Authors: Sam Barone
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical
Daro and his four soldiers were the passengers the
that term didn’t explain their presence. They were there to protect the ship’s very secret and valuable cargo.
“Not bad for a farmer,” Yavtar agreed with a laugh. Not that anyone thought of him as a farmer, especially now that he owned the largest number of ships in Akkad. His vessels carried cargoes on both the Tigris and Euphrates.
As Yavtar approached his fortieth season, he traveled less and less on the great Tigris, the river that, only a few years ago, had carried him into battle with Lord Eskkar and brought him so much wealth. Now he preferred to spend more of his days on the large farmstead south of Akkad, purchased with his victor’s profits and surrounded by his two wives and a growing brood of energetic children.
Nevertheless, Yavtar still felt the urge to experience water flowing beneath his feet, so he often accompanied more valuable cargoes, if for no other reason than to keep a watchful eye on his hired shipmasters. This trip, despite the worth of its goods, had other, more urgent reasons for bringing Yavtar downriver.
“Is this vessel from Akkad?”
The dockmaster’s abrupt words brought Yavtar back to the present, and he lifted his eyes to the wharf. The officious man with the yellow sash had advanced onto the dock, his bored guards still in attendance, and now stood frowning down into the boat. Looking up, Yavtar perceived the man’s stomach in all its glory, bulging against his tunic from too much food and too little labor. “I’m Yavtar, owner of this boat and –”
“Do you come from Akkad?” The way the dockmaster uttered the name of the city turned a simple question into an insult.
“Yes, by the order of King Eskkar. We carry –”
“The only king I know is King Eridu of Sumeria,” the man said, not bothering to hide the disrespect. “You will discharge your cargo as soon as possible. Only you and your sailing master will be permitted to leave the dock or enter the city. If any of your crew steps onto shore,” he jerked his head toward the riverbank, “they’ll end up as slaves.”
The border disputes between Akkad and Sumer had intensified over the last few months, and now affected routine trade. Yavtar glanced toward the city walls and saw a handful of soldiers standing just outside the gate. He counted ten men and their commander.
“And before any cargo is landed, King Eridu has decreed a fee of three silver coins to be paid.”
Yavtar frowned at the outrageous price. On his last trip to Sumer, little more than a year ago, the dockmaster had charged only a single silver, and that was more of a personal bribe than anything official. “And what do I receive in return for this large sum?”
“You are permitted to use the dock until dusk tomorrow. By then, you must be on your way, or you will be charged another three silvers,” the man said, smiling broadly at Yavtar’s discomfort. “If you can’t afford to pay, take your ship and your goods back to your barbarian king.”
Behind Yavtar, the crew and the Akkadian soldiers who guarded the cargo began to mutter at the slur. The last thing he wanted was trouble.
“Then it is my pleasure to make payment,” Yavtar said. He climbed onto the wharf, reached into his pouch, and withdrew four silver coins. “And perhaps you could dispatch a messenger to fetch Merchant Gemama. Meanwhile, I would be most grateful if you could order your work crew to carry the cargo off the dock. I’m certain Merchant Gemama is waiting most anxiously for his goods.” Yavtar dropped the silver coins in the dockmaster’s open palm. The extra one would find its way into the man’s private pouch. “And since I am my own sailing master, I will need one of my guards to accompany me in Sumer.”
After a quick scrutiny to verify their quality, the coins disappeared. “Very well, one servant may accompany you into Sumer. I’ll send a slave to Gemama.” The dockmaster turned away and negotiated his way through the crowd until he reached the awning and chair that awaited him on the riverbank. As the man settled into his seat, he gave orders to the overseer of the work gang. At the slavemaster’s command, they shuffled wearily toward the Akkadian craft.
Yavtar jumped back into the boat, where his four crewmen waited. “Hand up the cargo to the slaves, and make sure they don’t spill anything. Don’t let any of them into the boat, or the dockmaster will accuse us of trying to steal them.” He stepped closer to his crew. “You heard what he said about staying on the dock. You might as well stay on board, unless you want to spend the rest of your lives in Sumer.”
The transfer of goods began. The bulk of the cargo was specialty foods – peas, sesame seeds, exotic dates, spices, and sacks of the finest wheat for bread-making, all products in short supply in Sumer at this time of year. Once satisfied that his crew could manage the unloading, Yavtar turned to the leader of the soldiers. “My crewmen will keep the king’s goods under
their eyes until Gemama arrives with his gold. You make sure nothing happens to that pouch.”
