Every winter, Captain Altroni's return on Shark of Red Sea from his whaling trip drew the entire town. Shops and restaurants and even the local government offices were closed as everyone charged down to the harbour. Well, most of the shops would usually close not long after the captain returned for the worst of winter anyway.
The captain always received a cheered welcome, no less fervent than the boys received when they returned with the crocodile. The docks, though already quiet, ground to a halt as people crammed into every nook and cranny and backed up the streets for blocks, trying to catch a glimpse of the giant ocean beasts. A few astute shop owners turned gawkers to peddle their wares, especially food and drink, to the crowds.
Claude and Welikro tunnelled their way through the lake of people to Eriksson's family pier. Pegg, as always, was standing guard and let the two boys in.
Shark of Red Sea bobbed half-frozen a hundred metres out onto the lake. In front of it several dozen people were picking away at the ice.
Claude turned to Pegg, a question in his eyes.
It was almost a year to the day since his former self had fallen into the icy water during a fishing trip out onto the ice.
"No. No ships will dock for the winter. Out there they can still hammer themselves loose if they freeze in, but if they're frozen in against the pier, they're stuck until the ice melts. It's too risky to try and pick between the ship's hull and the pier." Pegg answered, "The smaller boats are usually hauled onto the shore for winter, while the bigger ships anchor offshore. They'll still freeze in, but the ice will be thinner so it'll be easier to cut them loose. They're just testing the ice's strength. They'll bring the ship closer until they find ice strong enough to hold the whales, then haul them the rest of the way to shore before moving the ship back out."
Claude's eyes turned to the two whales dangling by their tails, half submerged on either side of the ship. The ship was at least two metres deeper in the water than it had been when it left, and the parts of the whales he could see were at least as long as the ship. How big were the beasts? Their rears looked much the same as the whales he knew from his previous life, but the front parts were quite different. Their skin was grey-blue, much like what the sketches he'd seen of blue whales, but he could just make out a bony length sticking up above the water near where he guessed each's head ought to be. He surmised it had to be something akin to a horn.
So they were most like the narwhals of old? If he remembered the description from his textbooks, then narwhals weren't particular large though, which these things definitely were. They were huge!
"They've made it big this time," Welikro commented from the side.
The memories were now flooding back with more clarity. Narwhals used to be much more common that other whales before the great whaling purge all but hunted them out of existence. Much like their earth counterparts, the narwhals, as Claude decided to call them now, were the primary prey for whalers. He remembered one of the books in his father's study talked about how magi used to send their subjects out to hunt for the whales because they were rich in magic materials.
Apparently their horns were one of the most commonly required ingredients for alchemy. Their horns continued to be ascribed magical properties even after the magi were chased off the continent. One major superstition was that a powder concoction made from their horns and several other dried herbs greatly improved a man's vigor. As such, their horns often fetched ridiculous prices in auction.
"Uncle Pegg, you said they were testing the ice. So are they going to bring the whales to shore?" Claude asked.
Pegg shook his head.
"No. That'd be too much work. They'll drag them onto the ice then butcher them there and bring the cuts to shore. We only got one last year, but this year it's two, so the meat should a lot cheaper for a while."
So they brought them back every year? If the meat was going to be cheap, no wonder the crowd was this big. If the meat tasted good as well, he doubted even he'd give up the opportunity to snag a good piece.
"Wero, Claude!" Eriksson's soft shout came through the cold air from the boat. The two squinted and could just make out a small figure waving what looked like a hat or hood above its head. The two waved back. The figure clambered down the side of the ship like a monkey and ran to them across the ice, slipping and falling several times along the way.
"I missed you bastards to death!" the boy shouted as he tackled the two in a half-dive half-fall, "where's Boa?"
"He left with his dad. The two are staying at his aunt's for new year's," Claude explained.
Welikro looked Eriksson up and down, then slapped his back as hard as he could, causing the boy to stumble and pull Claude down with him as he collapsed to his knees.
"Glad to see you still have all four your limbs! We should celebrate!" Welikro laughed when Eriksson shot him a questioning glare.
