Saturday Snippet: Merchant and Magic

This is part of a story I’m still doing research for. I’ve got some of the nuts-n-bolts sorted out, but the rest needs some ground-truthing, so to speak. This is an expansion on something I posted earlier.

Magic sparkled around the seal as he pressed it into the quick-hardening clay disk affixed to the bale of hides, or would have if he could see magic. Tycho waited four heart beats, then lifted his seal. The impression had taken and the cluster of watching men all relaxed. A merchant’s first seal in a new market always attracted attention. The weigh-mage gestured his confirmation, as did the market-master, who entered his approval in the great market book. Tycho had already stamped the book, using the blue-green ink of the Free City of Rhonari to confirm his place of origin and trade-confraternity. Had the seal not taken, well, another mark would have been made, closing the gates to him forever. Tycho stepped back from the weigh scales, allowing the apprentices to take the bundle of un-cut hides off the platform and carry them through the enormous doors of the great warehouse.

“Welcome, Master Tycho Rhonarida,” the market master announced, his oddly high-pitched voice cutting through conversations and arguments in the square before the central warehouse. “May your spirits smile on your doings.”

“And may yours prosper and protect you and your—” he caught himself before he said proud, “your fair city. May her walls be strong and her denizens be stronger.” He braced, not staggering as the weigh-mage slapped him on the back with a hand the size of a great-hauler’s hind-foot. The men muttered and grunted their approval. He was a foreigner, but a man of men. That counted for much these days.

“So, what brought you besides hides, Master Tycho?” The stiff black and brown feathers fringing the man’s dark cap skull-cap marked him as a weaver.

“Hides with fleeces yet, hides tanned and scraped, hides tanned and un-scraped, and three Paolu-stone of furs from Griklant consigned for one Master Yehlu that I carry for Ulfrim of Quint’s widow, the order placed before Master Ulfrim’s death.” They all made spirit signs, warding off any ill from the death.

“Good.” The weaver clicked his teeth on the last word, cutting the conversation as he turned to the journeyman waiting behind him. Tycho caught the meaning and moved farther away from the scales, opening them for the next merchant. Until weighed and confirmed on the mage-watched scales, nothing could be sold within the walls of the city. This all knew, or should know, but the list of banned traders painted on the warehouse wall served as a pointed reminder. One of the great-haulers pulling his wagon tossed her head, making her brilliant crest-feathers flutter. The market-master nodded and wiggled his fingers, the signal that the weigh and approval had ended and all should return to their business. Tycho touched four fingertips to his forehead as he bowed, honoring the market-master and the market.

The instant the watchers dispersed, he strode to the wagon, pointing to the waiting men and boys. “You have seen the weigh.”

“Aye, we have seen.” The biggest man grunted, reaching into the sturdy wagon and dragging the first bale of hides out of the back. The rest of the travel group had already unloaded, being known to the market, and without distractions or competition, the porters emptied the wagon with skilled speed, carrying the bales into the dark maw of the warehouse as Tycho counted. When the last bale passed through the doorway, he followed, hesitating at the entry as if he felt the protective spells that kept out fire and vermin. The warding-mage on duty nodded, allowing him to enter now that he’d acknowledged the spell-screen.

Tycho let his eyes adjust, then followed the last of his bales to the back of the hides-and-cloth section. “Use hides or show hides, Meester?” the tally-counter asked.

“Use hides, for garments. They are hides with fleeces, hides tanned and scraped, hides tanned and un-scraped, all fine-tanned but not trimmed, total weight three hundredweights Rhonari.” He waited as the tally-counter looked at the back of his tally board to find the conversion to the local weight. The warehouse looked about half full, at least this side. A wall separated the food side from the goods side, something Tycho found quite agreeable. He still shuddered at his master’s tale about when two barrels of tree-sugar broke and destroyed seventy bales of fine woolens and ten of glove-hides. They’d not realized the disaster until the apprentices went to move the bales and they stuck to the floor of the warehouse. Tycho made a little warding off sign. The mage in charge of the anti-leak spells had been fined and forced to drag a barrel and syrup-drenched bale around the inside of the walls four times as apprentices pelted him with rotten vegetables and mud balls. The merchant still went hungry that winter, because he had to make up the contract from his own pouch and the restitution was not sufficient to cover the contract.

