First published in Tradetalk issue #4
Copyright © 1998 by Michael O’Brien
The unique geography of the Holy Country is well suited to water transport. A succession of wide, sedate rivers empty into the Mirrorsea Bay, a broad expanse of calm water which laps the shores of five of the six provinces. The Mirrorsea, also known as Choralinthor Sea, has been renowned since legendary times for its tranquility. It is broad, relatively shadow (10-30 meters), well lit and warm, abundant with marine life. The boats that ply the Mirrorsea are generally flat-bottomed and powered by oars, for the air above the Mirrorsea is remarkably stable too, quite unsuitable for sail. Though the barge captains may bemoan the necessity and expense of oarsmen, they are also grateful that only in the Storm season, when the Orlanth winds whip down from the Stormwalk mountains and churn the waves, is the Mirrorsea Bay hazardous to boat travel. For the rest of the year they may ply it in safety.
The city of Nochet is the greatest city of the many that ring the Mirrorsea, and its port, the busiest and most prosperous. “Port” is perhaps an inaccurate term, for, though there are docks and wharves for the larger, sea-going vessels, most of the river barges and flatboats find it convenient to pull up along a broad stretch of sandy beach, formed at the wide mouth of the Lysos River.
This area teems with activity, in and around the beached watercraft. Fishermen dry and mend their nets, or haggle to reach a fair price for their catch with the mongers from the city markets. Shipwrights order their work teams about, effecting repairs or perhaps constructing a new vessel from Longsi Land pine, recently landed here by barge – since the Lunar invasion, the famous Heortland oak is no longer available). Carters and porters load or their wagons with fish or trade goods for the city, some 2 keymiles distant, or else empty their loads onto the flatboats, ready to be taken for sale in a foreign market. Sailors from ports distant and near stroll through the crowds, pursued by vendors, beggars and whores (for here prostitutes may practice their trade without recrimination, unlike most parts of the city). Oarsmen offer to take crewmen or travellers out to their ships anchored in the harbour. Children run in and out of the bustle, making mischief. Trios of guardsmen (Heortlander mercenaries this season, judging by their bristling beards and contemptuous looks) wander about keeping the peace. One may even occasionally espy one of the Matriarch’s Axe Maidens, here on some mission, her countenance even more contemptuous than the barbarian guardsmen as she makes her way through this small world where males seem to dominate, unlike her beloved city and the rich lands around it.
Above the throng stands the stern yet benevolent gaze of the departed Pharaoh, carved in sandstone; the gravity of his appearance made strangely comical by the marked tilt of his statue, which has slipped and shifted in the sand.
Behind the Pharaoh stands a small sea-wall; above it stretch the warehouses, some filled with the goods of a dozen lands, but most crammed with the fruits of Esrolia’s bounteous climate and rich soil: golden grain, and fine (and coarse) spirits, stoppered in the famous green-ware jars that identifies Esrolian vintages across the world. Beyond this, and straggling all the way up to the first tier of Nochet City’s mighty walls, sits Portside (or Poorside to some), a shanty town of foreigners, outcastes and (lately) refugees from Heortland.
Off to one side lie the mighty biremes and triremes of Pharaoh’s war-fleet. Many more were to be constructed on these sands by his order; since his disappearance, the Matriarch herself has taken over command of the navy, and ships are being built to replace those that refused to serve under her banner and sailed off to the vain defense of Heortland. They have not been heard of since; it is assumed they were taken by the Lunars at the fall of Karse. (That they defected to the Lunars has been dismissed as mischievous prattle by the Matriarch, and should not be repeated.)
Those deep-water and sea-going vessels that are unable to beach on the sands have two options, both very expensive. First, they may chose land at either of the wharves. Unfortunately, both are controlled by Merchant Prince families, and only their vessels may dock there unless a very hefty fee is paid.
The Caprati family of Pasos controls the wharves on the city side of the river, and own the monopoly on all sea-borne grain trade (except that going to Karse). The Caprati also rule a small community of their own people, behind their docks, and bounded by walls from Portside. This enclave of western, Malkioni culture is known as Alatos and its ruler, patriarch of the Caprati family, is called the Democrat.
Across the river, the Du Tumerine family of Seshnela has their wharves. They have been trading in Nochet longer than the Caprati, and once held the license to Alatos (which they called “Alata”). They were outbid for it by the Capratis late last century, and were forced to move across-river. The suburb they established there is known as Zera. Zera is ruled a council of Du Tumerine elders, and the traditional leader is called the Don. At this time however, the leader is the Donna, young widow of the old Don. This has disgruntled the Zera council, but the Donna has found herself an ally in the Matriarch. Like the Alatosi, the people of Zera are also Malkioni, though of a different persuasion. The Du Tumerines have a monopoly on all trade from the Shadowlands, and recently won the rights to export milled hops and Esrolian tobacco to the West.
Ships unable to berth at the Du Tumerines or the Capratis will find themselves in the hands of the Guild of Oarsmen, who will row their cargoes ashore for a fee.