It wasn't an exaggeration. Whaling was a dangerous affair and newcomers often lost fingers or toes to frostbite. When not freezing off digits, the cold sapped dexterity, making mistakes and slips more frequent, and on a ship bobbing in the cold waters with hundreds of loose things, most of which heavy enough to crush a man, it too only one bad slip or one bad mistake to lose an arm or a leg, or even come back a frozen corpse, if at all.
Eriksson nudged Welikro.
"What are you saying? You look down on me too much! Who do you think I am? I'm the future captain of Whitestag!--" He turned to Claude. "--This trip was eye-opening! I'm sure you can't imagine how calm the stormy seas are in winter. The sea turns to gold every morning! I thought it was Lake Balinga once or twice when I was sleepy!"
Eriksson gave a quick, though not brief, account of his trip. Claude thought he was going to pass out for lack of breath a couple of time, and eventually shoved a cup of water in his hands to silence him for a few moments when he hit the hour mark.
"Thank you... I was getting a little dry," Eriksson said like an old sailor.
He only realised they were in Pegg's little house when he put the cup back down.
Claude glared at him.
"You're dry but we're soaking! Can't you control your saliva a little better? At least aim it at something other than us!"
"Come on... I was just happy to see you!" Eriksson smiled awkwardly.
The first of the whales now lay on the ice and the men were poking its swollen stomach to let it deflate. The fins were already cut off and were on their way to shore on sleds. Pegg, Eriksson's father, and a few sailors were already seated behind desks on the dock, ready to cut the fins up and start selling the meat.
The front of the crowds had formed long, if not neat, lines and were waiting, baskets in hand, for their turn to buy some meat.
"How much does it sell for?" Claude asked.
"They're quite cheap. One sunar for five catties," Eriksson answered.
Cheap indeed. A catty of beef was one sunar and four fennies; and a catty of mutton was a full sunar. Smoked mutton was one sunar and eight fennies a catty and pork was five sunars a catty. Wild boar could go for up to eight sunars a catty and a single longtail was six sunars.
His father's normal salary was good enough he could buy meat without worry, but most people had to be happy with meat in their meals only once a week or two, even then they ate mostly cheap fish. He'd heard narwhal tasted like good beef, so it was quite the steal at the price it was going.
Eriksson's father was quite the butcher too, Claude thought as he watched the man expertly cleaving a fin in two. Pegg was on scale duty, at which he, too, appeared quite adept.
Most people paid with a sunar and took a single five-catty piece. The first in the rows darted off, half-afraid others might be impatient enough to snatch their precious meat. They didn't leave without thanking the captain, however, who smiled at each of them between cleaver strikes.
Welikro nudged Claude and pointed at the captain's blade. Claude stared at it carefully for a minutes, then realised he cut like a machine; each piece was nearly exactly the same size each time.
"Five catties, two taels," Pegg said, staring at the scale.
Eriksson didn't look surprised at the scene.
"That's how they work every time. Dad's been splitting fish for twenty years or more. I'll be just as good, eventually," he said.
"Why only buy five catties? Can't they buy more?" Claude asked.
"They don't dare," Eriksson said proudly.
Whaling was an Altroni tradition Eriksson's grandfather started, another captain. Their family ship, Shark of Red Sea, hadn't been built yet. It was always a gamble and it wasn't rare for someone to die during a hunt.
Eriksson's grandfather was never one of the victims, though, and he was the one that started cutting the meat. He first did it when he cut a piece for the family of a sailor he lost during the hunt.
Eriksson's father built Shark of Red Sea, and his whaling trips were the safest yet in town. He continued his father's tradition of giving away cuts to the sailors and their family lost during the trips, even the now-grown-up children of sailors who'd died years ago on his father's trips continued to get cuts. Few still accepted however, those with the means all insisted on paying the market price -- be what it was.
It wasn't that people didn't want to buy more, but Captain Altroni wouldn't let anyone buy more than a single cut so he could make sure everyone got some.