“The market lies inside the city. Sometimes the wholesalers
buy up the cargo right on the docks, and sometimes they find this
too costly and we merchants are forced to deliver the cargo to them
at the central market. In such cases, we must pay the entrance fee
“What’s the entrance fee on fish?”
“The fee on fish is 1 silver piece per forty-five pounds. But we don’t pay this. We’re not hauling fish.”
“Oh, so we pay the entrance fee for wine?”
“Of course not! The fee for wine is 1 gold piece per thirty-seven gallons! No, we pay the fee for corn, of course! That’s only 1 silver piece and two coppers for 42 bushels. If we bring in 100 bushels, we pay some 3 pieces of silver.”
“But how did we get corn?”
“We don’t have any corn, you dunce! But we pay the customs officer a bribe to certify us as bringing in corn!”
“This is all so confusing, Uncle!” said Dastin, burying his beardless face in his hands. “Why can’t they just set up a system in which you pay only 1 fee?”
“That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But think of all those customs officials and tax collectors -- friends, no doubt, of important officials in the court -- who would lose their livelihoods! No, business is business, and wherever you go, the tariffs may vary, but the procedures are exactly the same!”
Dastin nodded at his uncle, pretending to understand. In actuality, he was even more confused than before.
“Time to meet your first public servant, Dastin,” said Hadrik enthusiastically. Just listen carefully and say nothing. If the official asks you anything, act like you’re stupid, say you don’t know, or whatever, but make sure you never contradict anything I tell him, regardless of whether or not it’s true.”
“Yes, Uncle,” said Dastin sheepishly.
Hadrik led his young nephew up the stairs leading to the deck of the galley. He moved with a degree of nimbleness surprising for a man of his bulk.
The waves lapped calmly upon the piles supporting the docks in Harafet harbor. The harbor was bustling, with dozens of galleys docked, loading and unloading their cargo. Seagulls cried overhead, and a pelican dove into the water, returning to the surface a few seconds later with a mouthful of fish.
Hadrik and Dastin crossed gangplank to the dock. There stood a middle-aged man wearing a blue smock with deep pockets. The smock was adorned with a golden insignia: a chest, of the sort that might contain coins, with two swords crossed in front of it like a big “X.”
“Is he the inspector?” whispered Dastin to his uncle.
“No, inspectors wear white smocks with gold epaulettes. I have no idea who he is.”
“Good day, merchant,” said the man in the smock. “The inspector is quite busy today. It is very unlikely that he will be able to inspect your vessel.” He shifted his weight in such a way that Hadrik could hear the jingle of coins in his pockets.
Hadrik sighed. “Officer, it is very urgent that my cargo be unloaded today. Would you please be kind enough to tell the Inspector that merchant Hadrik awaits him.” Hadrik held out his hand. The man in the smock extended his own hand, palm up, and four copper coins fell into it. He quickly closed his hand and put it into his pocket.
“Today, he is very busy, good merchant,” said the official. “He is inspecting a shipment of silver utensils for the king’s table.”
“Silver, eh!” coughed Hadrik in annoyance. “Normally, we can expect no more than a few copper pots!
“Yes, it’s true, good merchant. But the king gets what the king wants. He has even restructured the customs service in recent days. Procedures are much improved. Twice as many officials are now here to serve you.” The official smiled.
Hadrik blanched. “The customs service was always so efficient,” he muttered. “It boggles the mind to think that the king saw the need to expand its manpower.”
The official remained smiling. He neither moved nor spoke.
“Ah, yes, well, please convey my message to the inspector,” said Hadrik, through clenched teeth. He handed the officer a silver coin.
“I’m afraid that I have no direct contact with so eminent an official as the inspector, good merchant, but I will urge the appointment-scheduler to meet with you at his earliest possible convenience.” The official turned slowly around and meandered down the dock.
“Those bloodsuckers!” hissed Hadrik.
“What’s an ‘appointment-scheduler,’ Uncle?”
“Probably the worthless brother-in-law of some petty official, appointed for the sole purpose of extorting money from honest merchants!”
