Tales - Cold As Ice

Cold As Ice

“Eddy, I’m going to ask you one final time. If I search your ship, am I going to see anything I’m going to arrest you for?” The harbormaster’s face was earnest, almost begging Ed to slip him a large enough bribe that he would skip the inspection altogether and fatten his wallet in the process. It was a common enough occurrence in the port of Philadelphia that the customs officials practically expected the supplement to their pay.

“Sorry, friend. You’ll find nothing on board but what I’ve given you in the manifest. Just sugar, rum, and tobacco out of Cuba.” Gazing over at the heavy smog blanketing the city, Ed grinned. “You New Englanders sure do like to smoke, eh?” Ed’s wild eyebrows spiking upwards was all it took to spin the harbormaster into a frothy rage.

“How dare you mock us, you filthy diego! I ought to have you in irons to teach you some respect!” But you won’t, will you? Ed suppressed a perverse smile, allowing only the smallest amount of pleasure to seep through his face. You can’t imprison a duly registered merchant without uncovering contraband during a customs inspection, you big dumb oaf. You don’t have the authority. I wish I could meet the clever bastard who snuck that condition into the trade deal, so I could shake his hand and buy him a drink. The harbormaster waved a beefy arm at his dockside thugs. “Come on, boys, find me something on that ship that’ll let us whip this Spaniard into regretting that he didn’t pay up, and then string him up as an example!”

What happened next was nothing short of predictable. In the three hours they searched the ship, four barrels of rum were smashed, six bags of sugar were slashed open, and one barrel of tobacco mysteriously disappeared. To Ed, the only shame was that the louts spilled one of the bags of sugar into the rum, creating a sticky mess that he doubted the ship would ever be free of. He bit his tongue when the harbormaster flew into another impotent fury as he was forced to sign off on the cargo manifest before he stormed off like a petulant child.

Ed smiled and relaxed for the first time in three months this trip had taken to plan and execute. A short nap in his favorite shipboard hammock saw the sun drop below the horizon, drawing him into wakefulness gently as the warmth was slowly sucked away from his skin. He rose and stripped down to nothing and tied a nearby rope to the railing, slipping overboard into the still inky blackness which comprised the water of the harbor. Diving underwater with the rope wrapped around his hand let him feel his way along the hull until he felt the familiar scarring of a short-plank on the bottom of the ship. Applying a gentle twisting pressure, the plank slid to the side along familiar and well-worn grooves. Looping the rope gently around his legs, he shoved against the plank with both arms, moving it further out of the way. His lungs began to burn with the lack of fresh air as he shoved again and again, eventually dislodging the plank and knocking loose the cargo within the hidden panel – a small oilskin bag began to slide out of the new hole. As it slipped past his hands, he felt a stream of air burst from his lungs, disappearing into the secret compartment above. There were far too many seconds of panicked flailing before his hands brushed the package and he latched onto it, clutching it tight to his chest as he kicked to the surface.

As his head broke through the barrier between sea and sky, he sucked in desperately at the acrid, soot-filled air as though it were the perfume of a favored lover. As the chill of the water began to seep into his skin, Ed began to shiver as he fumbled for the rope. It wasn’t until he attempted to haul himself up the side of the ship that he realized the foolish impetuousness of his naked dive – he now had no way to carry his awkward prize back onto his ship.

The fourth time he fell back into the water, Ed gave up – there was no scenario in which he climbed the rope back onto the deck with the awkward box in hand. Cursing his lack of forethought, he fumbled in the water for the end of the rope, struggling to tie it around the oilskin covered box. Four times, Ed lost his concentration and dunked beneath the surface of the water, each time surfacing, sputtering and cursing with half a lung full of water. When he’d had his fill of nearly drowning, after he was satisfied with the knot holding the package, he began to haul himself out of the water. His arms burned from the effort of bodily dragging his soaked body vertically along the ship – his uselessly tired legs dangled below when he could spare the effort to keep them out of the way. Were he dragging along a body-full of soaking wet clothing, he surely would have drowned retrieving the box. His lungs ached from the effort as he struggled to inhale with each ragged breath, never willing himself to do more than pause in his ascent – the only mercy was that his exhausted legs refused to ache, being so thoroughly numbed by the temperature of the water that he could barely sense them thudding against the side of the ship.

