The paved streets of Sookandil extended from the center quarter down to the quay. Not every district of the city was equipped with streets; muddy alleys and beaten tracks in the poorer quarters led through the chaotic assembly of houses and huts. Those districts -- the wards of day-labourers, carriers and helping hands -- consisted of wooden shacks of the cheapest kind, mostly made from scrap wood, and seldom leakproof. None of those huts had genuine windows; linen cloth hid holes in the walls. Here and there stood mud cottages. These poor quarters were situated in the north and west of the city.
The more wealthy citizens -- small merchants, craftsmen and learnt workers -- owned houses of carpenter's wood or stone. Their quarters had sidewalks made of planks or stepping stones alongside the streets. The streets themselves consisted of hard-trodden dirt only, but at least the people could move on the sidewalk without getting their paws dirty or wet.
But the center, the quarter of rich merchants, masters, priests, and officials, was a beautiful composition of stone buildings, some of them four stories high. Here every street was paved and lined by lanterns. The houses had windows of expensive, flat glass.
The common aspect of all quarters was that numerous trees and free places interrupted the clusters of buildings. Even the poorest of citizens kept oaks and linden-trees at the sides of the alleys, and the children of the city could play on green grass -- if they had time for playing at all, while not helping in the family business.
Khiray had seen other architectural ways in the Oo'men cities. Oo'men often built walls around their towns. For the sake of keeping these walls as short as possible the houses inside had to be built closely packed. A suffocating way of building, Khiray thought, leaving the Oo'men little room for breathing. Saskeeld was built this way: a somber place where the high walls of grey houses arched over the streets and the roofs often sealed the alleys completely off from sunlight. There were no trees or meadows in Saskeeld, and the few free market places seemed to be watched by a thousand hidden eyes.
Oo'men, what a strange people.
Khiray had heard that there were often wars among the Oo'men, and that they needed the walls as a protection. The Furryfolk didn't need this kind of shelter. Only one realm existed in the Armygan, home of all the races, and the inaccessibility of the Armygan far-off the Oo'men empire protected the Furryfolk better than any confining walls ever could. Saskeeld's walls, Khiray knew, had been built because the Oo'men feared the Furryfolk might attack them. What a dumb idea.
Two or three hundred years ago an ancient governor of Sookandil actually had the idea the city needed a wall to protect it from the dangers of the wild country. Under his reign they started to erect a giant bulwark. The work, however, died with the governor. The completed piece of wall, two hundred meters long, delimited by two bulky towers, pierced by an impressive gate, nowadays divided the day-labourers' quarter from the city center. It was almost invincible. No one ever scaled the wall. No one ever tried... The citizens used to pass by the right or the left of the building or utilized the gate which could not be closed -- the wooden carved wings had never been completed.
Khiray stopped on the quay for some seconds and breathed deeply. A smell of fish came from the fishermen's quarter. Kitchen's scent passed. The chemical stench of tannic acid, colors and alchemistical brews rose to his nostrils. Smoke, dust, spice fragrance and a whiff of fresh bread's crust lingered in the air, mingled with the individual smells of a hundred Furrys of the different races.
Not counting the 'Silver Ansicc', Sookandil was the place most like home for Khiray. Although he despised the sleepy atmosphere, the provincial isolation, he felt like coming back.
Workers hurried to offer their services unloading the ship. Saswin started to assign them their chores. The bright voices of idle children who discovered the docking of the 'Silver Ansicc' were heard. Far away the bells of the bread market called the buyers.
Without further delay Khiray went to the office of the harbour master to announce the ship and the arrival of the freight. The harbour office was a little stone building with a high roof, located at the end of the quay. Directly beside the house stood a navigational beacon. The maintenance of that item on rainy, stormy or misty days and at night was another duty of the harbour master.
Brokvorth the Wolf had been harbour master since Khiray could remember. He had gotten old in the course of the years, his formerly steel-grey fur became snow white, his eyes cloudy, and his gait awkward. But he had refused to leave his office to his grandson; his mind was clear after all, and most of the work was done by helpers anyway.