Hadrik and Dastin stood waiting on the dock. The waves lapped calmly against their galley, and the birds called overhead. But no officials approached them.
“Why don’t we just go and get the inspector ourselves?” suggested Dastin at last.
“I’d love to,” growled his uncle. But I doubt that they would let us get past the end of the dock.” He pointed at two men, dressed in black leather embossed with the golden chest and crossed swords insignia. On their heads were steel helmets, and short swords hung by their sides.
The soldiers lazily paced back and forth. Suddenly they snapped to attention as a green-smocked man sauntered past them. The man in the green smock approached Hadrik.
“Good day, merchant Hadrik. My assistant has told me that you wish to schedule an appointment to have your vessel inspected.”
“Yes, good sir,” said Hadrik through gritted teeth.
The besmocked man glanced down at a piece of paper tacked to a thin wooden board. “Let me see.... Ah, yes, I think I can squeeze you in two weeks from Tuesday.”
“Two weeks!” cried Hadrik.
“The inspector is very busy.”
Hadrik sighed. “Surely you must have overlooked an appointment at a closer date?” suggested Hadrik, handing the man a silver coin.
“Twenty times a day I’m asked this, but it is rarely possible to find an open appointment without a wait of at least a week.”
“Twenty! A week!”
“Yes, sadly so.”
“This is crazy! I might as well turn my galley around and head for another port!”
“Well, of course you may do that, good merchant. But you wouldn’t make it unless you were to reprovision your ship, which you can’t do until you have completed all customs formalities. Furthermore, you would have to pay the alternative minimum departure tax of ten gold pieces.”
“Ten gold pieces!”
“Yes, should you fail to unload your goods, you must pay the tax.”
“Maybe I should just wait the two weeks out, then,” hissed Hadrik.
“Of course, you have that option. But I must inform you that we impose a dock fee of one gold piece per day.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Oh my head,” Hadrik moaned, cradling his bald scalp in his hands. “All right,” he said finally. He reached into his purse and counted out twenty silver pieces.
The official dropped the silver coins into his pocket. Then he glanced down again at the document in his hand. “Yes, I seem to have overlooked an appointment just one week from now. In this case, you will pay a dock fee of only seven gold pieces. This is much more economical, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“I might as well scuttle my ship in the harbor!”
“If you do, you will face severe environmental degradation fines,” said the official, somehow keeping a straight face. “Is that really worth one piece of gold to you?”
“No!” Hadrik screamed, stomping his feet and tearing at the wisps of hair still clinging to the margins of his scalp. Dastin jumped back, his face white with fear.
The official stood by silently, watching with a slight hint of amusement.
“What can I do? What can I do?” moaned Hadrik, breathlessly. Finally he reached into his purse and removed a gold coin. With a trembling hand, he gave it to the official.
The official nonchalantly dropped the coin into his pocket. “Oh, I’m so sorry, good merchant, it seems that I have overlooked an appointment for this very day. I hope you will forgive me.”
“When will he come?” asked Hadrik in a strangled voice.
“Very shortly,” said the official, who then turned and walked back toward the soldiers. He discretely handed a coin to each of them as he passed.
“I’ll be ruined!” cried Hadrik, sinking to the floor. “How many more bribes? We haven’t even seen the inspector yet!”
“Maybe you can complain to him about how much money the others demanded,” suggested Dastin, in a soft voice.
“Tell him! Are you insane? He will threaten to throw me in jail for bribing public officials. Then he’ll expect me to give him twice his normal bribe so that he will forget about the whole thing!” Suddenly, Hadrik’s eyes went wide. “His normal bribe! Oh gods, if his appointment scheduler demands one gold piece, twenty-one silver, how much is the inspector himself going to want? I might as well drown myself right now! Before this trip is over, I’m going to lose my cargo, my ship, and even my clothes to these bloodsuckers!”
At that moment, a man in a white jacket with gold epaulettes marched toward them. Hadrik stood up.
“I, good merchant, am entrusted by the king of Harafet with the solemn duty of inspecting the cargo of all ships docked at our great port. Please lead me aboard your vessel.”
