Nullgate (A fragment)
April 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
There was a seaport at Null five hundred years before the Alronians reached it.
The northern coast of Etrea is a singularly unfriendly one. Fjords are treacherous there, filled with shallows, jagged rocks, and several peoples less than open to newcomers. The Naeth who dominate most of the north are hostile in the extreme, and their Aghat and Hentre neighbors have learned to fear Naeth longships, and thus, are none too quick to welcome strangers. All of this was before Alronian triremes made their way into the waters as well, heavy with weapons and quick to use them.
The people of Benar, living as they do on an island to the west of Etrea, require trade to supply them with many things they desire that their island does not supply, such as most kinds of food. The soil of Benar is less soil and more patches of dirt the rocks somehow forgot to infest, and their livestock tends towards the dwarfish cousins of mainland beasts. However they arrived in their isolated home, they have long made the sea provide as much bounty as it could, and as such trade came naturally to them. But they needed a harbour.
Null was not yet named anything when the Alronians sailed into its waters. The Benar sailors had found this large natural harbour, surrounded by steep cliffs on all sides, and had settled in to draw fresh water. From that beginning, people from across the north had found them, and the Benar had done what they could when surrounded by dangerous, aggressive people who had things they wanted. They used the cliffs as fortification, and built lifts to ascend and descend to make deals. There were no portals, passages or gates in the natural wall around the ramshackle seaport, and so the Benar had called their little trading port Nullgate.
They hadn’t expected 40 Alronian ships to sail in and claim the place. But they adapted to it easily enough, surrendering control of the city and its docks (and the expense of running it) and moving smoothly into the role of people who came to Nullgate with things to sell. The Alronians built their own fortifications, of course. They built walls, roads, they even carved or blasted out whole sections of cliff to give themselves more room to expand. In the end the city sprawled up and around and into the mountains themselves, still sheltered by the impressive ring of cliffs. Three roads led to Nullgate, and each road was served by its own lifts designed and built by Alronians along the Benar plan.
Even as Alronia gave up the idea of conquering the north, Nullgate remained. Cut off from the Empire, the families that controlled the city squabbled, fought, fled, or entrenched themselves. The wealth of trade from four nations still remained up from grabs, after all. Fisheries off the coast, hides and ivory, salt from Naeth flowed into the city and was exchanged for Benar tin and crafts, Hentre lumber and silver, and Aghat firestone and other concoctions. Ships from as far away as Tarsis and the east would arrive, seeking to make deals of fruits and spices. Even the occasional ship from the Empire, or caravan from its northern marches, would arrive looking to make deals.
When the Manjalh family left, seeking the shelter of the dwindling Empire, Nullgate was a duchy of Alron. Following their retreat, Nullgate remained a duchy, although it was beholden to no throne. Indeed, it would be difficult even today to discern who actually rules the city. There is a Senate, but most of their ranks never actually show their faces during its infrequent sessions. The Manjalhi still claim the style of Duke or Duchess of Nullgate, depending on who is alive to claim it, but none of that family has set foot in Null proper in hundreds of years. There are three competing police forces, the Guard of Null, the Ducal Guard, and the Fists of Ebon. The Fists are a religious order that protects mostly the various temples, the Ducal Guard have spent the past centuries preserving the edifices of civil authority as best they could, and the Guard are as much a protection racket as guardsmen. They argue with each other as much as they protect anything.
Somehow, Null endures. There are goods to load and unload, deals to broker, profits to count and protect. Let someone else argue about who rules the city. Money runs it.
Jamer Trell learned that lesson as a small boy. Neither his sire nor dam were alive to tell him where he came from. He may have been born anywhere, perhaps even in Null, his dark brown hair and ruddy skin could have marked him as from any number of peoples, and his average but stocky frame didn’t distinguish him much either. He earned the nasty scars on his face as an arsonist for hire, and only got out of that line of work when it became clear to him that burglary and robbery were easier. He assembled a like minded gang of slightly younger men and women and took to working the port alongside a dozen other such entrepreneurs. All of them knew the rules. Don’t disrupt business, don’t get greedy, don’t piss off anyone with enough coin to do something about it.
