Voices Scene 3

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Voices of the Deep

Several glasses and a pile of gold coins later, Howard sauntered back to the family homestead with what he felt was an admirably steady step. Of course the edges of his vision were disturbingly blurred, but he’d felt worse.

Like all the most affluent merchants in Westrim, his family’s estate was nestled in its own arm of the western sea. The team of earth mages that had dredged their private canal had cost Howard’s grandfather more than a few golds. But without it they would have had to lease a berth at the public docks in the harbor. And that simply wouldn’t do for a merchant of his grandfather’s standing.

Howard passed through the elaborate wrought iron gate, looking half-heartedly up the smooth paved carriageway toward the main house. But there were no carriages in evidence. It was a pity they didn’t have any interesting guests, he mused. The homestead was seemed positively empty these days.

Empty that is, if he didn’t count the grounds keeping staff of five trimming the ornamental hedges, pruning the fruit trees and sweeping the walkways. It was also easy to overlook the three housekeepers, and the two cooks in residence. He probably shouldn’t have neglected the ten boat and warehouse staff that kept the family’s lifeblood flowing, the trade inventory that had to be packed, stocked, stored, and accounted on a daily basis. But they were only servants and laborers after all.

Of course they did require supervision, which Howard’s father was quick to supply. Howard saw him now, on the docks near the family trade galley talking with one of the warehouse foremen. Howard instructed his feet to carry him in that general direction very explicitly, since they seemed somewhat slower to respond to suggestion than usual this afternoon.

“Howard! Where have you been son?”

“Celebrating pop, where else?”

His father was a roaring riptide of a man. Tall, broad shouldered, sure footed, and shrewd eyed, Thomas was a talented boatman and a bruising negotiator. Howard took after him in every way that mattered.

“His father’s son to the last cord length, there Thomas.” His mother Elise came out of the warehouse carrying a tally sheet tucked under one arm.

“Well if I wasn’t such a carouser I’d never have met you now would I?” His father shared a conspiratorial wink with Howard as his mother rolled her eyes at the two of them. She wore her jet black hair in two long plaits that were beginning to show strands of silver. She was the mastermind behind the family’s books, and everyone knew it. Sadly, Howard had not inherited her gift for numbers. But he had traded some of his father’s mass and strength for his mother’s rolling grace.

“Make sure those casks get loaded in the aft cargo bay Vincent. And just what were you celebrating today, Howard?” His father dismissed his warehouse foreman with a wave as he gathered his wife and son under each arm. Together the three of them strolled toward the leaf shaded rear entrance of the main house.

“Victory. Today the drinks were on Jenson.”

His mother shrugged. “But you always beat Jenson dear.”

Howard smiled smugly. “Ahh, but today, Rob and Susan beat him too.”

His father turned sharply. “Rob’s tub beat Jenson’s skimmer?”

Howard waggled his eyebrows. “Well, Jenson misread the harbor currents today. Badly.”

“And? Don’t leave us in suspense here son.”

“He got a bit wet.”

His father let out an undignified whoop. “Jenson capsized his precious thousand gold skimmer?”

“Upended like a tradesman on a tavern wench.”

“Oh Howard, don’t be so common.”

“Sorry mum.”

“Even if it is true.”

“Ha! That’s the saucy little tart I married! Well no one deserves it more than that whelp of Franklin’s. Well played son.”

“Well played indeed. Old Franklin’s grabbed up trade lanes all the way down the coast. Did you hear he bought out Jeremiah’s run?”

His father nodded. “At half of the value of his inventory no less.”

Howard shook his muddled head. But trying to keep pace with his mother’s insight was difficult even when he was stone sober. “But Jeremiah’s run extends halfway down the Silver Coast, isn’t it?”

His father worried at one of his fingernails with his teeth. “It does. And you can bet that Jenson will be angling to take another bite of the Silver Coast while he’s at the Academy.”

“With the fleet he’s building, Franklin will soon control all the trade from here to Salton, Thomas.”

His father growled unpleasantly. “No doubt he’ll be looking north soon after that, trying to run the entire west coast as far as the Barriers.”

A realization clicked into focus for Howard, sobering him momentarily. “We need a fleet of our own pop.”

Elise looked toward Thomas, a strange look in her eye. “We’d best take this conversation inside.”

Thomas opened the door and ushered Howard and his mother into their parlor. As Howard threw himself into one of the deep upholstered arm chairs, he heard a polite, yet discrete cough.

“What is it Jenkins?”

The somber butler inclined his head, ever so properly to Howard’s father. “Dinner will be served in the salon shortly sir.”

“Thank you Jenkins. Bring us some wine, if you would please.”

“Will the 265 Riverton, suffice sir?”

Howard’s mother curled her lip in a dainty pout. “Oh, that will never do. The 258 Thayer, please Jenkins.”

“An excellent choice madam. I will have it chilled.” Jenkins bowed crisply as he backed out of the parlor while closing the doors. Howard had already forgotten the servant was ever there.

Thomas evidently had not. He waited a few heartbeats after the doors clicked shut before continuing. “Where’d you get that idea boy?”

“Well, it just seems that with all those barges, Franklin will be eating our lunch soon.”

His parents shared a conspiratorial look, and then Elise nodded her head for Thomas to continue. “It’s funny you should mention that now son, because we’re buying another ship.”

“We’ve been thinking about letting you captain the new one, Howard.” His mother gave him a calculated look.

Howard felt his jaw drop. “Did you say captain?”

Thomas waited a beat, absorbing Howard’s reaction. “That’s right, once you finish a couple of ‘turns at the Academy. You can’t tell anyone about this yet of course, but once you’re a journeyman merchant we can make you a captain. With our sailing and your mother’s coordination, we’ll be able to extend our range north beyond Velton to the Barriers. Who knows? Maybe even farther.”

There was more, but Howard could barely hear the words. He had expected to start out as a foreman or maybe first mate on the family galley. But captain? No journeyman ever started out so high. As the long afternoon wound down into evening, Howard floated on in a happy haze, a cloud-like euphoria sustained by fine ale, chilled wine, and the realization of his fondest wishes. Later that night, he shrugged out of his clothes, leaving them in an untidy heap near the outer door of his chambers. The servants would whisk them away in the night and have them cleaned by morning, of course. As he collapsed into bed, he resolved to excel at his aptitude tests tomorrow. Clearly nothing less would do.

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