Gates of Stone extract: chapter three
This is an extract from my epic fantasy novel Gates of Stone. I have already posted chapters one and two on this blog. And if you like the story you can buy the whole books here.
Extract from Ethnographic Travels by Professor Tolmund K. Parehki of the University of Dhilika:
“The sprawling city of Singarasam is the chief marketplace of the Laut Besar. More accurately, it is a bubbling stew of filth and iniquity, greed and vice where tens of thousands of people of all colours and creeds come together from across the world to trade ‘obat’ – a powerful narcotic, which is cultivated on several islands in the Laut Besar but nowhere else on this earth. Other rare and valuable cargoes – including spices, timber, slaves and gold – are exchanged here too, but obat is the most lucrative and important commodity by far, and the city began life some hundreds of years ago as a place for the early Han merchants to safely store their harvests of the precious leaves and resin.
Today, when not engaged in trade, the teeming hordes of Singarasam enjoy nothing better than murdering their enemies in the dank back alleys of the city, except perhaps for lying to, scheming against and stealing from their dearest friends – but they are rather less enthusiastic about paying their annual tribute in silver to the Lord of the Islands. This is the traditional title of most powerful of the local sea raiders, the pirate chief who occupies the First House, as his gaudy palace is known, and who calls himself King of Singarasam . . .”
They made him wait. To show their contempt for him personally and for his equally insignificant trading house, they made him wait for more than an hour. Nearly two. It was not the first time he had been made made to kick his heels by a foreign ruler. But this was different. This was quite deliberate. This was humiliation Singarasam-style.
Farhan Madani had heard the bells on the Exchange toll the twelfth hour, the last hour of business when the counters were slammed shut, and the clerks began to gather up their precious sheaves of palm-leaf before tallying up their day’s trade. He had heard a mad preacher howling endlessly on a street corner at passersby, begging them to give up their sinful love of money and follow the true way of the Holy Martyr. Now, outside the First House, in the narrow crowded streets of Singarasam, the skinny half-naked Dewa vendors would be pumping the oil-stoves to start the seething fires, chopping vegetables, garlic, ginger, chillis, and small nameless chunks of offal and bone that would make the base of the delicious fiery soups they sold by the bowlful all through the long warm night.
Farhan was hungry. He had not eaten since dawn. And at his age – nearly forty years – he liked to be fed regularly, and to savour his food in quiet comfort. After he had seen the Lord of the Islands – if he ever was granted an audience after this endless wait – he would order a bowl of the rich, fragrant soup from the Dewa street cooks to either celebrate his triumph or drown his sorrows. Celebrate! He would certainly be celebrating after this meeting! How could he not? How could the Lord of the Islands – the great Ongkara himself, fail to be delighted by his proposal. For Ongkara, there was no risk, no possibility of loss. He was being offered pure profit for something that would not cost him a copper kupang. Farhan would be celebrating after this audience. He knew it. The delay was merely a piece of the famous Singarasam shadow-puppet theatre designed to make the Big Man feel even more powerful and remind the supplicant of his lowly place. It meant absolutely nothing.
Would they have made him wait this long for an audience with an important official at home in Dhilika? Probably not. The elite state functionaries in the capital of the Indujah Federation, a powerful trading conglomeration that occupied a vast peninsula two thousand leagues to the west of the Laut Besar, were of a brisker stamp. He would have been seen promptly at the given time or not at all. But he was not at home now. This was Singarasam, the greatest, indeed only proper city in the Laut Besar and, while it had been the base for his one-man trading company for the past year and more, he had never felt comfortable here.
The weight of the leather bag on his lap, however, was quietly reassuring. It was a fine-looking gift – and he was sure it would ease the way for him. The Lord of the Islands would be pleased, he would be sweetened, he would be made generous and malleable.
The alternative – that Ongkara might refuse him – was unthinkable. There were people, very serious people, who would be extremely angry if Farhan were to fail. And there were also his debts to consider, too. Farhan did not know the precise value of his debts, the exact number in silver ringgu coin – how could he, when the interest was calculated on a daily basis? – but he knew it was a mountainous sum and that his chief creditor Xi Gung was growing impatient. When the head of the mighty House of Xi became impatient with one of his clients, terrible things happened. Xi Gung preferred to take his payment in cold, hard silver – but he would take it in dripping flesh, too, if necessary. Farhan shuddered, pushed the evil thought aside. Ongkara would see sense. The Lord of the Islands would provide. All would be well.
