You hear the term, in most any discussion of the nations of Cobrin’Seil. You’ll hear the phrase The Halfling Trade-Ships, or sometimes, Halfling Hulks. They’re a feature of the world and its politics, something so important that cities care about them, even though they aren’t, officially, part of that country at all.
The experience of the Hulks is pretty standard. Depending on which port you are in, wherever you are in the world, every few weeks or so, or perhaps once every few months, a single vessel cruises into the port, parks in the harbour in a space set aside for them, and spends a week completely unloading, then reloading up. These giant boxy vessels are often described as a totally different kind of ship to other vessels on the sea. They’re larger than even the largest naval ships, and they command small armies of people to manage and maintain, and all that money, all that profit they make just moving things from port to port, just sits in what, great and dreadful vaults, owned by ‘The Halfling Trade Houses.’
It’s more complicated than that.
The first, the boats. A Halfling Hulk is an enormous building of a boat, between one hundred and two hundred meters long, thirty to fifty meters broad, and kind of square at one end, with minimal prow at the front to maximise the storage area within the Hulk’s frame. They are also extremely ‘tall’ – they’re designed to sit in the water, and fully loaded, they can draft some ten meters down. Fully unloaded, they can sit much shallower in the water, meaning that an empty Hulk can often look as much as five meters taller when it’s empty.
In the real world, the largest wooden boat ever to successfully take to sea was the Wyoming, a vessel 140 meters long that sank at sea because, amongst other things, its wooden make made it flex and distort in rough weather, resulting in it taking on water. The wood of the Hulks is magically treated to give it some resistance comparable to a modern day freighter.
They’re not technically Hulks. A Hulk is a vessel that can float, but isn’t seaworthy. The Halfling traders that eventually turned to the Halfling Trading Houses did start with hulks, but the name stuck because what else are you going to call a boat so big it needs harbours to be redesigned for them? They’re immense!
They’re also not sail boats, in the technical sense. They don’t have masts on them, because masts would occupy space on the deck and that would be space that could be used for storing goods for moving. Storing goods on a ship is a logistical mess, because the load is carefully and intricately packed and subdivided to ensure that the overall mass of the boat is equally distributed. They want it to sit flat in the water, and with enough mass being transported, they can find ways to do it. The plan for loading goods to flatten out is one of the most complicated pieces of math that the Hulks’ loading crews ever do and if they mess up, they can result in stress fractures that can, hypothetically, break or destroy a Hulk. Huge deal. Don’t mess up.
Instead of sails, then, they’re driven by enormous kites – a huge magically reinforced sail of fabric that’s launched off the front of the boat, propelled by magical assistance to get into place when the wind isn’t favourable. These kites are phenomenally complicated and reinforced in all sorts of ways to make the hulk move, which means that they move very slowly but also relentlessly.
Historical Note: This might also be enough of a reason that a modern day mariner wouldn’t consider a Hulk a proper ship, because it lacks an engine, and is instead a type of sailboat
Hulks are so big that, docked in most ports that can’t service one directly, they have tender ships, that are designed to sail out to the Hulks in harbour and unload something off them. And if you want something off the Hulk, you better be able to get it out of it properly, because it’s not like a bookshelf, you can’t grab something off the bottom shelf and everything else is fine.
That leads to the task of who manages the Hulks:
It’s an old idea that a Halfling Hulk is crawling with Halflings, just thousands of them, and when they arrive in town they’ll empty out the Hulk, buy up everything you got, then flee. That’s untidy. Plus, Halflings aren’t fools: they know that smaller heritages (what the company officially calls Midfolk) are great for piloting and steering the vessel, but loading and unloading? Nope, bigger people with broader backs can do that job better.
Any given Hulk can have a crew as small as twelve people, and if the right skills are employed (like mages and druids) that crew can drop to four. The idea of these absolute buildings being crewed by so small a number is bad for business, of course, so they often have crews in the thirty to fifty even when they don’t need it. Having crew keeps the crew from going weird over time left to their own devices.
The actual majority of what the Halfling Trade Houses own isn’t the Hulks, or even the service boats. The thing they own the most of is real estate, because in almost every Hulk-servicing town, there’s a small army of dockworkers whose job is, when the Hulk arrives, to empty that Hulk into a warehouse, and then empty another warehouse into that Hulk. They have to do it in a week. They have to do it right, too, they have to do it efficiently, and they have to do it without loss or destruction of goods.