Jamer couldn’t quite master that last one. The rich people were the ones with enough money to make stealing from them worth it, after all. You couldn’t fault his logic, and indeed, the wealthy in Null had long since learned to accommodate some losses due to theft and larceny, as the price of doing business in a city that let you yourself get away with some of that as well. Jamer probably would have been fine, all things considered.
If not for Rasmer Dan’Homa of Benar, an honest and modestly successful fisherwoman. She never actually met him, but that didn’t matter.
Jamer Trell had a routine he liked to stick to. Every night he and six of his most loyal bullies would leave the old Alronian warehouse they’d decided to squat in and head down to the old town near the base of Mehju Cliff, named for someone who’d been on one of those long-ago boats that had pointed cannons at the place and stolen it outright. They would make their way from whorehouse to bar and back and forth until they were either too drunk or too sore to continue. In this manner, the coin of Tarsan flesh peddlers and Hentre loggers would be dispersed.
It was a wonder they even had time to steal anything, really.
The most important night Trell was particularly afflicted, having secured a rather irritating rash on the previous night’s excursion that had him in a foul mood. Had he arrived at that same squat little house it might have ended up going badly for the faded little woman running the show. Instead, Lachli, the right hand of the gang (a rather sallow but hulking Naeth, with yellow hair and teeth set in a piggish pallid face) nudged his chief with an elbow.
“Hey, Jamer.” The air hissed out of the man. “Check left.”
Trell did so, with a brief glare at his man. Lachli rarely spoke, which meant when he did the gang leader had learned to favour him. In the dark of the crowded street, just under an oil lantern steadily burning its way down, a female silhouette turned a corner just too late to avoid Trell seeing the edge of her cloak. His eye for such things honed by years of work, he immediately understood what had caught Lachli’s eye.
“Nice.” He turned and waved his hand to his thugs, the signal that moved them from anticipatory carousal to business. They were a reasonable sample of the city, some of them born there, others hailing from distant lands where they’d worn out their welcome (or their parents had). All bore the marks of a life led in the streets of the gateless city, men and women who’d learned which end of a knife to hold. Aside from Lachli, Eniar Red-Pock was their biggest and meanest, a woman with a shock of black hair and scars from a childhood constantly sick with whatever new scourge found its way to the slums between the fish packing and markets. She drew a truncheon out of her clothing with surprising ease and nodded.
They made their way across the avenue and down the alley with the ease of practice. With the walls surrounding them only cracks between the buildings allowed any light to descend, a faint silver radiance that did little to illuminate. Thirty yards ahead of them, they could just make out the woman walking down what Trell knew to be a dead end. So she’d seen them and hoped to hide, he decided.
That made him smile. Wasn’t any place to hide down there.
He gestured to his people to slow down, a hand to his side they’d all seen before. The few people that heard her cry out wouldn’t bother to respond. No one here paid taxes if they could avoid it, and the Null Guard tended to confine themselves to warehouses and wharfs that directly paid them for their services. Most panders preferred private help, and none of them were going out of doors.
When there was less than twenty yards between her and the end of the alleyway, Trell decided they’d let things go on long enough. He stepped into what light there was from on high and placed his hand on his hip, regarding the cloaked woman with all the scorn he could dredge up.
“That’s a nice cloak.” He chuckled. “A bit warm out for it, inn’t?”
The woman didn’t respond, her face concealed from view in the hood drawn up around it, the darkness of the alleyway making more than her outline impossible for him to make out. This just made him smile wider.
“Not much for talking? That’s fine. You know what’s next? I can tell you if you like. It can go easy or hard.”