The vessel’s real cargo, a double-bound leather pouch with a thick strap, now hung from Daro’s shoulder. He nodded, and fingered the sword at his side. “We’ll keep it safe, Yavtar.”
“And tell your men not to stare at the guards on the shore. We’re not here to pick a quarrel with the Sumerians.”
The crew continued unloading, passing the bags, sacks, and bundles to the slaves on the dock. Yavtar watched the proceedings with care, counting each and every item from habit. The master crewman did the same. The work-gang slaves had to be watched carefully, of course. A dropped sack, a slit cut surreptitiously into the side of a sack, and goods would disappear in a blink. Besides, Merchant Gemama would recount and re-examine each item before he took possession, and the numbers would need to agree before payment would be arranged. The specialty goods would fetch a very good price, but then would come the real haggling over the ship’s true cargo.
The leather pouch guarded by Daro and the Akkadian soldiers contained lapis lazuli, the finest to be found anywhere in the land. The precious stones had traveled a long and dangerous journey from the distant and almost unknown eastern lands to Akkad. The profit from that sack alone would more than triple the gains made by the rest of the cargo.
The bulk of the
’s cargo soon rested on the dock. Master Gemama arrived only moments later, attended by his own porters and three armed guards. His bald head shone in the sun, and he carried almost as much weight around his stomach as the dockmaster.
“Ah, Yavtar, good to see you, old friend,” he shouted as he climbed down into the boat. “It’s been a long time since you’ve landed here. A safe journey, I hope?”
“Smooth and fast, just the way I like it.” Yavtar smiled at the Sumerian merchant, who also wore a yellow sash over his linen tunic, marking him as a king’s man. They had known each other for more than twenty years, trading, arguing, and bargaining the whole time. Yavtar trusted the man, as much as anyone could ever trust a Sumerian.
The haggling over, the regular cargo went quickly, and Yavtar negotiated a bit more than he expected, no doubt Gemama’s way of giving thanks for the speedy delivery.
After the gold exchanged hands, Gemama lowered his voice. “And you have something special for me?”
“Come and see.” Yavtar gestured toward the Akkadian soldiers standing beside Daro.
“No, not here,” Gemama said, glancing around. “We’ll take it to my house. Afterwards, you’ll join me for dinner.”
Yavtar hesitated. The gems should be examined here, at the dock, and the price established and agreed to. Once on shore, anything could happen. Gemama could even change his mind.
The Sumerian saw the hesitation. “No, nothing like that.” He lowered his voice. “I’ll meet your outrageous price, whatever it is. But I’d rather not have everyone in Sumer know what’s arrived.”
Yavtar rubbed his black beard for a few moments. The rare gemstones, no matter what their worth, really mattered little. His true goal was to obtain information. “Very well.” He moved closer to Gemama, lowered his voice, and named his price. “Half on account, and half in gold.”
“Done,” said Gemama, without a single protestation. “I’ll return with the gold as soon as I get the regular shipment secured.”
Before Yavtar could change his mind, Gemama dashed off, his guards and porters scurrying behind him, everyone keeping a watchful eye on the slaves shuffling under their burdens.
“Damn these devious Sumerians anyway,” Yavtar muttered.
“Is anything wrong?” Daro asked, moving to stand beside the trader.
“No, nothing. You just guard that pouch and don’t let anything distract you from it or the gold when it arrives. And you’ll have to stay awake all night. Thieves sometimes slip on-board from the water, snatch what they can, then dash away in the current. And don’t let anything that happens on shore distract you, either. That’s another old trick in the game.”
“The gold will be safe, noble Yavtar,” Daro said.
Yavtar believed him. The Hawk Clan could always be relied upon, and Daro had proven his worth many times. Yavtar glanced at the shore. The officious dockmaster continued observing every detail, so Yavtar smiled at him, then sat down in the stern to wait. He used the time to study the busy dock with its throngs of hurrying people. Sumer appeared fully as bustling as Akkad, only under a hotter sun. A splash of water from over the side cooled his face, and he dangled his hand in the river, enjoying the push of the current.
Here, only a few miles from the Great Sea, the Tigris still had power, though much of its strength had diminished as the river divided again and again into ever-narrower channels. Those channels spread into dozens of streams that all emptied themselves into the vast body of water that marked the southern boundary of these lands. Sumer’s inhabitants, in their pride, now called it the Sumerian Sea, as if they alone ruled its vast expanse.
