© Rey Allgayer
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I’ll never forget the day I realised I was a coward.
It’s not something anyone wants to think of themselves, is it? You want to believe that should the situation arise, you would react bravely and honourably, with strength enough to do what’s needed. And I thought I’d been faced with every situation imaginable that would require bravery.
I’ve killed. Many times, in fact.
I’ve stood my ground to fight when faced with enemies. I’ve watched my friends die for a cause that, even just by knowing about it, puts my life at risk. I’ve struggled against that which I believe to be evil. I thought, even objectively, I would be considered brave.
But I am a coward. How do I know? An eight year old little girl showed me.
We had only been in the downriver town of Delle’s End for a few years but Kaz was young enough that she barely remembered anything before. At first, she would ask about her mother, and I justified my lies by telling myself that secrets were not for toddlers. They could not be expected to understand the meaning of a secret and how to treat it like the fragile thing it was. But as time went on and she grew accustomed to life here, she stopped asking. And I was relieved, because I could stop lying.
Lying to a child was harder than I expected. Those wide blue eyes staring up at me, accepting anything I said as the truth, so eager to trust me. It’s an immense power you hold in your hand when a child gives you their trust. You can rob them of so much with just a few words. They have not been given the information to form their own opinions yet. So anything you say is the truth to them. Lying to a child is easy. And, at the same time, if you’re any kind of decent, the hardest thing to do.
But until she was eight, I didn’t think it was a cowardly thing to do. I lied out of necessity. It was justified and I couldn’t be blamed for it.
But one day she looked up at me and asked, “G, is magic really evil, or did the Savages just use it wrong? Like the other day when Declan put salt on a slug and it went all shrivelled. Salt isn’t evil.” And all I did was smile and say I didn’t know. I didn’t know...
And I realised that, more than anything else, I lied for myself. I even lied to myself, trying to rationalise it. Eight years old is still very young to be expected to understand what is at stake. There would have still been the danger of her running off to school to tell a friend what her uncle had said the night before, and then where would we be? She has to blend in to be safe. All good reasons to lie, reasons I could use to justify my actions to anyone else.
But none of them were mine. I lied because telling the truth would mean I would lose that wide-eyed trust that she had lent me for this exquisite fraction of time. This most precious thing that, if I was honest, was, to me, worth the harrowing cost we had paid for it. Because I’d have to tell her everything. This isn’t something I could have explained halfway.
But now, almost a decade later, I’ve painted myself into a corner. All my excuses were invalid long ago, and should she find out the truth from someone other than me, I would have no defense whatsoever. She’s nearly eighteen now. Can you believe it? That eight year old little girl with so many questions has grown into a beautiful young woman, and my fear of losing her has grown right along with her.
I have become fearful of many other things in the last ten years, too. The Territory’s expansion, its continued hunt for people like me, people they like to call “enemies of the Territory”. Anyone I know in the old circles would wear that epitaph like a badge of honour. And there’s another thing. The old circle is shrinking, picked off one by one, connections lost, the rest of us scattered. My link to the old world is growing dangerously tenuous.
The last time I had any kind of visitor at all was two years ago. He appeared at my house late at night and rapped on the door three times, paused, then a fourth time. I opened the door slowly and saw a man I had never seen before.
“Can I help you?” I asked him.
“Do you know where I can find a good cobbler? It’s hard going these days,” he replied, his voice natural and even, but his expression one of wary intensity.
I heaved out a relieved sigh and answered in the expected way, “Just down the road you’ll find one who will help you on your way, but why don’t you come in first and rest those aching feet?” The stranger nodded and stepped inside as I opened the door further. I led him to the living room and gestured to him to take a seat. We didn’t do introductions. He already knew my name and it was probably better if I never learned his.
“I didn’t know if I’d still find you here,” he said, taking off his hat and traveling coat and draping them over the armrest of the chair I’d offered him. “The information Seb gave me is a good few years old. Not like one of us to stay put so long.”
“If I had left, I would have let someone know. Seb sent you?” I offered him a mug of a sweet, dark honey liqueur I’m quite partial to, which he gratefully accepted and took a large mouthful of before answering me.
“In a way. I have business a few towns upriver and he said if I could make the trip, it might be worthwhile to see what the last few years have done to you.”
