Chapter Four: Home and Winter
Gerta patted one paten-shod foot on the rear stoop-stone, the wooden tap tap tap warning passers-by of her possible irritation. “Your son,” she began, fist on hip.
“Half of him is yours,” Tycho reminded her. They had been not-arguing over the boys’ behavior for twenty years. “And you have delegated authority in my absence.”
“That is true, but you are larger than I am, and the council frowns on hitting your own children on the head with broomsticks and fish-gaffs.”
Depending on which son had done what, Tycho doubted the broomstick would be strong enough to attract the young man’s attention. Gerta moved out of the way, allowing him into the narrow door leading to the residential part of their house. “I just came back from the called meeting about letters of credit from Liambruu.”
That explained the patens and her formal dark attire, along with her wearing his chain of mastery. The flat gold and silver links shimmered, if one could see the spells cast on them, and showed that he had formally given her business authority to act in his name in his absence. She slid the patens off her fine embroidered leather shoes, removed her flat-brimmed hat, and lifted the chain over her head. “This I return to my husband and master.”
“This I accept from my wife and lady.” He accepted the chain, held it up for a moment, then lowered it over his own head and accepted the weight of duty. She put her arms around his waist and he pulled her close, kissing her thin, firm lips. Oh he had missed her!
They finally parted for breath. “And what from the meeting?”
She frowned, red-gold eyebrows pulling into a lop-sided V and pursed her lips. She sniffed. “Anyone attempting to use crown credit from Liambruu is to be shown the door. Individual merchants are still permitted, and a list will be sent around at the next gathering, but nothing from the crown, no matter how much interest they agree to pay.”
“No one is accepting credit from Liambruu, not even the southern nobles.”
“Huh. And my husband and master, you smell of ship and unwashed clothes. People will talk.” She backed away and clapped her hands twice. Two maids appeared along with one of the serving boys. “A bath for the master of the house.”
As quickly as the wooden tub and warm water appeared, Tycho suspected that she’d gotten word of his return before he’d left the ship. He did not complain, and stripped to the skin, then scrubbed himself. His travelling clothes would need a thorough cleaning and airing, and he’d go to the barber and get shaved tomorrow. He rinsed and found clean shorts and shirt, and a house gown waiting, along with proper food. He looked at the fresh fruit, cheese, heavy bread, and small-beer, considered complaining, and kept his thoughts to himself. He would get some of that fried meat and spicy fruit the next time he went by the docks. He wanted something else as well, but he’d seen the ring on Gerta’s little finger. She was in her woman’s time, and he’d promised never to touch her during those days. After five months, another day or two would not kill him, he reminded his urges.
The next day, as Tycho went and had four months of beard and excess hair removed, a parade of wagons brought goods from the docks to the house. Freshly shaven and feeling more like a proper merchant instead of a traveling soldier, he and Gerta, and their two oldest sons watched and confirmed everything from his shipping lists and manifests as the barrels, bundles, bales, and boxes passed through the great front doors, large enough for a wagon to back through if needed. A half-dozen apprentices and a handful of hired men worked the hoist, lifting the goods from the ground floor and up into the four levels of storage space within the long, narrow house.
Like all merchants’ houses in Rhonari, the building extended five times its width at least from the street. Storage and business rooms took up most of the space, with a three floor living house added onto the back, on the alleyway. Stone and tile covered the floor on the ground level, sturdy and easy to clean when mud came in. Pale red plaster covered the red-brick and wood of the exterior walls, spark proof like the roof. The tile roof almost touched the houses on either side, but didn’t, to allow rain to shed and refresh the little streams that kept the streets sweet. Some of the southern towns still allowed wooden roofs, or even thatch, and Tycho wondered how long before the gods grew impatient and allowed them to feel the results of their folly. Because of the warm day, Gerta had ordered the boys to open the windows and shutters, allowing air and light into the storage areas. Once he and the boys had everything in hand, she returned to the residential rooms to take care of domestic matters.
