"The last poor sod I thought was going to spew herself inside out!"
They had been unloading for only half an hour or so. As captain he could have left his mate to see to everything, or shouted orders from the deck ... but he had been raised to work hard for his money and was never one to shirk some heavy lifting. Hard work wins wars as his Mam used to say. Despite this, the hold of "The Meade Minstrel" was still three-quarters filled with sacks of fine milled flour, barrels of beer and a few casks of the fine Amontilliado that had proved so popular during his last visit.
"Right we'd better ..."
A shadow fell across him. He looked up to find a massive ogre of a woman glaring down at him. Her armour resembled nothing so much as gilded crab shells, and she was holding a seven-foot mancatcher as if she knew how to use it. She said something to him in Jarmish - he caught none of it.
He fixed a smile in place and stood up, spreading his hands and talking clearly and calmly.
"What seems to be the problem, soldier?" The woman's right eye twitched and she stepped back to reveal a petite, prim looking man behind her. He wore multiple layered robes of gorgeous silk, and a tall hat held in place with jewelled pins. Delicate golden chains ran from his ear to his nose, and matched the chains around his waist in value if not in size.
"Imperial captain," began the Jarmish man, matching Gregory's smile with his own. "There seems to be a misunderstanding."
Gregory broke out in a cold sweat. The man's Imperial was precise, if heavily accented. He looked like trouble. There were another five soldiers in golden crab-shell armour on the docks behind him.
"What do you mean, we have paid for this berth and these are the docks we always use ... so?"
The Jarmish functionary shook his head sadly.
"I am sorry, but you are unloading sacks of flour. I am sure if the people you spoke to had realised what you had for cargo they would not have made this mistake. I will be sure to have them reprimanded for their error. I am afraid to tell you that due to a recent ruling from the House of Princes - and ordnance enacted by Lord-Magister Trescher himself - all foodstuffs imported from the Empire must be carefully examined for the presence of pests before they can be sold."
Gregory ground his teeth. His first mate stood up suddenly and growled.
"This flour came straight from the mills of Upwold you..."
He touched her arm - now was not the time - and kept his smile fixed. He had already paid all the bribes he expected to pay and if he had to put his hand in his pocket another time it would start cutting straight into his pockets.
"How long will this inspection take? Perhaps I could help smooth this along by..."
The functionary interrupted him.
"Oh I am so very apologetic, but I am afraid that we cannot perform the inspection here. You must go to the South-Eastern docks where the inspection will happen. It will not take more than an hour or so - our inspectors are very adept at finding pests - and while there will be a small charge for their time they are *very* professional."
Gregory could feel himself getting angry.
"I am expecting to meet with the traders of the House of the White Forest to discuss the purchase of dragonbone, I can't ..."
Again the functionary stopped him mid-sentence.
"Ah, that is a terrible shame. I am afraid that the House of the White Forest have unfortunately been investigated on charges of espionage, and Lord-Magister Trescher has temporarily suspended their permission to trade with Imperial captains whose good character cannot be absolutely vouchsafed. I am dreadfully, awfully sorry."
Gregory kept himself under control with a supreme effort of will, remembering the good advice of his Da about throwing the first punch.
"Good character ... Are you trying to piss me off?"
The functionary made a sad face.
"Oh no no no, that is not my intention at all. It is just that we really did not expect many captains from the Empire this season at all - we expected you to be far too busy trading with your new friends in the east! Perhaps, if you cannot accept a few minor inconveniences in the name of the safety of the Jarmish people, you might wish to take your cargo there instead? I am sure *their* dragonbone is *nearly* as fine as ours is."
The two blinked at each other.
"This is bloody politics, isn't it?" rasped Gregory, barely keeping his temper.
"You might think that," smiled the little functionary - a real smile for the first time so far. "But I could not *possibly* comment. Good day, Imperial captain."The functionary inclined his head and withdrew back towards Vezak, leaving Captain Gregory to reload his cargo and decide where he was going to take it - to the South-Eastern dock or to somewhere much farther afield.