“Mostly just made me fat,” I replied, making him chuckle. “Very little has changed, which is both a relief and a nuisance. Delle’s End seems to be stuck in time and forgotten. Nothing changes. But it’s why we came here.”
“Has she showed any signs yet?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“In our case, a good thing.” I take a swig of my own from my mug, letting the liquid calm my nerves.
“Are you hoping that she won’t?” he asked after a moment, raising an eyebrow.
“Can you blame me?” I shrugged. “She would be so much safer.”
“But completely disconnected--”
“No more than she is now.” After a few more moments, he nodded, his expression grave and sad. Drinking my liqueur faster than was good for me, I asked, “What was Seb hoping to hear?”
“I think he was hoping that different rumours trickle down this end of the river, and you might have heard something that could help us.” He set down his mug on the little table between us and leaned forward. “We’ve started hearing whispers about someone stealing Braxas’ prey. His puppets will track a Descendent down but before they can make the grab, someone has slipped in and gotten there first.”
“No idea,” he replied.
“I thought we had everyone accounted for who was left behind?”
“We do. Which means they weren’t left behind. They’ve come back.” He settled back into his armchair, mug in hand.
“Come back from where?”
“Wherever it is they went.” We sat in silence for a while, each lost in thought.
Eventually, I said grimly, “They sure would have been needed here about six months ago.” My visitor raised his eyebrows. I guess news doesn’t travel much upriver either. “Braxas’ men came and took a family away in the middle of the night. I didn’t even know until the next morning when they announced it at a town meeting. It’s a miracle they didn’t find us too, to be honest.”
“Who was it?”
“Salesh and Jochim. And their son, Osca.”
“They had a son?”
I nodded sadly. “He was good friends with Kaz. He started showing signs around the normal time. I guess that’s how they found them. Just bad luck.”
“And they’ve not been back?”
“Salesh always was a tough cookie. They’d be hard-pressed to get anything out of her.”
I nodded. “But having a son does offer some incentive.”
“Sleep with one eye open, ey?”
“You think I sleep?” The man raised his mug to that, and we again lapsed into silence. If this news he brought was true, this could mean a glimmer of hope for us. If these mysterious people had come back without being detected, maybe they could bring us all somewhere safe. But first, we’d have to find them. “No one these people find has ever showed up again?”
“No, they vanish without a trace, if the rumours are to be believed. Otherwise we would have tried to track them down ourselves and get some more information. And it’s just bad luck they haven’t contacted someone who could have sent us a message. That would make all our jobs much easier.”
“I suppose we’ve done ours too well,” I muttered. “We’ve spent years trying to hide, and now we can’t be found, even when we want to be.”
“Double-edged knife, or whatever the expression is,” he agreed, nodding.
“So all we can do is wait,” I sighed.
“I’m afraid so. Wait and listen.”
“Well, I’m sorry, I can’t give you any more information. Whispers like that are dead by the time they reach me here.” The price to pay for safety? Ignorance.
“It was a long shot,” he said, shrugging. He finished what was left in his mug and stood to leave, collecting his coat and hat from the chair. “I’d better get going. Can’t leave my horse in your yard too long.”
I also stood to walk him to the door. Before he stepped outside, I stopped him. “What’s the tally?” For a moment, he paused, as though he was deciding whether to tell me.
“We lost Tonya and Sykes.” Then he was gone. Faintly, I heard the sound of hoofbeats on the dirt road, but they soon faded and the night was as it always was. Quiet and empty. The whole meeting took no more than five minutes.
That’s the last time I got any news from one of my own. For the first month afterwards, I was excited, hopeful, and terrified all at the same time. I kept waiting for someone to knock on my door again-- first three times, then a pause, then a fourth time-- and ask me if I knew a cobbler. But nobody came. I settled back into my usual state: always watchful but resigned to small town life. It was dangerous to even entertain the idea that someone else would protect Kaz for me. Especially a group of phantoms no one could pin down.
But two years is a long time to go without information. The picture I can piece together of the state of things in the Territory from the newsletters and snippets of information from travellers passing through the town, is blurry at best. And time is running out. I need help. My letters never receive a reply anymore, so either it’s not safe to correspond with the old circle or my contacts have relocated or died. I need a new plan, and the only tiny speck of hope I have is that these covert strangers might provide a lifeline. Tenuous, but it’s all I have to go on.
