Authors: Peter Orullian
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Russet hues lit the western horizon and caught in the surfaces of the quiet harbor. Soon the sun would set, making Malen Staned's scrub-work more difficult. But he was nearly finished. Kneeling on the trawler deck, he scrubbed away fish blood with a stiff brush and scraped the tougher bits with a flat knife. Around his knees he wore the double-woven wool wraps that hands-and-knees workers used. But even with the wraps his bones ached. He paid the pain little mind and added a fistful of lye to his water bucket before mopping down the deckâthe smell of scales and entrails was particularly strong today. He was shooing away a few lingering seagulls when Captain Lowell appeared from the small stern-side doorway. A doorway that led to the man's cabin, where he would have been reviewing his daily catch ledgers.
“Malen,” the captain said, and waved him over before disappearing back inside.
He set down his mop, grateful to be done for the day. His arms ached, and at this hour his son, Roth, would be waiting on him. Before going into the captain's quarters, Malen rolled down his sleeves. He always sought to be as presentable as possible when he spoke with the ship's steward. The smell of fish was strong on him, but there was no help for that.
Just as he reached the doorway, another man emergedâone he didn't know. The other's eyes narrowed against the glare of westering sun, and he moved with a deliberate step to the portside plank. Malen caught a glimpse of a patch sewn to the man's cloak, the insignia of the League of Civilityâfour hands, each gripping the wrist of the next to form a squared circle.
Some called the League
our civic mind
. They were an influential fellowship that challenged old traditions and had become the Wanship watchdog. More than that, really. Beyond the port city of Wanship, throughout the broad kingdom of So'Dell, the League, some said, was more powerful than the ruling class. The squared round of hands carried more weight than the So'Dell realm markâa schooner whose sails resembled swooping cutlasses. But Leaguemen didn't go about idly.
Malen watched the stranger descend to the dock before turning and ducking into the dark hall. He now felt a tug of uncertainty, coming to the captain after a Leagueman's visit.
Inside the ship's cabin, two small lamps burned against the onset of twilight. Malen liked the quiet feeling of authority here. The charts and compass and skyglass all gave him a sense of the captain's knowledge, and Lowell made smart use of the instruments. Other trawlers had lain up at the dock for weeks now. Given the new levies, and the rate of their yield, most were unable to afford a crew. Captain Lowell still sailed daily to the fishing waters.
The man sat at his small desk, staring down at a ledger marked with dates and notes of catch size. He wore his spectacles, which gave him a studious, seasoned look. The lenses caught the glimmer of the lamp flames.
As if coming to the same conclusion again, the man sighed and removed his glasses.
Malen sensed it before Lowell spoke. The captain had been staring at his ledgers, as though trying to will a different sum from the numbers there. Numbers, Malen guessed, that led to a grim financial reality. Numbers that were about to take him in their rough embrace.
“I'm sorry, Malen. These are hard times.” The captain shut his eyes tight, and rubbed at them with the balls of his hands. He then finally looked up at Malen, blinking away some weariness. “There's no other way, my friend. I have no more work for you.”
Malen's heart began to race. This had been the only job he could find. The fishing trade, though slow, was the last profitable commerce in Port Wanship. Maybe in all of So'Dell, come to that. And even so, he made scarcely enough coin to get bread and oil and other common necessaries. His mind went instantly to his son. Malen hadn't been able to afford to send the boy to lessons of any kind. Not even the new schools opened by the League, which accepted anyone for a two-plug tuition. After Marta had gone to her earthÂ â¦ he'd struggled.
“I can work for less,” he offered. “Please, Captain, I'll take part of my pay in fish.”
Lowell gave a wan smile. “You already do, Malen. It's how I've kept you working as long as I have.” He paused. “I know you have a sonÂ â¦ I'm sorry. When the fishing picks up again, I'll take you back. I have hope that the spring season will come with full nets.”
“I can work for fish alone,” Malen countered.
The captain shook his head. “I'll need every pound weighed for market, and that wouldn't be right, besides. Your work deserves compensation. I'd feel the cheat.”
Malen stared back, his panic and desperation mounting. He'd made only one promise to Marta when her womb had continued to bleed well after Roth had been cleaned and swaddled.
See that he grows up right, my love. I want him to be honest and fair. I want him to work hard and follow his heart. I want him to be like his father.
She'd reached up a cold hand and caressed his cheek. He could no longer remember how long his love had lived after giving birth to their son. An hour. A day. A week. It all blurred together now.
The only grace he felt was that she couldn't see how he'd failed her request. He worked and lived in the Wanship slums along the wharf. And though he hadn't the courage to ask his son, he felt sure the lad had begun to beg and hustleâ
, they called itâwith the alley kids he called friends. Roth was only ten. Dear abandoning gods.
Malen got down on his knees, a sharp pain rising in his bruised bones. “I beg you, Captain. Please. I'll do more for less. I'll prepare the bait. I can move the catch to market for you. Tell me what I can do.”