“From what I hear, your idea of easy is to live someone alive, Trell.” The woman’s voice was surprising, deep and without even the slightest edge of fear. “For instance, you cut Jain Del’Homa’s face so badly he’ll probably never get a mate, and you let that fat Naeth pig rape him. That’s you, Lachli? Yes, you match. But you didn’t kill him. Which turns out to have been a mistake, because he remembered all of you, and all of the names you dropped around him.” The cloak pulled aside – it really was a very nice cloak, made of embroidered furs in the classical Naeth style – and the woman produced a large black iron morningstar from its folds.
Jamer, who had never traveled outside of Nullgate in his life, did not recognize it. Eniar did, and she hissed at the sight of it.
“Oh shit she’s a Galian. We gotta kill her! They…” Before she could finish speaking, an arrow bloomed out of her larynx. It was as if it had simply sprouted there, they hadn’t even heard the sound of a bowstring. Even as her eyes widened in pain, Trell heard the sound of metal ringing against metal and turned barely in time to avoid a mace swing that took Lachli full in the arm, crushing his shoulder and shattering the bones around it. The spikes stuck in his flesh, and when the shrouded woman tore it free blood sprayed from the ruin of his arm, and arced from the head of the weapon.
Trell wasn’t a coward, exactly. He certainly always picked on those weaker than himself, usually when the numbers favored him, but he’d been in enough one on one fights to consider himself a reasonably hard man. But the woman in front of him was no robber and all of her attacks were meant to be lethal or crippling. She backhanded the newest of his men, an Aghat whose name he hadn’t even bothered to learn, and broke the entire front of his face with her armoured hand. The metal had been muffled by the fur cloak she’d thrown into a puddle, he saw it briefly in the moon’s light and realized that the fur was likely ruined.
To the rear, two arrows had done Kamea, puncturing his lung and calf so that he could barely breath, blood pooling around him. He could hear fighting back there, but couldn’t turn to look at it, trying to keep Lachli between himself and the woman’s mace. It worked for a few seconds. Lachi, mad with pain, tried bringing his big fishing knife down on the woman, but she knocked it aside with the handle of her mace then kicked him in the chest, sending him sprawling and looming over him with the weapon in both hands.
It came down so hard on his genitals that it tore both his thighs open on the way, and even in the dim light Trell saw blood everywhere, in the air, on the ground. Lachli didn’t even manage to scream. Jamer was already turning to run, but didn’t.
The last of his escort, a tall Hentre woman with facial brands he’d never asked her about, lay dead on the ground with a tall man, kneeling over her body, closing her eyes with one hand. He held a large curved Tarsan blade, point down on the stones, and was looking at Trell with the same kind of dispassion a fish gutter uses on the next one to cut open.
“You really should have killed him. Or kept your mouth shut.” The woman came walking up behind him. “Or, just robbed him and let him go, I guess. His guildmaster… his grandmother… would probably have chalked that up to business expenses. But she was remarkably less willing to forget you ending her family line.”
He didn’t even hear the mace take him in the back of the head.
The aftermath was efficient. They left the bodies where they fell, except for Jamer Trell, who was swiftly and expertly decapitated with a single stroke of the big curved sword, no mean feat in a dark alleyway. The head was stowed inside the ruined cloak, fished from its mud puddle, and that bundle passed into a large sack. Then they left, not in any particular hurry. As Trell and his people had believed, no one was likely to come investigate the sounds that had been made before morning.
There was business to be minded, and in Null, everyone learns to be good at minding one’s own business.
Hours later, after watching him undo several locks. Jerra pushed open the door to his crowded, moldy rat warren he insisted on pretending was a shop. Shops had customers. Money only flowed out of this one, spent on the latest map, or scroll, or book, or set of old tablets unearthed in some ruin or another. When he hadn’t somehow convinced her to go to one of those ruins with him, of course.
She wrinkled her nose at the smell of old paper as she crashed down into one of the tattered chairs near the staircase. He snorted.
“It can’t smell worse than the wharfs.”
“That’s probably why you keep dragging me down there.”
“Not my fault every idiot we end up taking care of prowls down there.” He removed his gear buckle by buckle, strewing it over the ragged chair he’d had ever since they first met. Jerra barely even paid attention.
