16. Last Port
Cádiz is a place without equal among all those I have seen until today. It has all the good and bad qualities of a great city and a seaport: riches, magnificence, luxury and corruption, the eternal companion of opulence. Whoever wants to study the human heart and the prodigious effects of trade must come to Cádiz to learn and be admired. (Alejandro Ramírez)
Centuries ago, when the name of the city had first been noted down in a literary scroll, it had been but a small dot of land in the horizon, signalled by flocks of white seagulls turning around in protective circles. As the illustrious mariner had sailed closer, however, leaning on his prow and narrowing his eyes, strange lines had slowly begun to reveal themselves to his awed eyes, until lo! a full Númenorean city had appeared in all its glory, with its gardens, white-towered houses and temples.
The chronicler had confessed that his hand trembled at the very impossibility to describe in adequate words what he had felt back then. A city in the water, with the sea for a field, and tall stone houses whose foundations were driven through the heart of the shifting lime!
Approaching the strange prodigy further, he had counted two channels that came to die on sea waters, one crossing the city like one of its avenues and the other, larger, tearing it apart from another island that stretched on its Eastern flank. There, on its farthest end, lay the unfinished structure of a great temple, covered in ropes and scaffoldings. Wondering which god might be the one whom this strange colony had invoked as their protector, he wrote, he ordered his sailors to put their prow to it.
Things had changed little since that day, and the sailor who entered the Bay still felt a flutter in his chest at the first glimpse of Gadir, the Silver Pearl of Belfalas (1). Like that illustrious mariner had done, Zarhil lay upon the prow of her ship, and left to others the confuse ruckus of orders and manouevres while she devoured the sight with her eyes.
The city ressembled a huge ship, she mused in an uncommon bout of lyricism, floating over the waters with its white towers for sails. She imagined how the nearby mainland barbarians had once stared in astonishment at this piece of Westernesse that had suddenly grown in front of their eyes, that city that refused to enter their own world and remained haughtily anchored, unmoving, in the middle of the Bay.
As they rounded the cape and headed for the inner harbour, a flock of seagulls overtook the ship with a pandemonium of joyous cries. Zarhil saw them head towards a building painted in colourful patterns of red and white, and turn a circle around one of its four towers. Then, they sped towards the harbour, and, flying over the heads of the multitude and the masts of ships, they plunged into the waves to emerge, seconds later, with struggling fish in their claws.
In contrast with the silence of the sea, the animation of the docks was almost deafening. Ships came and went from the mainlands, loaded with sweet water, fresh vegetables, and pieces of red fruit that the vendors exposed to the appreciating sight of customers upon boxes of wood. As Zarhil´s Aphtaroth was expertly anchored on the Southern end of the crowded harbour –with the help of a couple of commissioners that barked their instructions from the docks- the fragrant smells reached her nostrils in waves.
"This is the last port." a man´s voice announced behind her back. "Now it´s done."
Zarhil nodded to Malko, her first mate, and let go of a wry smile.
"We buy the offrands for the Temple and we leave."
Malko frowned. Behind him, some sailors were still busy tying the ropes.
"Leave? I thought we would be spending the night here. The men need a bit of fun."
"My family has summoned me. The last thing I want is to have them accusing me of delaying my route on purpose again."
"I understand. "A smile creased his features, darker but softer and less sea-battered than her own. "You might receive important news."
Furiously red, Zarhil walked towards the wooden ramp and tried to drag it alone towards the exit. Shaking his head, Malko called two men over to help her.
"I grow weary of... your... ignorant teasing." she admonished him, though her gasps of effort spoiled the effect of her irritation. "And you forget your place!"
"My apologies." he said with a bow. Staring at him with a frown, she shook her head.
"I want no further word on this subject." she hissed. Then, dismissing him, she raised her glance and gestured to the rest of the men. "Men! We will be boarding here for awhile. The time to buy..."
"The Lady Zarhil, daughter of Zarhâd of Forrostar?"
Surprised, the woman turned back to the strangely accented voice that had interrupted her speech. A man, dressed in rich yellow clothes and wearing a pointed red hat on his head stood behind her, bowing with a courteous smile.
"Hey? Where the hell did you come from?" a sailor cried, as nonplussed as she was at his sudden appearance. She forced herself to swallow an expletive, and gestured the men to keep silent.
"Oh, as soon as the fair Aphtaroth´s sails appeared in the horizon, the great Magon sent this humble servant in his name, to welcome such a powerful lady to our city."
"So you came running all the way here and jumped into the ship before the ramp was wholly set?" Malko muttered, still in disbelief. The Gadirite just smiled.
"The great Magon´s house is not far from here. Would my lady grace him with your presence?"
"Are you inviting me?"
The man nodded.
"If this is your ladyship´s wish." he added, courteously.
"I am sorry." she muttered, shaking her head. The last thing she had in mind was to end trapped in the house of a Merchant Prince. "I am here for a brief visit before heading back for Númenor."
"To buy offrands for the temple of Melkor." the man completed with an irritating certainty. "Alas! You will find none of that until next week. We are in the middle of our February festival."