As his hand clapped onto the rail of the ship, it was all he could do to hold on and not plummet to his death in the icy water below. With a herculean effort, he crawled onto the deck of the boat, collapsing onto the wooden planks much like a puddle of sodden human flesh, unable to do anything more than lay still, whimpering and bleating like a wounded animal.

His eyes fluttered open as he detected the approach of a pair of heavy hobnailed boots. The boots he couldn’t recognize by sight, but the voice he would never forget. “Went for a little late night swim, did you? Well from here I can tell the water must be awful cold, or is just that you’re Spanish?” The harbormaster’s harsh, barking laughter was laced with menace, and the dimwitted chuckles of the thugs he brought along with him made the situation more unbearable. Ed couldn’t bring himself to respond to his harassers as his lungs wheezed along with the effort of keeping his body clinging to life.

“Got nothing to say for yourself, diego? I know you lot are always up to no good, your shifty eyes tell me that. Maybe me and Gregor here can coax some truth out of your thick foreign skull.” The first kick to his gut should have been the worst – the pain scrambled his brain to the point where he could see not at all despite the knowledge that his eyes were wide open. It should have been the worst – would have been, in fact, if the kick hadn’t made him vomit all of the seawater he had swallowed from the harbor onto the harbormaster’s boots. For a brief moment, he could breathe easier with the weight of the water no longer binding his insides like a twisted snake – then, he felt hands on his shoulders a brief moment before his head lifted up from the hard planking on the deck, just before his world collapsed into a pitch black oblivion.

When Ed felt the burning heat on his skin, he knew without a doubt, that he had fallen into hell – his entire body was on fire, with the exception of his back. He felt perplexed, at first because he thought that he had lived a good life, aside from the womanizing, gambling, lying and cheating, but also because his body ached and burned on the inside. His mind only began to question his location when he felt the unfamiliar and very localized pain of a raw nerve exposed in his mouth – his pain wasn’t everywhere as he had been led to believe, but rather most places. Opening his eyes into the Sun was painful, but could not compare to the searing pain across the surface of his skin as he slowly shifted and peeled himself off the deck of the ship. Finally confident that he was alive and in his own flesh, he cursed his policy of letting his crew out to savage the local womenfolk on the first night – with no-one to watch the ship, they had unknowingly left him to roast alive in the sunlight. His only consolations were that he was both alive, and that they hadn’t been around to see the embarrassing beating he had received last night.

Dragging his composure out of the depths of self-pity, Ed began to slowly look himself over, finding his soft caramel skin mottled in blue, green and yellow bruises. The area in-between the bruises was similarly ruined, scorched bright red by the noonday sun. The only saving grace was that they had spared his face – save the few teeth they had broken or chipped, his face was unmarred by man or the sun. Through a stroke of dumb luck, the mast of his ship had protected his face from the worst of the day’s abuses.

Even as his arms ached and burned both inside and out, he staggered over to the rail and hauled at the rope. He was delicate at first, fearful for the pain he was causing himself and that his treasure had slipped out of the knots in the rope he had bound it with. When the bundle finally emerged from the bay, his yanking at the rope became energetic and filled with purpose, the box jostling and whipping against the side of the ship. As it came closer to the edge of the railing, Ed almost hurled himself overboard in his rush to hold the box in his arms once more.

When he lifted the wrapped package onboard, he collapsed to the deck, feverishly clawing at the knots binding the oilcloth to the rope. He sat there panting, praising his father for teaching him the knots which saw him sitting with a small fortune in his lap. His praised quickly turned to curses at his father’s knots for their stubborn refusal to release his prize. He similarly cursed his father for forcing him onto this path – every night for the past year he had found himself wishing for the simple life of a mere merchant, but the debts his father had accrued made those dreams impossible.

Grabbing for his knife among his discarded clothing, Ed swore out loud – another filthy, embarrassing habit he had inherited along with his father’s debt. He hacked at the rope like a novice butcher, all power and no art, each swing tearing through the damp oilcloth and biting deeply into the wooden box beneath. Ed was beyond caring when the rope finally gave way, the oilskin spoiled beyond use. He ran his fingers over the scarred lid of the box, nervously glancing around the empty deck of the ship before fumbling at the simple latch. When he finally heard it click open, he hunched over the box, running his fingers along the sides of the lid as he gently, reverently, lifted it open.