“I hope the old woman paid you.”
“She did, and yes, I have your cut.” He rustled around in his pack and tossed a purse at her. She picked up slightly at the weight. “Alronian coin, too.”
She slid the pouch into one of her own bags but made no move to get up.
“You got evicted again.”
“I may have been a few months late on rent.”
“I may have broken old Boral’s arm in a few places.”
Miaran nodded to himself, reached into the desk and pulled out an iron key, tossing it to her.
“Same room as before. I haven’t cleaned it since last time you were here.”
“I didn’t know you knew how to clean.”
“By your standards, I don’t.” He snickered and stood with his palms on the desk, arching his back and popping the joints along his back and shoulders. “I may have some more work lined up if you’re interested.”
“Well, since I’m not interested in squatting in your upstairs forever, I am.” She yawned, dragging herself upright. “Any news about the old man?”
“I haven’t heard anything, Jerra.”
“And you’d tell me.”
“And I’d tell you. I don’t like it, but it’s your business, not mine.” He slumped down into the chair behind his battered old desk, stripped down to the waist. Even sitting in a half slump his torso bulged with muscle and scar tissue, his skin the color of a setting sun just before it slips over the horizon. “Go ahead and get some sleep. I’ll bring up some water in the morning if you want a bath.”
“I expect I’m going to.” She pulled her morningstar and shield off of her back and dumped them on his groaning couch. Her dark hair was falling out from her coif in wisps that suggested it was sweated through, and she didn’t look forward to peeling herself out of her armor. The skin on her right thigh still itched where the old scar had rubbed itself raw against the chain. She grunted softly and trudged up the first step of the stairs.
He yawned in response, and she took the hint and headed up.
She awoke to stiffness. The muscles along her flanks ached, as did her shoulders and upper back. Expecting worse, she rolled onto her back and looked up at the peeling strips of plaster dangling from the ceiling. The building was built by Benar, you could tell by the boxy shape and squared windows, but the interior had not been kept up. Benar being how they were, the building could be hundreds of years old, which made the lack of outright collapse impressive given how unlikely it was that there was any effort to its upkeep.
It looked like a forest of peeling white strips from her back.
Dragging herself upright, she took a moment to check herself for injuries she might have missed. There were a few bruises, but nothing else. Her skin would have horrified her mother, with scars puckering her ribs and a large, livid burn scar over her breasts she didn’t like to think too much about. Still, it had all healed. She pulled on an old shirt hanging over the closest chair and staggered her way out of the room. There were two buckets of warm water waiting for her, and she grabbed the handles and hoisted them up with a casual flex of her arms. The muscles stood out, very unusual for someone born with milk-white skin and gracile limbs. Years of lessons in how to smile, incline her head, even walk without ever seeming to exert herself, completely wasted. The body Jerra had grown into looked more like her father than her mother.
Walking down the hall to the room with the basin in it, she considered the old man. It wasn’t that she’d been a tomboy as a child. If anything, she’d wanted desperately to achieve her mother’s exacting standard of behavior. She hadn’t wanted to disappoint her, and hadn’t been interested in riding horses or warfare. If she’d started younger, she probably wouldn’t have such terrible aim with a bow or knife.
Jerra still remembered the day the ladies of Gallia had come to the estate. Mother had fought it, of course. Her daughter, a hand of the lady of war? No grandchildren, no heirs to the combined estates of two of the greatest families in Alron? Father had been more pragmatic. He simply asked her if she wanted to go. In truth, she hadn’t wanted to, but she felt the need to go. He accepted this answer, his shaggy grey hair hanging down to half obscure his face, his red beard lined with seams of silver. It was father who escorted her and her two keepers to the edge of his lands, and father who wrote to her when she began her vocation. Father was a soldier, he accepted duty and obligation as givens. Mother ruled the estate in all things, since father was never there to do so.
She dumped each bucket into the basin with a rippling of her back, feeling the stiffness from a day in harness slowly recede. It had been mother who’d not wanted more than one child, so it was mother’s fault there was no heir, not hers. If having a heir was so important mother could breed another one, or let father have a mistress and produce one that way. Either way, the goddess had called and Jerra had answered her.
