Passing Through the Frontier
“I’m not so sure I like your attitude,” the man with the green hat said to me, rolling his pipe between his teeth. Behind him, a group of five other men, each with a deep farmer’s tan, folded their arms and stared at me menacingly.
“I mean no offense, Monsieur,” I replied. “But surely you must understand...I cannot let just anyone inspect these goods. I hardly think you have the authority to…”
“I’ll teach you a thing or two about authority, Aubergine.”
“My name is Auclaire,” I corrected him, but he paid no notice and continued gruffly.
“You may be new in this part of Dántaine, so let me give you a tip: I’m in charge of this town, and if I ask you to open up those barrels, you’d be wise to do as I say.”
My eyes flickered nervously over the man, and with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach I noticed a silver scythe strapped to his belt. His calloused hand hovered by its handle with practiced ease; not close enough to be immediately threatening, yet a sure signal of what could transpire if I were not sufficiently obedient to his commands.
“I will not ask you again -- open your goods for inspection.”
“I assure you, it is simply northern cheese and wine! And...anyway,” I frowned, realizing something. “I thought this town was run by a noble family, not a farmer.”
Green-hat growled, a feral sound in the back of his throat that sent shivers down my spine. “Seigneur Vandame put me in charge of the daily customs operations,” he said. “We’re the only way in or out of Martoise, save for the sea. Lots of travelers passing through these parts...it’s too much work for one nobleman to do alone.”
“The Seigneur would not have preferred to have a soldier perform inspections? Or perhaps a real customs agent?”
I had made a mistake, and immediately regretted it as his eyes narrowed. “Are you saying I’m not fit for this job, kid? Be careful how you respond.”
I pursed my lips. “Fine. My apologies. You are welcome to inspect the cargo...but under one condition. You must not open the barrel of aged liqueur -- that is a special delivery for the Premier of Lamielle himself.”
“Don’t you tell me what to do,” spat the man, but even as he and his cronies began to pry open my shipment, I could see in his demeanour that my mention of the Premier had planted a seed of doubt in him. “Uhm...which one is the liqueur?”
“Ah, it is labeled on the barrel, Monsieur. Surely, as an experienced customs inspector, you will be able to identify it yourself.”
I smiled inwardly as the discomfort on his brow turned to fear. “I won’t tolerate this insubordination. Identify the barrel this instant!”
It was my turn to ignore his words. “I certainly hope the Premier’s liqueur will arrive intact,” I mused aloud. “I am sure he would contact Seigneur Vandame in a fury if anything were to happen to his order during customs inspection.”
Green-hat’s men were stepping away from my wagon now, dropping barrels and crowbars as though the ground would erase their impropriety.
“I’ve heard the Premier is a very strict man,” I added. Their panic was palpable now, and I bit back a laugh as, wide-eyed, they exchanged fervent looks with each other. The man seemed to be about to say something, but was suddenly interrupted by a voice from behind me.
“Poplin! Is that you again? You and your friends had better stop making trouble for the merchants.”
A soldier clad in the crimson-and-white colors of Martoise emerged from the fortress and beckoned me over. As the farmers fled, leaving behind my intact shipment, the officer shook his head and sighed.
“I am sorry you had to deal with that. We just don’t have enough manpower in this town to keep the inspection line moving.”
“It’s no trouble, Monsieur,” I said. “I just followed my trading guild’s advice -- distract the renegades until a guard shows up. Seemed to work well enough.”
“Maybe so, but I wish we could get rid of them once and for all. Just giving us a bad name here, that’s all they’re doing.” With a practiced eye, he glanced over my dark barrels and burlap sacks, checking for any irregularities. Then, handing me a slip of stamped paper, he said, “you should be good to go. Have a safe journey, Monsieur.”
“Thank you,” I said, and mounted my horse.
“Oh one more thing...you don’t really have a shipment for the Premier of Lamielle, do you?”
I chuckled. “If I did, I’d be bribing you to let me through faster.”
We shared a laugh before I snapped the reins and continued my trip south, toward the lush fields and sprawling cities of Martoise. My friends had warned me about Chamert, that ancient border town whose residents still thought of themselves as guardians of the realm. They had called it a window to the past -- a remnant of Dántaine frontier history. Now, having been there myself, I knew what they meant. It was quaint, I thought. And I looked forward to returning.