The sun threw dazzling golden rays into his eyes as it’s light worked around his shoulders and into the box. There, it danced and mingled with the precious crystals nestled within before the light careened off of the gold lining, lazily filtering back through the cut stones in a dazzling multicolored display of wealth. As he tilted the box from side to side, Ed marvelled at each gem as they shifted through all of the known colors and deep into the unknown. Even though he knew half of the cut stones were forgeries, Ed could hardly tell the difference. He doubted the fools he was planning on selling the cut Ur-Ice to would be able to either.

He forced down the urge to run his fingers through the stones and let them trickle back into the box like water droplets, instead choosing to gently close and secure the gold foiled lid. As wealthy as he was about to become, the Ur-Ice still made him uncontrollably nervous. Just having it secured away on his vessel, even well below the water line, had been enough to fuel every night of his journey with unfathomable nightmares. Unfortunately, he, like all warm blooded men, was drawn as irresistibly to quick and easy money as he was to spending it on quicker and easier women. There was little chance of his fortune being wasted away before he returned home – there was too little room to make careless and selfish errors in his next few transactions. If he was successful, even considering the impressive debt he was trapped under, he would be set for the remainder of his days.

He retired to his cabin with a bucket of cool water and set to tending his bruised and burned skin, wincing with pained bliss every time the damp cloth moved against his skin. The next few days passed in a quiet agony for Ed, broken only by the occasional delivery from when his crew returned from one errand or another. The interruptions were food, mostly, although one sailor did return with a pot of a skin dye the New Englanders used in their theatrical productions when portraying a Spanish villain. There were doubtlessly a number of fine Spanish thespians to be had in town, but they rarely found work in the native troupes. It was just as well – if the New Englanders were more open-minded, they would have no need for the skin dye, and then Ed would be much worse off. It was hardly the best match for his complexion, but it was as the old saying went – those who are forced to beg have the fewest choices.

It was a regrettable circumstance Ed found himself in, but he had prepared accordingly. His first choice had hardly been to antagonize the harbormaster to the point of physical violence, but the man’s poor impulse control had it’s advantages. He had arrived days before his first meeting in the event something like this was unavoidable. It afforded him the chance to present a suitably cowed exterior to the harbormaster when they next encountered each other, and would allow him to get out of the port with the bare minimum of bribes to the ugly man. There was also the additional benefit of allowing him to rest after his near-death experience the other day, but he tried his hardest not to dwell on that. Ed knew that a brute like the harbormaster would never expect a wounded and rebuked merchant to dare smuggling even more valuable cargo out of the city than what he brought in.

Travelling the streets of Philadelphia while dealing with the overwhelming paranoia of carrying a prince’s ransom in a satchel proved to be more difficult than Ed had originally anticipated. The weight of the nicest cut Ur-Ice stone bore deep into his leg as it sat nestled at the bottom of his coin purse. As an example of the quality of his wares, it was second to none – particularly as all of the larger stones were clever forgeries. Through his meandering path, taking blind corners and occasionally doubling and tripling back across his route even once getting completely and hopelessly lost, Ed was fairly sure he had not been followed to the proscribed side of the deal – a small tavern in the bowels of the cityof so little note the owner had not even bothered to name it. For clandestine meetings, Ed had found that completely unremarkable was oftentimes preferable to a more secure, suspicious location. His only hope was that they might have a wine which wouldn’t sour his stomach.

In the end, Ed settled for being merely disappointed with the watered down ale whose only virtues were that it tasted nothing like the filthy water he had already had his fill of, and that it was so cheap he felt richer just for having bought it. It wasn’t too far off from the truth – he was no more than halfway through his tankard when three figures burst through the door. By Ed’s estimation, they were either bankers or the artificers come to buy the stones. By his figuring, only an artificer or a banker would have the wherewithal to appear so insufferably self-important that they enjoyed appearing as though they had swallowed a two foot iron rod and been unable to pass it.

As they turned to approach his table, Ed figured them artificers rather than bankers, and thankfully shoved his tankard to the side of the table. The greetings were terse and curt, as was the custom when New Englanders dealt with Spaniards, but Ed was pleased rather than insulted – the less time he spent with this deal, the sooner he would be able to revel in his newfound riches.Ed’s daydreaming was cut tragically short by an impatient cough. Good. They want this matter dealt with almost as quickly as I do.

