Voices Scene 7

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

The sun was peering bleary-eyed over the eastern horizon as Howard stood waiting on pier number eleven in Westrim’s busy bargeport. Two days had passed in a blur, and with each moment he drifted farther and farther away from the life he had taken for granted.

Elise had kept him housebound the entire time. It was painful to think of her as Elise, but even harder to think of her as his mother anymore. She had come up with any number of plausible and exceedingly creative excuses, like helping her with the inventory, cross-checking the transaction ledgers, giving the servants and staff their performance reviews. If he hadn’t secretly known the reason for the chores, he might have been flattered by the sudden burst of attention.

Apparently, the test panel had convinced Thomas that shipping his only son off to the Citadel was an excellent opportunity for both Howard and the family. At least, that’s what he earnestly told Howard in an almost convincing heart to heart discussion the morning after his test. Howard had stared at his face, this man who had raised him, reminded of all the times Thomas had spoken this openly with him. But this was a mere performance, a pretty lie. Had it always been that way? Just one endless sale after another? Perhaps.

Thomas hadn’t bothered to see his son off to the bargeport. Elise made some excuse, unavoidable business concerns. Rumors around the estate said otherwise. Howard found himself listening in on the whispered conversations of servants and staff. He found their deductions surprisingly astute. It made him realize that commoners had access to far more information than the sons and daughters of aristocrats were taught to believe.

The staff was being let go quietly, one by one. The household goods were disappearing it seemed, and the vanishing servants were being blamed. But the remaining servants knew better. Some of them left on their own, seeking employment with other families. Repairs on the clipper ship, once the highest priority for the dock workers, had been stopped altogether. This morning Howard had ridden the family carriage through the estate’s iron worked gate for what he felt sure was the last time. The abandoned dry-dock had receded into the morning mist like a distant memory. The slings hung empty, the clipper spirited off. Warehouse goods were being carted away under cover of night as well. Nothing was ever officially reported though. Evidently Thomas was doing a very thorough, if covert, job of dismantling his family’s merchant empire. And that was all Howard’s fault. So who could blame the man for not wishing a safe journey to the cause of his ruin?

Elise didn’t stick around long either. She was off long before Howard could board the Council barge that would take him on the first leg of his journey across the continent. She had pressed a small purse into his hand. “For your own safety, the rest has already been transferred into a guild account in your name in the Citadel.”

She of course promised that they would write often and would see him on holidays. Then she had darted back into the carriage. In her haste not to be seen, the carriage was already rolling away before she even closed the door.

Howard looked down at the forlorn valise at his feet. It contained all of the worldly possessions he could find to pack that morning. Elise told him not to worry; she had packed and sent the rest of his goods on ahead. He opened the purse strings and poked his index finger into it. He quickly raked through the top layer of shiny new gold to find that the rest of the purse was filled with faded silver and often clipped copper coins. The value of the purse was about twenty gold, perhaps a little more. A semester of tuition would cost over twice that.

He crouched down to his valise and pulled out the satchel he had carefully hidden in the lining, a bitter smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Elise had kept him too busy to put any of his own plans into motion during the last two days. But she hadn’t been able to watch him at night. Last night he had crept out of the estate along the family’s private canal.

In the past three ‘turns he had won over a thousand gold racing his skimmer against Jenson, his cronies, and any other takers he cold find. He had spent some of that money paying off the boat, and even more of it celebrating. But the truth was, his skimmer had paid for itself twice over. Luckily he had never told anyone just how much he had won.

And he had never told anyone how much of it he kept, or where he kept it. The ocean had kept this secret for him. By the watery light of the moon, he had retrieved one of his hordes from a sea cave with a hidden entrance well below the high tide line. There was a smaller one farther down the coast, on the other side of the city, but he didn’t have the time to get to it. Grimly, he faced the possibility that he might never return for it. He had smuggled the coins back into his chambers well before dawn with no one the wiser.

After adding the pittance from Elise to his own savings, he was carrying a little over three hundred gold. It wasn’t a lot to live on, but it was probably all he could expect. He straightened up after securing the satchel in its hidden pocket, and waited as the sun slowly burned away the mist. It clung stubbornly above the continuously circulating current of the major canal. He had a little less than an hour before the Council Barge was scheduled to dock. He had the pier and the early morning mists to himself.