"Master Brokvorth?" Khiray asked. The Wolf sat behind his desk, controlling tables and lists which he held closely to his eyes. When he noticed the young Fox's arrival, he looked up.
"Khiray!" He smiled. "You are late. I expected you a week ago."
"Problems with the boilers", Khiray explained again. He gave Brokvorth an account of the journey, including the news from the Oo'men cities which acutely fascinated the harbour master.
"Uh, yes", the old Wolf finally grunted. "I fear I've got bad news for you."
"What has happened?" Khiray did not notice any change in the city. The result of bad floods were always visible at the harbour. Maybe a fire, destroying a worker's quarter?
"The old governor Chinnap died. His son took charge of his office."
"No, Galbren." The harbour master drummed a rhythm on the desk with his claws.
Khiray swallowed. Galbren was not exactly a reasonable Wolf, quite the opposite. He was sinister and power-hungry. Sarmeen would have been the designated successor of Chinnap. but it befitted Galbren to occupy the office. "What happened to Sarmeen?"
"No one knows anything. They say Sarmeen lost his life in a hunting accident. But they never found his body. Now there is no one who would face Galbren's claim."
Khiray made a face. "Well, we won't have too much business with him. Father wants to leave as soon as possible."
"Galbren rose the taxes. The docking fees are higher now, too. You will get less for your goods than you have expected. And pay more for new freight."
"That will not please father. The repairs for the boilers are expensive enough."
Master Brokvorth frowned. "Galbren skins us all alive. But most of the citizens believe it's for our own good. Did you see the hanged felons?"
"Hanged? No one has been hanged in Sookandil for fifty years!"
"Perlish and his gang. Five Furrys. Haunted the countryside for a few months. Some robbery, some hold-ups. Two weeks ago Madren's wife has been raped, directly down at Madren's farm. Galbren lost patience, sent out his guard, and now they hang there." The Wolf sighed deeply. "The new guard is very... efficient. But I don't trust Galbren nevertheless, no way."
Annoyed, Khiray left the office. Higher costs, more expenses, less profit. Galbren as governor? He had seen Galbren once or twice in the governor's palace and won a poor impression of him. On the other hand every new governor meant a new kind of administration. Until Galbren was established and had proven his worth a certain restlessness would stir up the city.
As Khiray had expected, Saswin exploded when the young Fox gave him the news. He negotiated already with customers about tariffs but the new situation toppled his expectations. To gain anything from the journey they had to rise prices for their own goods. Even the day-workers wanted more money.
"One day we won't use coins any more", Saswin prophesied, "'cause we would have to cart around our money in wheelbarrows even if we just want to go out for lunch. They will print money on paper, and it will fly away if we don't hold it tightly enough." He shook his head sorrowfully. "Which is exactly the feeling I have now."
Khiray left Saswin to his business and went into the engine-room of the steamer to look for Delley. Delley was Rat and the machinist of the 'Silver Ansicc'. There hardly was a more versatile and experienced engine man up or down the river. Without Delley, the 'Silver Ansicc' would have drifted powerless many a time.
This time however he had to leave his beloved engines to the tinkers. The necessary work couldn't be done with the tools aboard.
The engine-room was located midships, directly between the paddle-wheels. The steamer had little draught, thus the machines lay above water level on the freight deck. Since the heat loop had been built in, the coal and wood bunker was not used anymore; now freight occupied its place. But although the heat loop rendered the use of burning material unnecessary, the boiler room still smelled of coal dust and ashes. The strong stench of lubricants and hot steel made Khiray wrinkle his nose.
The size of boilers and gears was impressive. The thick axles of the paddle-wheels, the mighty toothed cog-wheels, the rods and transmission gearings filled up almost all of the room, leaving just enough space to stand in. Lattice grids and ladders formed tangled crawlways above and below the machines. But despite the crowded narrowness every important point featured enough room to inspect the machines, to grease and to repair them in case of emergency.
The tinkers, two Rats, a Rabbit, and a Wolf, groaned already with disgust, listening wearily to Delley's commands. Delley hadn't lost a second before calling in the craftsmen. If he hurried the tinkers some more, the engines would be running again within a week -- or the workers would go on strike.
