A fundamental struggle (Trade Winds)
The orc in front of him shrugged, and spread his hands, but there was nothing apologetic about his gesture.
"I apologise. You are absolutely free to depart now, if you wish. We will end the inspection and you may seek another port. But if you wish to do business in Leerdam, you will do so only once I am reassured that your cargo is legitimate."
The orc commander made a curt gesture and rattled out a series of instructions in the Gemeinsamesprache. The uniformed orcs began to spread out across the deck. Captain Gerralt could see that the crew did not like it. Being boarded by orcs, even orcs in the uniform of a Commonwealth force, did not sit well with them. The Dawnishman wondered if it was a studied insult. It seemed unlikely. This was Leerdam, after all, not Kavor or Nemoria.
"My earl will be very unhappy if your warriors break anything."
"My soldiers." the orc stressed the word. "My soldiers will be thorough and careful. If anything should be damaged during our inspection you will of course be reimbursed - assuming that is that no contraband is found of course."
The orc paused for a moment, leaving a space for Gerralt to speak. When the yeoman did not immediately interject, the commander continued.
"Now can I ask what you are carrying in your hold today?"
"Wood," said Gerralt carefully. "Hardwood from the forests of Weirwater. Also wine and brandy. Fine quality merchandise as well, from the vineyards of Astolat. We also have some pots of True Vervain - healing salves, yes?"
Gerralt mimed smearing something on his face. He was rattled, and on the verge of babbling. The orc commander did not quite roll his eyes but it was clear he knew what True Vervain was for.
"That is good. Now I must ask you this. Are all members of your crew free citizens of your Empire? If any are not you must tell me now. If you do not admit it now, and it is later found that you are using slaves, then you will be charged with a serious crime and your vessel will be confiscated."
The Dawnishman was beginning to get angry, but strove to control his temper.
"No of course we have no slaves aboard! We're Imperial, by the Paragons! This is an outrage!"
"Nevertheless, I will need to speak to each member of your crew before they disembark. Die Stahlhalle is concerned that some Imperial ships may be relying on the labor of people who are not free. Such a thing is not acceptable in the Commonwealth. I will also need to review a copy of your cargo manifest and match it against the contents of your hold. Again, if it is found out later that you have attempted to deceive me you will be taken into custody and face at a fine and expulsion from Commonwealth waters."
"You have no reason to -" he began but the orc commander cut him off.
"Please do not waste your breath on outrage, Captain. Your Empire's commitment to the dignity of sapient beings appears to be waning. Your primary trading partners are the Asaveans and the Jarmish. Even without the denunciations of the Sumaah, it is clear to us that your ethics are flexible. You will not set one foot on Commonwealth soil until I am certain that you are not someone who prospers from unjustly denying the liberty of other people. If you have nothing to hide, you will have nothing to fear. Although I must warn you that since your last visit Die Stahlhalle has placed additional restrictions on what goods may be freely traded with Imperial captains."
The yeoman looked around, one hand on his money pouch, and opened his mouth to suggest that perhaps they could discuss it further somewhere quieter.
The orc soldier narrowed his eyes and interrupted.
"While we are talking, I wish to mention that attempting to bribe an officer of the Common Law is also a significant crime which may result in the confiscation of all goods and potentially up to five years in prison. Was there something you wished to say, friend Captain?"
Gerralt shut his mouth again, and shook his head."That is excellent news. Now, may I see the papers that prove that you are the legitimate captain of this vessel, and record your port of origin?"
The Empire does not exist in isolation. Every season, brave captains set sail from Sarvos and Tassato; from Meade and Siroc; from Korotny and Lacre; and from a dozen smaller ports across the Empire. Their ships cross vast distances, holds burgeoning with Imperial goods, returning weeks later with exotic goods from distant shores.
Yet the Empire is by no means universally liked, or respected. The international arena is as brutal and bloodthirsty as any fighting pit. The captains who risk the open seas to visit foreign ports return with more than mere trade goods - they often bring with them the first warning of changes in the political landscape that might have profound effects on the Empire at home, as well as abroad.