The churning waters caught his eye, the continuous work of water mages from one end of the Fertile Plains to the other. Only the Doormakers understood what kept the major canals flowing, and Howard suspected that they preferred to keep it that way.

The minor canals were fairly straight forward. Like his family’s private waterway connecting their docks to the sea, the minor canals were simple channels dug through the ground by earth mages. They filled with water naturally and flowed sluggishly, if they flowed at all. Barges were rowed along them, or propelled by water mages if the barge owner could afford it.

But the major canals of the Fertile Plains were different. They were much larger, so wide that four barges could run side by side without touching. Like broad rivers, they carried commerce and trade across an empire that spanned the entire southern half of the continent. You might be excused for mistaking them for mighty rivers. Except that rivers never ran so straight and true. And they never flowed in two directions at once. Major canals did that, with currents so constant that cargo freighters and pleasure yachts alike only had to steer into the grip of the right current to be carried briskly from one city to the next.

Howard watched as a local garbage scow floated eastward toward the suburbs of Westrim. A large transport barge overtook it, carried along by the swifter center currents. Nearer at hand, a passenger ferry circled inside the Westrim bargeport, transported around the hub to its allocated pier by a gentle whirlpool current.

Howard had never spent that much time on the canals. His family had always been in the ocean going business. They plied their trade along the coast, avoiding the tolls and tariffs of the canal network to improve their profits. “I guess that’s all in the past now. Better get used to travelling by canal.”

Howard wondered if navigating the monotonous currents of the canal network would bring him the fierce joy that cutting through wave crests once had. Bleakly, he looked at the dark flowing water. It hurried along its never-ending way. He felt a moment of bitter kinship with the water in the canal. Like him, it was driven by forces it could not understand. For the first time, he began to hear the voice of the canal. It was like the murmurings of the ocean, but quieter somehow. It was more subdued. No, it was domesticated, tamed. Howard tried that description on, and decided that it fit well.

“I see your luck has finally run out.”

Howard stiffened, his contemplation of the canal waters interrupted. He had managed to avoid his peers after the test, probably due in no small part to Elise’s careful management.

“Jenson. One has to wonder what you’re doing down at the docks at this hour of the morning. Slumming?” Howard favored the sniveling aristocrat’s son with an icy glare. He slid his valise behind him with one foot.

“Oh, my father is here attending to some business. Cleaning up a bit of a smuggling problem that was brought to the guild council’s attention recently.”

Howard’s smile didn’t waver. “Oh that’s seems about right. I always thought old Frank was better suited to be a city watchman than a merchant.”

“Watch your tongue commoner.” Jenson stepped right up into Howard’s face, his eyes glittering with malice. It would have been intimidating if he wasn’t forced to tilt his head back slightly to look up at Howard.

Unfortunately, Howard saw Rob and Sue wandering into the bargeport. He had been hoping to slip away without having to face them. But now it looked like he would have to at least put up a decent fight. He couldn’t let them see Jenson walk over him, after all.

“Commoner? Poor confused Jenson. Don’t you remember? My family? Charter members of the Merchant Guild, even before the unification.”

“Not… any… more.” Jenson peered around Howard to the valise and circled around him with his hands behind his back.

“Go crawl home to daddy Jenson. You bore me.”

But a crowd was gathering now. The bargeport was coming to life all around them. Jenson had always liked an audience. He pitched his voice to carry through the disappearing mists.

“What’s this? Is the golden boy going somewhere?”

“Leave it alone Jenson.”

“Oh that’s right, they’re sending you away! Shall I tell them why, Howard?”

“What did you say?” Howard felt anger clenching his guts. What did Jenson know, and how did he know it?

“What’s he talking about Howard, where have you been for the last two days?” Susan pushed through the growing crowd of gawkers.

“It’s nothing Susan. I have to go out of town on some family business for a while.”

“Family business? But haven’t you heard? Your family doesn’t have a business anymore.” Jenson folded his arms across his chest.

“I’ve had enough of your mouth Jenson.” Howard took a step forward.

“Howard, what the hell is going on here?” Rob stepped between the two combatants, though both boys were more than a head taller than him.

“Jenson has just spouted off one too many times.”