Farhan had been so enfolded in his thoughts that he had failed to notice the servant standing before him. If he truly was a servant – the quantity of bullion sewn in to his jacket and sarong would have paid the interest on Farhan’s loans for a week. And his manner was hardly subservient – by his expression he seemed to be smelling something foul, an odour that apparently only he was refined enough to detect.
“Yes, that’s me, Farhan Madani,” he said, standing up stiffly from the bamboo armchair, and brushing at the deep crease-marks in his best blue linen jacket.
“His Royal Highness has a few moments at his disposal and has graciously agreed to grant you a brief audience.”
The servant turned and began to glide towards a vast pair of doors.
“About bloody time,” muttered Farhan, hefting the leather bag in his arms.
The servant stopped, turned smoothly on the heel of his golden slipper and said: “Did you say something, Lord Madani?”
“Nothing important,” said Farhan, hoisting up a weak smile for the man.
“I thought I heard you say something about time. I thought that perhaps I heard you say that you did not have the time to see His Royal Highness at present – and if that were the case than I would gladly show you back down to the street. There is a discreet tradesman’s entrance not far from here that could also perfectly well be used as an exit.”
“No, no, I’d be delighted to pay my respects to His Royal Highness right now. The sooner the better, in fact.”
“Very good,” said the servant, and he continued leading the way to the tall doors. Farhan followed after the man, head drooping, knowing himself bested.
The Audience Hall was a shock to Farhan’s sensibilities. It was big, to be sure – three times the height of a man and a bowshot in length and width – but that was to be expected. What made his jaw drop was the extraordinary ugliness of the place. It was decorated in the high Han style – naturally, for the First House was the original trading warehouse of the Han adventurers who had founded the island haven of Singarasam all those centuries ago – but since then each occupant of the palace had added his or her own sense of pomp.
A double line of blood-red pillars, circled by golden dragons with yellow beards, purple spine crests and splayed green feet, made a kind of tunnel through the centre of the hall leading to the Obat Bale where the Lord of the Islands was seated in his splendour. There were more golden dragons, silver eagles, jade fish and blue-lacquer bulls on the ceiling. The floor was speckled grey marble with purple and green lotus flower mosaics. And the whole huge place was lit with a thousand candles hanging from half-a-hundred gold-chased crystal chandeliers. It was as bright as noon in there – brighter, as the golden scales of the many, many decorative dragons seemed to multiply the reflected light. Farhan blinked – he had a strong urge to cover his eyes. A vast gong beat three times. He stumbled slightly at the onslaught of clashing colours and sounds, recovered, raised his chin and strode manfully down the centre of the hall towards the distant Obat Bale as the golden-clad servant sonorously intoned the names and titles of the Lord of the Islands – King of Singarasam, Lion of the Southern Lands, Dragon of the High Seas, Scourge of the Lawless, Shield of the Righteous, Font of All Harmony – Ongkara the Fearless.
Farhan reached the dais on which the Obat Bale was placed and fell to his knees on the white rice-straw mat, arms extended, prostrating himself in awe before the majesty of the Lord of the Islands in the time-honoured fashion. The servant announced him inaccurately as Lord Farhan of the House of Madani – Farhan was no lord, and the House of Madani had but a single occupant, himself. Yet he was not going to complain at being made to sound grander than he was. He gently knocked his forehead on the mat, three times, then three times, and three more times, then held his position, waiting patiently for the Lord of the Islands to take notice of him.
He had been prepared for another long undignified wait with his face pressed to the ground and his arse in the air and was surprised to hear Ongkara saying crossly: “Get up, man. Get up and say your piece – I haven’t got all night.”
Farhan cautiously raised his head and looked directly at the Lord of the Islands for the first time. The Lion of the Southern Lands was seated in a wooden throne, which was placed on a vast square white canvas bag stuffed tight with dried obat leaves – the Obat Bale, which signified the first trade that had enriched the rulers of Singarasam. He was flanked on either side by two stern-faced Jath guards, dark, bearded men with black turbans, loose black robes and huge drawn scimitars. To Farhan’s surprise he saw that Ongkara was a little frog of a man, short and thick in the body but with long skinny brown limbs and an outsized head under a tall and heavy-looking jewel-encrusted golden crown. His eyes were small, black and angry; his small nose was flattened to his face; his mouth was as wide as the length of Farhan’s hand. He was every bit as ugly as his Audience Hall, Farhan decided, before hurriedly thrusting that undiplomatic thought away lest it show on his face.