"February festival?" Zarhil did not believe her ears. Was that man mocking her? "The February festival is not until next week!"
His glance had something of condescending as he shook his head.
"The February festival of Gadir begins earlier than that of Armenelos. It is also... significantly divergent in other ways. But if my lady is in a hurry, there is a solution."
"No, thanks." she growled. "We leave, then."
This announcement was not received with enthusiasm by the other sailors, who began muttering things among them with sourly looks. The words "rest", "storm" "long travel" and "festival" reached Zarhil´s ears among the undistinguishable blur, and she sighed.
"What is this... solution?"
"If my lady accepts Magon´s hospitality, he will be very glad to provide all the needed items. He is the greatest importer of the colonies, and his storehouses are filled with the finest products of the Island and the mainland."
"So I could leave tomorrow?" she asked, a bit mistrustful.
"Of course, my lady. Or when you wish. Magon´s hospitality..."
"All right, all right." she growled. The intensity of mumbled complaints had disminished, and she turned towards the sailors with an admonishing expression. "You may have fun tonight in the festival. But be sure that if anybody fails to board this wretched ship tomorrow morning, he will have to buy himself a passage in the next ship to Sor!"
Then, she turned towards Malko, who was trying to hide a smile.
"And you will come with me." she added. "Lead the way."
The Gadirite bowed with an unscrutable expression, and descended the ramp again. Zarhil followed him, trying to ignore the bothersome feeling of unfamiliarity that assaulted her as her feet touched the firm pavement. She sent a last, longing glance in the direction of her ship.
"I hate those quick-thinking bastards." she whispered to Malko, who raised an eyebrow.
Next to the harbour lay the channel that cut the city in a half, spread between two avenues and as many rows of tall houses with balconies, which provided a good view of the boats that kept continuously crossing under their feet. Their guide –Uhar was his name- hired a small boat, and made sure with polite obsequiousness that Zarhil was comfortably seated in the middle.
"Will he worry about my robes getting wet?" she grumbled in annoyance. Her outfit was plain and grey, and a thick layer of salt covered its faded golden hem since the storm that had surprised them up North. Malko, who seemed to find her plight very funny, made a semblance of staring with horror at a small water stain over her knee.
As they advanced up the channel, at the slow rythm of the rower´s splashing oars, they first became aware of something strange. At the other side of the railings, large groups of people were crowding around something, though there was no visible sign of what they could be looking at. After a while, Zarhil heard an echo of male voices singing in the distance.
"What is this?" she asked Malko. "You have been to this city many times, back when you were in the Sorian navy."
"It´s the festival." he replied, with a mysterious shrug. "Our guide was right, it is slightly - divergent from ours in certain ways."
Unfortunately, the end of the traject was a mere twenty metres farther from them, and as the boat stopped at the last step of the stone stairs, Zarhil lost the opportunity to ask for details. At the feet of the Sacred Cave there were no such groups in sight anymore. Everything looked dispirited and lonely, except for several vendors who sat in front of their sacrificial merchandise.
"Two turtle doves." she demanded, to a sleepy-looking woman who rubbed her eyes and blinked at the unusual appearance of her customer. Malko paid after her.
It was a difficult thing to grow used to the darkness of the place after so many hours of braving the sunrays. For a while, Zarhil stumbled downstairs, hearing nothing but the flapping of wings of the two birds in the wooden cage that her companion held in his hands. When she finally became able to distinguish the lines, she advanced with slow and careful steps.
The image of the Goddess looked dim in the distance, lighted only by perfumed candles and the flames of the altar in the corner. At her feet lay countless offrands of local and foreign sailors, over a pile of evergreen boughs of return.
At this sight, her devotion arose in a blaze, remembering the many people that Ashtarte-Uinen had saved from the waves. She, also, had owed her life to the Goddess in several ocassions, and felt her loving protection upon her many more.
Since little Zarhil had stepped inside her first ship, she liked to believe that the Lady had been the one who had covered her with her silvery mantle, and taken all her girlish fears away with the sollicitude of a mother. She had claimed her as her child, refusing to let her go even when she was on land.
"Forgive me, Lady of the Seas." she muttered, ashamed at the meagreness of her sacrifice. "Tomorrow I will offer you a precious gift, worthy of my love for you."
At a sign from her, Malko took the turtle doves out, and burned them in the fires of the altar while she knelt to pray. The strong smell of flesh mingled with the scent of perfume, making them both dizzy for a while.
After she had finished the long litany, Zarhil stood up from the cold floor. The shadows danced in front of her eyes, and she would have fallen again if it hadn´t been for Malko´s timely assistance.
"Can you walk upstairs?" he asked with sollicitude. She nodded, pulling away from him.
"Our hunter is waiting outside for his prey." she joked in a hoarse voice. For the last time, she turned towards the image of the Ashtarte-Uinen of Gadir, and made the holy sign thrice. "Let us go."
Magon´s house was at the same side of the channel as the Cave, and thus it did not become necessary to take another boat. Zarhil had made some brief scales in Gadir before, and knew of its people´s passion for walking, so she was not surprised when Uhar guided them across the slightly curved streets on foot. The shock came upon finding the crowded groups again, pressing in mysterious silence around a doorstep or a corner.
