So I haven’t put up a Sojourners in Shadow blog for a bit, and as I’m planning on bringing the shorts out (somehow) soonish, I had better get back into it.
A great place to start would be to talk about Trade Island. This is a place that has a lot going on, with a variety of characters and groups involved, and has an important role in the world, with that role getting more and more significant as times goes on. As I write the shorts, I have a general rule of writing two shorts set in Trade Island among every ten stories, all of which will be set around the world. Sometimes I may only do one, but no place in the world of Sojourners in Shadow has even that level of consistent coverage. Trade Island is a special place, a melting pot that reflects the world and yet also is unique, carrying its own history and future, both of which matter. A lot.
Trade Island is a fitting title, but not the full description, as you can imagine. It is an island and it is essentially a capitalist society, built upon trading with each other rather than killing. Of course, there is a lot of killing still, yet this is typically for gain or competition rather than old grudges or speciest warfare. Also, while it is an island, the domain stretches beyond that. There is a city on the island, a packed one, but there are also rundown settlements across the water where humans reside who want to be a part of the place yet can’t get there. To be accepted into Trade Island, you either need to be in it from the start or prove yourself useful. Both is best.
To explain the place we have to start with its past. As with everywhere else in the world, things were in turmoil due to the arrival of the Shadow World, but the real history comes slightly after. When society was collapsing, as order was cracking apart, humans fled to the city on this island. A mutant army was on its way, filled thoughts of revenge. People already lived on the island, obviously, but many more dwelt around it and they all crowded on, with what forces they had destroying the bridges and then setting up to resist the enemy. As the story goes, there was brief conflict, but the mutants couldn’t get far and they ended up settling nearby – in part to get their revenge at a later date, yet also as this region had been their home too. Here they could have a new life. So these two groups sat in a wary stalemate while the world around them tore itself apart.
When it happened isn’t certain, it is highly unlikely there was a specific day that everything changed. But eventually the humans, with their gathered resources, found the mutants, who had sat there for some time, were open to trade. The mutants weren’t starving or lacking for too much, but they were trying to build a new society up, whereas the humans were already set. Of course, the city that had once stood had taken a lot of damage, mostly from the mutants, and there were sporadic acts of violence as people tried to settle into a new way of life. The city before had been hectic, dangerous and capitalist. It wasn’t weird to anyone who lived in the transforming place that these ways continued. So, if the mutants couldn’t be driven away by force, then perhaps trade was a way forward. The mutants saw the sense too. It is very likely secret agreements went on for some time before it became an open thing, and yet it was made public, and it went well.
It was better to try and get along, for a price, than to destroy each other. This became the thinking of Trade Island, and also of the people around it. The mutants became a nation of their own, electing a president, having a standing army (which I can get into more another time), and benefiting from trading with the humans. Then machines arrived, and they saw this transaction, and they saw the logic in it. The humans and mutants were very cautious, but if they could overcome their mutual hatred, then they could overcome that. They did. Monsters came too. More beings of all types started to gather, hearing rumours of a city, of a living that didn’t involve scavenging and raiding.
That is to say, there was plenty of both among the lower classes, but still, the droppings of the city were better than out in the wastelands. Over the two centuries since the Shadow World came, Trade Island has developed from a place with a suspicious understanding between two enemies, to a gathering of various races and beings, where the city sits between a mutant nation, a machine nation and a kingdom of monsters, while within its border thrive humans, monsters and mutants, and even the odd machine. There are seven bridges and across them trade and people go back and forth. More recently, the docklands are becoming important as ships have started to reach to settlements across the seas. Word has spread of this place and is still spreading, so that far off lands want to get into a trade relationship with it, while others hear of it as a story, and often laugh at the idea of beings living together.
Trade Island has a mayor and a police force, along with public buildings like a library and a bank. It has the trappings of civilisation. It works and runs like a society should in many respects, with elections and taxes, crimes and arrests, with homes, taverns, the docks and more. Yet this isn’t how the city truly lives, and everyone knows it. Crime is so widespread it is the norm. The police are there for show mostly, usually paid to look the other way; also to make people feel safe by patrolling. They do act, but often when it suits the authorities or their wealthy allies. There is no justice system. Most of the arrests are on poor scumbags who get dragged to a prison and thrown in, with a sentence being handed out at some point, but who knows if anyone will remember it. Some escape, but if you know the right people, you can be escorted out with dignity. Crime pays.
The driving force behind what Trade Island is remains the business families. From the beginning there were a number of wealthy and influential groups in the city, and for all the necessary cohesion due to the threat from the mutants, these people were always intent on staying on top. The best residences were secured, private security was arranged, and a strong if quiet word in the ear of any form of leadership ever since has occurred. They made sure commerce was the dominant force and pushed for outside trade. They even chose new identities. They searched history, found people to imitate and then did so. Alliances were made, mergers took place. They evolved over the centuries. By now, only seven business families remain, yet their power is as undeniable as ever.