“Sir,” said Hadrik, regaining his composure, “I know that you are a very busy man. I am well known in Harafet as an honest merchant. I’m sure that you can take my word when I tell you that my cargo is two tons of fish.” Hadrik handed the man four pieces of silver.
The inspector dropped the coins into his pocket and laughed. “Good merchant, indeed I don’t relish the thought of inspecting a hold full of fish, but I must do my duty to the king. But I’m sure that your word is as good as gold, and perhaps if four others would vouch for you, I might consider dispensing with this foul-smelling task.”
Hadrik shuddered. “Four?” he squealed. Then he took a deep breath. “I - I have only two friends in Harafet who can vouch for me.”
The inspector smiled. “Three, perhaps, then.”
Hadrik reached into his purse, and with shaking hands, gave the inspector three gold pieces.
“Done,” said the inspector calmly. He scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to Hadrik. “You must also pay the per capita vessel tax of four pieces of copper per person. The tax collector will come by in a few moments. Please assemble all hands on deck, so that they can be counted.”
Hadrik nodded. The inspector marched away, smiling to himself. He slipped a coin to each of the soldiers as he passed them. Hadrik felt his purse. It was nearly empty.
“Should I ask the captain to assemble all hands on deck?” asked Dastin.
“No. Tell him to send all but ten below deck.”
Dastin nodded, and scurried across the gangplank, glad to be away from his uncle. He made the request to the captain, and soon all but ten sailors had disappeared from view. By the time that Dastin had returned to his uncle, the tax collector had arrived.
The tax collector wore a gray robe adorned with the same insignia as the other officials. Hadrik handed him the piece of paper from the inspector. “Let’s see,” muttered the tax collector, looking at the paper. “An unloading duty of 80 pieces of silver. He looked up. “Are all your hands assembled on deck?” he asked Hadrik.
“Yes, sir,” replied the merchant.
“Doesn’t seem like very many.”
Hadrik frowned. “Several died at sea. We threw them overboard.”
The tax collector sighed. “I’m going to have to board your vessel and check below deck for more. I’m sure you understand.”
“I know your time is quite valuable, sir,” said Hadrik. “Couldn’t you just take my word for it?” He handed the tax collector a gold coin.
“Thrice as busy these days as normal,” said the tax collector, grimly.
Hadrik shuddered, and looked as if he would pass out. With trembling fingers, he reached into his purse and counted out three gold coins. He handed them to the tax collector.
“Yes, yes I suppose I can take your word for it,” he said gruffly. “You owe a total vessel tax of 48 copper pieces, plus a duty of 80 silver pieces and a disembarkage charge of one gold piece. Why don’t we round it up and say that you owe 3 gold pieces, 16 silver.”
“You’re more than reasonable,” groaned Hadrik in a voice full of despair. He handed the man the last of his gold and silver coins.
Ignoring the comment, the tax collector scribbled something on two documents and handed them to Hadrik. “You and your crew are free to disembark. You will be charged a dock fee of 1 gold piece per day, payable upon departure. Should you fail to pay this fee, you will forfeit your vessel. Have a nice day.” The tax collector walked away without smiling, and handed each of the two soldiers a coin as he passed them.
Hadrik glanced down at the various permits in his hand. “Looks like everything is in order,” he groaned. He reached inside his purse and pulled out four pieces of copper, all that remained. “Come on, Dastin,” he said, sighing. “Let’s see if we can make enough money to get ourselves out of Harafet.”
Hadrik lumbered down the gangway onto the dock with Dastin at his side. Up ahead the soldiers loitered. Suddenly they noticed the approach of the merchants, and stood up straight and tall, blocking their approach.
“It figures,” grumbled Hadrik. He reached into his purse and removed two copper coins, giving one to each of the soldiers. The soldiers stepped aside and let them pass.