Hulk Dockers exist in a strange space for most dock workers. They don’t do a lot of work, on average. They’re on contract – if you unload a Hulk, you need to sign up to unload one, load it again, then unload a second Hulk and then load it again. That’s the minimum contract – two ‘Full Reloads.’ During the time you’re on contract, you need to be accountable to the company, that treat you like an investment. You need to do training, for example, and the training includes some safe handling and care measures, but also includes a lot of double-checking and verifying handling, and even more checking to see if you can obey complex orders consistently with your memory. Remember, the way the goods are getting packed onto the Hulk is part of how the Hulk gets to survive the sea at all!
This means that Hulk Dockers are often employed to do very little most of the time. Unloading a Hulk is basically one full week of on-call shift work, and then you have sometimes as much as four months of doing nothing. But you’re still under contract, and you need to be able to fulfill your side of it. So if you spend that time under contract doing things that endanger your health, like adventuring or getting into fights, or dangerous hobbies, you might find yourself getting your payment severed.
Severance is how the company punishes bad contractors. Your contract is ended, you can’t work for them for a year, and they keep a very significant quantity of what money you earned.
But this doesn’t mean while you’re waiting for your money you’re screwed. Hulk Dockers have a stipend, a small amount of spending money that you can use to entertain yourself or send regular money home. You also have lodgings, and those lodgings include free access to staple foodstuffs like flour, bread, water and (admittedly cheap) protein like beans and ham.
The culture of Hulk Dockers is really interesting. The rules say they don’t endanger themselves. The contract says to take care and be safe. But also, it’s a boring life a lot of the time. Sometimes some folk are fine with how boring it is, able to just happily take a month break between huge back-breaking sessions of work, and become lifetime Dockers. Some of them take up the task of being Lodge Managers – people who keep track of the Hulk Dockers and make sure they’re available and trained when the time comes. When you try and start a fight with Hulk Dockers, if their Lodger isn’t a real asshole, and the Hulk’s not due for a few weeks, you might find that suddenly twelve people grab you out of the crowd, wrestle you to the ground and sit on you until you’re unconscious, because they shouldn’t be fighting, they shouldn’t be endangering their hands, but they absolutely are not going to let you mess up the practice they’ve put into the next shift.
When a Hulk needs unloading, Hulk Dockers can lock up a whole dock area, just by moving so much stuff as fast as they do and as quickly as they do. Unloading a Hulk is a task comparable to dismantling a building and they do it fast and efficiently over a course of a few days. And for the first few days after an unload? Chances are good the Hulk Dockers are having a party because a bunch of them just got paid the kind of money that can, in poor places, buy a house.
There are currently three Halfling Trade Houses. They are officially known as Halfling Trade Houses. They are not, by any definition, actually segregated to heritage, and as their dock workers, managers and accountants can most obviously attest, they are by no means limited to employing Halflings. When they were founded, they were, that’s for sure.
Ships and trade have always been important to Halflings culturally. Even the ones who live well away from the coasts have been renowned for their relationship to the sea, referring to their caravans as ‘schooners’ and ‘cutters,’ and a lot of Halfling slang has a maritime bent to it.
A brief history: When Halflings first re-established contact with major cities, it was after twenty years surviving after being ‘lost’. They had had full generations, lost elder members and had even raised children before they made their contact back with people, and there’d been some cultural drift. It wasn’t great, and in this early period, Halflings had to deal with a lot of simple prejudice about not being ‘real people.’ The result was, in some of the places these sailors had grown up, they weren’t considered acceptable people any more and they weren’t allowed to buy or sell property.
Since they were plucky seafaring people who had built their own boat to make their way out of their isolation, they started to just build on this idea: the first Halflings bought Hulks, which is a term for boats that can float, but aren’t seaworthy, and made homes in them. Then, because they all had experience managing and building and rebuilding boats, they started to make Hulks seaworthy, and built wealth that way, buying bad boats, fixing them, and selling them. Before long they were buying good boats as family units, and using those boats to sail and do trades between cities, creating a trade network. The lack of support they received from the existing trade houses and networks meant they just made their own, and eventually, as their experience and shared wealth grew, they began to consider new systems for defraying risk.
First, they started to buy warehouses on the land; then they started to buy boats and rent them to the crews that drove them; then they hit on the idea of Shares. Basically, for any given boat, if you owned 100% of that boat, and the boat sank, you were out the entire cost of the boat. But if every major trading family owned a share in all the boats, then any given boat failing would only hurt everyone involved a little bit, and could be replaced communally. This system was seen, at first, as communalist and entirely in keeping with their previous status as marginalised others.
Anyway, it took only a little time before people were buying and selling Shares in the companies and Halflings started to run Share systems for other companies, resulting in three major Trading Houses, that negotiated and estimated prices for other businesses. This was part of the change that led to the current situation, where three major businesses, known as Halfling Trade Houses, run a market for shares and operational costs of businesses and their debts. The systems of Trade House operation can make rich people richer and poor people confused.