She’d grown round over the years, as befitted the mother of eight, five still living, and the wife of a prosperous trader. Her dark-blue dress with bands of grey trim stopped mid-calf and let him see her practical house-boots. A patterned scarf filled in the square neck of the dress, showing her husband’s prosperity and her proper matron’s modesty. Like all the women she wore a white and black cap and veil over her red-gold hair, but she did not pluck her forehead bare in the latest fashion. Some of the women had taken to removing their eyebrows as well, then drawing in a higher pair, making them look permanently surprised. Tycho didn’t understand the attraction, and he was glad Gerta didn’t follow the silly youngsters.
“More fish, sir?” Ewoud asked, nodding toward five barrels set off to one side. He was old enough to go out on his own, probably next season, but not with his father, not just yet. The young man needed more discipline than Tycho trusted himself to apply.
“Neh. Sponges and dried fruit for Andrade. He broke up the shipment because he came back through Rintown and they’ve started claiming first-purchase. Expanded their walls to force everyone to stop and sell.” Tycho didn’t approve of such things, but Rintown produced salt in blocks for craft and industry that were far cheaper than using eating salt. Andrade knew what might happen and had taken the chance, but also protected his most expensive goods.
“First floor then, sir,” Bastiaan held the end of the barrel straps, waiting.
“Neh. Leave them down here and we’ll deliver them to him.”
The boys nodded and returned to sorting and loading. He’d brought back mostly cloth, raw fibers, and plant-wax. Bee wax was better for lights, jewelry-casting, and waterproofing, but plant wax lasted longer in the fabric and leather even though you had to use more of it. It also made better seals and took color and magic more easily, or so the chandlers averred. Tycho left such matters to their trades and to his wife. The spices and other high-value items had already been locked in a special, warded room, at least those he had not purchased for home use. Gerta had promised to make bread with ground sweet-bark to honor his return, and his mouth watered at the very thought.
“Father, do you wish to inspect the hams?” Tycho blinked at his older son. Ewoud repeated, “Do you wish to inspect the hams?”
Gerta must have bought them for some reason. But why would he need to check on them? The boys had expectant looks on their square faces, and he decided that he’d better look. “Yes.” Although hams and other preserved meats were kept in the cellar, Ewoud led the others up the stairs to the first floor, then up ladders to the third floor, just under the sturdy roof-beams. The open gable window let in just enough light for Tycho to see that someone had made a tent-like shelter of canvas. The stocky young man rubbed something, opening the spell on the canvas. He stepped aside, allowing his father to look into the space under the fabric.
Oh. Tycho blinked and looked again. Oh! Gerta had purchased a dozen air-cured hams at least, the rare, nut-fed and smoked full hams from Estland. Tycho reeled a little at how much of his money hung inside the canvas. A thick slice of such hams cost a vlaat. Half his net worth must be hidden under the protective drape! He felt light-headed and wanted to sit down. Instead he took a deep breath, catching a whiff of the rich ham scent, and said, “Very good.”
“They are. Mother let me have a tiny nibble off the quality slice.” Wiebe, his youngest son, licked his lips. “She found them at a salvage sale. The barrels had been labeled as wheat-n-rice flour, and two were. The other four held these, sir.”
Ewoud picked up the story. “Ten still have wraps and seals on them, and the one we opened, the seal tested true and matches that of one of the registered farms on the city trade list. Mother paid the edibles tax, made an extra donation to Maarsrodi and Yoost, and is keeping them until the feast of harbor closing.”
“Sir, could you persuade mother to let us have more, please?” Bastiaan reminded his father of the cats that gathered in the fish market just before the boats came in.
He’d have more success if he found a way to trade her for something. “I’ll see.” Gerta insisted on keeping a firm wall between business purchases and home purchases. Tycho considered the taste of the hams now perfuming his loft, and the hundreds of vlaats—thousands of vlaats!—worth of fine cured meat before him. “I’ll see.”
Ewourd lowered the canvas and closed the ward again. “No one knows we have them. Not even the apprentices, sir.”
Tycho felt faint again. Then he remembered that Gerta had paid the proper tax, and they had been in smuggled salvage. “Good.” He followed the boys down the ladders and stairs. “Thank you.” He gave each boy two bits of broken ring. “Go enjoy the afternoon.” They bowed and hurried out, no doubt to get into mischief. He went into his office, write out messages for those merchants he held goods for, and sent the apprentices to deliver the news.