“Your Royal Highness, I come bearing a wondrous gift of enormous value, as a token of the high esteem that my House has for your person,” said Farhan. And he reached inside the leather sack and pulled out a small shiny yellow statue of a lion, its right forepaw lifted to strike some invisible enemy, mouth open in a roar of rage. It was a decent, life-like piece, of some antiquity, or so the shop-keeper had told him when he purchased it that morning at a grubby little emporium by the docks for far more than he could afford.
“For you, my King,” Farhan said, holding out the lion, “a memento of our first meeting. This exquisite solid gold piece is more than a hundred years old, more valuable than a dozen real beasts of flesh and blood, and it was made for your illustrious ancestor Jinwa the Valiant, first of your line to call himself the Lion of the Southern Lands.”
There was no possibility that Ongkara was in any way related to the notorious Jinwa – a brutal Han warlord who had died without issue, poisoned by his own Grand Vizier, a venal little sadist who had promptly ascended the throne and named himself Tang the Magnificent. But, as Farhan knew well, the etiquette of the court dictated that all the Kings of Singarasam must claim to be descended from each other in one impressively unbroken blood line.
Farhan held out the golden statue with both hands towards Ongkara. Its weight was quite considerable – perhaps it really was made of solid gold.
One of the black-clad Jath guards stepped forward, grabbed the lion in one hairy paw and passed it up to the King without the slightest ceremony. Ongkara turned the little statue over in his hands, letting the candle-light play on the golden surface.
“You say this animal is more than a hundred years old?” he said.
“Yes, Highness, it was made by the legendary blacksmith Grandfather Pande who forged it in a fire made from the bones of a giant lizard monster . . .”
“Really? It seems very small for its age.” Ongkara snickered at his own wit then tossed the lion casually on to the Obat Bale beside his knee, where it bounced once and lay still.
Ongkara looked down at Farhan.
The silence was appalling. One of the Jath guards gave a cough, as explosive in the quiet as a fire-cracker. It sounded like a smothered laugh, to Farhan’s ear.
“So, Master of the Silver Tongue, Lord of the Liars,” said Ongkara, at last, “what is it that you wish from me?”
Farhan blinked. He was slightly shocked that Ongkara already knew his hated nicknames. But, of course, the man had his spies. Just like everyone else.
“Why, sire, I wish for nothing more than your continued good health and a long, happy life – may your glorious reign last for a thousand years.”
“Thank you,” said the King. “If you truly wish for nothing more than my health and my thousand-year reign, Lord Liar, then I shall bid you good night.”
“I also wish to swell your royal coffers, sire,” said Farhan quickly. “For what is a long life without the necessary means to enjoy it?”
“Quite. Well, then, get on with it, man, swell my coffers – how?”
“With gold, sire, gold from the Konda Pali mine below the Grey Mountain on the Island of Yawa.”
“I’m listening . . .”
“The Konda Pali mine eats men, sire, as I’m sure you know – the life of a slave in that deep hell is less than six turnings of the moon. Half a year, sire, is all a mine-slave can expect to live before the heat, the ceaseless labour, the foul air beneath the earth, or the cruelty of the guards makes an end of him. Half a year. The mines of Yawa produce two things, sire – ingots of the purest gold and the corpses of those who toil in them. So the Han engineers who control the mines, the Gold Masters, are ever hungry for fresh meat – they need slaves and more slaves, hundreds, even thousands of men and women to be fed into the sunless earth to wrest gold from the depths and bring it up into the light. They will pay a hundred silver ringgu for a healthy male, or ten fingers of gold; fifty ringgu for a woman.”
“Go on,” said the King, leaning forward slightly. Farhan felt a glow in his belly. The fish was on the hook, he could feel it tugging on the line.