Suddenly, a scuffle broke out between two men at the end of the dock. A small crowd of men surrounded them, cheering them on. The two soldiers looked on silently. A red-shirted man punched a green shirted man in the stomach. The man in the green shirt doubled over and the other punched him in the face. The green-shirted man fell on his back with a thud and his assailant leaped on top of him. Suddenly, the man in the red shirt screamed. The green-shirted man below him pushed his assailant off of him and struggled to his feet. He held a dagger in his right hand, dripping with blood. The other man lay on the dock, his red shirt wet with blood. Still the soldiers stood by, doing nothing.
“Come on!” ordered Hadrik, grabbing his stunned nephew by the arm. He steered the youth clear of the crowd, down to the end of the dock, and out onto the street. Then he released his arm.
“Why didn’t the soldiers stop them?” gasped Dastin. His face was rather pale.
“That’s not the way things work here,” said his uncle with a sigh. “Had one of those men slipped the soldiers some money, they would have done something. Probably, they would have killed one or the other of the men, depending on the wishes of the guy who paid them off. In this case, I guess, the soldiers had no particular financial interest in the outcome, and just watched the fight like all the other spectators.”
“That’s terrible!” cried Dastin.
“Yes, it is.” Hadrik shook his head in disgust.
“Isn’t there any justice here?” whined Dastin
“Yes,” said Hadrik bitterly. “Justice abounds. It goes to the highest bidder, like everything else.” He sighed again. “Come on, let’s get out of here before we get into any trouble.”
Hadrik led his nephew to the right down the street fronting the docks. They passed several docks, at which galleys were moored and men were loading and unloading barrels, boxes, and sacks of various sizes. Leather-clad soldiers, and men in smocks and robes of various colors, milled about. “Yes,” muttered Hadrik, “there are twice as many.”
Finally, the pair stopped at a low doorway, above which hung a painted wooden sign depicting a golden crown and a gray anchor on a red background. “If we’re lucky,” whispered Hadrik, his mood momentarily brightening, “we can close a deal here.”
Hadrik opened the door and stepped inside. They had to stoop below the heavy beam at the top of the doorframe. The room inside was dark and the air thick with pipe smoke. A couple dozen tables were crowded with sailors and merchants of every conceivable nationality, eating, drinking, and shouting at each other. The clamor and the smoke gave Dastin a headache.
Hadrik led him across the room to the long oaken bar. A fat, bald man with a mustache and a dirty apron stood on the other side. Two seats at the end of the bar were free. Hadrik sat down next to a sailor who seemed to be balanced precariously on his stool, holding onto his mug of ale as if for dear life. Dastin sat down beside his uncle.
The bartender approached Hadrik, smiling. “Well, if it isn’t old Hadrik!” he exclaimed. “Haven’t seen you for ages. Where’ve you been, old dog?”
“Zand, I’m so happy to see you!” bubbled Hadrik. “I’ve been gone trading up and down the coast for the past few months. Harafet seems so changed!”
“As with all of us, over time the city’s virtues disappear and vices multiply,” said the bartender, chuckling. “Same old thing.”
Hadrik grinned. “Well, at least you haven’t changed, old friend.”
“So, what can I get you?” he asked.
“A pint of ale for each of us. Zand,” said Hadrik, gesturing toward his nephew, “this is Dastin, my brother’s son. It’s his first time out.”
Zand nodded at the young man. “Your uncle’s one of the best. The old breed. He drives a hard bargain, but his word is gold. I’ve seen him in action. You’ll learn a lot from him.”
Dastin nodded and dropped his eyes, thinking of the various negotiations on the dock.
“So, what are you peddling, Hadrik?” asked Zand.
“Fine Leander wine,” said Hadrik, winking. “Who’s a likely prospect?”
Zand scratched his head. “Wine, wine,” he mused. “Oh, yeah, see that guy over there, the one with the funny hat.” Zand pointed toward a man seated alone at a table. He wore a purple hat with an extremely wide brim, topped with a peacock’s feather.
“New guy. Talked him up the other day. Says he has connections with the wine steward in the palace. Looking for some wine for the king’s table, plus some other things. Didn’t think much of him myself. Maybe a good prospect, especially if he’s as dumb as he seems.”