So here I am again, faced with a situation where I have already decided what needs to be done, and all I can do is stare at the piece of metal on my workbench-- a beautiful, intricate brooch, commissioned from upriver-- and hold my chisel and hammer over it, ready to carve my mark...but I can’t do it.
I’ve been standing like this for I don’t know how long. Long enough for the blaze in the forge to have died down to shimmering embers, casting an eerie, dim orange glow about the workshop. Fitting, really. It seems my resolve and perhaps whatever courage I thought I still possessed, died with it.
The weight of possible consequences is almost suffocating. What if the wrong person finds it? What if it makes its way into the hands of one of Braxas’ men? What if this gets yet another Guardian killed? What if? What if? What if?
The what ifs are deafening in the surrounding silence. They paralyse me. But then...
What if I don’t do it and they find her and I have no one to turn to?
It’s enough to allow me to bring my hammer down onto the chisel and carve the mark into the back of the brooch. A straight line leading into a spiral underneath it. Our best-kept secret, stamped onto a piece of jewellery and sent upriver into a stranger’s hands. This is a desperate act. But I am a desperate man.
If you do something that needs to be done because of fear, rather than in spite of fear, are you still brave? It doesn’t really matter. To keep her safe is my purpose. That’s why we came here after all. Delle’s End is a small town at the very edge of the Territory, one most people have forgotten about. It’s safe here, and safe is what I was looking for fifteen years ago when I arrived holding the hand of a toddler who had just lost her mother.
I’ve been thinking about dreams a lot lately, in the same way that I sometimes wonder why we are ticklish. It seems almost accidental, like a misfire somewhere in our minds and bodies. I asked my uncle once why we are ticklish and he said that long ago, when we were wilder things, it helped us survive by giving us a heightened sense of awareness of areas that are vulnerable to attack--maybe from crawling things like spiders? Is it the same with dreams? Do they help us survive too? But instead of our bodies, they protect our minds, allowing us to cope with our everyday reality by giving us an escape?
Someone once told me that you can’t dream of someone you’ve never seen. That stranger in your dream is actually what someone would look like if they had the nose of your next-door neighbour, the eyes of the town baker, and the haircut of that man you saw last week in the square. Your mind is making a collage of all the faces it’s ever seen, to fool you into thinking you’re seeing a mysterious stranger. Where does he come from? What does he want from you?
If your dreams are using people of your past to cast the actors, perhaps they are also using your everyday colour palate to bring them to life. So if all you saw was dust--dusty houses, dusty streets, dusty people-- would your dreams be dust-coloured, too? Like the pages in a child’s colouring book that have yet to be filled in, just the outlines of a washed-out reality. And if a dusty world is all you’ve ever known, would you even know there was something missing?
And if that’s true, could I be dreaming better? Is the world that I escape to inside my head actually a pale cousin of some other place where green things grow and simply breathing doesn’t make you thirsty?
If you were a fish, would your dreams be saturated with watery shades of blue and green, rippling in and around each other in golden beams of sunlight? What a wonderful thing it must be to dream as a fish would...
“Fish! Fish! Kaz, get up here!” Even though the voice from the docks reaches me on the riverbed as a muffled murmur, I’ve heard both the voice and the words often enough to know what they mean. Sighing inwardly, I give the tuft of river grass I was watching sway in the current one final gentle stroke and push off the riverbed. A cloud of silty sediment billows out behind me as I kick toward the surface.
As usual, my first breath of dusty air dries out by mouth and lungs and I have to cough, immediately wishing I could just submerge back under the water of the river. Blinking the droplets of water out of my eyes, I turn towards the docks.
“The fish is here,” I call up to Jacen, who is already looking down at me, his arms crossed, his brows sternly knitted together in a frown. He knows by now that to look for me under the water is usually more successful than above it.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to swim around the docks when we are expecting a delivery?” I can’t help but grin up at him. I couldn’t have answered that question if my life depended on it. Ever since I could swim, I’ve been a thorn in that man’s side. A constant irritation. The reason his hair is turning grey. Take your pick, he’s claimed them all. Jacen is the dock manager and has been since I can remember. He’s taller than average but is still leaner and a head shorter than the rest of the burly dockworkers of Delle’s End. With his bristly beard that he trims carefully but that always has odd bits sticking up here and there from where he tugs it out of habit, he simply isn’t intimidating enough to enforce his authority with physical clout. Fortunately, the rest of the men are quite happy to be the muscle of the operation without any of the responsibility, so allow Jacen to order them about as though he were their mother and amuse themselves by making his life difficult with whatever pranks they can think of. From the look of him now, the boys have been at it again today. I decide to join the game.