He ate a good midday meal, trying to ignore the scent of ground sweet-bark. Gerta would send the baking out tomorrow, but his mouth demanded bread right now. Patience, he told himself, patience. The maid removed his empty soup bowl and slid a large platter of fish in parsley and dill into place. After that came schaef-ribs, cheese, and fruit of the season. He still wanted the fried treats from the docks, and glanced at his wife. She regarded him over her spoon, as if guessing what he was thinking. The physician had said no fried, and she insisted on following the specialist’s orders. Tycho decided that he’d find a way, orders or no. He wasn’t entirely cold and damp natured.
“The charms you purchased for the hides held good until I broke the seals in Guill.”
“Did they now. That’s good. I hope he’s available again next spring.” She took another bite of fish. “His spells looked brighter than most I’ve seen, and he put more oompf into them, more strength. I’m glad they lasted.”
“Is he new?”
“Yes, Caster Paaula’s journeyman from Griklant, oddly enough. I’ve never met a preservation mage from Griklant before.”
He ran through his mental register. “Neither have I. Animal charms and tanning, and weather work aye, but not preservation.” Most people that far north dug chill-caves and preserved things that way instead of using any magic. Tycho approved of the thrift. “Did he do the charms on the items in the upper loft?”
“No. I had our usual pantry mage set those. I told him I needed the canvas charmed for something dried.”
“Ah.” The cheese tasted rather strong, and he hoped there would not be more of it. It seemed more blue and green than cheese. “Is this local?”
“Yes, and that’s the last of it, thanks be. Summer is not the time to be making crumble-cheese.”
“I quite agree.”
She wiped up some of the juice from the fruit with a bit of bread crust. “I entered the trades in the ledger but I did not attempt to total everything beyond the rough tally in the scratch book.”
Oh good. He’d spent days correcting everything the last time she’d tried to do a final tally. “Thank you.”
Tycho spend the rest of the day working through the ledgers. He preferred to do everything himself, and Gerta’s scratch book was enough for the few things she did in his absence. She kept to round numbers, always estimating costs up and income down. She was a wise woman, and he wondered what had become of the wool-trader, Hako, who had allowed his wife to run everything without testing her skills first. She’d bankrupted him the second year of their marriage, allowing herself to be tricked into paying far too much for several loads of what proved to be coarse wool with the guard hairs still in it. Hako had been read out of the market and lost his city rights. Had he been able to start over somewhere? Had he kept his wife? Tycho shrugged. Radmar of the Wheel brought low the high and lifted the low, and who know what the next turn might be? Tycho worked down the columns and across, double-checking his work with the bead-rack every page.
He found the hams on the third page and blinked. Gerta had tucked a folded piece of paper into the book, and he removed the metal pin and unfolded the rough paper. It contained a receipt on fine parchment, two receipts actually, one for the food tax on the barrels of salvage and one for the donations to Maarsrodi and Yoorst. No one could claim that she’d not paid for the goods or paid the proper respect to the gods for the magnificent good fortune. He re-folded the page and left it between the pages. She’d paid less than a tenth what the hams were worth, since they’d been sold as blended flours. Truly, he’d been blessed with a most wonderful wife indeed. And her idea of saving them to sell when the port closed was excellent. For some reason everyone wanted seasoning ham beginning the instant the ice built up enough to stop ships from departing or arriving.
Business kept Tycho busy that day and the next two. It wasn’t until four days after his return that he felt comfortable stealing a few moments to look at his coins. He allowed himself this one odd habit—when he found unusual or old coins, he bought them or traded them. By now many of his associates knew and saved things for him to look at. Tycho opened the three drawers holding his cases of coins and set the wooden cases on the table, then found his newest acquisitions. He spread them out on a bit of cloth and wiped them with a dampened corner of the fabric. No dirt or ink came off, unlike some of his finds. He turned and opened the largest of the flat boxes.
He’d sorted the coins by place and when he thought they’d been minted. He had a very few from as far south as two days’ journey to the mountains that separated Liambruu from the closest duchies and counties. All of them had a faint sun-and-rays on one side, with different designs on the other. A priest who had travelled in that region said he’d seen stones from before the cold years that had the sun-and-rays on them. According to the other priests in that area, no one used the mark after the cold years because it was considered cursed. Those made the coins the oldest Tycho had. They’d had dirt on them, and he’d thought they might be just thick vlaats or something similar until he’d cleaned them. The stinking coins looked almost as worn, but the designs were slightly off center on the false-coin, unlike the true coins, no matter what age.