"Delley, you've got a moment's time?" Khiray asked.
"No, not really. -- Hey, over there! Don't topple the tools! -- What's up, now?"
"Father and I will go to the palace for the payback. We'll be back within an hour. Shall we visit the city afterwards, go shopping a little and have a drink or two?"
"Money's burning a hole in your pocket, eh? -- NOT THERE! To the right, you blockheads! -- What about the sales?"
"Father says we'll have to make inquiries first. Listen around. Fix the prices anew. Did you know Sookandil has got a new governor?"
"Nah. Tell me later. -- With those tools you want to work? Here, THAT's a hammer! -- Combining work and vacation, so to speak? Make a tour through the bars?"
"He thought of this, more or less." Khiray remembered the excellent beer they brew in the south quarters. "I'm sure the tinkers could do their work without you." That remark earned thankful glances from the craftsmen.
"I'm not too sure about this. But if they spoil something here, I'll nail their ears to the deck. -- What, this is supposed to be a steel plate? I'd be better off using the rusty roof of the upper deck! -- Well, if duty calls..."
"If duty calls to the bars..."
Delley grinned. "Of course. -- Do you want to take apart the whole boiler because of a wee hole? Here, put your scaffold between the boilers! And what's that again...?"
Furryfolk used to wear few clothes. The common piece of clothing, worn by both sexes, was the loincloth. It consisted of a plain belt and a cloth subdivided at the back end. The cloth led from front to back between the legs, being attached to the belt in a way which left the three ends dangling loose. The tail remained free, unhindered thanks to the double back end of the cloth. It was possible to attach pockets and weapons to the belt, too. This garment showed off the legs and left most of the fur uncovered.
Some Furrys did not even approve of that little attire; Otters frowned upon any kind of clothing because it would impede their mobility in the water. They used only belts to fix pockets at, and even those only temporarily. Day-labourers and helping hands seldomly afforded the luxurity of a clean cloth. Furryfolk was protected against cold weather by their fur, anyway.
There were changing fashion styles in the capital and in every important town. Garments were a sign of social status, too, and the sometimes uncomfortable and hot covers the noblefurrys subjugated themselves to, served only the purpose of presenting one's personal wealth. Sometimes fashion demanded unrestricted permissiveness, with pearl strings and jeweled strips of silk the only clothing allowed. In other years only few parts of the body were supposed to be seen at all, and the more stifling and impeding the garments, the more respected the wearer.
Sometimes the fashion was taken from other peoples, like the Oo'men: at the time of Khiray's visit in Drun'kaal it had been custom among female Furrys to veil the breasts. They disclaimed this mode soon enough: with Furryfolk, breasts had not the same eroticising effect as among Oo'men, moreover, their busts were not as pronounced as with the furless ones. Most female Furrys had rudimentary rows of two or three nipples each, even if only two breasts were fully developed -- except Rats, who normally had four breasts. The more important optic signals were tails and ears, and the most recent fashion asked for paper cones to enlarge the ears and demanded to carry the tails fixed as high as possible.
But far off the capital the craziness of fashion was no issue; after all, the current mode arrived always several months late. Furrys were satisfied with more practical clothing -- aprons and shawls to protect the fur of painters, blacksmiths or bakers; loose frocks with many pockets for craftsmen; wide skirts and armoured leather jackets with the guards. Of course it came natural to show off wealth by wearing precious clothing, but no one used garments which restricted the comfort of the wearer.
To be properly dressed for visiting the governor Khiray donned a new loincloth trimmed with embroidery, attached a pouch at the belt and pulled over a vest with a lace of silver threads. A small knife should demonstrate his ability to defend himself while not looking aggressive. Then he hanged a small bag with money around the neck. No reason to make the pickpockets' work too easy.