Captain Lowell looked across his small desk at him, his eyes apologetic. Before he spoke, he scanned his ledger one last time. “The exciseÂ â¦ I'm sorry, Malen. I can scarcely afford deckhands. I'd take you on there, but every hand's got to turn twelve nets an hour or I'll lose my ship. Your net days are well behind you.”
But Malen heard little of his captain's explanation. He was seeing the man he'd just passed moments ago. The Leagueman. It was the League that had pressured the mayor to impose the new levies. And helped enforce them. He bristled with anger and confusion over it. The League liked to be seen as a champion for the wharf-poor. Mostly, their reform efforts meant taxes for men like Captain Lowell. Malen's hands clenched into fists. What they all needed was another Cutlass Seaâa storied revolt of the sailors and fishers that had given So'Dell its realm mark.
“That isn't the end of it,” the captain said, drawing his attention. “I don't even have coin for your last day's labor.” A note of shame crept into the man's voice. “I'll ask you to take fish for payment.”
Malen looked down at his hands, the skin still puckered from so much time in the wash pail. His fingernails held grit and fish blood. He saw only his failure to make good use of his hands to provide for his son. Not simply because the captain had no work for him, but because the best he'd been able to do, in these later years, with these handsÂ â¦ was scrub a deck. And he'd known (even if he'd never admitted it to himself) that he couldn't raise his son doing this thing.
I've failed you, Marta. What do I do now?
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Malen stared down into the bowl of mash he'd prepared for supper. Across the kitchen table from him sat his son, head bowed and eyes shut, waiting for his father to offer the prayer over the food. The sea trout that had been his final payment had cooked just fine. But the wheat was old. Much of it floated in the mealy stew, meaning it bore weevil larvae. They weren't harmful to eat, but the thought of it soured his stomach. And it pained him to ask his son to eat them, too.
After some time, Roth opened his eyes and looked up. “Will you pray tonight?”
Malen regarded his boy for a long moment.. “I don't think so, son. Not tonight.” He tipped his bowl slightly toward the boy. “Are you grateful for this?” He smiled tiredly.
His son smiled back. “You could fry the other trout, instead.”
Malen considered it briefly. “It'd be a waste. I'll dry it and we'll get a couple of meals out of it. Maybe tonight we'll just pick the fish from the stew, how's that?”
Roth carefully spooned a bite of the trout from his bowl, taking care to avoid the floating wheat. Watching the skill with which his son performed the simple feat reminded Malen that it wasn't the first time.
He put down his own spoon. “We need to talk, Roth. I need to tell you some things.”
His boy nodded and began working at a second bit of fish.
“The captain has no more work for me. I won't be going back to the trawler.”
Roth paused and looked up at him. His face held the kind of grave expression that a child so young shouldn't know. The boy understood the realities of their situation, where they could wind up if his father couldn't find work.
Before Malen could say more, a knock came at the door. He started at the intrusion, but was grateful for an excuse to look away from the concern in his son's face. He got up and went to the door.
A very young girl stood there, her blouse pulled down off her shoulders far enough to expose the tops of her breasts. She'd painted her face more expertly than a girl her age should have had the skill to do. She would be a beautiful woman in ten years. Today, she was maybe thirteen. Still, she looked up at him with a wanton, seductive expression that Malen believed made her door-to-door trade a successful one.
“A silver. Or four realm plugs if you let me stay the night.” She looked past him into the home. “I can sleep on the floor.”
Several times a week the girls of the Wanship slums worked the doors, but Malen had never seen this particular young woman before. “I don't haveâ”
“I'll give the boy his turn for free,” she added. “Make a man of him.”
Desperation crept into her face. She needed a place to stay. And he wanted to help. But with wharf-drabs, if one let conscience get the better of caution, things of value had a way of disappearing in the night. And he had need of their last few valuables.
“I'm sorry,” he began, “We can'tâ”
“For food, then,” she broke in. “A bowl of whatever's on your table. That's a bargain you can't deny.” She began pulling her blouse further down, to give him a look, as she eyed him provocatively.
Malen caught her hand before she could expose herself. “There's no need of that,” he said. “Wait here.”
As he crossed to the table to pick up his bowl, he realized he hadn't seen a brand on the girl's breast near her nipple. She wasn't yet working for a mack-man who whored her out. She was playing a dangerous game without such protectionâboth prostitutors and callers might beat her. Returning to the door, he handed her the food. “I need the bowl back. So I'll wait while you eat.”
Most of the people who lived nearby weren't really neighbors. The houses were rented. People came and went. Often quickly. Often in the shadows of evening. And of those whose faces he might recognize, some few shared his bad fortune. But mostly, the tenants at this end of the district walked with their heads down and lips shut. Wharf-drift, was what they were. Grifters, peddlers and pawners, door-knockers, and sad sacks who seemed to use what money they could come by to drink bay rum endlessly. Despite all that, he would avoid even the appearance of impropriety. He wouldn't invite her in. She would have to eat at the doorway.