“But where are you going Howard?”

Howard looked his friend in the eye and found that he could not answer.

“It’s not where he’s going, but where he’s being sent. Isn’t that right Howard? The family’s gotten into a bit of tight spot just now.”

Howard was gripped by inarticulate rage.

“Someone was doing a little illicit trading, wasn’t that right? Tried to offload a couple of boats…”

Behind Jenson, carriage traffic had started to pick up in the baregport.

“Let’s see. Selling a clipper without authorized consent of the registered owner, that’s almost a disbarrable offense, isn’t it?”

Howard could almost see the seeds of doubt in Rob’s eyes.

“Too bad about the boats. I guess they’re mine now. But personally I’d just as soon scrap them as sail them. Really, Howard, I’m not sure how your family managed as long as they did with those rust buckets.”

Susan stepped back away from Howard ever so slightly, her eyes wide. It was a small gesture, one she probably didn’t even know she had made. But it spoke volumes. Howard clenched his jaw, trying and failing to speak in his own defense. Where had Jenson found out about the clipper?

“Oh wait, I do know how they managed. It should have been obvious!” Jenson was under full sail now, grinning maniacally in his moment of triumph. His family carriage pulled into the bargeport as he continued and parked alongside a nearby pier.

“I think we all know what will keep even the leakiest tubs afloat to run bootleg trade. Don’t we Howard?”

“No…” Howard’s tongue unfroze itself at last.

“Sure you do. Tell me. Did you think you were just too good for honest sailing?” The door of Jenson’s family carriage cracked open, and old Franklin stepped down from the step onto the cobblestones. He was deep in conversation with someone shrouded inside the darkened carriage interior.

“I didn’t… I never…Rob, Susan, you can’t listen to him!”

“You’re wrong, Howard. It’s you they can’t listen to you anymore. You’ve been lying your whole life. Practicing unregistered magecraft to steal business from honest merchants! Rigging competitions for profit, knowing you could never lose!”

Jenson had them now. Susan and Rob were his. Betrayal stared out at him through Susan’s eyes, while outrage burned on Rob’s face. Howard turned away from them, unable to face the rawness of their emotions.

The turn put him facing directly toward Jenson’s family carriage as it mysterious second passenger stepped out into the morning sun. It was the plump little Master Merchant from the aptitude test panel.

“But that’s all over now. The guild masters have taken care of your lying parents. And now you’re being sent where you belong…” Jenson went on talking, gleefully turning the knife in the gaping wound of Howard’s ruin.

The tester walked with Jenson’s father down the next pier. Howard could not hear the conversation. But he had watched Thomas negotiate often enough to know complicity when he saw it. So this was Jenson’s source.

It was all so clear now. Jenson had brought about his downfall, with daddy’s help and guild connections. A detached part of his mind realized just how cleverly he had been eviscerated. The diabolical plan had been executed flawlessly. Jenson eliminated a social adversary. Franklin consolidated his stranglehold on the west coast trade routes. And with two fewer charter member Master Merchants, the family increased it power on the guild council.

Howard felt his anger building like a tidal wave. It overwhelmed his reservations, and flooded his reason. He heard nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing, but the all consuming voice of his rage. And the domesticated waters of the canal spoke in the same voice. He felt the bonds that shackled them, the force that bound them and drove them. It was alien, powerful, and intoxicating.

And it was all his for the taking. Howard felt the combined power of a hundred Doormakers shaping the waters that flowed through the canal. He felt it flow over his skin like waves parting around a rudder. And like a rudder, he knew he could direct that flow.

So he did. Howard bent his thoughts toward the source of his rage, the architect of his despair. The elemental power resisted at first. But as more and more of the power that drove the canal and the bargeport flowed through him, he opened new eyes. Through these eyes, Howard looked up from watery depths toward a strangely distorted and unnaturally dry landscape. He saw Jenson, a diminutive figure exhorting a growing crowd of young aristocrats and tradesmen. He felt a surge of power as his anger took on physical form and leapt toward his adversary.

Through his own eyes Howard watched the bargeport’s swirling whirlpool slow. A massive wave of water rose from the center of the hub, rising higher and wider as it rushed directly toward Jenson and his crowd of onlookers. It raced to the pier in moments, crashing down mercilessly on the cluster of bodies. The young aristocrats and jeering apprentices were swept aside. The water heaved bodies heedlessly into walls, and pulped heavy wooden benches to kindling.