His father was clothed alike as they climbed up the street to the center, only he wore bound sandals too while Khiray went barefoot. Shoes were a privilege; only few Furrys afforded this kind of luxury. Among Oo'men shoes were quite common, as Khiray had learned, and they had a great choice of different shoe styles too. But then again, Oo'men had soft, tender feet, hardly equipped for running about in stony and thorny terrain.
The governor's palace was the biggest house in the city and had two towers, but it consisted of the same plain stone as the other buildings did. There were no bright, colorful, extravagant windows, no domes and arched vaults, no bridges or stone animals sitting on the roof. Sookandil was not the kind of city which provided special luxury for its governor.
They had to wait only a short time before being led to the governor. Galbren didn't seem too busy. The governors in the Armygan were the administrators and highest ranking officials in any town, but judges and mediators too. After Galbren had those five unlucky Furrys executed, the activity of robbers and thieves seemed to subside awhile.
Yet Khiray noticed the presence of guards everywhere. There were guards on the market, some stayed in the palace, and you couldn't walk three streets without meeting a patrol. The guards were supposed to provide security and punish illegal acts immediately -- or prevent them altogether. But Khiray felt strangely watched. Maybe it was the fault of the new uniforms... While the old governor reigned the guards wore simple, plain clothing with a mark of distinction. Now the watchmen strode about boldly clad in leather jacket, leather skirt and shoes, arms and legs protected by hardened splints. They wore red silk below the armour -- red as blood --, and from the shoulders of the captains bright yellow ribbons fluttered. And while it was common to wear arms openly on the streets, the amount of weapons they carried around would have been suitable for an Oo'men war. Maybe this was the reason why Khiray believed to see two or three times as many guards as on his last stay. They were more spectacular.
On the other hand -- maybe not.
"Welcome back in Sookandil", the governor said. Galbren's office was plain, without decoration except for the weapons on the walls: swords, lances, knifes, spears. Chinnap had preferred finery above arms. Galbren seemed to be made of rougher stuff.
"Thank you, governor." Saswin bowed politely. "We'd like to congratulate you on your new office."
Galbren nodded gravely. "Thank you. It seems to be a little inappropriate, however, considering the circumstances. I would not fill this post had not my dear brother Sarmeen -- disappeared. I am a simple Furry who loves the hunt. These official affairs are a poison for my health. But my father's heart would break even in his grave if I would not commission myself to the duty."
Khiray appraised Galbren not exactly the same way. While his father was alive, he had not had a friendly word left for him. The governor did not sit at this desk because some duty forced him to, but because he wanted to be nowhere else.
But who expected the truth from a politician? Compared with the scheming and the games of intrigue in Drun'kaal, Galbren's unctious excuses were harmless.
"We are sorry to hear this", Saswin replied. He was not really sorry, of course. Khiray knew his father took Galbren for a plotting demagogue. But the polite exchange of lies served the ritual, at least.
"How's business?" Galbren bent forward.
"It could be better. The rates have been raised." Saswin pretended some third person ordered that raise, not Galbren himself. Khiray made mental notes. Some day he would have to speak with governors in a similarly slick way.
"Yes, a pity for business. Myself, I am hit hard by that raise, too. You may know that I have two ships at my disposal as well. Before circumstances forced me into this office, I looked forward to a career as a merchant, just like you. You see, my dear brother was the one who should inherit the post. Now I have to raise rates as a governor, demanding taxes, while at the same time my merchant's soul cries for less taxes and fewer expenses."
"A really difficult situation", Saswin replied earnestly.
"What reminds me of your loan."
Khiray held his breath. More bad news? He saw his father's tail starting to twitch. Saswin's face betrayed nothing, but Khiray could tell he almost threw a tantrum.
And it was bad, bad politics to lose self-control in front of the mighty.
"We are sure that we'll be able to clear up all issues in dispute to our mutual satisfaction", Khiray said quickly and stepped in front of his father.
Galbren nodded, looking a little surprised. "You signed a favourable loan with my father, concerning a certain amount of money. As a merchant I cannot maintain the conditions in their current form. I have to adapt the interest to the economic situation." He presented a number not far away from usury -- and very far away from the conditions negotiated by Chinnap and Saswin.