“If I may, sire, I would now direct your imagination east to the endless, impenetrable teak forests of Ziran Atar. The tribes who inhabit that unmapped land are sturdy, well muscled and for the most part untroubled by knowledge of the rest the world. Some say that they are the direct ancestors of the Ebu people, the original inhabitants of the Laut Besar, driven into exile there when the New People arrived. They have almost no metal; they still use tools of wood, flint and obsidian. And they are not united in any sense, except in their dread of some foul witch goddess, the Queen of Fire, they call her, who they fear will burn up their souls. The Atari tribes are warriors, though, a vigorous and aggressive people who are constantly at odds with their neighbours. And when they vanquish an enemy tribe, they take them captive and either sacrifice them to the Queen of Fire in hideous blood-washed rituals or make them their slaves, have them toiling in the fields, drawing their water . . .”
“And you plan to obtain these slaves from the Atari tribes, ship them across to Yawa and sell them to the Han engineers at the gold mines.”
“Your Royal Highness is as perceptive as he is generous with his time,” Farhan said, bowing low. Ongkara ignored his remark and frowned.
“And what will you use to pay for these slaves – what will you give the Atari in exchange for their captured neighbours?”
“Iron, sire. Iron swords and knives, forged spear points, axes and arrow heads. The beauty of this scheme, as I’m sure you will already have divined, sire, is that when one group of savages has armed itself and vanquished the next – they sell the captives to us. But the losers will also be keen to trade to equip themselves with iron weapons so that they can face their foes on an equal footing at their next encounter. Thus we create an endless supply of slaves.”
Ongkara sat back in his throne. He seemed impressed.
“I am the fabled alchemist of the storybooks, sire: I shall transform base iron into pure gold!” Farhan had been preparing this line for days now but it had sounded far better in his head. Ongkara seemed not to notice its cleverness at all. He was frowning again.
“You could just go there with a force of well-armed men and capture the natives yourself. Pack them in the holds, ship them over to Yawa, get your gold without spending anything on iron goods. Wouldn’t that be far cheaper? These savages have no real weapons; they can’t be all that difficult to subdue.”
This is going to be easier than I thought, Farhan reflected, this froggy little pirate has not the slightest moral reservations about this venture. What people said of him was true: Ongkara would sell his sister to the whore-masters for a single finger of gold.
What he actually said was: “Once again, sire, you have amply demonstrated your extraordinary sagacity. It would indeed be much cheaper to subdue them as you describe – but only the first time we did this. What would happen, sire, next time our sails were seen off the coast of Ziran Atar? The tribes would flee inland, running and hiding in fear of our slave-catchers. Each time we came there it would become a little harder to collect the slaves, a little more dangerous. My earnest hope is that this should be an ongoing concern. A well from which we can draw water for years, perhaps decades, to come. If we pay them with a few cheap iron trinkets, the natives will fill the slave pens on the beach for us with their brothers and sisters. We arrive, we load the cargo into the holds, we pay the price in iron to the local headman and we are off to Yawa to collect our gold. We can do this time and again – and Ziran Atari is vast, sire, there will never be a shortage of flesh for us to harvest.”
Ongkara was nodding, smiling even now.
“You are ambitious, I’ll give you that, Madani. And you seem to have thought it all the way through. Tell me, then, what is it that you want from me?”
“The journey to Ziran Atar will be long and arduous, sire, and fraught with no little danger. We must pass by the deadly Kamput Shore and avoid the terrible menace of the swooping fire-birds. The waters there are thick with evil pirates and head-hunting dyaks. We will put in at Banjarputa on the Island of Kalima – in the shadow of the vengeful Mountain of Fire. We will pass through the Piri-Piri Isles, where the ghosts of the sea dead are said to roam among the obat groves, singing their lethal . . .”
“I know the route, Madani. I’ve been sailing these waters for forty years or more. And the fire-birds are not real – they are merely children’s kites dipped in oil and set ablaze. Just tell me what it is that you require from me.”
“Your flag, sire,” said Farhan.
“I wish to fly the Lion Standard of the King of Singarasam, the mark of the Lord of the Islands himself, from my masthead below my own humble pennant. I also wish for a letter of marque from you stating that I am your captain, acting under your orders, with the authority to punish your enemies, and that I and my crew are under your personal protection at all times and in all waters. And in exchange for that small token of your royal esteem, I shall give you ten per cent of the gold bullion when we return to Singarasam in no more than three moons from today. I estimate that your share will be worth in the region of two thousand silver ringgu.”
