The great captain smiled. His devious, nefarious plan had been a total success. The barbarians had taken the bait with hook, line and sinker. Stroking his beard he watched the excited villagers around him. Perhaps daring the stormy waters and fighting hordes of pirates had been worth it after all.
Ahiram was standing at the edge of the Polestar village marketplace. It was Summer Solstice Festival Day and the weather couldn’t be better. All the chill of the past weeks was gone now and the hot sun was shining from a totally cloudless sky. It was more than anyone could have hoped for. The place was buzzing with activity as the whole village and numerous guests from near and far alike were helping to set up the grand celebration that would take place in the evening. Women were cooking sweet smelling sauces and meats in huge pots all around him. Men were carrying tables and chairs from their houses and arranging them into neat rows around the huge bonfire in the middle of the square. He didn’t think he had ever seen a bigger one. When his ship had arrived two days ago the pile had already been higher than any of the houses except for the large council hall on the north side. Since then people had been constantly hauling in large logs and even now children were adding firewood to the pile. It would be a glorious sight once they lighted it for the ceremony tonight.
Still, that was not the reason for his self-righteous exhilaration. It was something far better. Grinning he picked up a crisp falafel roll from the nearby pot with his knife. It was fresh out of the olive oil boiler and smelled absolutely delicious. Then he dipped it into a large vase full of savory hummus sauce before popping it into his mouth. It was even better than he had hoped for. Just heavenly. For the first time ever he would actually be able to enjoy the natives’ solstice dinner.
He had first gotten the idea when his trade fleet had sailed into the port of the Baalquan’s northern colony town, Ernstharbor. It was located at the mouth of the Great North River. The largest empire controlled settlement in the Northlands was pretty much the only real city around here. After two chilling weeks at sea the sight of the walled fort harbor had been a more than welcome sight. In truth they had been approached by another ship only one time during their voyage from the capital. Once the natives had seen his dozen large gauloi with imperial marines aboard, they had quickly turned their tail and ran. Still, the cold winds had been enough to make Ahiram sea-weary.
That evening he had sat in one of the small taverns near the piers where sailors spent their time off. He disliked the fancy ones downtown. A drunken group of men from the village of Starpole had told him how the winter had been unusually harsh in the north. Apparently their larders were almost empty and they had trouble gathering up enough for the Midsummer festival. Especially with almost a hundred guests arriving from the neighboring villages, they had to find something to feed everyone with lest they’d lose their face. That was why they had sent a group of men with carts to buy whatever swedes and potatoes were available.
That was when it had occurred to him. A stroke of genius. Instead of unloading all the food from his personal ship and leaving only the usual trade stuff for Starpole such as copper bars and herbs, he could keep for himself some of the food intended for Baalqan colonists. He was due to depart upriver in the morning. The rest of the ships would stay behind while he took the trip to handle his diplomatic responsibilities. Now these dim-wits were sitting at his table, saying that they’d buy the vegetables the next day and head back to Polestar. He had preciously little time to act.
That night Ahiram had first made sure the tribesmen had enough to drink. He had kept the wine flowing. Not really understanding his generosity, they had been extremely grateful and drunk their fill. At the same time he had ordered the dockworkers stop unloading his ship. Then he had sent his lieutenants out to wake up the food merchants and buy all local vegetables they could get their hands on at five times the going price. Those of his men staying behind had strict orders to sell them only after the summer solstice was over. Before the sun had come up they had sailed up the great river.
There had been quite a pandemonium once the Starpole tribesmen had woken up and realized in their hangover that there wasn’t a single turnip left for sale in Ernstharbor. After some very impolite yelling and name-calling they had had to turn back empty handed. Meanwhile Ahiram was sailing north toward the Lake Starpath with his hold full of pristine olive oil, delicious dried soy beans, yummy yellow peas, sweet sugarcane and dried fruits of all kinds such as apricots and dates. He also had crunchy nuts and wheat flour for white bread suitable for real people, elegantly unlike the awful brown one the natives ate. He had exquisite sesame seeds with a number of Baalqan spice mixtures. On top of that he even had some fresh bananas and lemons he had loaded raw and green two weeks ago making them perfectly ripe right now.
That uptight shaman woman would never have allowed such decadent excess in her ancient sacred celebration as she had quite abruptly told him each earlier year when he had asked about it. Then she had made him eat little barely ripe unpeeled potatoes with sour pieces of small fish and the disgusting turnips they called swedes. He could hardly imagine anything more unpalatable. Well… Except perhaps the brown slimy stuff they served at spring equinox. At least the game meat they offered had been reasonably edible, but still… This year she wouldn’t have any choice. Even better, when Ahiram’s ship had arrived, she hadn’t even been in the village. The villagers had told him she had gone out hunting and gathering for the celebration herself and was only due back today. It hadn’t been much of a challenge for a shrewd merchant like himself to convince the village elder, an old presumptuous fool named Adoteriel, that they really wanted to show off to other tribes by serving Ahiram’s shipment of fresh, high quality Baalqan delicacies at the festival.
Ah there she is now.
The tall woman brushed past the crowd working in the village square. She wore her long white hair in thick braids. Smaller ones circled her head in tiara-like manner and were more or less full of stray pine needles. Her face was dirty and she wore a plain grey long shirt that was covered in mud. A short hunter’s bow and a quarrel of feathered arrows were slung around her shoulder. She walked briskly right at him, eyes flaring with anger.
“Damn you, Ahiram! What the hell have you done?”
Ahiram bit his lower lip and tried to sound as innocent and innocuous as possible, “Greetings, milady. It’s such a pleasure to see you again. We heard you had gone out hunting …”
“Drop the act, Ahi. What is all this crap our women are cooking?”
“Oh. The food. Yes. Well. I just happened to hear when we arrived that your village was slightly short of food this year. I decided that I’d happily do whatever I can to help you. I hope our humble offerings please you.”
Talvikki walked closer until her face was only inches away from Ahiram’s. He was by no means a short man, but now he felt intimidated as he had to look up to meet her gaze. Gods, she is big.
She continued with a soft voice far more menacing than her earlier yelling. “Now, I just met Otto. One of the men I sent to buy vegetables from the town. Do you know what he told me?”
Ahiram shuddered to her tone. Cautiously he answered, “No, but …”
“Then let me tell you, Great Captain Ahiram of Baalqan. He told me that there had been no food for sale in Ernsthaven. Can you imagine that? None at all. And, do you know what more?”
He stared at the ground silently.
“Someone had just bought everything. Yes. All of it. During the night before Otto was supposed to get them. And at ten times what is was worth.”
“Um…. Actually that was only five times….”
He had the good sense to keep his mouth shut.
“Now you are going to go to elder Adoteriel and pay back every coin you charged us for this… stuff,” she said gesturing at the pots and cauldrons. “You may have won this time. It seems we’ll have to eat Baalqan this year, but you damn well are not going to rack up a profit scheming at our expense.”
Ahiram looked about to protest.
As he scurried away he grabbed a handful of falafel rolls from the pot. On his way he stole a glance back. She was still standing there with her hands folded across her chest and staring at him fuming. There were preciously few women in the world that could make the proud sea master cringe so. At least he’d get to eat something better than stinky turnips this year.
Isn’t she just amazing? he thought to himself as he headed into the great hall.