Golden Age (The Shifting Tides, #1)(11)

Written By: James Maxwell



After the girls’ departure, Chloe heard the jangle of coin and then heard something thunk onto the wooden table.

‘How much silver do you want for the use of your harbor?’ Kargan said. ‘We can buy our own materials and supplies at the agora.’

‘Please,’ Aristocles said. ‘Enjoy the food before we discuss business. Surely it is a change from the fare you have on your ship?’

Chloe heard the sound of men eating. She went out once more to refill their cups and saw Kargan devouring figs and olives one after the other before she returned to the kitchen.

‘These are fair enough,’ Kargan said. ‘I only eat and drink the best.’

‘You mentioned your status earlier,’ Nilus said delicately. ‘What exactly is your status?’

‘I am captain of the Nexotardis and admiral of the sun king’s navy. I am Great King Solon’s adviser. I have a military command also. Few in the sun king’s court may call themselves my equal.’

‘Please, tell us your story,’ said Aristocles. ‘How did your ship come to be damaged?’

Chloe added the sausages to a pot, along with some wine, thyme, barley, and fermented fish sauce. She rested the pot in the coals before returning to her place near the kitchen doorway, poking out her head to see if anyone’s wine needed topping up.

‘—appears that it struck your city also,’ Kargan was saying. ‘We were beached at the time and the waves threw the Nexotardis up onto the rocks. I sent the rest of our ships home while I searched for a harbor.’

Chloe entered the reception and refilled Kargan’s cup. He ate while he talked, speaking in between mouthfuls of white cheese and gulps of red wine.

‘The gods are angry,’ Nilus said.

‘Not my area of expertise,’ Kargan said with a shrug. ‘I command the sun king’s ships.’

‘What were you doing on this side of the Maltherean Sea?’

‘Trading with the Sarsicans. Then we were heading to the Oracle at Athos to make an offering.’

‘We trade with Sarsica,’ Nilus said. ‘Wine, barley, ceramics, leather, tools . . . I wasn’t aware of any trade between Sarsica and the Salesian continent.’

Chloe and Sophia cleared the dishes, as invisible as servants to the big man with the oiled beard and mop of dark hair. Then Chloe had to attend to the pot on the cooking hearth, stirring the stew and then turning over the meal cakes. The delicious aroma made her mouth water, but the men would have their fill before the women. When Aristocles was alone he was never so formal, and they all dined together. But Chloe knew this night was important. She didn’t like to imagine what a mass of warships like the Nexotardis – biremes, she remembered the word Kargan had used to describe his ship – could do to Phalesia’s proud fleet.

Finally, Chloe brought the steaming pot to the central table while her sister set down another plate with the spiced meal cakes, along with bowls and spoons.

Aristocles looked at Chloe gratefully and Nilus made appreciative sounds, but Kargan growled, ignoring Nilus’s last comment about trade.

‘This is not the banquet I was expecting. When I saw how many of your men in expensive tunics were there to greet me I was sure a table the length of your agora was going to be required to fit them all. I thought to myself: this king has many advisers. Despite his simple garb he must be a powerful man. Your city is wealthy. You asked me my status, Aristocles. What is yours?’

‘Lord Aristocles is the first consul,’ Nilus said.

‘And what is a first consul?’

‘Our consuls are elected by the citizens,’ said Nilus. ‘We then elect one of our number to be first among us.’

‘Elect?’

‘We vote by speaking out in favor of one candidate or another. The man chosen by the most citizens is elected.’

‘Hmm,’ Kargan muttered. ‘Strange system.’

‘It has served us for longer than living memory,’ Aristocles said. ‘Every man’s voice is heard.’

‘Even the slaves?’ Kargan asked incredulously.

‘No,’ Nilus harrumphed. ‘Of course not the slaves.’

Aristocles interjected. ‘We see kings as tyrants, something to be abhorred. If a single man becomes too popular, too powerful, we send him away as an emissary to somewhere like Sarsica until his influence has waned.’

‘But in the name of Helios,’ Kargan spluttered. ‘Why?’

‘Long ago Phalesia was ruled by a strong tyrant, a good king, you may say,’ Aristocles said. ‘But he in turn was followed by a weak son, who was then succeeded by a ruthless despot. Men with ideals formed a secret cabal to overthrow the mad king before he led the city to ruin. During their struggle, they couldn’t agree on who should be king next, so they deferred the problem until the tyrant was gone, instead making decisions by vote. After they succeeded, the system stayed.’ There was obvious satisfaction in his voice.

‘But how can there be order?’ Kargan persisted. ‘If any man can lead, what is to prevent chaos? There are always more commoners than nobles, but nobles are the only men with the breeding and education to be trusted with power.’ His voice became firm. ‘Let me just say that if I see any sign of your system taking root in Ilea, I will personally lead a division of my best men to cull these ideas before they spread. I am glad we have the wide sea between us.’

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