If Farhan had hoped that the King of Singarasam would have been impressed by this figure – it was a huge sum, equivalent to a year’s profit for a medium-sized Singarasam trading house – he was to be royally disappointed.
Ongkara sniffed, and reached a long arm around himself to scratch at his backside. Farhan looked up at him in expectation. In case this preposterous oaf had not managed to grasp the size of the reward being offered, Farhan said: “It is the equivalent of two hundred fingers of pure gold, sire, a delightful sum, I’m sure you will agree. And all you have to do to gain it is give me is a piece of cloth and a letter.”
“That’s all you think my name is worth?” said Ongkara. “You ask for my protection – the auspice of the Lord of the Islands – for a pittance. My writ runs from the setting to the rising sun, from the far frozen north to the empty southern ocean. A mere two thousand ringgu? I should have you flayed alive for your impertinence.”
Farhan was drenched with shock. He knew that this was no idle threat.
“If you wish to go cruising around the islands under my flag, merrily enriching yourself, having all the sea folk of the Laut Besar bow and scrape to you,” the Lord of the Islands was booming now, his squat torso swollen with rage, his spindly arms gesturing wildly above his head, “then I demand in return a far more suitable recompense. I want fifty per cent and I don’t want that to be an ‘estimate’ or ‘in the region of’. I want ten thousand ringgu in cash on your return, and no quibbles about slaves who died on the passage, or wily Han merchants who cheated you out of this or that. Ten thousand. Cash. An hour after your ship touches the quay in Singarasam Harbour.”
Farhan relaxed. His shoulders came down. The fish was as good as landed. Now it was really only about the negotiation.
“Sire, I am but a poor man,” he began. “I have many debts. And I must hire and outfit a ship, bear the cost of purchasing the iron goods, shackles, chains, whips, brands, and the like, there are the ships stores to consider, and dry rations for the slaves . . .”
“I know all about your debts. I think that my good friend Lord Gung of the House of Xi would be most interested to hear about your plans to depart from Singarasam. And I’m still quite seriously considering having you flayed alive for your impertinence,” Ongkara glared down at the merchant but seemed a little calmer now.
“Fifteen per cent,” said Farhan quickly. “I think I could just manage fifteen.”
“Forty, and not a penny less.”
“Sire, it would be madness to embark on this most arduous and dare I say perilous of missions unless the subsequent reward is satisfactory for all parties. But perhaps I could go to seventeen, merely out of my immense personal regard for your Royal Highness.”
“Thirty per cent – and that’s final. If the next words out of your slimy liar’s mouth are not ‘I agree, Your Royal Highness,’ then I shall call for my torturers.”
“I agree Your Royal Highness . . . that seventeen is perhaps a little ungenerous. Shall we say twenty per cent? How does four thousand shiny silver ringgu sound?”
“Damn you, Madani. Twenty-five. And my patience is at an end.”
“Done,” said Farhan, bowing low before the King. “Twenty-five it shall be. The Lion of the Southern Lands is as irresistible in matters of commerce as he is in the heat of battle.”
* * *
“With any luck we’ll never actually have to pay him,” Farhan said to Captain Cyrus Lodi, who was pouring out two measures of marak spirit into a pair of small earthenware cups. “Ongkara will be swept away by events: killed, imprisoned or exiled – rendered impotent anyway. And then he can whistle for his money. That is, if everything goes to plan,” he continued. The merchant lifted the cup in salute to his old friend, slid the spirit down his throat and set the vessel down on the table top with a click.
Ah, yes, the plan, thought Farhan, feeling the marak burn savagely in his belly. The slave-trading tale he had sold the Lord of the Islands was pure green liquid buffalo shit, of course. The true plan, little did that froggy upstart know, was to change the face of the Laut Besar, the true scheme that he and Cyrus Lodi were about to embark on was an effort to alter the political balance of the whole region in the favour of the Indujah Federation.
They were going to start a war.
Farhan Madani was indeed the lord and master of a small trading house, through which he dabbled in the gum and spice trades, but he was also employed by the government of the Indujah Federation and paid a moderate stipend each month by a secret government organisation called the Amrit Shakti in exchange for, among other things, providing reports on political, military and commercial matters throughout the whole of the Laut Besar.
