”
“Somehow I think you, more than anyone I’ve known, would mind.” She smiled at him. “You are much too restless to live the life of a noble.” She sighed. “The Herec estate was more pitiable than desirable, even for a vassal. Their original title was out in the middle of the lowland swamps. Hot, muggy, swarming with insects, and nearly impossible to travel in and out of, especially in the wet season.”
“Must have been a reason to keep living there, or I imagine everyone would left. After the wet season, of course.”
“A very good reason. Saffron was, and is, the gold and silver of the lowlands, and five centuries ago it was the spice that ruled the world. Though the Harecs controlled little of the trade, through several generations of savings and investment they were able to play enough power with the High Cleric to inherit this lovely but not-so-chaste fiefdom when the old owners were swept away.”
“Five hundred years. Must have been during the last great inquisition, at the start of the dominion, yes?”
“I was taught to call it the Exalted Culling, which I believe is still its official name.” They were now standing a dozen feet from the front door of the trade offices of Masala, which stood ajar with a line of people reaching out one side. Occasionally a man in a uniformed blue set of trousers would walk in or out of the empty side of the door.
“I was taught by teachers more concerned with truth than the official record.” Rone began glancing around the side of the building to the alleyways, wet with run-off and sewage. “I wonder what they did to be culled.”
“Heretic knowledge, I’m sure,” Charlotte still wore her half smile, and Rone watched the light from the pinholes in her parasol crawl across it. Her eyes, now a bright blue, glowed in the shade with reflections of himself standing in the bright sun. A strand of copper hair picked up in the wind and blew across her nose.
Rone stared at her for a long moment. “Come on.”Charlotte looped her arm into Rone’s and they threaded themselves through the throng into the larger inner room.
The inside of the registrar was dim, but neatly kept. The thick walls and small windows were a relic of an older style of construction within the city, much more concerned with sturdiness than comfort. That concern was well preserved within the ancient docking agency, which (as Rone reckoned) held onto much of the contraband that was confiscated on site. On each deep set window was a set of crossed bars planted firmly in the stone, reaffirming this purpose. The ceiling was stained a deep gray, nearly black, from years of candles, lamps, and torches. On one side was a set of tables with a stack of books and papers piled up on it. The line of people from the outside led up to it, and a mousy clerk sat behind it scribbling onto a ledger with a ragged goose-feather pen. Rone and Charlotte could hear him conversing with the man in the front of the line as they walked by.
“Fifteen men, twelve women, three child, just like it say.” The old man was holding out a dirty sheet of paper that the clerk was eyeing over.
“I assume you will be housing them on ship until tomorrow?” The clerk never looked the old man in the eye, instead focusing on the scratchy writing of his pen.
“Yar, that’s the plan.”
The clerk handed him a piece of paper. “Take this to the cashier next door, he’ll give you a set of stamps once you pay the total due. Be mindful of them, we can’t replace lost stamps, and you’ll have to pay the tax twice if your slaves pull theirs off before the auction. Next.” Another man with a stack of papers stood up to the table. The little man didn’t seem to notice Rone and Charlotte as they walked leisurely into the next room.
The next room was darker than the first. The rear wall contained a pair of great iron doors, double barred both inside (so Rone assumed) and out, with two padlocks on each side. To its left was a cashier’s cage, iron shod, with an old bespectacled man writing in his ledger beside stacks of silver and gold coin. The old man from the previous room walked up to the cage and, despite his ragged exterior, produced a dirty leather purse from his pocket and began to count gold coins out on the counter while the cashier inside began stamping a set of small papers.
Charlotte pulled Rone inside an adjoining room, suddenly bright compared to the darkness of the vault antechamber, containing the makings of a small office. A young mustached man sat behind a desk in the middle of the room, looking at a stack of papers in front of him and carefully writing in a large leather tome to his left. His uniform consisted of more than the blue trousers of the guard; he had a pressed blue waistcoat with brass buttons and a matching wide brimmed hat, topped with a white plume.
“Pardon me,” Charlotte said sweetly. The young man looked up at her and smiled, revealing a row of white teeth.
“How do you do, madam,” He began to stand, “and sir,” he said nodding to Rone.
“Well enough for the winds,” Rone said, doing his best to seem polite.
“Oh we’re quite well. Am I to understand you’re the dock master?” Charlotte said, tilting her head to the side.
“Not quite, madam. That would be Mr. Draggle. He doesn’t spend time in the office. Too much paper and not enough salt for him. He’ll be out making his rounds, getting ready for the wave of ships that will come in closer to sunset. I’m the count’s clerk for the seaward offices. Lieutenant Michael Corving, at your service.” He clicked the heels of his well-oiled shoes.
“I’m Phillip, and this is Halbara,” Rone said naturally. A slight pause filled the air.
“Melanie,” Charlotte said. Rone eyed her, frowning in disapproval for an instant. Before the silence could be filled she added, “of the wetland Melanies. Are you of the Southerland Corvings?”
“Yes, actually. My father’s estate overlooks the woods there. My wife is from here in Masala. After her brother died, gods take his soul, we moved so that she could assist her father in his import business. The good Count Herec was kind enough to accept my commission.”
“I’m sure the count is happy to have someone with such good reputation representing his interests in the sea trade,” Charlotte said.
“Do you need the dock master?” Michael said. “I don’t expect him in until night.”
“I’m sure you could help us.” Charlotte smiled sweetly.
“Yes, my wife and I have a need to cut our tour short, and we need passage to the Northmarch,” Rone said. “Bergen, Frostmouth… a lesser port would do as well. We will need to travel inland.”
“Let me check,” Michael said as he sat down and looked in his great book. “Let’s see, port of call Frosmouth… not its next stop. Hmn. Well there is a ship leaving for Golice, but it’s not listed as a passenger carrier. Brought in… dry goods. Spices.” He looked up at the couple. “It might not be comfortable, but it’s the only thing here leaving to the Northmarch in the next week. You can ask the captain yourself about booking passage, see if he’s willing.”
“Thank you, sir,” Rone said clicking his heels, “How shall we find him?”
“He’s likely on ship. Dock seven-B. Name is…” He checked his book again, “Johnny. Odd. Only one listed.”