Howard saw Rob and Susan knocked sprawling, clawing for purchase on the water slicked boardwalk. He was beyond caring. The focus of the tidal surge pounded into Jenson relentlessly, sending him somersaulting along the pier. He fetched up against the wreckage of a shattered bench and stopped rolling, limp as a rag doll. Howard felt a savage glee as the foaming crest pulled back and reformed. It sluiced across the boards to pluck Jenson’s senseless body from the debris and drag him toward the canal.

There were people running in the Bargeport now. Howard heard screams and sirens rip through the air. Howard watched, rooted to the spot as survivors fled toward the shore, racing away from the destruction on the pier. Rob and Susan limped away as the waters turned back from them. The doubt and betrayal he had seen in their eyes was gone now. It had been replaced by something more haunted: fear.

All of the floodwaters had receded now, forming a strong undertow that hauled Jenson steadily toward his fate. Howard would not be denied his revenge. He would see Jenson rot forever in a watery grave for what he had done. He twisted all of his anger and his despair into a raging torrent, forcing all of his strength into this one goal.

Perhaps that focus was what kept him from seeing the Council Barge reach the pier behind him, nearly on schedule despite the apparent failure of the major canal’s currents. He never heard the two mages or their marine guards who leapt onto the pier and sprinted toward him from behind. And he never felt the blow across the back of his head that brought him physically to his knees.

The power that raged through him continued unabated even as he fell. He reached for it, hungrily, but it had been siphoned away. The elemental energy drained away like the receding tide, leaving him stretched like a dying crab on the gritty sands of the merely physical world. That he felt. Pain blossomed in the back of his skull and shot like lightening bolts down his spine. He convulsed, tasting blood.

“Target down!”

“Tell me you’ve got him isolated!”

“He’s contained.”

Howard couldn’t seem to make his head work. Darkness and light flashed before him as he was rolled over onto his back. He felt his chin taken in a surprisingly gentle grip as his face was turned from side to side. He couldn’t focus his eyes, and his tongue felt strange in his mouth. Two shadows loomed over him. As they turned him from side to side to examine his body, new agony flared to life. Howard felt like he had been beaten almost to death. Or maybe he was dead.

“This your prodigy?”

“He might have been. What a cock-up.”

“Is he mind-blasted?”

One of the shadows hovered closer. Howard’s eyes focused just long enough to register a face. Howard had seen him before. It was Bernard, from the aptitude test team.

“Probably. Wait… Mother of mirrors…”

Howard heard precise footsteps approach. “Magus, the merchant’s son is dead.”

“Oh perfect.”

“The little shit had it coming, if you ask me.”

“No one will be asking you Bernard. Captain, you have five minutes to get any other survivors off this pier. Then get your men back onto that barge.”

“On our way Magus.” The soldier’s watery shadow disappeared as the precise footsteps sped off.

“This one’s a lost cause Bernard. Let’s go.”

“He’s not dead.”

So he wasn’t dead after all. Howard wasn’t sure whether he should be reassured by this news. Death might have felt better right about now. He was pretty certain it couldn’t feel worse.

“That kid took an awful lot of juice for someone who’s completely untrained. What makes you think he’ll make it back?”

Bernard grabbed the back of Howard’s neck and cranked his face toward the other man. Howard blinked away tears, barely managing to bring one eye into focus on the other man’s silver bearded face. But even that much was progress.

“Shit Bernard, he blinked!”

“Yeah.”

“Damn it. You know that it will probably kill him if we move him, right?”

“And they’ll lynch him if we leave him here.”

“Shit.”

“There’s nothing left for him here. Like it or not, he’s one of ours now.”

“Shit. All right Bernard. Sergeant, get a stretcher over here. I want this apprentice below decks immediately.”

Howard heard the clatter of approaching footsteps. He felt hands grip his shoulders and ankles. Then agony seized him in its vice-like grip as he was hoisted onto a rough canvas sling. Pain tumbled him into darkness, and he knew no more. Whether he lived or died now, his fate was in the hands of the Doormakers.

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