As they pushed their way past one of them, the notes of a song came once again to her ears, this time much clearer than before. She frowned, trying to understand the words, but then the silence erupted in a sudden pandemonium of laughter and clapping of hands.
"What are they doing?" she asked Malko, gesticulating in order to be heard.
"They are groups of citizens, singing their yearly Festival compositions." Uhar answered in his stead. "Foreigners find them a little difficult to understand."
In spite of his dissimulated attempts to get them out of the way, Zarhil sought for the front stairs of a nearby house, and climbed the steps in search of a better view. She had had enough of being led around like sheep in a flock. After a brief hesitation, Malko followed her.
"The shopkeeper! The shopkeeper!" people were shouting in unison. At the centre of the crowd there was a group of around ten or twelve men, dressed in strange outfits with furs and ears. Several of them were drinking wine.
"All right. On popular demand!" one said. A part of the people cheered.
Finishing their jars with precipitation, the ridiculously disguised people put them aside and began whispering things to each other. One of them laughed, and strode to the front. Others were picking up a curious variety of string instrument.
Suddenly, they all began to sing in unison.
"In my quarter, there is a certain place..."
Zarhil stood on her toes, doing efforts to hear what they were saying. To her great surprise, she found the lines very funny. They spoke about a miserly shopkeeper who had only been known to close his shop on the day of his wedding –and just for the morning. If one was not very careful, he gave back copper coins instead of bronze, and owned a knife that was quite useful for cutting meat slices and cleaning the dirt on the chinks.
At the end of the song, she was looking back to Malko and Uhar in renewed wonder.
"Is this a popular song in Gadir?"
Malko shook his head. Ahead of them, someone shushed.
"They made it this year. Each year, they make new songs and try to rival each other for popularity."
"If my lady would allow..."
"All right, all right, let us go." Zarhil jumped down, irritated. As they pushed their way through the crowd, she heard several other unfriendly shushes.
But the surprises were far from ending there. They had not walked thirty metres further when they found a new crowd barring their way, even thicker than the previous.
"Good mercy of Uinen, what the hell is this!"
Uhar looked left and right, as if calculating something. Then, he made a gesture for them to follow, and headed for one of the side streets.
Before she followed him, Zarhil could hear a couple of lines:
"My mother-in-law, she was so fat, so fat
A worm entered her coffin, and an hour later
A cobra came out..."
"Those songs are written by the populace. They can get to be quite vulgar." Malko whispered in her ear, as she opened her mouth to stammer something appalled. Those people had to be the bastard sons of barbarians... no Númenorean would joke this way with the Doom of Men!
"Oh, they respect nothing. They hold nothing sacred. They laugh at all." Uhar muttered sententiously, shaking his head as if he had guessed her thoughts. "Look at your right, my lady, if you feel strong enough to bear it."
In fascinated curiosity, Zarhil did as she was told, and her eyes fell upon the most gruesomely irreverent scene that she had ever witnessed. A tall, badly-shaved man –and at least slightly drunk, to make things worse- was dressed in a ridiculous replica of the Great God Melkor´s holy attributes. His crown and mace were made of paper, and while his right hand held a jar of cheap wine, his left was making huge gestures to the people who stood listening to him in rapt attention. Zarhil stopped to listen, and became even paler. He was describing with all luxury of details how he had escaped from the temple while the priests weren´t looking, crossed the two channels swimming, and now was currently hiding in the crowd to flee–"like the pest"- those homicidal Númenoreans who could not worship a god without throwing him into the fire "every fucking year."
The woman swallowed, trying to undo the knot that had formed in her throat. The level of sacrilege was so unbelievably high that it touched unreality –she felt as if the god in front of whose altar she had knelt with downcast eyes had been a different deity, worshipped by a different people in a different world. There had to be a reason for this – this Middle-Earth Melkor and the Melkor of Númenor just could not be the same.
And who were those people?
This time, she barely realised that Uhar was taking her arm and gently guiding her away from that place. Their walk became an odyssey through many other streets of increasingly tall houses, now and then turning in circles to avoid the crowds. Through pressed arms and shoulders, between heads raised in anticipation, she saw drunkards in priestly costumes, men dressed as women, and heard sneers and witticisms about the mainland barbarians, their own citizens, magistrates, and even the royal family. A ditty about Prince Gimilzôr´s lack of love life became stuck, to her horror, inside her head.
And not even the most elegant avenues, where the white and painted façades of the houses of the greatest rivaled each other in magnificence were spared by the overwhelming tide. In one of the most imposing doorsteps, flanked by statues, people sat listening to a group at leisure, eating and drinking with abandon. Those were dressed and painted as some sort of tribe, and Zarhil had to blink – were those forks on their headgear?
As they passed them by, following Uhar in the direction of a building of delicately sculpted rosy marble, the gates of the house opened, and a richly dressed couple stepped out. A sizeable escort preceded them, forcefully trying to get the people to move for them, but Zarhil could see a slight shadow of fear cross their eyes even as they feigned disdain.
Then, someone shushed, and this became the signal to unleash a storm of popular wit.
