Voices Scene 5

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Voices of the Deep

The rest of the interview had been a blur for Howard. He had left the testing room from a side door that brought him to the street on the far side of the test center. Well, at least he had been right about one thing during his talk with Susan this morning. The bark of laughter escaped his lips, bitter and dark.

There was no sign of his friends now. He passed other applicants as they left the test center in ones and twos. He barely registered the emotions on each of their unfamiliar faces: joy, despair, resentment, smug satisfaction, pride, confusion. He didn’t care to think about what his face registered right now. It must have been frightening, given that no one approached him as he shambled aimlessly away from the test center. He didn’t bother to search for the family carriage. The driver would have returned to the estate hours ago, while Howard was still in the waiting room.

He didn’t know how long he roamed the streets of Westrim alone. Instinctively he stayed away from all of the elite and celebratory establishments he usually patronized with Rob and Susan. He found himself wandering unfamiliar back streets and alleys that wrapped themselves in the tattered rags of silent destitution. He walked among the broken down buildings that were home to laborers, servants and beggars. He trod along with Westrim’s downtrodden, those commoners he had been raised to think of as beneath his notice.

But now he felt beneath theirs. No one here made any attempt to curry his favor. Even the beggars looked away as he approached, as if they sensed his lost fortune. As if they could smell his despair.

Finally, as the sun approached the western rim of the sea, Howard’s wayward feet carried him home. There was a bustle of activity in the family dockyard. Howard wandered in that direction, still numb. Howard heard his father’s authoritative voice ringing. Strange how his father’s usual boisterous enthusiasm sounded so out of place to him now.

“Steady! Shore up that starboard support!”

Thomas stood on a raised platform directing the efforts of four laboring men. At first Howard could not make sense of what he was seeing. Then his sluggish brain engaged and his breath caught in his throat. Silhouetted against the setting sun, the dark mass of a clipper ship hung suspended in the slings of his family’s dry-dock. She had three masts built for a square rig, a deep draft, and she was beautiful.

“Well son, how do you like your new ship?” His mother’s quite voice at his elbow jolted him out of his wonder.

“Mine?” His voice cracked as his throat closed.

“Howard! You’re home! How’s our new apprentice merchant?” Thomas leapt down from the supervisor’s platform and clapped Howard on the shoulder. He pulled his son right up next to the hull, resting one hand on the raked bow. Up close, Howard could see that the paint was blistered and peeling and the hull was encrusted with barnacles below the water line.

“We got her for a steal son! You should have seen your mother. She’s had her eye on this beauty for months, waiting for just the right time.”

“She needs a few repairs. The hull needs scraping and the mizzen mast is cracked. It will have to be replaced. And every yard of sheet will need some stitching. But don’t you worry Howard. Your father and I will make sure she’s sea worthy by the time you graduate from the Academy.”

“I thought you would get a second barge.” There was something he knew he should mention at this point, but Howard’s mind still couldn’t process everything he was seeing and hearing.

Thomas tuned to his wife, a grin written large across his face. “You can’t make the run down to Paulson’s Point in barge son.”

Elise flashed a sharp smile, positively glittering with calculation. “That’s right. Franklin’s fleet of barges might run the entire Silver Coast. But with this clipper you can outrun them all the way to the point. We won’t get many of the cheap goods, but we’ll get all the dear ones. And we can charge a premium for delivery speed. We’ll recoup the cost of the clipper in one seasonturn, two at the most.”

“That’s right son. And she’s already registered in your name.”

“No…” All at once the day’s events came crashing down on Howard. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly.

“What’s wrong Howard?”

“Son, are you all right?”

“No…” It came out as barely more than a whisper. Opening eyes was hard. Tearing his gaze away from the ship hanging forlornly in dry-dock was harder. He turned away from the docks, turned away from the blazing dusky gold of the setting sun, turned away from everything he had thought he could ever want or need.

“Howard… what is it?”

“I… didn’t make it into the Merchant Guild.” Stunned silence greeted his announcement.

“I’m sorry.”

“But that’s not possible. There must have been a mistake.”

Howard blinked away tears that threatened to blur his vision. ” No. I tested positive for Doormaker affinity. I’m being sent to Citadel.”

His father grunted as though he had been sucker punched. Howard turned back to see Elise sink onto a work stool, her wide eyes glassy. Thomas had hunched his shoulders and his eyes darted back and forth angrily. He started to pace, vibrating a little with each step.

“This can’t be right. The Doormakers can’t do this. It’s a mistake. The guild can challenge the assignment. They must challenge the assignment. I’ll make them challenge it.” Thomas continued to pace. Howard flinched at each violent step.

At last his father broke off and threw his arms in the air with a bellow. “Enough. I’ll set that aptitude test merchant straight. And if he won’t listen, I’ll appeal to the guild council. I’ll fix everything, you’ll see.”

Howard watched helplessly as his father stormed off toward the main house, bellowing for the carriage driver as he went. He turned to look at his mother who still stared glassy eyed at the clipper ship hanging in front of her.

“Mother… I’m sorry.”

Something cold and frightening came alive in Elise’s eyes. Something Howard had hoped never to see directed at him. “Sorry? You have no idea, do you?”

“Mother?”

“That boat cost us everything. Without a second captain we can’t run her. If we can’t run her, we’re ruined Howard. Ruined. So don’t be sorry. Hope instead that your father can get this decision overturned. Because if he can’t, we’ll all be a lot worse than sorry.”

His mother turned her dark gaze away. She suddenly looked like a stranger. The dock workers continued to scramble around the dry-docked clipper under the watchful eye of the foreman. Howard saw the silhouettes of servants up at the main house as they drifted from room to room, lighting spark lamps. Howard felt a chill sweep across his back. As he stood silently next to his mother, surrounded by workers that had been with the family most of his life, Howard had never felt more alone.

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