The sun had time to move a hand’s width across the sky before Gemama, breathing heavily and with his pate covered in sweat, returned, accompanied by his bodyguards. Ordering his men to wait on the dock, Gemama stepped cautiously down into the now much lighter boat, and walked unsteadily to the stern where Yavtar waited. Daro, the leather sack still slung over his shoulder, moved to join them.
Gemama reached inside his tunic and withdrew a fat linen sack that jingled as he handed it to Yavtar. “Fifty gold coins, most of them Akkadian, so don’t blame me if they’re short-weighted. The rest are from my own goldsmith, newly cast, so I can guarantee their purity. Another fifty coins are marked in my ledger, for whatever you wish to buy for your return voyage.”
“Give Gemama the pouch,” Yavtar said, accepting the coins. “And Daro, from now on, don’t take your eyes off our gold.” Yavtar handed Daro the Sumerian merchant’s sack.
In return, Daro slid the leather pouch from his shoulder and offered it to the Sumerian.
“Good, then that’s settled,” Gemama said. Now we can return to my house.” He slung the pouch over his neck, letting it hang down beneath his left armpit, and grasped the bottom with his hand. A thief would have to rip the pouch from Gemama’s arm and neck before snatching it.
Gemama climbed cautiously off the boat, joined immediately by his guards. The largest led the way, shouldering the crowd aside with ease. Yavtar saw that dozens of eyes followed them as they left the dock, moved across the open space and entered the city of Sumer. Everyone, even the dockmaster, would be guessing about the contents of Gemama’s leather pouch, wondering if it held gold, silver or precious gemstones.
Yavtar walked at Gemama’s left, and the remaining two guards followed behind, everyone alert for any danger. The little party moved swiftly through the crowded lanes, dodging children, dogs, and the occasional cart. Yavtar heard Gemama’s labored breathing as he kept up
the rapid pace. The Sumerian, probably well over fifty, was getting on in years, and nowadays probably did nothing more strenuous than walking to and from the docks.
After two futile attempts at conversation, Yavtar gave up and concentrated on his surroundings. Gemama’s house lay almost half a mile from the docks, and that through the oldest part of the city with its narrow and refuse-filled lanes that twisted and turned back on themselves. Inside Sumer’s walls, the distasteful odor of too many people and animals living too close together blotted out even the scent of the sea that wafted up from the south. Yavtar noted the bustle of the crowds and the stalls of the merchants who seemed to occupy every available space, all of them calling out the worth of their wares to every passerby.
In the last few years, Sumer had grown almost as rapidly as Akkad, and now it matched the northern city in the numbers of its inhabitants. Untouched by the barbarian invasion in the north, thousands had migrated to Sumer and the other villages that nestled in the river’s delta. Everywhere Yavtar gazed, new homes and shops were under construction, much of it paid for by Akkadian gold for overpriced goods needed during the barbarian invasion. Tallest of all, near the center of the city, stood the house of King Eridu, surrounded by walls more than seven or eight paces high.
Not really a house, but a large complex of buildings, barracks for the king’s guards, storerooms and dwellings for the servants and slaves who attended their master. The walled compound provided security for the king and his followers. Yavtar saw soldiers pacing along the wall’s parapets, and another half dozen hard-eyed men guarded the main entrance. The king apparently wanted to make sure he and his family had as little contact as possible with the rest of Sumer’s inhabitants.
A bare pole rose up from the highest point of the walls. When in residence, a large yellow banner would hang limp in the moist air, announcing King Eridu’s presence.
Lady Trella would call this place a palace, Yavtar decided, a compound built to showcase the glory and power of Sumer’s ruler. The vast structure sent another, and not very subtle, message – that King Eridu didn’t care about the rest of Sumer’s people, as long as he and his possessions remained protected.
They reached Gemama’s house and passed through the interior courtyard, where flowers bloomed at the base of the outer walls, and a good-sized tree shaded a long table pushed up against the side of the
house. A fat lamb already turned on the fire pit beside the entrance. In Sumer, most of the cooking and food preparation took place outdoors, as the summer heat made any such work indoors too unpleasant. Gemama’s wife and two daughters were presented to Yavtar, but he scarcely had time to mouth a few words of greeting before the Sumerian led the way upstairs and onto the roof. A small table, beautifully carved, sat under a wide white awning. A mix of red and yellow flowers floated in a bowl. With his guards watching the house and the grounds from below, the merchant and his visitor enjoyed their first private moment.