As he compared the counterfeits to the good coin, an idea arose. He locked the office and went to the kitchen, where his wife was supervising two of the maids-of-all-work in grinding spices. “Gerta, I need a little vinegar. Not the good kind.”
She blinked but found some of the rough vinegar she used for preserving meat and splashed a bit into a bowl. He took it to the office and dropped the bad coin into it. It bubbled, but not like fine building stone did. Tycho tried a good Platport coin and it sat in the bottom of the wooden bowl without bubbling. He tossed the vinegar into the piss-box and returned the bowl. “I needed to test a material,” he explained. “Thank you.”
She nodded, not taking her eyes off the maids. Some dyes ran in water but not vinegar and vice versa, and testing new materials made perfect sense to anyone who’d watched expensive cloth fade in the rain. “No peeking in the pantry,” she warned him, then shook her finger at one of the girls. “That’s far too much fire-seed! This isn’t a spicers house.” He scurried out of her territory for the safety of his office.
The coin looked even more like good silver after the bath, and he wiped a second false coin with the damp edge of the cloth. No change. Tycho straightened up and wondered what was going on. Vinegar turned most metal black, not silver. How strange. And why could the mages not tell the bad coins from the good? He lit a second lamp and set it where he had the best light, then compared a true Chin’mai coin with the false. Aside from the smell, they could be the same coin. Or were they? He peered more closely, squinting. There, in the middle of the design he though might be a leaf, he saw a crescent on the true coin. The false coin didn’t have the crescent. But was it a mint mark or a later trade mark, added to show that it was true currency? The other Chin’mai coin lacked the crescent.
Besides the false coins, he’d acquired one of the strange square coins from Almonten. They used a silver and gold blend as well as pure metals, and he’d obtained this one from a goldsmith who had no use for it. Instead of images of the gods, it had their names on each side, four on one face and two on the other, with the city name and a small flower on the reverse. At least, he thought it was a flower. He had a silver coin from Almonten as well, and instead of the flower it sported a bundle of grapes or berries. Tycho considered the spaces on the white fabric in the case and shifted the entire row up one, making room for the new arrival. He had no idea of the age of the coin, and so he left it with its silver brother.
The false coins kept bothering him, and he got out the set of fine scales he kept for conversions. He considered the false coins, and went to his money chest, hunted through the bags until he found the tan one with the red cord he used for Platport coin, and removed three good Platport coins. He set one on the scale and weighed it. It was one fiftieth of a gallrund. The false Platport coin weighed just a little bit more, and Tycho added a few grains at a time to the opposite pan until the balance returned to level. “Huh.” Most false coins he’d seen or heard about weighed less, not more. But the difference was so slight, and who weighed every single coin? He hoped that whoever was making the false coin would give up.
Tycho put everything back into the cases and drawers. The first trade council meeting would be tomorrow, and he needed to speak with several people about business matters. He was not pleased with the rumor he’d heard that dowries might be going up. Geraarda would be old enough to wed next year, and he did not care to have to spend his entire year’s earnings just to find her a husband.
Dressed in his finest dark blue city gown and lighter blue trews, Tycho joined the men filing into the council chamber. He did not rank among the first class of traders, the men so wealthy that they no longer traveled but instead stayed in Rhonardi and let trade come to them. They were fine-goods traders and those who traded across all known lands, the men who took the greatest risks and earned the greatest rewards. Or lost everything, he reminded himself. He was too cold and wet-natured for that sort of business risk. Everyone needed leather and cloth. Not everyone needed sweet-bark, no matter how good it made sweet-glazed breads taste. Tycho nodded to Talman and several of the others of equal rank as they took their places. Behind them came the master craftsmen, the senior members of the butchers, weavers, millers, chandlers, goldsmiths and black-smiths and other guilds. All together sixty men sat or stood as was appropriate in the council chamber.