The Imperial Senate oversees international diplomacy, but the actions of individuals can still have far-reaching consequences. Ship captains crossing the oceans to the great trade cities of the known world have had a first-hand reminder of how carefully balanced the Empire's relationship with its fellow world powers can be.
The Principalities of Jarm
The most obvious example of Imperial influence can be found far to the east, in the Principalities of Jarm. Rulership of the magocracy has long been contested between two main factions - the Northern faction and the Southern alliance. Until very recently, it has been in ports controlled by these two factions - Kavor and Vezak - that Imperial captains have traded their goods.
Recently, though, in part due to the decision of the Imperial senate, the Eastern faction of the Jarmish princes has received an unexpected boost - the port of Rigia was chosen to host the Imperial embassy to Jarm. That port is now open to the Empire and trade has commenced between Empire and eastern Jarm for the first time.
It has proved to be a very popular destination - a great number of Imperial captains have set sail for Rigia. Unfortunately, the port is not entirely prepared for the influx of trade ships from the west. Suitable wharfs are still being established, and the berths are a far cry from the ports Imperial ships are used to trading with. The eastern princes are only just beginning to see the benefit of Imperial favour - but those benefits are already being felt and the port-city is being transformed.
All is not well however. The northern and southern factions resent the upstart eastern alliance and, rightly or wrongly, blame Imperial interference for the shift in power. There is much talk of some underhand deal involving supporting Rigia through the slave trade; accusations that Imperial citizens are purchasing orc slaves for use in their mines are rife. Obviously, the Jarmish see no problem with this ... but consider secret slave deals to be the height of hypocrisy from a nation that has previously claimed to eschew the practice.
As a result, Imperial captains visiting Kavor find a cold reception - and opportunities to trade dry up as soon as they recognise an Imperial accent. The people in Vezak are more subtle - but Imperial captains encounter an inordinate number of bureaucratic errors, missed contacts and frustrating delays.
Most likely the Jarmish problem will blow over - given time - and some new intrigue will overtake the House of Princes. Indeed, if rumours of a church dedicated to the Way being built in Kavor are true, it might suggest that there is dissent within the factions themselves.
For now, however, the two old ports of Jarm are less than ideal destinations for Imperial captains ... while Rigia is still establishing itself as a suitable place to trade.
The same cannot be said for the problems Imperial captains are encountering in the Commonwealth. Their approach, however, is a great deal more straightforward. Their government has introduced a series of new tariffs on trade goods imported from the Empire. There is little attempt to dissemble as to the reasons behind it - the Commonwealth government is concerned both by the growing friendship with their Jarmish rivals to the north-east, and with the Empire's obvious lack of interest in reaching a diplomatic understanding with the Commonwealth.
In theory, if the diplomatic situation continued to deteriorate then the Commonwealth might close their ports completely to Imperial traders.
The Sumaah Republic
The frustrations of the Commonwealth pale into insignificance next to the cold fury that Imperial traders encounter in the port of Zemeh, the only available destination in the Sumaah Republic.
The government - and indeed the people - are furious with the Empire. Imperial traders encounter slammed doors, rude gestures and occasionally even open threats. The devout people of the far South-West point to repeated attacks against their Pride and Prosperity by the Empire; by their continued friendship with the hated slave-taking idolatrous heretic blasphemer tyrants of the Asavean Archipelago. It is no secret that the Sumaah people hate the Asaveans - centuries ago, they enslaved them after all - but now it seems that the Empire is being tarred with the same brush.
Hopefully the construction of an embassy may go some way towards mollifying them.
Not everything that happens at sea involves trade. The Empire's closest maritime neighbours, the Grendel, live just across the Bay of Catazar to the South and many Imperial citizens choose to raid their ships and their coastal settlements.
Recent reports however suggest that the warships of the Salt Lords are being gathered in force, patrolling the waters of the Southern bay and actively seeking out Imperial ships to harass and where possible destroy. Engaging with Grendel ships is more dangerous than normal as a result - captains who engage the barbarian orcs are finding it harder to make a profit. When the holds of the ships you raid are not stuffed full of trade goods but of heavily armed marines, you can end up spending more than you make...