The tally-counter handed him a slip of paper with the tally on it. Should anything happen to the goods, they would be on the official list for restitution. Tycho touched two fingers to his forehead as he took the slip, then departed. The market would not open for two more days, so he could find his lodgings, make a thanks-offering, learn the local news, and rest. Gone were the days of drinking all night, traveling all day, and bargaining and selling in-between. But first he had to deliver the furs.

He paid a broken bit of ring, the value of a half-vlaat, to the apprentice who had been minding his great hauler, then took the lead rope and tugged three times. For once the beast followed obediently, probably because it too was tired and footsore and looking for rest. The others tossed their heads but did not balk, for which he offered silent thanks. The locals watched, giving the beasts a healthy clear space. No one who had seen great-haulers on a run wanted to startle or anger the large beasts. Those few who had seen an un-clipped great-hauler reach out with its claws and grab another hauler or a man stayed even farther away, some making warding signs. Tycho had seen such a thing only once, and preferred never to see the like again. He walked steadily, head up as befitted a free merchant from a free city. The widow of Ulfrim of Quint had shown him her late husband’s notes, and he took the first turn at the water temple, followed the narrow street past two cross streets and a curve, and looked for the gate of metal under the sign of the verdant fish-eater.

A few children give his beasts curious looks, but none approached him. Tycho smelled cooking food and ignored his stomach’s mutters and growls. He’d get better in the traders’ district where his confraternity had a lodge. Two or three women nodded and he shifted out of the way of an apprentice staggering left and right under a bundle of rough sacking cloth too high to see over. “Pardon, Meester,” the apprentice puffed, then sneezed and hurried on. One of the second-row great-haulers sniffed the boy’s load but she didn’t do anything more. The street smelled no worse than most cities. Little canals with captive streams flowed down one side of the street to carry ordure and mud, something Tycho approved of. Since they also nullified some magics, he wondered how long they’d been there. Since the last war?

“Trweeeeeeesss,” the lead hauler sang out. Tycho ducked under her neck just in time, grabbing the would-be thief’s hand and twisting him around.

“Would you feel my staff?”

“I, I, was just— Oof!” Thud. Tycho shoved him, giving the ragged man a firm boot in the rump as he did. The thief landed hard on the edge of someone’s stone steps.

“Twaaasss!” the lead beast tried to grab a beak-full of mud-colored tunic but the thief dodged, rolling away from her strike.

“Ye be lucky. Had ye grabbed her bells, ye’d be called the one-handed straight into the next world.” Tycho kept his voice calm, but spoke loudly enough for all to hear. Several of the people carrying goods or market baskets smiled and nodded their approval as they passed.

“Harbee the Rat! You’d best get back to your nest, or it will be my clog up your rear,” a ferocious-looking matron snapped. Her clog appeared only a little smaller than the second-beast’s foot, and Tycho decided he’d just as soon not get in her way. The would-be thief squeaked, fear on his round face, and hurried up the street, ducking into a narrow passage between two houses. “Ugh. If he’d put as much work into working as he does into spoiling everything he touches, he’d be the richest man bar Lord Valrep.”

“Eh, what do you expect from someone given to the Scavenger at birth?” a portly woman with a bright white cap and grey scarf called from over a half-open door.

Tycho ignored the ensuing discussion in favor of hurrying the great-haulers and his wagon into a wider part of the road. As he did, he caught a glimpse of a sign hanging from a building. The sign bore the imaged of a brilliant green fish-eater, its sharp teeth painted bright red. The merchant wondered what had inspired the sign, and how much silver a bright green pelt would fetch. Eh, not that much, since some held bright green to be dangerous on clothes, attracted spirits best avoided. But the sign and the heavy metal-worked gate below matched the widow of Ulfrim’s instructions, and Tycho led his beasts around to stand facing the gate.

“What business, Meester?” an lean man in journeyman’s black asked from just inside the part-open portal.

“Tycho Rhonardia with furs of Griklant for Master Yehlu, from the estate of Ulfrim of Quint.”