“Ah, my most humble apologies, good sirs. I trust you will want to conclude this business with the utmost speed and alacrity. To that end, I have taken the liberty of selecting the most premier stone of the collection for your appraisal.” As he gently eased open the lid of the gold-lined box to allow them to see the imagined bounty before them, he began to fumble at his coin purse, causing the heavy metal pieces he had previously arranged within to clink and clatter against each other. It was all theatre, designed to reinforce the thoughts in their hind-brains that the stones were worth the agreed upon price, if not more. Digging out the largest stone, he presented it with a flourish just as the smaller of the men began to reach for the box. His hand instead diverted to the large stone and snatched it away, bringing it close to his face to peer at it in the most peculiar way. Ed launched into his long, planned and research speech design to distract the man from examining more than the one stone. His voice almost caught in his throat mid-sentence as he saw one of the others reach into the box and draw forth a smaller piece of Ur-Ice. Whether real or fake, Ed could hardly tell, but he fervently hoped that neither could the man who now held it.

A cold sweat broke out across the back of his neck as he watched the man turn the stone over, flipping it every way and watching how it threw the light. Ed’s speech now felt hollow and transparent where he had previously thought it to be a mastercraft of persuasion. The first man was nodding along as he carelessly tossed the first, real, stone, back into the box before clasping his hands and looking towards the other two. Seconds dragged on into an eternity of minutes as Ed sat, mouth long dried out, waiting for the foul man to reveal him for the fraud he was. He ached for water, or wine, even the wretched ale he had pushed aside, anything to moisten his parched tongue. He could not bring his hands to fetch the tankard, nor break his eyes away from the glittering stone in the artificer’s hand – real or fake, it was an object of covetous beauty.

When the stone was set back into a box with a nod, rather than the man shaking his head, Ed was finally able to breathe. When the central figure snapped his finger, the limited motion in the tavern ground to an utter standstill, stopping even Ed’s subtly panicked breathing. THe door creaked open slowly and two burly men entered, carrying a stout trunk between them much as two men might carry a dead body.

Wordlessly, they set the chest down and waited for the other men to stand before they left. As the lead artificer picked up the box containing the Ur-Ice, he spoke as he passed ti to his shorter companion. “This arrangement has been satisfactory. If you find yourself in possession of more stones, you will contact us.” Not a question, then. A command. As Ed’s father found out far too long ago, he was not good at following commands. Still, he kept a pleasant face on until they had all disappeared from the tavern. THen, the only thing keeping a frown from invading his face was the chest sitting in front of him. It was with only a modicum of restraint that he threw the lid back, peering within at his vast fortune. His smile slowly transformed into a frown then as he stared at the meager pile of coins within. He collapsed to his knees and began counting them in a panic. He had always imagined the fortune which would see him away from this life to be almost countably vast, and yet here it was, barely enough to fill a large satchel. His only consolation was that this meager pile of coin was his key to much greater wealth back in Spain. He could return home now and not need to worry about money for the rest of his life, but that was not enough, not for Ed. He knew if he followed through with the rest of his plan, he and his descendants could live like kings for the rest of their days, and he fancied having a large number of children. With that in mind, he closed the chest after retrieving a singular silver coin from within and ordered another ale, settling in to wait the few hours until his contact showed up.

If it weren’t for the watered down beer he was drinking, Ed would have drunk himself into a stupor twice over by the time his contact arrived. ALl the same, he had been forced to nervously relieve himself at least four times, each time wishing he could carry his future with him. At least he was seated when the man arrived and not absentmindedly trailing his fingers through the coin in the chest. His contact sat, dropping a heavy sack unceremoniously onto the table, upsetting the four newest mugs to the point of toppling half of them over.

“I trust you have been able to secure immediate payment for the goods – the sellers have expressed interest only if you can pay now. If you are short of funding, I am afraid I have instructions to bring the goods to another buyer whom certainly will have the required coin to-hand.” Ed could barely keep his hands off of the sack in front of him, stuffed to bursting with a box of raw, uncut Ur-Ice, waiting to be brought back to Spain, cut and resold for a frankly criminal amount of money

“What do you take me for, some cut-rate corner pusher? The chest. The agreed upon sum is within. Now let me see the stones and we can be done with this.” Ed was impatient and was letting it show. He was tired of drinking watered down piss in this disgusting foreign city – he longed for the more civilized company of his countrymen, where even the debt-collectors were cordial.