A great deal of world politics is a fundamental struggle, but it is also a struggle that has to be waged intelligently.Zbigniew Brzeziński
War with Sumaah
Despite the completion of the embassy in Necropolis, the Sumaah Republic remains at war with the Empire - and the port of Zemeh remains closed to Imperial visitors. The Imperial Senate has not declared war on the Sumaah in turn, however, so legally the Empire continues to treat citizens of the Republic as foreigner guests, rather than barbarian invaders.
The Imperial Senate will appoint the Ambassador to the Sumaah Republic during the Spring Equinox - most likely during their first session. Any citizen may be put forward as a candidate, and they are likely to have their work cut out for them - but unless someone with the authority to deal with the Republic reaches out to Heln Stianser; Censor of wood, metal and stone; The High House of Prosperity; Sumaah Republic, the situation can only continue to deteriorate.
Sumaah diplomats continue to conspire against the Empire, however. They denounce the Imperial Synod as schismatic heretics and blasphemers, and their words carry weight with many foreign nations. Regardless of how governments may feel about the Republic, they are seen as straightforward and honest in their approach to their religion. Attitudes to the Imperial practice of the Way are shifting slowly to the negative - the Imperial Synod is no longer seen as the primary definition of what constitutes virtuous behaviour by adherents in other countries. While this is primarily a matter of faith at the moment, it has the potential to damage relations in other areas as well - if the Empire are seen as hypocrites it will do little for their reputation abroad.
There are two obvious exceptions however. The people of Asavea - where the Sumaah have no influence, and who are actually predisposed to be more friendly to people the Sumaah are angry with - and the Eastern Principalities of Jarm (see below). While diplomatic relations are hard to predict, it is likely that the first practical result of the Sumaah campaign will be the reduction in the effectiveness of Synod-supported enclaves such as the Limitu Principality House of the Way.
There is one positive note in the symphony of distrust and recrimination, however. The Statement of Principle by Naomi of Felix's Watch during the Winter Solstice that stating that "The Synod supports the Sumaah Republic in their missionary work to convert the slaves of the Asavean Archipelago to the Way of Virtue" at least suggests that the possibility of peace exists, and that while the divisions between the faithful of these two proud nations are deep they are not insurmountable.
Trade with Asavea
Following the abrogation of the short-lived law criminalizing trade in white granite, mithril, weirwood, and ilium with the Asavean Archipelago, relations between the two nations have returned to their previous friendly state.
Nemoria remains a port that welcomes Imperial ships, and an opportunity currently exists to improve relations even further - potentially to the point where the western port becomes an even more lucrative option for fleet captains.
The only fly in the ointment is the continued criticism and complaint from the powerful Tarquinius family. Influential in the Plenum, they are currently demanding that "swift and final retribution" fall on the heads of the "malefactors and scoundrels" responsible for cursing a scion of their family who was on a diplomatic mission to the Empire. For the time being, however, they seem to have little support from their fellow nobles.
Commonwealth Red Tape
Following the completion of the Commonwealth embassy in the City of a Thousand Sails, news has reached the Empire that an Imperial embassy has been established in the port of Leerdam. A staff of civil servants have already taken up residence.
Despite the formal opening of diplomatic relations, attitudes to the Empire remain cool. Every Imperial ship visiting the Commonwealth encounters significant new tariffs and restrictions on trade - as well as having to endure an unpalatable search by officers of the law allegedly looking for slaves and illicit goods.
Furthermore, the supply of crystal mana in the western Commonwealth port of Volkavaar seems to have largely dried up. It is not clear whether this is due to significant reductions in the amount of mana being produced, or whether the mana is simply being directed elsewhere, but going forward Imperial captains will no longer be able to acquire crystal mana from Commonwealth ports. At the same time, it appears the Commonwealth has relaxed restrictions on the trade of Artisan's Oil to foreign nations, and captains visiting Volkavaar will be able to acquire this useful substance relatively cheaply.
