Tuesday, April 24, 2012

P is for … Port Oorath

Well, I'm probably not going to finish all the letters in the alphabet this month, as I've been away, and am away for over a week from Saturday, but I'll keep plugging away.

P was tricky - nothing came to mind, until I found two paragraphs I'd written a while ago on the invasion of this trading city by a culture I'd clearly based on an ancient Greek/Roman civilisation. Then I started writing, and couldn't really stop.  I'll have to work on brevity..


This coastal city has squatted on the western shore of the Gulf of Silver longer than any of the inhabitants have knowledge of, and no stories of its establishment or founding seem to exist. For all purposes, it is easy to assume that it always existed, and served its purpose of opening the lush interior plains and jungles, and the cities of Ji Phandar and Sy’ren, to the outside world. The animal and vegetative wealth of these cities flows out – captured and trained exotic animals, timbers of all sizes and shades, and plant leaves, fruits, berries and juices that exist only in these lands – and the metals, jewels and utilitarian of the northern and eastern lands flows in, along with new ideas and entertainments.

But this story is not about the interior, nor the mighty conflicts of the Southern City-States, which lie to the north of this location.

It concerns recent changes to Port Oorath, which may or may not have actually changed the life of the inhabitants.

Traditionally (for there is no other way in this city) Port Oorath is managed, or mismanaged, by the twelve Merchant Princes (prince or princess, the title is the same), an honour held by the richest, or most successful, or most daring of the traders of the city, or at least, those at want the honour. Service is for life, or until they give it up, or lose the edge that propelled them to such heights, and common consensus usually anoints a suitable replacement soon enough. The role of a Merchant Prince is to support or enable the city’s trade, and minimise threats to it, and its trade. But if one chooses to spend their time undermining another Merchant Prince, that is considered fair sport as well. It gives the holder licence to spend and recover large sums of coin, both their own, and what they can skim off the lawfully gathered tax and excise revenue. There is a large and quite efficient bureaucracy that supports the functioning of the city, in spite of the individual ambitions of the Merchant Princes.

The invasion of Port Oorath by five legions of Trieste heavy infantry occurred 21 years ago, and came as a surprise to the inhabitants. The only committed defenders of the city were a mercenary company that had been decimated in an assault in the Southern Cities conflicts, and had taken the contract to man the main gates in the city for a chance to recover and recruit. When the odd hundred or so of the Whitetail Blades finally mustered, and stood at the Sea Gate, facing two thousand legionaries, and watching the remaining three transports jostle to unload on the few remaining vacant spaces of land on the piers, they lost no time in surrendering and taking the invading representatives on a tour of the city.

The populace of the city barely noticed the invasion, and accepted the strange square silver coins of the invaders easily enough as they tried to force their way through the crowded markets. However, during the initial occupation, the leaders took advantage of its distraction, and two of the Merchant Princes were stabbed to death by their rivals, and several strategic locations or items were occupied or abducted, or, in the case of Lothmal’s Tower, both.

The invasion was amazingly successful, or a complete failure, depending on how one looked at it. Two of the Trieste officers were duly appointed as Merchant Princes, but the entire bureaucracy has been retained as the only way of keeping the city functioning, and the goods (and taxes) flowing.

The invasion was initiated by the political situation of the Trieste Homelands – a narrow coastal strip and islands far to the south, on the other shore of the Painted Sea. It is positioned with a towering mountain range behind them, a warlike civilisation that uses domesticated giant insects to the west, and the fortified lands of the Beastmen to the north. A decline in open hostilities with the Beastmen around three decades ago resulted in both a large standing army with little to do, and a generation of young, noble offices with no opportunities for upward social progress through battle.

Enter Lomos Numa, a minor noble of Karitha Island, who paid close attention to the stories of traders and travellers from the distant northern lands, that his forefathers had invaded, overrun, and then lost, half a millennia ago. He developed a rather optimistic plan to conquer the mysterious, hot lands to the northwest, to bring riches to the Empire, and set him on the road to glory and rulership. Bargaining with hard men and tired, disappointed generals, he borrowed or hired enough ships, soldiers and provisions for the endeavour, and set off.

The hot, humid climate of the interior, combined with rust, diseases, strange and dangerous flora and fauna, and the poison arrows and spears of the elusive but antagonistic inhabitants soon blunted any hope of pushing inland, and after the money ran out, three legions and all of the transports headed home, loaded down with an interesting selection of animals, carved timber fetishes and fine materials and alcohols that, although unlikely to reduce the expedition’s debt by much, will probably revitalise Trieste culture in the short term.

Of the remaining two legions, all those willing to continue their military career (roughly half) have followed the more war-like officers, and have headed to the endless conflicts of the Southern Cities, and their immortal rulers, to become a mercenary force. A thousand well trained heavy infantry, supported by a cadre of soothsayers and diviners, has fitted well into the chaos of these lands.

Of the remainder, most forfeited their training and rank, and were soon incorporated into the population of Port Oorith. Although many settled down with suitable local partners (as the indigenous peoples tend to be slender and lithe, with golden-coppery skin and heart shaped faces, and almond shaped eyes, there was no hardship here). The locals themselves were amazed by both the different appearance of the Trieste population (pale olive skin, square faces and jaws, blue or grey round eyes and far too much dark wiry hair, including, on men, almost permanent 5 o'clock shadow) and their ability with engineering, architecture and civic works. This has led to a massive improvement, with roading, water supply and docks improvements all started recently, although given the natural chaos of the city, and its adherence to unwritten traditions, these are unlikely to be completed in our lifetime.

Lomos Numa himself owes several fortunes to money-lenders and nobles alike back home, and so has no plans to return. He is enjoying is new role as a Merchant Prince, and is responsible for most of the planned infrastructure improvements. Also, the Emperor cannot rescind his citizenship while he is absent without also excusing the coin he owes, as only Trieste citizens are subject to the complex laws of financial transactions.

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