As the man opened the box resting on the table, Ed’s breath caught again. THat was what the future looked like – a box full of raw, milky white, uncut rocks of Ur-Ice. THe man left him to gawk as he turned to the chest of coins, examining it intently after checking the contents. The man looked at Ed, perplexed. “That is the agreed upon sum, but how am I supposed to move that trunk by myself?”

Ed answered him with only a shrug before snapping his own box closed and tucking it back into the satchel. “Not my problem, is it? Your employer demanded payment now. You have received the payment. What you do with it next is on your head.” He swung the sack onto his back, wincing as the corner of the box dug into his shoulder. He did manage to refrain from sauntering out the door, but he didn’t bother to try removing the smile from his face.

By the time he was standing on the gangway leading onto his ship, Ed’s heart had finally caught up with him and had slowed slightly, though his shoulder ached horribly. It wasn’t that his cargo was heavy – it was, but not nearly as bad as if he had tried to card that chest of coin here by himself. THe pain in his shoulder had been caused by how tightly he had been clutching the sack, driving it into the bone in a moderately reassuring way. His ascent t the deck of his ship was slow, as he measured out each step deliberately, the very model of a man pretending to walk like a law-abiding citizen.

Perhaps it was his overly cautious mannerisms, or his previous display of false contrition, but he had just barely finished telling his crew to prepare for imminent departure when he startled at a noise behind him. TUrning, the hulking form of the harbormaster filled the whole of his vision – instinctively, Ed’s whole being flinched at the brute’s appearance.

“In a hurry to flee back to that rat’s nest you call a country?” His voice was harsh, accusatory, violent, smug, and as far as Ed was concerned, far too close to his precious cargo, still carelessly set by his feet.

Ed felt his voice crack even as he tried to speak, bringing him nothing but more panic until he forced a breath upon himself. “Just looking to get home to my family, sir. By way of apology for my impropriety earlier, I wanted to offer you a token of appreciation for the services you provide for us merchants.” He reached for his coin-purse, his nervousness all too real to be hidden.

The harbormaster’s scowl was filled with a twisted mirth as his hands met his hips. “Trying to bribe an official during the execution if his public office? That’s a hanging offense. Let’s see what’s in that sack you were dragging up the gangplank, see what is so delicate in there to risk your life over.”

Panic rushed through Ed’s body as he emitted a high pitched squeal, drawing the attention of several of his crew. “This sack? Merely trinkets, souvenirs of your fair city – presents to bring back to my family…” Even in Ed’s ears, his words rang false and hollow.

“The sack, Spaniard. Now!”

Ed cowered, reaching down for the heavy sack full of the future, the sack which would seal his fate. He paused only when one of his crew caught his eye – the man had his hand on a belaying pin and was staring intently at Ed. A brief nod was the only communication between the two, but in that brief moment Ed knew it would be a cravat around his neck in the future, rather than the hangman’s noose. His hand latched onto the coarse woven fiber of the sack, and with all the strength he had in his arms, he heaved and swung the heavy box at the harbormaster’s head.

The connection itself was brief, but it was enough to unbalance both men, drawing blood from one and a strained wheeze from the other. Unfortunately, the force involved split the cheap fabric of the sack wide open, drawing forth a mouse like shriek from the smuggler, who then dove after the box as it thudded into the deck, heedless of the surging harbormaster behind.

Though Ed’s attention was completely consumed by the splintering box before him, trying to ensure his cargo stayed concealed despite the immediate danger, his crew’s attention was elsewhere. The formidable aggression of the harbormaster was met with increased anger and hatred of the Spanish sailors. The ensuing fracas was violent, blood, and brief – the boys had been itching for a fight with a New Englander all week, and they finally seized on their chance to have one. By the time they were finished, the poor man’s face was a barely recognizable mass of bone, blood, and flesh.

Ed slumped against the wall of the cabins, barely paying attention to the scene in front of him as his crew launched into a flurry of activity designed to put their ship out to sea, the dead harbormaster now among the cargo they were taking from port. THey would dispose of him when they lost sight of land and no-one would be any wiser. As the level of activity on the ship waned, one of the sailors approached, having collected his bloody belaying pin, and he began to stare pointedly at Ed’s precious cargo.

“So, boss… What’s in the box?”

  • Rase Cidraen

Tales - Cold As Ice

Arcanum 1780: A New World RaseCidraen