The most prominent feature of the Port of Nochet is the great Waertagi dragonship dock. Ironically, this is also the least used of the port facilities, being mainly ruin. Some parts have been modified to take local boats, and a thriving culture of fisher-folk and outcastes live amongst the artifact’s massive tiers. Other sections have been incorporated into the city defenses, particularly where the old Waertagi walls remain firm, and much of the city’s sewer system empties here. There have been grandiose plans to rebuild the Waertagi dock throughout history, but such plans have always floundered because of the great expense that would be required. Recently, a dwarven engineer offered blueprints for a partial reconstruction, said to be based on a similar project being undertaken at Metropolis of Sog, Queen City of the West (whose own similarly ruinous yet colossal dragon docks are said to occupy a whole quarter of the city). The Matriarch reportedly purchased the plans – albeit at a tenth less than the Mostali sought – but as yet, there have been no signs of her acting on them.
While the Port of Nochet may still call itself the richest in the Holy County, that distinction is being hotly contested by Rhigos, the paramount city of Porthomeka and second only to Nochet in size and prestige. For Rhigos is undertaking a program to expand its deep-water docks, which will be able to berth the sea-going vessels of the West. What is more, Rhigos promises that this new harbour will be a “free port”, where all vessels may berth regardless of commercial affiliation.
Despite the promise of the new harbour, Rhigos’s future expansion into Nochet’s market is blocked by political factors, though with the increasing disorder in the Holy Country, these too are being diminished. Rhigos is unlucky in that it lies on the Porthomekan side of the Malthin River; ergo, all produce from the Esrolian side must pay customs duty before it crosses over. This is a relatively new innovation, enacted by the Matriarch at the behest of the merchant-princes of Nochet. Also, the boatmen who ply the Malthin-Whitefall and Gorphing rivers, which terminate at Rhigos, have for centuries by-passed this city, and made there way along the coast to the Port of Nochet. There reason for doing so is simple: they can get a better price for their cargoes at Nochet, where merchants come from all over the world to trade.
The Port of Nochet is probably the first sight a traveller will have on his arrival in Nochet, even if he comes from overland, for the main trade trails terminate here also. Portside is most likely his first resting-place, for entry into the city is by no means unlimited, particularly if the traveller is an unaccompanied male.
The Jrusteli Island
In the midst of the wide Lysos river-mouth sits an incongruous island, called by all “Jrusteli Island”, though few may know just who the Jrusteli were, and why this island is called for them. Nevertheless, it is shunned by all decent folk as a place of bad omen (despite the wondrous fishing said to be had off its shores).
The island was once a Jrusteli settlement; just why the God Learners stopped here is unknown. Unlike the surrounding area, the island is made of coral, coral unlike that seen anywhere else in the Mirrorsea Bay or, indeed, anywhere else along the Manirian coast. In contrast the sweeping sands along the delta, the shores of Jrusteli Island are jagged, making landing there hazardous. The island itself is barren, some say cursed; only a few stunted plants manage to grow there, nestled into cracks and crannies where soil has blown and settled from the mainland. Water too, is scare, collecting in a few pools hidden amongst the crazy outcroppings of the sharp coral.
Just as the God Learners’ reasons for settling on the island are unknown, so too is how they managed to place it here, for it is obviously alien to this locale. Some speculate that the God Learners sailed it here, like a ship, and were perhaps seeking to repair it in the great Waertagi dragonboat dock. This theory (while dismissed as fanciful rubbish) is perhaps borne out by the fact that the docks and the isle are in very close proximity to each other; in fact, the more ignorant of the Nochenes believe the island and the docks have the same origins.
The whole island has a marked slant towards the seaward side, as if something had caused it to tilt and partially submerge. Lhankor Mhy scholars will smugly say that this obviously occurred at the downfall of the impious God Learners, when the world rose up against their heresies, the world’s instrument in this case being the Only Old One’. There are no structures remaining on the portion of the island still above water, though fishermen who risk holing their boats to fish above the submerged portion often claim they can see portals and windows carved into the coral spires underwater. There are regular stories of monsters, apparitions and great treasures in these depths too; some of them possibly true.
By long-standing Matriarchal Decree, it is forbidden for anyone to set foot on Jrusteli Island. It is also forbidden to sail over the sunken section of it too, but this law is generally not enforced, except in wartime. A fort was constructed at the end tip of the island early last century, though, at considerable expense, out of stone from the mainland sunk onto the coral below. Jutting out from the island itself, the fort and its attendant stone wharf are not considered part of Jrusteli Island and thus do not fall under the Matriarch’s ban. This fort is officially called the Tower of Eugenius, in honour of its clever designer, a palace eunuch was nevertheless executed by the Matriarch when the cost over-runs became excessive. It is referred to as “Cold Castle” by those unlucky enough to garrison it, because of its lack of amenities.
The fort secures one end of the great boom across the river mouth and serves as a customs station. Although considered impregnable, Cold Castle is totally dependent on supplies of food and water from the mainland. Unofficially, and only in times of siege, the defenders of Cold Castle have sometimes snuck out of the tower under cover of darkness to drink from the island pools; maps showing the location of these water supplies were carved into the base of the walls by thankful soldiers in case of future need.
Despite the island’s evil reputation, it is truly an object of great beauty, something even the most superstitious Nochene would agree with. At different periods of the day, the coral of the island reflects different hues, ranging from a deep purple in the false dawn, to a soft pink at noon to a lurid red at dusk. It is considered quite prestigious to have a view, which takes, in the island, and there are building regulations to prevent those lucky enough to enjoy such an outlook from being built out.