Over time, the twenty or so different Halfling families’ holdings were consolidated into four businesses; the Piton, the Jura, the Carpathia and the Northumbria. Each trade house kept scrupulous records with one another, positioned in four different cities around the world, and you could go to one of these houses and make negotiations about the potential fluctuations in price for a product that was being moved from one city to another without you ever even seeing it.
The Hulks are a byproduct of this consolidation and expansion. Northumbria was the first to devise them – a system where if a sufficiently large ship could do sufficiently large amounts of work, in every exchange, it could monopolise the entire trade force of a dock and both make huge profits and shut out everyone else in the area. This was nearly fifty years ago when Northumbria made its plan to claim all the docks for Halfling Hulks. It failed, for reasons, and the collapse of Northumbria resulted in its compatriot businesses cannibalising it for parts.
But the system of Hulks and vessels was a good one, and the Halfling Trade Houses – which were by this point only majority Halfling staffed and not even vaguely ideologically inclined towards Halfling communalism – began to buy up docks and real estate. The state of affairs for the workers is the result of negotiations with the Unions of each dock, which was fought for and designated with labor action, worker power, and no small amount of blood.
The actual businesses do claim to be family businesses; purely for the show of things. Because of this, it means that senior positions often involve an individual member of the business adopting their successor, legally. For this end, there are members of the ruling boards in each business who aren’t Halflings, and weren’t adopted by Halflings, but who nonetheless have the surname of the Trade House into which their parents or relatives were once adopted. It’s an interesting little ceremonial flourish, but also done entirely to extol the idea of long-term family commitment. It’s good branding.
Of course, this is a multi-national trading corporation using Sending spells to make negotiations on an hourly basis of the going rates of fractions of businesses. It’s not like this engine of erasing responsiblity and managing details is going to be blameless. Things get lost and injustices happen. Shitty Lodgers sever workers before their third round for bad reasons to build profit margins on the edge of a ledger.
And in this history there is the story of Northumbria.
Northumbria collapsed, sure. The business tried to grow too fast, too much. It tried to run Hulks constantly, and it managed it for a few months before the ships started to sink. Northumbria’s deals went wrong and the debts caught up and the whole organisation collapsed, but that’s a word on paper that doesn’t encapsulate what it means. To manage and maintain the Hulk Dockers for their expanded business, the Northumbria quadroupled their work force. The immense lift of it! The scale!
When Northumbria collapsed, then, its holdings were divided up amongst organisations that could afford it. But what of the workers? What of the Dockers who had been hired for four years of contract, and held their breath on the long payout knowing now that they would never see any of it? What of the people who had a year of work lined up? How were they going to get made whole?
Well, you might not be surprised that the Trade Houses cannibalised the company from the top down. The richest managers of Northumbria had money to retire on, made their apologies and paid their debts. But below them? The managers, the paperworkers, the people who tracked Sendings and the people who quickly noted down spoken words? They were all professional workers and every business could just happily scoop them up. They all got jobs in the other Trade Houses.
And then, below that… the problem of the Dockers.
The Hulk Dockers of the Northumbria were all owed. And if you scoop up those workers, to work on your vessel, what’s to stop them collaborating together to negotiate for being made whole out of those debts? After all, it’s a troubled time. The details of how Northumbria fell is a confusing mess. Blame is going all around. It’s best to not touch that kind of investment. Boats? Those are assets. Sailors? They are linked to the assets? Papertouchers and notetakers? They don’t care about what colour of office they’re in. But the Dockers, they do things like unionise and get mad and do work stoppages. That’s volatile.
Without necessarily any kind of public meeting, or agreed upon policy, the Trade Houses froze out the Hulk Dockers who worked for Northumbria for a full year, to abrogate even the appearance of responsibility for these debts. This created an identity of people in this context, many of whom suffered at the hands of the Trade Houses, who resent them, and who have in many cases very legitimate cases against the very principle of a multi-national company that couldn’t be reasonably sued for their failings. They’re also Dockers, so after that year frozen out, a lot of them returned to work for other Houses, and that results in some paranoia from the trade houses about any given work slippage, delay, any problem, any agitation. The fear was of a criminal network (?!), using the badge of the collapsed business, of a badger’s face, and with their own insurance policies and support networks. These people, this network of Hulk Dockers that may not even be real, have a name.
They call them The Northumbrians.
And that’s the Halfling Trade Houses, and their Halfling Hulks. Of course, they’re not Trade Houses of Halflings and they’re not Hulks. But that’s how businesses warp things, and how what people assume to be true is often more important than what is actually true.