"A million on pure silver and control of the spice trade! True love, indeed!"
"Is it true that she got you those two monopolies from the governor, Malakar?"
"Hey, Malakar! Could you share her with me tonight? I must be the only one in this wretched city who has still not slept in her bed."
The woman, a very beautiful young lady, went pale and swallowed. Her husband shook his head, muttering something, and quickened his pace.
"I cannot believe it!" Zarhil muttered. "And he did nothing?"
"During the Festival, the city is taken by this populace. It would be useless to do anything; but they are well used to it." Malko replied with a shrug. "And besides... they happen to be dead right about those two. The people of Gadir usually are."
Shaking her head in disbelief, the woman overtook him and headed towards Magon´s doorstep, where Uhar was waiting. Judging by the briskness with which she ushered her inside, she felt that he was afraid of those people targetting them next.
The courtyard of the house was as colourful as the front was sober. A portico with columns surrounded a white-marbled square, in whose centre stood something ressembling a well, covered by a brilliant green lid of magnificent metalwork. Ceramic pots with rare flowers and plants lay scattered around the floor and on every corner, - artificial gardens in an artificial city-, and the walls behind the porticoes were ornated with glazed tiles of blue, yellow and green patterns.
As they stood there, admiring that secluded place and dazzled by the contrast with the noisy disorder of the streets, a man and a woman rushed downstairs to meet them. She was a young matron of ample curves, who wore a robe of rich violet silks that dragged behind her steps, and silver bracelets over her bare arms. Her smile was sweet and welcoming, but slightly more reserved than that of her husband.
He was the first to bow, with an open look of delight. His yellow robes were covered in intrincate silver embroideries, and a strange effect of the sunlight on his fair skin made him briefly appear like a golden statue. Zarhil stared at him, and her eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly.
Was this the famous Magon of Gadir? The ambitious Merchant Prince who traded with Sor, the mainland barbarians and the faraway Umbar? His hair was short and curly, and he did not look a year above thirty.
"Many stories had reached my ears about her prodigious sea travels, and yet she had always refused to stay in an islander´s house." he said, fluently and without a trace of the strong accent that she had perceived in the popular singers outside. "May I now have the honour of welcoming the lady Zarhil of Forrostar to my humble abode?"
Zarhil swallowed, her brow slowly unfurling as she became aware of her lack of manners. The continuous sucession of surprises had affected her.
"I am... glad to be received with such courtesy by a stranger." she quickly improvised, determined to stand her own against the rhetorical torrent of the merchant. "I am Zarhil, and this is Malko of Sor. Your city –and your house- is as beautiful as I was told."
"And you are as beautiful as we were told." he replied, so enthusiastically that for a moment she was sure that he had to be making fun of her. "Beautiful and brave, to have reached the confines of the world with your ship in so many perilous travels. Allow me to introduce myself as Magon of Gadir, your humble servant... and her as Iolid, your humble servant´s wife."
A humourous spark was dancing –ominously- in Malko´s brown eyes. Fortunately, he seemed to understand the convenience of following the given cues, and did not make any comments.
"Stories about me tend to exaggerate. I have not found the end of the world yet, unless it is made of an endless sucession of ice mountains." She shrugged. "If there is one, it probably cannot be reached by ship."
Magon and Iolid smiled.
"Everything can be reached by ship. This is why we Númenoreans rule the world." she sentenced. Then, her lips widened in another smile. "But I am sure that you must be exhausted. How rude of us, to keep you standing at our front courtyard!"
"We are holding a musical dinner this evening, in your honour "he bowed "and for the pleasure of several associates who are currently staying at our house. We would feel extremely honoured if you both attended."
"We will." Zarhil nodded, trying to hide her disgust at the perspective of the endless rounds of polite exchanges. She had never liked this, maybe that was why she relished in the simple life of her ship so much – and merchants were not much of her liking.
Iolid clapped her hands. Immediately, as if they had been waiting in the shadows to be summoned, four young women dressed in silver and white flanked her.
"Please, allow me to show you your chambers. Those women will be at your service for the time of your stay."
"Thank you." Zarhil gave a slight nod to Magon, who bowed in all ceremony. Right before she turned her back on him, she had the uncomfortable sensation of being measured with a veiled feeling of amusement.
Malko´s cold fingers pressed against her arm, in discreet warning.
"After all, they are also Gadirites." he whispered in her ear, as they followed Iolid upstairs.
At least, there was nothing she could object to the room she was assigned. Not even in the Forrostar Palace of Armenelos had she ever seen such luxury – a huge bed half-hidden from sight by a red veil with embroidered golden stars, soft cushions, ivory chairs and a bathroom whose floor and walls were entirely set with glazed tiles. Iolid and Malko left here there with the women, after many concerned inquiries about her needs that she downplayed as patiently as she could. As soon as they were gone, she told the surprised women to leave –she used to feel touchy about her privacy when not at home, maybe because she was usually surrounded by men-, and without even disrobing herself, she sank on the soft mattress with a groan of relief.
When she woke up, it was night already. The new darkness disoriented her at first, and as she struggled to sit upon her bed, she realised that she had a headache. Served her right for sleeping at day, she thought with a muttered curse, but hell! she had been tired as a dog.