The Amrit Shakti was the watchdog, guardian and iron fist of the Indujah Federation. Its thousands of members worked busily but quietly to root out spies at home and to further its commercial interests abroad. Shakti agents watched dissidents and loud-mouthed lawyers, quietly assassinated revolutionaries and rebels, threatened, bullied or bribed foreign potentates. It had been known to topple kings and change the course of conflicts with a word in the right ear. The Amrit Shakti was in fact the most powerful component of the government of the Indujah Federation: indeed, some whispered, the Amrit Shakti was the government of the Federation. And Farhan, sometimes reluctantly, did its bidding.
“When has everything ever gone exactly to plan?” said Captain Lodi, pouring himself another cup of marak. He was a thick-chested, square man with cropped grey hair, a year or two older than Farhan but looking far more ancient due to a face much battered by weather.
Darkness had fallen and the two old friends were alone in the master cabin of the Mongoose, which was tied up at a quay in the main harbour of Singarasam. The cabin was a decent-sized space, at least by the cramped standards of the trading ships of the Laut Besar, in which a tall man could stand without crouching, and a long table could be laid to seat a dozen hungry crew members. But then the Mongoose was no ordinary trading ship: she was well-armed and deadly, like the snake-killing animal she was named for, but surprisingly capacious below decks. She was also fast. The ship was driven thorough the waves by three tall masts rigged with fan-shaped sails, and Captain Lodi swore she could outrun anything in these waters except, perhaps, for one of the new Han light battle-cruisers.
“Well, pay him, don’t pay him – a few thousand ringgu will make no difference here or there,” said Farhan carelessly. “It’s just a handful of copper kupang compared to the stakes we’re playing for. A transport of the Celestial Republic, filled to the gunwales with pure gold ingots – has there ever been a bigger prize?” Farhan grinned. “It’s going to be a grand payday for us, old friend. A reward more lavish than any we ever dreamed of.”
The ship’s captain scowled at Farhan’s levity but said nothing.
“We’re going to be rich, Cyrus. Very rich. And with the blessings of the Amrit Shakti to boot, we can write our own tickets in future. Talking of money, have we any petty cash left in the strong box? Anything at all to spare? I’m a little short just now as it happens.”
“Nothing – just coppers . . . all right, maybe five ringgu, at most. But you can’t have it. I’ll need it. Apparently our credit is no longer good in this city.” Cyrus Lodi gave Farhan a hard stare from beneath his thick frost-coloured brows. “Xi Gung’s name was mentioned at the chandlers, along with yours. And I had to pay cash for almost everything we needed.”
“How soon before we are ready to leave?” Farhan asked, sending his cup skidding towards the captain with a practised flick of his finger. Lodi refilled it.
“I have the stores and water – my hold is stuffed full of old iron junk that is taking up far too much space. But my crew is ashore, drinking and smoking obat and whoring and, as they may not get a run on land for months, I would prefer to give them a little more time. Say in two days: the ebb tide. An hour before midnight. Does that suit?”
“It suits me well. I have a few private affairs that I must settle. But I don’t want to leave it too long. Ongkara is not entirely stupid.”
“I’m glad you recognise that,” said Lodi. “He is easy to despise but he made it to the top of the dung pile here so he cannot be a complete imbecile. His wrath is to be feared.”
“I agree. And our true objective is sure to leak out, too. But we should be good for two more days. He thinks he bested me in the negotiations. To be safe, I suggest we dump the iron when we’re at sea. We’ll need the room in the hold when we pick up the troops from Istana Kush – that is, if they don’t mind sleeping in the slave decks. I hear these Dokra companies are rather touchy about their honour, in fact, extremely precious about it – for bought-and-paid-for mercenaries. Although they are reputedly the best on the market.”
“They’ll do as they are damned well told,” said Lodi. “Or I’ll dump them over the side too. Soldiers – pah! – far too choosy these days about where they lay their lubberly heads.”
“We need them, Cyrus. The plan comes to nothing without the Dokra. They should be well content, at least, with their pay. It is lavish by any standards. Who offers gold for swords these days? An hour ago I was discussing the opposite exchange.”
Captain Lodi said nothing. He scowled at the teak deck between his broad boots.
“Two days, then,” said Farhan.
“Two days,” said Lodi. “But no more gambling. You cannot afford to make a mess of this mission. The Amrit Shakti will never forgive you if this goes all to cock. Neither will I.”