“One moment, please.” The journeyman bowed and retreated into the shadows of the gate. Before Tycho could worry, the gates opened with the faintest of protests. He was impressed. He led the beasts and wagon into a large courtyard with a well off to the right and a watering trough to the left. Apprentices and a slave filled the trough with leather buckets. A tall man with twitching fingers approached, limping slightly. He smiled with half his face, and Tycho touched his forehead with fingertips, honoring the god-struck man.

“Be welcome to water and land, Tycho of Rhonari.”

“Thanks for the welcome and prosperity to the house.”

A sturdy serving girl bowed and took the lead rope as Tycho led Yehlu around to the opposite side of the wagon. He lowered the side panel, then folded back the covering canvas. “Three paolu-stone of furs from Ulfrim of Quint, now gone to the gods.”

“May his passage be swift and his return elevated.” Both made their patron’s blessing-signs. Yehlu turned his head a touch to the side and reached out, brushing the furs with his fingertips. “Very good! Haarman,” he called to someone. A brisk young man in a vest with the sigil of the preservation mages trotted up, touched his forehead to the two men, and made a complicated series of hand gestures while murmuring. Then he took a feather and a bit of fur from a leather pouch on his white canvas belt and touched them to the bundles. Master Yehlu looked away and Tycho followed suit, as if he avoiding the flare of  light as the spell-seal broke.

“They are free, sir.”

“Thank you, Haarman.” The mage half-bowed and hurried away, ducking into a low doorway near the well. “My lady is finishing putting up the fruits of the season.”

No wonder the mage hurried back to his other work. “Of course, the summer is passing more quickly than some would like.”

“Indeed.” Yehlu leaned into the wagon and pulled out the first bundle. Tycho had not seen the furs, and he allowed his eyebrows to rise at the thickness and quality of the pelts. The grey-spotted blacks seemed especially fine, and he felt a momentary pang for how much he could have made selling them for his own benefit. Fur merchants always seemed better off than leather sellers. Then he reminded himself that it was a rare lord indeed who would confiscate raw hides and rough-tanned hides, while the stories of fur-dealers’ losses were legion. “Hmm, that is large. Very large,” he reached forward again and began unfolding a pelt the likes of which Tycho had not seen before. He grabbed a paw before it could touch the ground and backed up, helping spread the enormous hide. “His lordship will be quite pleased with this.” Yehlu stroked the pelt with his weak hand. “This is one of the great northern ox hunters, in its winter fur.”

“By the stars of the south, I’ve not seen one this large before!”

Yehlu smiled and patted the hide again. “No one of good sense or wisdom approaches one of these when they are grown. I’d love to know the story behind the hunt, but such things are for the hunt-master’s servants, not the likes of me.”

All trades had their trade secrets. Still, Tycho could imagine that the story rivalled some of those of the men who fished for the great western white-heads.

“But come! I am being a poor host indeed who ignores his guest in favor of trade.”

“There is no poverty in trade honestly conducted, and no dishonor in confirming the bargain.” The familiar words always made things easier.

“The bargain was confirmed with your arrival, and my haste out of season. Please, come into my walls.”

“I am honored to enter such walls. May your spirits bless you and all within these fair walls.”

Ritual complete, the two men crossed the courtyard and ducked into a rounded doorway with a wheel marked in the plaster above the arch. Master Yehlu followed Radmar of the Wheel, god of changes and turnings, as well as his trade patron. Tycho wondered how he could afford both, but perhaps he’d been born into Radmar’s fellowship for all that he was a fur merchant. As fast as fashion was rumored to change farther south, Radmar might be sensible as protection from caprice. Tycho found the small altars and saluted them before he sat in the chair Yehlu waved him into. The room smelled of herbs and fur and a little wood smoke, despite the heat outside.

Apprentices and serving girls brought in cool wine and bread and spiced oil. Tycho bowed in thanks, broke one of the small loaves, dipped it in the oil, then ate. His host followed suit, then each dipped a finger into the wine and let three drops fall onto the floor in thanks before drinking. Rituals finished, Yehlu ate a large hunk of bread without oil, gulped it down, and leaned forward. “So, what news from the road?”