“Just once more, Jacen,” I say sweetly. “I wasn’t listening last time.”
“How about the time before that?”
“I got distracted.”
“A very pretty bird.”
“There are no birds here.”
“Oh, in that case I must have just decided to ignore you.”
“Kaz, it’s dangerous!” he scolds, completely serious. “I don’t care how long you can hold your breath.” And there’s the reason why everyone calls me Fish. Imaginative, I know. I roll my eyes at him.
“Alright, alright, I’m getting out,” I sigh and paddle towards the ramp next to the docks.
“Well, now that you’re here, you might as well help us unload. Look, the ship is almost here.” Jacen gestures upstream where a boat has just rounded the bend and is sailing smoothly toward them, sounding its signal loud and clear to alert the docks. It would probably take it no longer than a few minutes to arrive.
“You know, I’d love to, but—”
“No buts. From now on if I catch you in the water on delivery day, you can make it up to me with an afternoon of free labour, and then explain to Gideon why you aren’t at your afternoon rotation. Go dry off and get back here. They’re almost at the piers.” He points towards the shed where spare uniforms are kept and smiles his most gloating smile. I grumble something like “I’ll have to make sure you don’t catch me again then” and shuffle dripping to the shed to change. At the door, I turn again, hoping Jacen had turned around and I could make a break for it, but he is still standing there watching me, probably to make sure I can’t do just that. He taps his foot impatiently and crosses his arms. I make a face and duck inside, resigned to the fact that I will indeed be roped into an afternoon of lugging heavy crates instead of working in the smith’s forge with my uncle, Gideon, for my usual rotation.
As I change, I wonder what the shipment will be this week. Last week whoever filled the orders upriver tried to send fresh food down to my little village of Delle’s End. It arrived like fresh food usually arrives: brown and slimy and completely inedible. I still suspect that it still ended up in the stew that the pub served for dinner for three nights last week. It doesn’t happen too often but when it does, I always have to wonder at the thought process of whoever packed the crates. I’ve never been further upriver than Bob’s Hollow, the closest trading post upriver, but even I know that it takes weeks to get to the nearest big outpost in the region of the Territory that is still productive and fertile enough to produce crops. The edges of the Territory around Delle’s End have been dry and dusty for years, barely able to support even a small family’s vegetable patch, let alone a large-scale farm to feed the region. Over the last few years, little snippets of news have reached us of more and more towns along the river changing their economies from growing fresh produce to drying, pickling, or salting goods imported from upriver and sending them south with the current. Most of the time, these goods are all that reaches the towns at the end of the river, like us, but sometimes a shipment from further upstream would just get passed along from dock to dock, no one wanting to accept mouldy vegetables. Delle’s End is the last town along the river so doesn’t have anyone else to pass them on to. And returning them upriver does no one any good, so we accept them and try to salvage what we can.
I’ll know soon enough if there’s something wrong with the shipment, if I hear Jacen shouting abuse at a poor dockworker from Bob’s Hollow, who of course won’t have had anything to do with it. But since none of the workers actually responsible are available to yell at, the upriver boys just have to bear Jacen’s temper. They are used to it by now or should be.
Having taken as long as is plausible to dry off, change and tie my still-wet hair up to keep it out of the way, I return to the now busy docks and walk over to where Jacen is standing by the gangway between the vessel and the piers, checking the inventory of the delivery. About twenty dockworkers hurry about, carrying full crates from and empty crates to the boat. Usually only men work on the docks unloading cargo because of the heavy lifting, while women do a lot of the packaging, unpacking, and sorting back in the huge sheds. While this is arguably the more difficult task, it requires less muscle to complete. I doubt very much whether any of the men would be tempted to switch if the opportunity was offered to him, partly because of the abuse he would receive from the other dockworkers and partly because of the abuse he would receive from the women who were sorting. There was nothing worse for a man’s ego than interrupting the sorting system, so the dockworkers generally just left the women to it.