“Thanks for the tip,” said Hadrik. “What’s he drinking?”
“Ale, same as you.”
“I think we’ll go join him. Please bring over three pints of ale.”
Zand filled the three pint mugs as Hadrik and Dastin headed for the table of the man with a hat. He was clean-shaven and dressed in purple and white silk.
“Friend, do you think you could spare a seat for a couple of weary merchants,” said Hadrik, smiling at the man in the hat.
“Fellow merchants,” said the man, “my table is open to you.” He reeked of perfume.
“Thank you,” said Hadrik, seating himself beside the man. Dastin sat in one of the other empty chairs. At that point, Zand arrived carrying a tray laden with three pints of ale. He set one down in front of each of them.
The man with the hat opened his mouth to say something, but Hadrik quickly cut him off. “No, no, this round is on me.” He winked at Zand. Zand grinned as he headed back toward the bar.
“Whom may I thank for this drink,” asked the man with the hat. He was perhaps thirty years old, and his teeth were rotten.
“I am Hadrik, merchant of Salis, world traveler, and friend to all. This is my nephew, Dastin.”
A man with a bushy mustache, seated at a nearby table, was in the process of raising his tankard to his lips, when Hadrik spoke these words. His arm froze, and then he put down his drink without taking a sip. He glanced surreptitiously at Hadrik. Hadrik did not notice.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, merchant Hadrik,” said the man with the purple hat. “I am known as Selig. I am a wholesaler, and dealer to those of the highest status in Harafet.”
“I am most honored, master Selig,” said Hadrik, bowing his head.
“As am I, worthy merchant. It’s been long since I’ve ventured forth from Harafet. What news do you bring of abroad?”
“Nothing new. Dynastic struggles in the Southlats. An assassination or two in Salis. Of course, nothing interesting ever happens in Delasranon. I’ve been long from Harafet. What events have happened here?”
“We’ve been having a drought. There’s talk of famine in the countryside. The king is considering lowering the tariff on grain imports, but personally, I don’t think he’ll take any action. Plenty of grain gets into the city despite the tariffs, and too many people benefit from the restrictions.”
“Yes, Harafet is known throughout the world for its --” Hadrik coughed -- “thorough customs service.” Hadrik gulped down some ale.
“I understand that they have doubled the size of the customs service recently. Efficiency must have improved considerably.”
Hadrik choked on his ale. He coughed several times.
“Are you all right?” asked Selig.
“It’s just that --” began Dastin. His uncle jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow.
“Just went down the wrong pipe,” gasped Hadrik. “I’m fine.”
Selig nodded. “So, what sort of goods are you conveying into our city, merchant Hadrik?”
“Oh, various items. What sort of goods are in high demand?”
“I deal almost exclusively in luxury items -- gems, silks, perfume, fine wine. I’m always on the lookout for high-quality specimens. I have clients in very high places.”
Dastin’s face brightened. “That’s gr--” Hadrik stepped on his toe. “Ow!”
“The boy has a mental disability,” explained Hadrik, “and sometimes uncontrollably shouts gibberish. Please excuse him. I care for him only out of respect for my poor deceased brother.”
Selig nodded. “I hope the illness is not dangerous.”
“No, he’s fine otherwise, only he’s one egg short of a dozen, if you know what I mean. Anyway, as I was saying, I do have some fine wine from the Leander Valley.” Hadrik noticed Selig’s face brighten, and he opened his mouth to say something.
Hadrik continued speaking, giving the other no chance to interject anything. “Unfortunately I’ve promised to deliver the whole lot to the king of Delasranon. I went through quite a bit of trouble getting the stuff. Greedy customs officers in Burg nearly robbed me blind.”
“Oh,” said Selig, dejectedly. “I wish there was some way I could convince you to sell some of it to me.”
Hadrik sighed dramatically. “Well, I did promise the king of Delasranon....” he said tentatively.
“I can pay you well,” urged Selig. “The truth is that since the last war with Burg it’s been difficult to get good wine, and the stuff from the Southlats is pretty awful. I have some connections in the palace, and I can offer you a generous price.