As he waited for business to begin, Tycho let his eyes roam over the inlaid pictures in the wood paneling that covered the room. The two mayors sat on an elevated bench, the senior priests and three judges on the benches below them. The wall above the men displayed images of Maarsrodi, Donwah, weighing-scales, and a kogge, all worked into the paneling many years before. Some of the woods had come from Chin’mai, others were storm-finds washed up in the north, or so he had been told. The ceiling sported three shades of wood in its interlocking diamond and chain pattern. The main walls were decorated with ships, grain sheaves, fat schaef and great haulers and other livestock, and open account and law books, again done in pieces of wood. Benches that concealed storage for the record books and books of legal decisions provided seats for the oldest and infirm. The window shutters stood open, allowing pale light into the chamber. Thin cloud dimmed the sun, and Tycho wondered how long until the first true winter sea storm. Mage-tended glass and brass lamps hung from the ceiling, adding light.
Bang, bang, bang. The mayors stood. “All praise to Lord Maarsrodi, guardian of this proud city,” the priest called.
“All praise and honor to Maarsrodi,” the men chorused, bowing to the image in the wall.
The priest glowered at the group. “Any falsehood and false dealings will be dealt with by men or god. For what men cannot see, the gods reveal,” he warned. As he spoke, the recording clerk opened the side door and Maarsrodi’s staff was carried into the room by two acolytes. They set it down on the hooks built into the wooden bar that separated the judges, priests, and mayors from the others.
“So may it be,” everyone proclaimed. Tycho wondered what color the light around the god’s staff was. Gerta said she saw it as green, but Ewoud saw red light. Tycho saw nothing.
Dalmat Enkerman lifted a piece of paper so that all could see the large black wax seal hanging from a red ribbon. An unhappy murmur flowed through the men. “Bad taste, that,” Ventris hissed from in front of Tycho. Several men made horns, warding off ill will and bad luck. The priests of the Scavenger used black wax and no one else, unless they were casting a bad-fortune charm. Enkerman held the parchment by the corners, two fingers per corner.
“His Majesty, most blessed of the gods, honored above all men, wise and strong of heart,” Enkerman read. “King Sanchohaakon of Liambruu, lord of the southern lands, guardian of the passes,” he stopped and glared at someone in the back of the room who failed to cover their laughter with a coughing spell. “As I was saying. ‘We, majestic and gracious ruler of Liambruu, hereby give word of our displeasure and disappointment with those who denigrate our trust and fail to accept our good will. We insist on our rights being honored by all men, and demand the full credit to which we are entitled, credit for all goods at all markets, per the same terms as the contracts signed by our gracious majesty two years ago. Should the unwarranted refusal of our credit continue, we will act in such a manner as to ensure proper respect and freedom of the markets. My our hand and seal, most blessed of the gods, favored above all men,’ and so on. Yes, this is his seal, as best we can tell.”
“No magic, no mage test,” the priestess of Donwah reminded everyone from behind her pale blue half-veil.
“Thank you, merciful lady,” Enkerman said, bowing a little. “There is no magical mark on the seal, but it matches the seal on file with the city and used on crown documents from Liambruu. And it came with two more, ahem, requests, for credit from his majesty.”
Antil Webeker, the junior mayor, leaned back in his seat and folded his arms. “The Free Cities will not extend credit to the Crown of Liambruu. The ealdorman of Marshburt said, I quote, ‘The Great Northern Emperor will walk the streets of Chin’mai before we extend any more credit,’ end quote.” Snorts and a few blessing signs greeted his recitation, and Tycho shook his head a little. The Great Northern Emperor had not been seen or heard from for five generations at least.
“I take it that the crown has not paid any of its debts?” Someone asked from the end of the third row.
The man serving as senior judge replied. “It has not. At the moment, merchants of Rhonardi alone are owed one thousand gold Kog, one thin half-kog, twenty vlaat.” Tycho heard a thump from behind him, and turned to see one of the craft masters sitting on a side-bench, head between his knees. He sympathized. He’d never had a real gold Kog pass through his fingers. The value, yes, but not the actual coin. Ten golden Kog would buy a furnished townhouse and wares-house, or a fifth-share of a full-stocked koog. A thin half-kog bought enough food to keep a family in bread and meat and small-beer for at least a year, barring grain dearth.
“May we take Liambruu as collateral?” a young voice from the back of the room inquired.
“Who’d want it?” came a deeper reply. Cat-calls and laughter filled the chamber before the mayors banged their staves and restored order.