Somehow, the noise that she had made alerted the accursed women of the fact that she was awake, and they quickly entered the room with solemn bows. If she had felt a little less sleepy, Zarhil would have wondered if they had spent all afternoon listening to her snores from the other side of the door.
"Your bath will be ready in an instant, my lady."
"I do not need a bath." she mumbled, realising the impossibility of keeping the lie even as she uttered the words. She was positively reeking of dirty salt, and there was that dinner that she had to attend.
A dinner with Magon and his associates. She sighed.
"Well, maybe I could need it." she conceded. "But leave me alone."
The young women stared at her as if she was some strange object that had just fallen from the sky.
"But..." One of them, the most spirited, bit her lip and dared to brave her glance. "We were told to... tend to the Lady´s needs..."
"How are we supposed to do this, if the Lady doesn´t... want us to be here?"
Their eyes became mournful, almost imploring. It was almost as when her small nieces begged for a favour. With her mind still partly clouded by a sleepy haze, Zarhil felt herself relent.
"Do what you will, then." she sighed. Relief crossed their features, and each set to their tasks in a show of perfect coordination. Two were in charge of bringing the water, another of mixing the perfumes and the salts; a fourth knelt to undress her.
As she became accustomed to the feel of their hands upon her skin, Zarhil realised, to her surprise, that there was a kind of pleasure in surrendering to their ministrations. The water was warm and smelled like roses; nothing like the cold basin where she washed her face while she was on the ship. She closed her eyes, feeling sleepy again.
After the bath, two of them began to show her sets of robes, as gaudily magnificent as those worn by her hosts in the coutryard. People would stare at those at the Armenelos court, she thought in a brief flash of distaste, before she armed herself with resignation and pointed at a green and yellow dress that at least was only embroidered at the hem.
The girl who was holding that dress beamed, as if it had been on her merits that it had been chosen. The others ran to take the rest away, while she extended it upon the bed and elaborated on its magnificences and the most appropriate jewel combinations. Not understanding anything at all, Zarhil let her babble on, nodding to everything that she said.
When she was at last dressed, there was still her hair left. After an animated discussion, the women smoothed her coarse plaits with some oily product and allowed it to fall down her shoulders. On her crown, they made two small braids and fixed them with golden ringlets, and clapped hands at the result.
Nonplussed, Zarhil wondered if she should have encouraged them by being so compliant. They might remind her of her small nieces, but at the moment she reminded herself of her nieces´s favourite doll. If Malko dared to laugh at her, he would be severely punished.
"You are radiant, my lady." the Girl-of-the Dress exclaimed. The others nodded in approval.
"Please, allow us to escort you to the banquet room!" Daring-Girl implored. Zarhil nodded –it was too late to escape, after all, especially if it implied running with that outfit in front of the insolent populace of that accursed city.
What was it with those people, and their habitude of carrying their guests in tow everywhere?
Distractedly smoothing one of her braids, Zarhil sighed, and prepared herself for a very long evening.
Dinner had already begun without her, in a room whose walls were covered with mosaics that depicted all the types of fish that were known to exist in the ocean, swimming in ethereal waves. Some people sat in ivory chairs; others lay on cushions, and their attention barely shifted from the heavily-loaded table where ceramic plates of the most rare and exquisite seafood battled for space with jars of mixed Belfalas wine.
In a first moment, the lights and colours and the noises of conversation made her feel dizzy again, but then she began distinguishing faces. Malko was already there, lying on a couch in animated conversation with a tanned man who wore dark-green robes. He had also been made to discard his usual clothing to don the fine silks of their guests, and his head -which he usually shaved clean before his travels, and had acquired a raspy crop after the two last months- was covered with an elegant red turban that fell over his right shoulder.
Being the first to notice her presence, with a quick and alert glance, Magon rose from his seat and commanded the attention of his guests. Next to him was his wife and another woman, Zarhil realised in some curiosity. In the provinces, men and women only ate together in informal circumstances, as in front of guests they would imitate the protocol of Armenelos and the central regions – but not here, it seemed.
"This, dearest guests, is the lady Zarhil, whose name you have already heard from so many mouths. "he announced. Now that the lights fell on him, the golden hue seemed to be part of his skin instead of an optical illusion. "Since the times of our ancestors and the founders of this city, we have been valiant mariners, who conquered the seas and built our very home among the waves. And she, a woman without equal, is the best embodiment of this spirit!"
"Indeed we have heard much about you, my lady." a thin man in yellow who sat at the women´s other side nodded. "I was told that you had reached the end of the world, but Magon here told me this evening that you choose to deny it."
"This is Himilkar, a local associate" Magon introduced him, "and soon brother-in-law."
The man bowed in answer, and his clear brown eyes met those of the woman next to him. Both smiled in unison.
"This is Abdeshmoun, an Umbarian associate," Magon continued, beckoning briefly to the merchant who had been talking with Malko, before passing over to a fair-skinned man who wore orange robes and long dark braids, "and this is Azzibal, of Sor."
