Chapter III: Collateral Opportunity
Reading time ~12 minutes
Northlight is more crowded than normal for this time of year. Only, the abnormality is not due to prospectors flocking to the city to mine under the receding glacier, nor hunters seeking recess from their beaver hunt in one of the three local inns. Rather, the city is crowded with troops; although the lot is cladden in the bright blue uniforms of Fonte’s army, they carry crude saw-shaped blades, and sawed-off shotguns that are uncommon for formal soldiers.
It was less than a fortnight ago, that the shadowy figures appeared in front of the eastern gate. A blizzard was well underway, and although it may have been one of the season’s last, it did not fall short in elemental force when compared to the ones that reached the city during the heart of winter. Northlight’s archon, a noble by the name of Finister Icefellow, greeted the fifty-strong group with twenty muskets aimed straight to their heads from the wall, ready to obliterate them.
“Marauders don’t enjoy the mercy of a prison cell ‘round here” he yelled from the wall.”
Although it was difficult to see in the permanent winter dark, one of the shadows was seen moving ahead, towards the gate. He approached, with his hands held in the air, until he reached the foot of the gate. “You gon’ open or what?”
The gate guards were dumbfounded, and the same went for Icefellow. Anxious whispers reached the visitor’s ears from above. “A man can’t storm a city by himself, now can he?” he yelled, “although I seriously doubt this shithole could hold its own against even me” he whispered. Icefellow nodded to the gatekeepers, and got to climb the stairs to reach ground level. The strange man was not to enter his city by any means, save he had some sinister plan in mind. He had to hear his case outside the wall.
And this was exactly what happened; the man identified himself as Morgun Emoskyl, a captain commissioned by the royal crown of Fonte, a claim which was made undeniable with the force of a contract, carrying the marshal’s seal, engraved in wax melted on top of the sigil carried by the man. According to the contract, Northlight was to provide all necessary supplies to the company: food, arms, gunpowder “to the point that the city will be able to sustain itself until the summer’s coming”. With malaise, succumbing to the biting cold the archon decided to let the man in, inviting him in the office for a warm cup of tea.
Once they were in, and before the secretary had had the time to bring the warm beverages in, Icefellow protested that the Naramar army had cut off most of the city’s supply lines, and that the citizens were already burning through the stored supplies of salted meat and fish. Icefellow was argumentative, putting in the effort of explaining the somber state of the city’s economy. Morgun was still, expressionless and silent.
“The Naramarian fleets have blockaded the port, and we cannot send fishermen out!”
Morgun stayed silent.
“The blizzards will persist for another month or two and the land routes are getting raided by marauders! I barely have enough supplies to keep the locals from starving, sir!”
Morgun did not reply.
“We are already burning through the stockpiled supplies we kept to sell in the spring!”
Morgun responded with silent phlegm.
The captain, no matter the validity of the archon’s arguments, held an edge over the archon. For while the latter was only a noble appointed to rule a small town, probably bad at even that since he was stationed in the less-than-prestigious post of Northlight, the captain had traveled far and wide, and held a profound understanding of men’s ways. “The least tolerant wins in the end” an eastern merchant had taught him in Serene’s port; “To argue is to beg for approval” a khan had advised him somewhere around the fringes of the wildlands that lie far beyond the Bandarmar Strait. So the captain waited, until the archon was tired of repeating himself, and the fire of enervation started to dwindle, with little else remaining of his egoistic emotionality but a pathetic charcoal that gives out its last flare before it crumbles to ashes.
Finally, after an hour-long monologue that gave away much more than what Icefellow intended, the archon found himself winded. With a long-drawn sigh, he concluded:
“The king appointed me to exercise his authority in Northlight so that the locals can be fended for. Giving you the supplies you ask for is the same as depriving my subjects from them. Please, good sir, reconsider your request.”
Morgun did not talk for a minute, patiently waiting for any addendum that the yapping nobleman would churn out. Instead of words however, Icefellow only had the courage to produce loud exhalations and sighs of desperation, all while avoiding direct eye contact.
“If you deny my company the supplies, I have no other option than to inform the marshal of your treason.”
Like a game of chess between asymmetrically skilled opponents, the captain checked the nobleman’s king. The nobleman examined the prospects of this or that move, trying to foresee some strategy that could shift the balance of power. If the captain indicted him for treason, his situation could evolve only towards a sole direction: punishment. If it went as far as a deposition, Icefellow had no problem, as returning to his family estate in Naramar; even if it meant living in obscurity, it could be a painless change. If the marshal decided to make an example of the traitor however, and the punishment went as far as imprisonment or -god forbid- death, the change would be made less than welcome. On the other hand, if he succumbed, and the company’s mission (whatever that was) turned out to be a success, he could increase his gravitas, maybe enough to leverage his way to a more favorable post.