The gangs are almost as important. Again, they have been there since the beginning. In fact, if any had access to older history, the inhabitants would know that gangs have been tearing up the streets since well before the Shadow World came. But afterward, once humans had crowded on and the mutant attacks had subsided, criminal activity began to soar. To survive was to have to fight to keep and to strive to take. People endured as best they could, but for many the best way was the way of the gang. Join up, play your part and get by. There have been many famous gangs and most people can tell stories passed on of what gang did what and when. The gangs are so ingrained into Trade Island’s way of life that even the business families can’t remove them, but then they have no wish to – the chaos they cause helps hide their own activities and the criminal element can easily be hired to work for their betters. Sometimes a gang is so strong it sits on top, as Leopold’s gang does right now, yet often they are all a vicious, whirling mass of rivalry and resentment.
A quick note should be made here that only humans are among the business families, but all kinds rank in the gangs. Leopold has a machine working for him, which has given him a useful edge. The machine nation itself tends to keep its distance as the locals aren’t keen on them. Machines have a reputation for trying to eradicate and replace all other life. This group has thus far been benign, so it is tolerated and traded with, but Leopold is a rare being who has close links to them. He helped them trade, and so they gave him a destructive robotic henchman, and while he no longer counts himself as a businessman, he keeps his contacts. Just in case.
While Trade Island does good business with its neighbours, there’s no doubt the old fears haven’t left. As mentioned, machines are rarely allowed in. When it comes to the mutants, they can come over in groups, but nothing too big, and while it is normal for people to be armed, groups of mutant soldiers will be watched closely. The president, whoever that may be, can come and visit. After all, how else can business be done? Yet the military head is another matter. Right now, General Bracken leads the mutant army, and her belligerent manner has meant she is not welcome across the river.
Even the Demon King puts on a polite front. This devil-beast has created a kingdom to the south and his court makes many visits. His own son is a known presence in brothels and gambling dens. But then his son is a lazy brat, so the people tend not to cower before him. The same cannot be said of his father. Ballathane, the Demon King, is a very focused and powerful being, and for him to stride the streets of the city evokes deep-seated dread in many. Therefore, he can visit now and then, but not too often. He has allies and enemies within the city, and he finds the ways of humans fascinating, so the odd tour appeals to him. Otherwise he can sit on his throne and plan his way to greater glory.
Then there’s the Enchantress. The single surviving member of a powerful business family, now a mysterious woman none has seen for years who has the ability to capture people’s minds. Her followers are utterly subservient to her, not least the highly intelligent Hugo, her able assistant. Together they wield influence in slight and subtle ways, using people without them knowing too much about it, backing the current mayor into power, seeking to gain advantages to use. The Enchantress is a clever person, she knows she has to make the right moves, and yet she is perhaps one of the most ambitious in Trade Island. Needless to say, she and the Demon King are rivals.
Thus, with some significant individuals and groups stationed in Trade Island, it follows that power attracts power. Those who live, fight and die in the city have some idea that links have been established with other settlements, that goods are coming in and going out, that more mercenaries are arriving hungry for work. However, those at the top are working hard to establish greater and stronger links. Ships have already begun to create a trade network with the Northern Federation of Africa as well as European market towns. But Trade Island has scouts and agents who are setting things up for future profits. Word is spreading of a place where goods from everywhere are pouring in and can be sent out to anywhere else – not a true statement, and yet if enough believe it, maybe it one day will be.
There are a number of world powers, ranging from the Order of Mechanised Tyranny, to the Sect of Shadow and Steel, to the mutant army based at Constantinople, and there are lesser forces such as the militarised people at the Carpathian Mountains and the Coalition of the South. While to many people around the world the tale of Trade Island is just that, to those who run such organisations, they know it is much more. Or, if they really have fingers on the pulse of the world, they know it exists, where it is and who to talk to. This means that the business families, and others like the Demon King and the Enchantress, have a strong insight into the workings of the world. To them, to others in power who use it to search out and study their rivals, the world isn’t such a big mystery. Trade Island is a major factor in bringing leaders together.
Of course, it won’t work as well on a global scale as it does in the city’s local environment. There things are more stable. Fewer components, fewer variables, and a more balanced playing field. The mutants and the machines and the monsters sit around the city, and the humans clutter around it, and the families and gangs and others thrive within, and no one can try to take over without facing the full wrath of everyone else. Not so around the world. Too many power-hungry beings. Too many risks and unknowns. So while Trade Island has brought people together, often in secret, it has created potential conflict as well. Now powers are even more aware of each other. Secret pacts can be made. Plans are being concocted. As Trade Island furthers its own ends and pushes commerce out into a war-weary world, others are more than ready to spy out weaknesses and prepare to attack. Eventually. After they have gained more resources, of course.