Zarhil nodded politely to everyone, and received their deep bows in return. In answer to Magon´s welcoming gesture, she sat down, and immediately a servant offered her a glass and filled it with wine.
The men, especially the Umbarian, were considering her with deep interest. She drank, feeling somewhat shy under their stares.
"A woman in love with the Sea." he muttered. "I had never heard of such a wonder elsewhere."
"Oh, but this wonder might have an explanation. "Iolid intervened, turning towards her with a bright expression. "The lady Zarhil descends from the kings of old, and one of them was Aldarion, the Sea-lover."
Zarhil blinked. She would not have expected knowledge of her lineage´s intrincacies in merchants.
"Indeed." she replied to her nonetheless. "We descend from Anárion, who was Aldarion´s grandson."
"And this is no mistake." Malko intervened. "She is a seaman –seawoman- to boot. You should have seen her in the middle of the raging gale!"
"Were you caught in a storm?" Azzibal asked curiously. Zarhil had to prevent herself from glaring daggers at her first mate.
"Just before we reached Aiboshim. It was not too bad." she answered.
"Aiboshim? Then you come from far up North!" Himilkar deduced.
"I had visited some friends." Zarhil sipped some of the wine very carefully, and realised that it was good. "Barbarian friends, who live in houses made of ice and worship the white bear."
"She has a bunch of quite extraordinary acquaintances, you see." Malko smiled. How much had he already drunk?
"There is nothing extraordinary in the story." she replied, with a slightly cutting tone. "In one of my first trips, I was taken by the youthful wish to go farther than anyone. I found the ice, and then I ran out of provisions for the return home – the whole coast down South being infested with Elves, and all. Those people helped me back then, and for that I am very grateful."
"And you continued visiting them for years?" Magon asked, fascinated. Zarhil nodded.
"They are always glad to see me. I bring them gifts, and they give me something that they consider to be very precious – the oil of some kind of sea-monster."
A spark of realisation flashed through the eyes of the Gadirite merchant. He exchanged glances with his associate Himilkar.
"Sperm oil." the second muttered. "Is it good quality?"
Rudely awakened from her tale, Zarhil had the definite sensation that she had talked too much. She cursed to herself for allowing their polite interest to lure her into lowering her guard.
"I would not know." I am not a merchant, she thought. But Magon did not seem ready to let it go.
"Would you sell us a quantity, my lady? We would pay you well. We have a connexion with the Southern whalers, but it is a tenuous one at best, and there is high competence..."
"I am sorry, but the oil is a gift. It is not for sale." Zarhil replied, dryly. Deep inside, she was seething – pay well? What did that man think she was?
If Magon was disappointed at her answer, he did not allow it to show in his face for more that a second.
"Then, as an hospitality favour, I would wish to ask you for a sample –if you give your consent, my lady."
Caught in the middle of his change of strategy, the woman only managed to nod. After all, she had no valid reasons to oppose that request.
"Certainly. If you come and get it tomorrow morning before we leave, that is. We... are in a hurry." she added, hoping it would sound a bit less rude. But Magon merely smiled.
"Then it is done. By the way, this reminds me of something..."With a gesture, he summoned a man who was standing on the door, and whispered in his ear. Zarhil frowned, wondering what else would her host surprise her with.
Before her guessing could carry her very far, however, Azzibal´s conversation with Malko caught her attention.
"You are leaving tomorrow already? Has the Festival scared you away?"
"Do not ask me. She is the captain of the ship."
"The captain of the ship has family business to attend to." she cut him, picking a crab´s leg from one of the ceramic plates. "And no, the festival has not scared me away. I wonder, however, how is it that the princes of this city suffer so graciously to be insulted once a year."
This comment immediately caused a buzz of conversations to start anew. The Umbarian whispered something in Malko´s ears, nodding many times with his head. Himilkar arched an eyebrow with what Zarhil was already learning to identify as Gadirite disdain, and Azzibal laughed.
"Because this is the best they can do!"
Magon shook his head.
"Now, this is a way of putting it." he conceded. "But, my lady, I would rather say that those jokes do not come with malicious intent. Most of them like us, even if it may seem a strange kind of love for an outsider. The hatred and violence would only begin if one of us started it first, and that we will never do, because we know that even if our names are known in the whole world, we are in minority upon this bare rock. "He allowed himself a brief smile. "They like us to pretend that we are very angry, though."
Zarhil nodded with a frown. That reasoning seemed crooked and unnatural, but then, so were merchants. Not for the first time, and in spite of its beauty, she felt glad that she did not live in such a city.
While she was thinking of a reply, the Umbarian intervened in the conversation.
"Sometimes it does get a bit trying, however." he grumbled, with his mouth half-full. "I come here all the way from Umbar to see a decent musical spectacle, and then I find that all halls are closed because of that cursed festival!"
Iolid interrupted her conversation with her sister-in-law, and gestured with her chin towards a corner. Following her glance, Zarhil noticed for the first time that five people were sitting there, holding instruments upon their laps.
"If you excuse me for a moment, good sir, two of our musicians here are stars of the public theatre." she said. "While you are staying as a guest in our house, you will not miss anything that our fair city can offer."