“Fine.” he uttered.
“Good. Now, tell me more about these marauders. We’ll take care of them for you, and you’ll give us an extra handful of men to corduroy the path all the way to Shark’s Maw.”
“You could have made the offer earlier man” Icefellow rejoiced knowing that he was not giving everything away for nothing.
“True. Also, a ship is expected to catch port some time soon. If you see black sails on the horizon, send for me immediately.”
And now, as the guard carrying the new of Morgun’s almost fatal failure to capture the marauders exits Icefellow’s office, the archon starts to grow worried. Usually, bandit bands are quick to scatter the instant they realize even the slightest hint that points to official military interference; the stubbornness displayed by the particular scourge has a more disquieting undertone than the regular tumult caused by outlaws.
“What if Morgun fails?” Icefellow already is on the man’s wrong side. How will Morgun frame his own insufficiency when he briefs the Marshal? Failing against a band of outlaws, is a clear indication of extreme deficiency on the part of the leader. Undoubtedly, he will drop any ownership of the botched mission. Who, then, will be liable to carry the weight of humiliation? The insubordinate archon of course, who failed to provide what was necessary for the fruition of the task. The Marshal should be expected to support the captain’s accusation, so as to protect the military from the loss of face, both to outsiders as well as insiders.
Moreover, the Northlight’s dwindling supplies ensured that trade benefits would be less than what the crown expected- the Northlight Trading Guild, a younger sibling of the Fontean equivalent, would unquestionably paint the man as a good-for-nothing imbecile. Those merchants, despite lacking royal credentials or even noble pedigree for the most part, hold sway over the crown’s decisions. It is obvious that the justified irritation that accompanies plundered trade routes, diminishing commodity markets, and increased war taxes has been gathering up like a storm cloud over the guilds, and when the war ends, a second, subtler but more sustained, storm will break out. Icefellow knew that to lie unprotected in its wake would lead to economic marginalization (a fate deemed by many as an only slightly preferable alternative to death).
“Morgun cannot fail”. His success ensures the re-initialization of the land routes, something that he Northlight traders will be grateful for, as well as a display of friendliness and prowess toward the military. Having the support of either the marshal or the traders is one thing and had gotten many far in the court. Having the support of both, however, is an entirely different thing, a position that paves an easy path to the highest ranks of leadership.
Icefellow stands up. His motives have shifted, and what previously was an innocent dove, looking to get by with as little adversity as possible, has now been possessed by the spirit of a hungry vulture. He exits the room, and heads over to his secretary’s office. With first-seen vigor and forcefulness, he smashes his punch on the surface of the desk. The secretary, a local woman in her fifties with a mind for the letters, lifts her gaze towards him and flinches.
“Horses and cannons!” he proclaims with enthusiasm.
The secretary stares at him with dumbfounded eyes.
“Tell Morgun he can use them as he sees fit.”
“But sir, the city will be left defenseless! Are you>”
“Stop.” Icefellow interrupts him, “Send to Morgun now. Tell him that his company has been granted unlimited access to our arsenal.”
“Sir!” the secretary objects.
“Oh, and since the gulf is blockaded, send word to the fishermen that any able-bodied man is drafted, to be placed immediately under Morgun’s command.” Icefellow turns his eyes away, and makes to return to his office.
“You can’t!” the woman yells. Being wifed to a fisher and mother of three more, her response to the command is personal and emotional. Icefellow does not turn to look her in the eyes. It is not from shame or contraction, but rather disdain and apathy.
“I can and I will. Now, send my orders out, or I’ll have you and your family exiled for insubordination. And I hear the wilderness is not a welcoming place this time of year.”
When Icefellow sits down at his office, he is shaking. He pulls a bottle of wine out of the bottom drawer of his office, and tries to pour into a glass. His hands are shaking. “What is this tension?” he wonders. He feels something creeping along his spine, tickling him as it rises from his tail-bone all the way to his neck, where it explodes like a firework of ecstasy right where the neck ends and the head starts. Power. He punches the glass of the office, and brings the bottle to his mouth. He takes in generous gulps that feed the sentiment and lays down the bottle with a bang, spilling red drops all over his tidy office.
War is a nasty business, no one can claim different;
If I play my cards right, I just might make it.