“Hmm,” said Hadrik. “I’ll have to think about this. How much wine did you say that you would be interested in?”
“Whatever you could spare. Doubtless I could find places for at least five hundred gallons in the wine cellars of the king and one or two nobles.”
“Oh,” said Hadrik, “I couldn’t possibly spare that much. But I have three ships full of wine. Perhaps I could sell you the cargo of one, and keep the rest for the king of Delasranon. Maybe. I’ll have to think about it. How much did you say you were willing to pay?”
Selig scratched his head. “How about a gold piece per gallon?”
“One gold piece!” cried Hadrik, leaping to his feet. “Don’t insult my intelligence! The king of Delasranon has offered to pay me twice that.”
“Please, please sit down,” pleaded Selig. “I meant no offense. I’ll match his price. Two pieces of gold. How’s that?”
Hadrik slowly lowered himself into his chair. “I see you’re a reasonable man, Selig. You offer me two pieces of gold and one empty ship. That’s no better than what I’d get were I to deliver the whole lot to Delasranon.”
“Hmm....” pondered Selig. “Maybe I can sweeten the deal. I have connections with some of the finest armorers in Harafet. I’m sure you can find a market in Delasranon, or other points south.”
“Perhaps. What can you offer me?”
“Say, a dozens swords, two dozen spears, bows with twenty quivers of arrows.”
The man with the mustache at the next table cocked his head closer.
“Crafted by whom?” asked Hadrik.
“Findar and Malek, the best.”
“Let’s see,” mused Hadrik solemnly. “I can offer you 350 gallons of fine Leander wine. In return I will receive 700 pieces of gold, plus twelve swords, twenty-four spears, and bows with twenty quivers of arrows, all crafted by Finadar and Malek. These are the terms?”
Selig swallowed hard. “Yes.”
“Then you’ve got a deal!” cried Hadrik gleefully. He grabbed Selig’s hand and shook it enthusiastically.
Selig’s face brightened. “Agreed!”
“Worthy Selig,” said Hadrik ebulliently, “when will you be ready to deliver the money and the arms?”
“It’ll take a bit of time to prepare. How about noon, two days from now?”
“Perfect!” cried Hadrik. “Let’s toast! To honest business partners!”
“To business!” agreed Selig. The two men chinked their tankards and downed them.
“Well,” said Selig. “I should go and begin assembling the payment. Where shall we meet?”
“My ship is at dock four. You’ll bring the money and arms at noon, day after tomorrow?”
“Yes. Dock four, noon, day after tomorrow,” repeated Selig. He rose and sauntered out the door.
“Thank the gods!” cried Hadrik, clapping his hands together and closing his eyes.
“Uncle--” began Dastin.
“Dastin, I hope you watched carefully my negotiating technique. At first you play hard to get, and then you reel in the big fish. Notice how I skillfully exploited the contract with the king of Delasranon --”
“I didn’t know that we had a contract with the king of Delasranon!” said Dastin, his eyes wide.
“Of course we don’t,” snapped his uncle. “Neither do we have three ships full of wine.”
Dastin nodded, “Uncle --”
“The trick is to make the other guy think that you’re not terribly interested in doing a deal, and then let him convince you --”
“Do you realize that that normally wine goes for less than one gold piece a --”
“Oh, what is it?” barked Hadrik finally.
“Uncle, who is the man at the next table who was listening to our conversation.”
Hadrik gasped. “What man?” he asked nervously.
“He’s right...” Dastin pointed to the table where he had noticed the mustached man eavesdropping. The table was empty. “He was right there. But now he’s gone.”
“Are you sure?” asked Hadrik. Skepticism mingled with a touch of uneasiness.
“He had a bushy black mustache, and he seemed to be listening very carefully.”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“You told me to keep quiet, Uncle.”
“You’re such a dunce, Dastin.” Hadrik sighed glumly. “We may have some trouble on our hands. And trouble, in Harafet, always turns out to be expensive.”
Other Excerpts From Retsamdros
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