The Umbarian offered her a bow.
"Many thanks, lady, and I apologise to Magon for my words." The Gadirite merchant shrugged goodnaturedly, and sipped some wine. "And do not think I am looking down on your customs. In fact, even this Festival would be welcome in the pestilent sewer where I live. Adunakhôr the Great´s Magnificent Colony of Umbar! "he snorted, raising his glass." Full of useless sects of philosophers who spend their days in contemplation of the Greatest Good. Of harebrained soldiers getting drunk at daytime. And the populace would not have such a refined sense of humour –oh, no, those half-barbarians only know how to revolt whenever there is an infection in the dog-meat they eat. If it wasn´t for us merchants, there would be nothing else than ruins in Umbar today!"
"The Gadirites knew since the beginning how to keep the barbarians at arm´s length." Azzibal nodded with a smile. "And effectively, I might add. They do not even feel offended for not knowing how to swim."
"And yet Umbar has its own fields, and people to till them, while we depend on others to feed us." Himilkar objected, disguising his obvious pride at their insularity under a veil of modesty. Malko sought for Zarhil´s glance, and his lips curved in a grin.
She let go of a sigh, somehow glad to be ignored for awhile. Her social skills had never been good, and those people had a way to make one feel stupid all the time.
And still, as she was about to pick another crab leg, the door opened in full for a sucession of servants, who came towards her carrying all kinds of objects of luxury.
"Uhar told me that you wanted to buy offrands for the temple of Melkor." Magon explained. She stared at him, surprised –was he actually thinking of selling things to her during dinner? "A wise course of action, obviously- as you well know, my lady, the Great God of the Island tends to be angry at ships who head for Númenor before paying their respects."
Realising that what she considered to be so strange was rather the rule among those merchants, Zarhil left her wine aside with a longing glance, and focused on the things that Magon –a wonderful seller- showed her with all the ponderings of an expert. Painted ostrich eggs, cloaks dyed with the purple shell of Belfalas, jars of coloured glass, necklaces where gems alternated with glass beads painted in the shape of eyes – Magon had everything.
A bit overwhelmed, she did nothing but nod at the things she was shown, choosing one or two to look at them closely, until he picked the last of those items, a delicate bough sculpted in silver adorned with pale blue gems.
"What is this?" she asked. Magon stared at it appreciatively, then shook his head.
"No. Not appropriate. My mistake."
"What is it?" she repeated. She had seen a similar thing somewhere...
"The Great God of the Island would not like this as gift." he explained. "A very old legend says that, when the ships of the colonisers arrived to this island for the first time, their leader, grateful for having escaped the perils of a tempest, offered his bough of return to the Lady and forgot to honour Melkor. Angry at this oversight, the Great God caused an earthquake, threatening to sink the island under the waters. "He made a pause to eat a bite, then continued. "A woman that came with the expedition immediately had a fire built, and offered to throw herself into the flames to appease Melkor´s anger. She would have perished if it had not been for the Lady, who does not forget those who honour her. When she saw the fire, she unleashed a storm and quenched it as many times as they tried to lit it anew. Thankful at her intervention, the woman´s family had five of those silver boughs made. They were distant ancestors of mine."
Fascinated in spite of herself, Zarhil stared at the bough with a frown.
"And this is one of those?"
"A family heirloom, yes. I would gratefully sell it to a noble lady such as you." At the other side of the table Malko, who had heard this, rolled his eyes. "But it would never do as an offrand for the God of the Island."
Zarhil shook her head. Maybe he was lying – and still, if there was an ounce of truth in his story, she had found the best present for her beloved Goddess.
"I will buy it, and offer it to the Sacred Cave tomorrow. I have a deep devotion for the Lady." she added, in a lower tone. Magon´s features creased into a smile –the golden tinge had never been so evident in them as now.
"Of course, there is no need for you to pay now, my lady. My associates will have it from your family on their next trip to Númenor, or however it might be more comfortable for the Lord Zarhâd of Soronthil."
Zarhil shook her head. His father had told her that those people loved to have illustrious names on the list of their debitors –for them, it was a form of prestige.
"There is gold on my ship. I will pay you tomorrow, when yor men come to get the sample of oil that I promised you." she established, firmly. In some disappointment, he nodded, and ordered the servants to leave with both the chosen and discarded items.
At the other side of the table, meanwhile, the conversation had shifted towards the topic of an impending official declaration of war against the desert tribes near Umbar. Himilkar had changed his seat for the couch that lay next to Malko and Abdeshmoun, and Magon´s sister was resting her head against his shoulder. Her curly brown hair fell down her back, mingled with some whitish locks that looked like the effect of some outlandish dye.
Only Azzibal remained with them, savouring a dish of raw oysters in lemon.
"Do you find them to your liking?" Iolid, always the perfect hostess, inquired. The Sorian nodded as he chewed.
"I had not tasted something as good since... well, at least since I stayed at the palace of King Xaris three years ago."
Iolid and her husband exchanged ominous glances at this. Xaris was the leader of the barbarians of Belfalas, who had achieved a commendable degree of civilisation from their centuries of contact with the Númenoreans of Gadir. Before Zarhil had had time to realise what was going on, Magon stood up, and gestured to the servants.