I think I am the only girl who works the docks every now and then. Maybe it’s because I spend so much time here that Jacen sees me as part of the crew. It doesn’t mean the heavy lifting is any easier for me, though! Now, lifting a crate of jarred pickles--identified by a label glued on the side-- making sure to keep my back straight and let my legs take the considerable weight, I try to find the perfect balance between delaying the inevitable entry into the chaos of the sorting shed and not putting my back out by holding the crate for too long. Following Bern, a huge dock-worker who is carrying two crates stacked on top of each other-- probably filled with something light, like wool, I bet--into the sorting shed, my eyes take a moment to adjust to the dim light and the blurs of moving people. It’s a complete mess, as usual, and a hectic flurry of women rushing to sort all the various items that have been delivered as well as trying to direct the men bringing in the crates as to where to set them down. As the men usually pick the closest free space to unload their heavy crate in order to escape the mayhem as quickly as possible, this is a pointless endeavour. Nonetheless, the women bustle around unpacking the crates and distributing the contents into boxes that would be delivered to the pub, the general store, the bakery, and anyone else who had put in a specific request.
I can see the town cobbler and the carpenter waiting for their orders, standing squeezed together in a corner to stay out of the way, Shaw heading over to them with a roll of leather teetering on his shoulder. The cobbler will be getting several customers this week, I imagine. He’s been out of leather for nearly two weeks because it takes so long to order and receive new rolls from the tanneries a long way upstream. Cauley, the carpenter, will most likely have to wait for the very end of the delivery, as the beams of wood that get shipped from the hills where there are still trees left to chop, are probably lying on palettes underneath all the boxes of goods. Sacks of grain ready to be milled are being piled up in front of Kam, who owns the mill a little ways upriver, which uses the speed of the current to turn a water wheel and grind the grain into flour for Rod to use in the bakery. Everyone knows the routine. This happens every week.
I try setting my crate down where Bern managed to unload his, but one of the sorting women shoos me over to another corner. I don’t want to argue, so I make my way carefully through the frenzy over to Kara, who is busy ticking items off a very long list as they are placed in front of her. Kara, a short, plump rosy-cheeked woman, is the tavern keeper’s wife and is in charge of everything kitchen related, which includes overseeing the weekly deliveries, apparently. I avoid looking at the list Kara has in her lap. There really is no need to know exactly what goes into the stews and pies they served at the pub. Ignorance is bliss.
“I’ve got some pickles for you,” I tell her, setting the crate down with a groan then standing up slowly and stretching my back. Pickles are heavy.
“Oh, excellent,” Kara says, making another little tick on her list without looking up. When she does finally raise her eyes, she looks slightly surprised. “What are you doing carrying crates?”
“Jacen caught me swimming and decided to deal out punishment in the form of forced labour.”
“Ah, I see,” she says, nodding, and quickly looks at her list again to tick off another item that’s just been delivered to her by one of the other dockworkers. “That’s about everything,” she mutters to herself. “Just need one more— ah, there it is.” With a final flourish, she marks off the last item on the list—pickled onions, it says on the label on the newest crate—and stands up. “Well, best not let him catch you doing that again, eh? You’ll put your back out carrying these.” She nudges the nearest box with her foot. “Luckily, transporting the crates to the tavern is outside of my domain, so I’ll be off. No doubt I will see you at the tavern sometime this week, dear.”
“With fresh deliveries, I think you’ll see just about everyone at the tavern by tomorrow night at the latest,” I tell her. Kara laughs and bustles away, pushing through dockworkers and sorting women in her bid for freedom. I take her lead and likewise make my way out of the sorting shed.
While I was talking to Kara, the dock-workers had made quick work of the rest of the shipment. Murdoch and Delvin are already making a start on the wooden planks for Cauley, and Cade is carrying one of the last crates to the sorting shed. I can tell it contains the weekly news leaflets because of the stamp on the side: a black outline of a factory-like printing house, where all news leaflets and informational posters are printed and distributed to the rest of the Territory from several of the larger, more permanent trading posts. Trent, our postman, will be making the rounds to everyone’s house tomorrow to deliver a leaflet. Lord Braxas insists upon making sure every household is well-informed and no one is kept in the dark about what happens outside their own towns. I always look forward to reading them, just to feel a little more connected with the rest of the Territory. I don’t know what Trent does the rest of the week, but he takes his job very seriously, so the morning after delivery day, he is up with the sun and it is just your bad luck if he chooses to start his rounds by banging on your door.