Enkerman leaned a little back and forth, trying to find who had asked the question. “Not unless you care to join every merchant and half the temples south of the Gheel. And remember, there is no magic in Liambruu. You will have to do everything by hand.” The priest and priestess gestured their agreement, and Tycho felt the hairs on his arms trying to rise. Life without any magic? How in the names of all the cities in the world did they preserve food or ensure fair dealings in business? What did they do for light in places where they dare not use fire? Probably the same as he did, use a horn or glass-shed and pray.
“So, no credit to the crown of Liambruu until at least fifty percent of all owed debts are paid. To all creditors.” More murmurs and Tycho watched Ventris and his neighbor on the front row exchanged hand-masked comments. Ventris gave a little head-shake and the other man straightened up and crossed his arms, head down a little like a great-hauler male preparing to attack something. “That includes the temples currently holding pledges from the crown. We have a list of individual traders who are still permitted credit. The list is short.” Enkerman held up a page with perhaps a dozen names on it. “Several of the larger houses were found to be acting on behalf of the crown and lying about it. Their credit has been cancelled until they pay all monies owed to all creditors.”
“Bad cess to them,” several voices snarled and growled. Tycho made the horns.
Enkerman let the voices settle before resuming his seat. Antil Webeker stood and smoothed the black fur on his robe of office. If he didn’t stop doing that he’d wear it bald, Tycho sighed. Webeker had shiny stripes on all his gowns, robes, and jackets from that habit. Ruining his own clothes was his problem, but the united merchants paid for the official robes through taxes. “The councils of Marshburt and Vlaaterbe request that we look out for false coins. Traders and captains from both proud cities report finding false coins that look like good. If you find any, you are asked to take them to a smith and have them melted.”
Enkerman waited for a moment, then turned to the clerk, who bent down and retrieved a coarse black cloth bag on the end of a stick. Tycho’s stomach sank a little. They needed a jury for something. “Before you trample each other rushing to the door as if a wares-house were aflame,” the priestess said, laughter in her voice, “this is a contract dispute concerning a payment date. Not a high justice case, so all that is needed are witnesses.” His stomach did not return to its customary place. But he didn’t try to sneak out, either. Instead he prayed to Maarsdam to be excused.
An acolyte of Maarsrodi took the bag. The priest poured black and tan wooden tiles into the bag, kneaded it from outside with his hands, and sat. The acolyte held the bag out to each man in turn, and all drew a lot. Tycho’s stomach eased back into place when he removed a tan square. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to do his city duty, he assured his god, but he couldn’t in truth swear that he did or did not see the light on Maarsrodi’s Staff disappear or remain bright. Ventris drew a black tile, as did Gerrt. A few of the guild-masters drew black as well, causing a hiss of speculation and interest. Neither of the tradesmen-at-large were tapped for duty, but the gods so rarely called them that they might as well be excused.
“Those not called are excused,” Webker announced.
The men of the council bowed to the images of the gods and filed out of the room by two of the three doors. A clerk came in the third door, carrying a leather document case and followed by one of the weavers. The skinny man scowled so hard he reminded Tycho of the last apple in the apple-barrel, the one that always got dry and shrank because you couldn’t reach it.
“Only twelve allowed to trade? Why even bother?” the head miller snorted as they left the chamber and entered the anteroom. Bread, cold meat, cheese, and sweet-cider waited for them, and Tycho removed his tankard from the rack and got something to drink.
“Why not? That’s enough for a small trade caravan or fleet,” Talman replied, knife in one hand and bread loaf under his other arm. He carved off three pieces of brown bread before returning the loaf to the table. “I want to know more about those bad coins. I heard from one of the captains in Platport that the coins didn’t appear until the ambassador ships from Liambruu docked last spring.”
The senior blacksmith raised the remains of one grey eyebrow. He’d lost most of his hair in a smithy accident in his youth. “Don’t bother trying to use them for anything.” He stabbed a piece of cheese and added it to his bread. “The metal’s worse than the cheap pot-metal out of Corwin-West. Probably kill you if you tooth-test it.”
Tycho drank his cider and kept his peace. Talk shifted to taxes and the harvest and weather, and he finished his drink, then excused himself. Gerta had removed her ring that morning, and he needed to be home.
(C) 2017 Alma T.C. Boykin All Rights Reserved