"Bring the sturgeon eggs and the sauce!"
Azzibal snorted, taking another oyster.
"Those brave Gadirites! In their infinite wisdom, their ancestors passed a law restricting the height of towers – if not, they would still be measuring the work of the others and adding inch after inch until they reached the sky!"
"Oh, years ago, there was that tree competition." Iolid said, sharing in the joke good-naturedly. "They brought trees of all kinds and places to the squares and gardens of Gadir, from the uttermost East and South. Few of those took root- a real pity."
"Ah, I remember." Azzibal nodded. "The most celebrated were those giant trees that came from an island in the Far South. By the way, Magon, which one did you bring?"
Magon shook his head in affected disdain.
"I was deep in talks to bring the White Tree of Armenelos to the gardens of Gadir."
Zarhil stared at him, astonished, but her shock subsided when she saw Iolid and Azzibal begin to laugh. Still, some puzzlement remained there, refusing to die –one could never know much of what those slippery people said was intended as a joke.
"Always the ambitious Magon of Gadir." Azzibal muttered, fondly.
In the other conversation, the tone had been raised, as all three men heartily agreed that a war against the desert tribes was the worst idea that the King could have had at that very moment.
"Now that we were attempting a recuperation of the trade, they want to scare our customers away! We cannot tolerate this!" the Umbarian exclaimed. Himilkar shook his head.
"Indeed, we cannot tolerate this."
Magon took an oyster from Azzibal´s dish, and smiled.
"Then, our weapons industry will suffer from an unprecedented crisis this year. Deal?"
Somewhat placated. Abdeshmoun raised his glass.
"Deal. But keep your promises this time, Magon."
Vaguely aware of what had just taken place in front of her, Zarhil´s face went pale, and she fixed her glance on the half-empty cup that lay upon her lap.
"I cannot stand those people. I cannot! Their very deference is arrogant. Did you hear them ... sabotaging the King´s policies?"
Malko shook his head noncomittally, as if her words were nothing but the ramblings of a drunkard. This made her even more furious: it was true that she had drunk a little more than what she should, but he was the one who was having difficulties trying to walk back to his rooms in a straight line.
"Now, what do you say?"
"They are arrogant, that much is true. But they are powerful, and that is true as well. So frighteningly, fucking powerful. "He shook his head, watching the lights of the coutryard from the corridor windows. "The most poweful of lords has no authority beyond the boundaries of his vast lands. But those... those merchants, those people, who do not own an inch of land, rule over the seas and control the trade of whole realms, many of which we do not even know about. Who would put a boundary to this?"
Zarhil shivered, whether because of the cold or the disgust, she was not sure.
"Stop... talking in this strain. You are wrecking my resolve to go back to Númenor, if it will be to marry one of them!"
"What?" Slowly, the impact of the news triggered a reaction on Malko´s alcohol-abused mind. His lips began to curve into a smile. "So it was true..."
Zarhil blushed to the roots of her hair. The wine had made her careless.
"I know of no other possible reason why my family would send ships all the way to Aiboshim and Asido to summon me back." she grumbled. "And just congratulate me, and I will have you thrown overboard into the Great Sea when we are in the middle of our return journey. The noblest families of Númenor do not want me, and I have no idea of which kind of ambitious commoner will settle for an old, ugly, eccentric and probably barren woman."
"You are lovely to my eyes." he muttered, after weathering the storm with the blissful level of calm that only wine could bring. Zarhil kicked him on the shin, and turned away with a huff.
"You ignoble flatterer! " she hissed. But then she seemed to relent, and sighed. "I knew I would have to marry one day. That I could not remain like this forever, whatever the choice. But to see those people today... I do not want to be a high-born trophy for any of them!"
Malko shook his head, kneeling to rub his leg on the spot where she had kicked him. In Zarhil´s current state, even his silence was infuriating.
"Go and sleep it off." she growled.
Before she could leave definitely for her chambers, however, he heard his voice behind her again.
"You are an extraordinary woman, my lady. You will not be a trophy for any man –that much I know."
Zarhil turned back to stare at him, searching for signs of mockery in his tone. Finding none that would give her an excuse to yell at him, she took off at a brisk pace, and started muttering things under her teeth.
That night, she dreamed that she was in the Palace of Armenelos, singing the ditty about Gimilzôr´s love life. Outraged at her irreverence, the priests tied her up, and conjured the fire of Melkor to fall upon her. She was afraid and desperately prayed to the Lady for deliverance, but there were no signs of rain in the sky.
Finally, it was Magon and his associates who poured basin after basin of water over her until she was delivered from the flames, and then he asked for her hand in return.
(to be continued)
(1) I know that there is a lot of explaining due here. Unfortunately, not all things can be given away just yet.
First, as to why the name Pelargir has been temporally changed- the reason will be eventually given.
Second –and more important-.as to why its location is different (after reading this chapter, the knowledgeable in Middle Earth cartography will have recognised it as the later island of Tolfalas), it will also be an issue later. I can only promise that both things will be explained, justified and solved, and that it will be according to canon. I hope.