Khiray stepped on his father's toes hard before he could say anything. "Not all of us wear shoes." Not all of us are rich enough to afford this interest.
"You are free to buy out the agreement by repaying the whole sum now." Galbren stared at them with pinched, glittering eyes. Did he really expect them to pay back the loan immediately? Two third of the money Saswin had needed for the heat loop had been returned, but even the rest was a noticeable sum.
"I fear this is not possible. Due to the bad economy we haven't got a sum like this available in gold." Khiray's thoughts raced. He negotiated with a governor -- wit and brains were needed. And experience, but he could not offer that; his own little transactions had never been nearly as expensive.
And Galbren had all the trumps in his hand. Chinnap's death had played the loan into his claws, and the law offered him the possibility to modify the contract. Galbren was too intelligent to demand more than what was admissible, but he exhausted his opportunity to the fullest.
But Khiray hat to take over, or else Saswin had tried to strangle the Wolf. What would be bound for a tragic end even without guards; Galbren was almost two heads taller than Saswin, a lot heavier and some years younger.
Khiray finally succeeded in describing their financial situation and their business as utterly unprofitable, using the blackest of colours, hinting at the possibility that his family might lose ship and business -- rendering the agreement void --, so Galbren had to lower his demands a little. He still wanted more money than Khiray liked to pay, but the young Fox had to be contempt with that. His father wore shoes; the game "I don't own anything, so I can't give you more" found a natural end there.
With a multitude of nice formulas Khiray didn't even knew he remembered, many good wishes and pretty lies he pushed his father to the door, and they left the palace without being bothered.
Only when they had walked round the next corner, Saswin let his mask of equanimity go, grinding his teeth. "That little miserable... What does he think... If I weren't such a calm, peaceful..."
"We can't do anything", Khiray reminded him. "It's all in the scope of the law."
"Yes", his father sighed. "All in the scope of the law. Like the taxes, and the rates, and... I should cut his..."
"He raised the number of guards as well, not only the taxes", the young Fox stated.
Saswin grunted and said nothing for a while. Finally he remarked: "You did well. Good negotiation. You will be a very fine merchant one day."
Khiray smiled silently. It was not his life's dream to be a merchant at all. But he welcomed and appreciated the praise by his father.
"And I'm getting old. It's been too long ago since I crossed swords with those insolent sods. If you make business with honorable people only for a while, you lose your ability to stand up to that scum. Cutthroats. Merchant and governor at the same time; there should be a law against that."
Khiray shrugged. "We can always journey another route, and the interest is not beyond our possibilities."
Saswin nodded. "We won't become poor that soon. But the people in the city can't avoid their governor like that. They should complain at the Drunlord's court."
"The journey is long and expensive. I think Galbren knows how to please those who could issue a complaint -- or would be heard at the court at all." Khiray couldn't imagine a peasant in loincloth being heard at the Drunlord's. Justice was for those who could afford it.
"He knows even more, from what I heard...", Saswin muttered. Then he straightened his back. "I'll have to go back to the ship. Shall I tell Delley you are waiting for him?"
Khiray nodded. "He knows where to meet me. I'll look around until then. He may want to torture his tinkers for a while yet."
Saswin slowly strode down the long road to the harbour. Khiray looked after him. His father seemed bowed down by the recent news, as if business had become an obligation rather than a pleasure.
Khiray had the odd feeling that it was about time to forget his dreams of Drun'kaal and to take over a bigger part of the trade. Time to grow up.
The excited voices interrupted his thoughts.
Khiray looked up. Citizens of Sookandil, especially children, ran in the direction of the western center, where the great wall, the never-finished part of the bulwark, was located. Strangers? Then they should run down to the quay...
Farther south there were roads, ways or at least paths between the cities of the Armygan. Here in the outmost north of the Furryfolk country, routes only connected the city with some villages in the wild lands, ending there. No road led to another town; they were too far apart, and the land was too unhospitable. People used ships or boats to get to the south.
Were there really strangers coming here by land? The Fox frowned. Who? Where from? Why? He shook his head and marched determinedly westward.