The primary cause of the Commonwealth's distant attitude to the Empire appears to be their contradictory and unclear attitude to the practice slavery. It is possible that some unequivocal statements denouncing the institution from the Imperial Synod, Imperial Conclave, and/or Imperial Senate may go some way towards addressing this perception. There is currently no Ambassador to the Commonwealth. The title is likely to be appointed during the coming summit - and it is likely that a clear message from that individual to the Commonwealth government (most likely through Militärattache Ludkhannah Schöningen, die Stahlhalle, Volkavaar) may also help in this regard.
The Politics of Princes
On Sunday shortly after noon the Jarmish House of Princes met to discuss making the ban on trade of crystal mana to imperial citizens permanent. In part due to some excellently apologetic letters sent from 'Cato Echostorm on behalf of the Imperial Senate and then-archmage Corvus on behalf of the Imperial Conclave, the House not only declined to extend the embargo, but ultimately voted to remove it entirely! Jarmish politics can be a confusing and mercurial thing.
On the other hand, the Magician-Princes of the North and South are still unhappy with continuing Imperial interference in Jarmish politics - which means that there are still all sorts of bureaucratic nightmares and uncooperative merchants to deal with meaning that Imperial captains are still having a few problems in Vezak and Kavor. Yet interest in the vendetta is clearly waning, and unless the Empire gives the Jarmish another reason to be outraged, it is likely that they will turn their attention to more pressing matters.
Rigia, Eastern Principalities of Jarm
By contrast, the Eastern princes are overjoyed and very well disposed toward the Empire. The continued support of Imperial captains in establishing Rigia as a significant trade port has paid dividends, with other foreign nations taking their lead from the Empire. As such, Rigia is fully established as a functioning port - and the merchants responsible for trading green iron in particular are being quick to offer excellent deals to the Imperial captains. It's not clear how long this gratitude will last - presumably long enough for sufficient Imperial ships to go there to collect all the slaves Duke Ferrero has purchased.
Plus, the missionary (or perhaps more correctly anti-missionary) work of Stormcrow Beodun Snowlock of Wintermark in the Eastern principalities has almost certainly helped the situation along. With an invitation from Prince Barbara Radz. the Imperial Synod sent him to oversee efforts to both reduce the impact of Sumaah missionaries spreading anti-Imperial rhetoric in that part of Jarm, and to encourage and support the local followers of the Way - with some success.
The Sarcophan Delves continue to remain neutral toward the Empire. They remain open and friendly to Imperial fleets - as they are to traders from all corners of the globe. Even the Grendel are welcome in Sarcophan. Likewise, their ships are regular visitors to the ports of the Bay of Catazar, and trade between the two nations remains healthy.
To date they seem to have made no demands of the Empire - neither reasonable or unreasonable - and continue to appear unconcerned about their status as the only major world power without an embassy on Imperial soil.
Suranni, Axou, Faraden, and Regario
Not all Imperial attention is focused on the nations far across the sea, however. Following the decision to expand the Regario Dossier, covert agents are now active in the Iron Confederacy port of Robec, in the coastal Axou citadels of Issyk and Kantor, and even at the Court of the Five Winds in Faraden. Custody of the Regario Dossier Imperial Bourse Seat will be auctioned during the Spring Equinox; the victor will receive the eponymous dossier itself once their identity is confirmed. It is likely that the dossier will contain recommendations as to how the Empire might go about formalizing trade with these nearby nations in addition to the usual information about the more distant countries.
While trade exists between the Empire and the neighbouring nations of Faraden and the Iron Confederacy, it currently does so beneath the abstraction level. With sufficient diplomacy, however it might be possible for the Empire to negotiate access to the ports of the Suranni and the Axou, or to arrange something similar with the Faraden, allowing Imperial fleets access to the wealth of the nearby nations as well as those further afield.
When diplomacy ends, War begins.Adolf Hitler