The only crate left when I reach Jacen is one containing chunks of matured cheese. This is so cruel that I half-suspect he’s planned it on purpose. The temptation to open the lid, reach in and grab one is almost overwhelming. Since Jacen caught me, I wasn’t able to go home for an already-late lunch. But I resist. Sorting women have unnaturally keen eyes; I am almost certain to get caught and they do not take kindly to thievery, even if it is only a bit of cheese.
This time I am sent over to Matilde, the shopkeeper’s wife, to lay the crate down. Matilde’s husband Erwin owns the only shop in Delle’s End; Erwin owns it, but Matilde runs it while covering up the missing liquor bottles that mysteriously disappear from the stockroom. Erwin is very rarely seen around town except in the pub when his own supply runs out or Matilde forcibly expels him from the flat above the shop. I’ve heard the older ladies talk about Matilde during some of their knitting circles and have heard the Widow Hemstalk say she suspects Matilde encourages her husband’s drinking. “An unconscious man doesn’t get in your way,” she says, wholeheartedly supporting the woman’s methods. Since then, I can’t help but be suspicious of Matilde whenever I see her. There is nothing about the woman that would suggest the rumours to be true, except that she just seems a little too satisfied with her life for a woman with a deadbeat alcoholic husband.
Luckily, I’m not left making uncomfortable small talk with Matilde for long before I hear a commotion outside that draws me back out to the docks. I step outside, having to squint into the evening sun after the dim light of the sorting shed, and see Jacen, red in the face and screaming at a dockworker from Bob’s Hollow. The poor man is holding his hands up in defence, clearly trying to convey the message that he isn’t responsible for whatever has sent Jacen into a range this time. I suspect it is also for protection. Jacen might be a foot shorter than his opponent, but his temper is legendary. I quickly make my way over to get a closer look.
“You owe me another half-dozen crates!” Jacen screams as I draw closer. “No, I haven’t miscounted, you idiot! You are trying to cheat me!” Jacen thrusts his finger into the man’s chest as he bellows at him. Then he abruptly turns away from the sailor and marches into the sorting shed, undoubtedly up to his office, accessible by a wobbly staircase at the back of the building. The poor dockworker quickly disappears onto the boat, taking his first opportunity to get as far away from Jacen as possible. All the other boat hands and labourers from upriver are lined up along the side of the boat for the show, glad it isn’t them receiving abuse. This sort of thing happens every now and then, and Jacen never disappoints. I walk over to where Bern and some of the lads are standing.
“Here we go again, eh?” Bern says with a grin. “How long are you going to wait to calm him down this time?”
“I’ll let him write his letter and then see what I can do,” I answer, looking up to the top window of the shed, where Jacen is no doubt drafting a very passive aggressive letter to the dock manager responsible for the mistake.
“Oh, letting him keep his dignity, are we?” Bern nudges me, reminding me of the time when I’d had to stop Jacen from getting physical. The other dockworkers would have happily let him have it out with the Bob’s Hollow lad, but I knew Jacen was all bark and no bite. He would have just ended up with a broken nose. Be that as it may, Jacen hadn’t forgiven me for making it look like a little girl pulled his strings like a puppet. His words.
“He’s already annoyed with me for swimming on delivery day, I better not push it,” I tell Bern, who raises an eyebrow knowingly.
“Whatever you say,” he smirks. I give Bern a punch on the shoulder for good measure. He probably doesn’t even feel it, but he rubs his arm to humour me and I have to grin at him.
While we wait, I look over to the barge, where the workers can do nothing but wait for Jacen to reappear. The upriver dock-workers look pretty similar to the Delle’s End boys, and really, any dockworker I have ever seen: tall, muscled and tanned with a layer of grime that probably will never wash off, a consequence of daily manual labour in the sun in a dusty boatyard. The dock environment seems to attract a certain personality type—men who enjoy spending their days chatting idly about inconsequential things that no one was even likely to remember, interspersed with short bouts of heavy lifting. They were always good for a laugh and up for a prank. I’ve gotten to know most of the local boys pretty well since I am constantly swimming around the docks, so I know they also have big hearts and are actually more like big, muscled teddy bears than anything else, though they would probably throw me in the river if I ever said that. The upriver workers I don’t know as well—I can probably only name a few regulars—but I chat with them every now and then for news from Bob’s Hollow which, being a trading outpost, is much bigger than Delle’s End and gets far more visitors. Being the closest port, it’s where the local youth go for some excitement, if they can afford it and if they manage to get aboard the barge heading upriver after a delivery. Getting back to town is the trickier bit, unless you wanted to wait until the next delivery day.