“Nothing of great import, thanks be to all gods known and unknown. The crops around the city seem good, and no one had spoken of hail or heavy storms along the way, although there were stories of bad weather to the east, too much rain early in the season.” Tycho lifted his cup, “weak wine, or so they say. One of the eastern lords was killed on a hunt,” he winked, “Just what he was hunting, and if his untimely death came before or after he found the game remains unsaid.”

“Indeed.” Yehlu winked back. That particular lord had been courting disaster as well as courting other men’s wives, as all well knew. “Have you heard aught from farther south? Some of the merchants pass by sea rather than overland or up the rivers.”

Tycho wagged his free hand back and forth like a scale beam tipping. Yehlu leaned forward. “It is said, and I heard this from a stone-trader who had spoken with the grain merchant in question, that Liambruu’s crown letters of credit are to be shunned. Merchant letters from known merchants may still pass, but not crown letters. Even the temples are shut to crown letters.”

“Ah. It has been coming, but I was not sure if it would happen this summer or next. I stopped taking orders from the south, and even Lord Valrep has ‘politely declined’ invitations to deal with the Liambruuni crown directly out of his surplus.” Yehlu raised one angled eyebrow as he sipped his wine. “Nor will he compel those of us within his walls to do business below the mountains.”

“Hmm. Oh, yes, you must know, and I will repeat this to the full market when it meets.” Tycho reached into the belt pouch on his left side, taking out a smaller cloth bag. “A light, please, of your generosity. I fear I am road-weary.”

“But of course.” Yehlu twisted in his seat, reaching behind him and dragging a metal rod and holder across the top of a chest, then setting them on the table. Tycho looked away as his host enlivened the spell to make light that had been fixed to the rod’s tip. Instead he hunted through the coins in the pouch. “These.” He set the disks, as large across as a fat-woman’s ring, on the table, pushing them across the rippled wooden surface to his host. “They are from Platport, or so the face claims. But rub them.”

Yehlu picked up the first coin, sniffed it, then rubbed it between thumb and forefinger and sniffed again. He wrinkled his nose and dropped the coin. “Ugh. What is that?”

“Not magic, according to the market mages and the master at Hillnbend trafeld. But the metal is not coin metal, and the stamp is not from Platport if you look at them through glass and moon-touched water. The coins feel harder to the tooth than do good Platport vlaats and half-vlaats.”

A snort. “And who tooth-tests silver, especially this far inland from Platport? You say the stamp shows false?”

“Aye, but only through glass and moon-touched water. The god-side is off-center, and the city-side stamp is too deep, too clear. Platport has not minted new coin for three years, and these all looked new on one side. The Trafledmeester showed all of us good coin and bad, so we could spread word.”

Yahlu rubbed all four coins in turn, then wiped his fingers on his tunic’s hem. “Ugh, may bad repay bad and ill getting repay ill intent. Did the Trafeldmeester have any thoughts as to where these came from?”

“No but,” Tycho raised one finger in caution. “But there was word that similar stinking coins had appeared with the marks of Marshburt after the first southern ships had come in. I had not heard anything more, and I have not seen any Marshburt coins since the caravan crossed the Gheel River, so I pass the word as word only, not fact.” If someone was indeed foolish enough to falsify coins from the Free Cities, they would face more than just trade bans. The lords of Corwin had learned that the hard way when their city burned down around their ears as the Five Free Cities’ fireships sailed out of port.

“It shall be taken as word, but I’ll tell my people to be watchful. And you say that the magics don’t show these,” he waved his weak hand toward the four counterfeits.

“Not as of when we left the trafeld. That could mean nothing, since none of the mint mages were present.”

“Hmm, yes.” Tycho swept the coins back into the cloth pouch and returned it to the larger leather belt-pouch.

(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

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4 thoughts on “Saturday Snippet: Merchant and Magic

  1. Nice. The ‘Share’ series has proven that there is a market for trade adventures. Good stories are good stories, even when they’re not about important, influential people.

    • Thanks. I suspect I’ll be spending most of July working on this one, while the research is fresh. It’s interesting to imagine a world where magic isn’t earth-shattering or showy.

      • *grins* I do like the touches of them observing the magic they can’t see or feel 🙂

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