The water felt good even though it wasn’t hot anymore. The house wasn’t drafty, that much she could say for it. Her black hair, stringy and greasy from sweat, fanned out in the water as she lay back in it. The only hint to luxury was that basin, big enough for a man his size to sprawl out.
“You’re awake in there?” His voice came through the door, and she turned to look at it. As she expected, he didn’t open it.
“Yes.” She stretched out. “Do you want to come in?”
“Well, I would, but you’re lacking that certain special something I look for.” He chuckled raspily. “I have to head into town to meet with that tradesman. I think he’s got work for us.”
“The one with the breath like a sow?”
“He can smell like low tide. His gold spends well enough and we’re both still broke even after last night.”
“This is true.” She sighed and lowered herself fully into the bath. “I’ll be pruning in here then. Is Bear in town?”
“Hmm. I’m not sure. He was last week.”
“I may go find him later. If you’re back, you can come with.”
“Why, so we can fight over him?”
“If you like. I’ll win, if we do.” He chuckled again, this time slightly harder for her to hear with the tub’s brazen sides surrounding her. “Bear likes me.”
“Bear likes how you fight.”
“Same thing for him.”
“I’ll come check in on you after, then.”
Miaran C’teth was his full name, C’teth being his mother’s family. He had no idea who his father was. Being a bastard wasn’t that large a stigma among the Hentre, who raised their children communally anyway. He remembered his grandfather as a massive red beard and a bald pate, always stone faced yet endlessly willing to bring the boy along on hunts, to fish, even just to sit and carve wood into spears.
Every time he walked the twisted streets of Nullgate, every time he felt penned in by the buildings (varying in shape as they did like rows of snaggle teeth, some rotten, others not) he remember tromping after that old man in the forest near the rude collection of huts that made up the family’s homes. Cousins and uncles and aunts, five generations under those thatch and clay roofs. His memory of them sharper than ever.
Stepping over a man and his sharp-eyed yellow hound (a strong coursing hound, and better fed than Miaran would have expected) he made his way north, towards the newer parts of the city. The houses blasted right out of the rock by wealth Alronians who hadn’t wanted to live so close to the water. Even those were hundreds of years old now, but they marked the extreme edge of Nullgate’s ability to grow outward. Upward, however, she still managed. Ahead of him he could see the terraced rows of newer homes built higher and further back into the rock, almost half way up the sheer rock of what had been rising jagged cliffs when the city had first taken root.
It looked almost like stairs from down in the belly of things. The first time he’d gotten off a boat he’d stared up, and up, and up at the city above him and not even cared that the gesture marked him to the native-born. At twenty years, he’d already seen eight of pure war and six before that as a Naeth’s slave boy. While Null had lessons it taught him, he was hardly naïve by that point.
The sword on his back jostled slightly as the hill got steeper. He didn’t currently own horseflesh and hadn’t the coin to rent it – killing Trell and his gang had netted him just enough to keep the hovel in his name for a few months. Not paying your taxes would lead to someone coming by to remind you, sooner or later, and Miaran knew most of the people in that line. It was better to keep them off your back, because eventually, they’d come late enough at night or while you were away working and just burn the whole place down. So, rather than risk it, he’d made sure to pay up, which meant walking up the hill.
Part of him, the part that enjoyed killing six thugs, wouldn’t have minded fighting off a few attempts to burn down the shop. But once you kill a guard, the rest of the guard starts making you important, and he didn’t want to be important. He’d already found himself with more notoriety than he liked.
Jerra treated every situation like a combat, but Miaran didn’t think everything could be dealt with by putting his head down and charging. Which is why he still had his shop and she was always crashing in it. It was a shame she was born Alronian. His people would have made her a hero, not stuck her away in some temple. Of course, she was in Null now, so clearly she’d decided for herself that the temple wasn’t where she was supposed to be.