A few minutes later, Jacen stomps out of the sorting shed again, folding up a piece of paper and stuffing it into an envelope. All the Delle’s End dockworkers disperse to look busy, but none go far enough that they would miss any more action. Having regained some of his composure and air of authority, he instructs the unlucky boat-hand close enough to be in arm’s reach, to deliver this letter to his supervisor immediately upon arrival. He then turns away from the boat without a backward glance and strides back into the sorting shed, his dignity and self-righteous indignation well and truly intact.
There is a grinding, grunting sound as some sort of contraption comes to life in the belly of the ship and the vessel slowly starts to move away from the docks with the help of some poles the dockworkers use to shove off the pier. I’m not really familiar with the mechanics it takes to get upriver again against the current, but I know whatever it is isn’t very efficient and it often takes twice as long to return home as it does to get downstream. I wonder how long the poor dock workers have in their own beds before having to make the trip again for the next shipment the following week. One of the perks of living in Delle’s End for the dockworkers is they never really have to make a delivery. Anything the town wants sent upstream gets loaded onto the barge once it’s empty and just passed along on the usual delivery schedule.
Thinking I had better go and extinguish the fire that is Jacen’s temper, I return less than enthusiastically to the sorting shed. Ducking the sorting women ready to pounce on another pair of hands to shift deliveries, I make my way to the back, pointing meaningfully at Jacen’s office, as if I were actually meant to be there. When I push open the door, I hear him muttering to himself and looking at the manifest he’d received for the shipment. “Filthy schemers,” he grumbles, underlining the missing items several times as if to illustrate his point.
“Bloody, ratty gits.”
“Are you finished?” I say from the doorway, making him jump. Obviously, he hadn’t heard me climb the stairs and open the door, absorbed as he was in his own little world where he is so unfairly put upon.
“They try it every week!” he growls with his teeth clenched.
“Oh, come on, Jacen. You’re overreacting.” I lean against the doorframe with my arms crossed, preparing myself for the onslaught of profanities I know Jacen is just seconds away from unleashing.
“Overreacting? Overreacting, my... my grandmother!” He throws the papers onto his desk, causing them to scatter and flutter to the floor. “You saw the smug look on that little whelp’s face!”
“What, the guy you were yelling at? You think he is in charge of inventory?” In contrast to the big, burly muscled dock-workers, managers and record-keepers are generally slimmer, shorter and less relaxed. The guy had fit the dockworker stereotype perfectly, Jacen only coming up to his shoulder. Jacen’s face slowly resumes a more normal colour, if still rather pink. He is still breathing quite heavily, and his nostrils are flared, but he is making an effort to calm himself, credit to him.
“I hope you were the model of civility in your letter,” I tease. He glares at me.
“I’ll take your civility and shove it right up--”
“Now, now, Jacen, that sort of language is far too rude for my sensitive childish ears,” I interrupt him with a hand mockingly outstretched and my head turned away in a haughty manner. If there had been something to hand to throw across the room, I have no doubt Jacen would have done so. As it is, all he can do is ball up his fists and screw up his face before letting out all the tension with a massive exhale and slumping into his chair, letting his head fall on the backrest, eyes closed. And just like that, the anger seeps out of him, leaving him rather exhausted. He sighs deeply.
“You are the biggest annoyance in my life, you know that?” he murmurs.
“Even bigger than incomplete deliveries?”
“Yes,” he says without conviction, the corners of his mouth twitching weakly.
“Well, I’m flattered,” I say with a grin. “And you have the temper of a pregnant woman, anyone ever tell you that?” He opens one eye to glower at me, but then gives in to a reluctant grimace.
“Ah well, I suppose at least I’ve given those upriver boys something to talk about.”
“Forget the upriver boys, you’ve provided entertainment for at least a week down at the pub.”
“Wonderful.” He rubs his eyes and scratches his beardy chin for a moment before obviously remembering he was meant to be scolding her for something. He shrugs, robbed of the energy to do so. So, with a “just don’t bloody do it again”, I am finally allowed to depart the docks. And no matter how interesting the afternoon has turned out to be, I have firm plans not to get caught swimming on delivery day again.