Sunday, 25 December 2011


Elkie came to Wharfhaven on a passenger boat.  The money she'd found in the house when her grandmother had died paid for passage in a stateroom, which sounded far grander than it had turned out to be.  The walls were thin and her neighbours were noisy, but she had a proper bed, and a desk at which to write and to look through the trinket-box that she'd found at the back of her grandmother's closet.  She'd been thinking about complaining to the Captain when she took a wrong turn and chanced upon the standard accommodation: a large room where families and men staked out small patches of deck to themselves, laid blankets over it, and then sat there looking hunted and hostile in case anyone tried to take any of their space.  Children cried, screamed, ran around, and from time to time went to the toilet in the corner.  The smell was noisome and the noise was deafening.  Elkie had gone back to her stateroom and appreciated it for the first time.
When they landed she waited in the stateroom for the other passengers to disembark first.  She knew little of Wharfhaven; it was a coastal town where the fishing was good and the fishermen highly praised in the city.  There were cliffs, there were seagulls, and somewhere there was a Magister.  She looked out of her porthole, which chanced to be looking inland, and found she could see the cliffs.  Above them wheeled seagulls, dancing on the thermals and calling to one another with harsh, guttural cries.  'If only the Magister is as easy to find,' she thought.  On the quayside she could see the passengers coming off, milling around in small groups as they got in each other's way.  Cases and chests were stacked around them by the handlers, a group of men paid by the passengers or the Captain to unload luggage.  They were rugged, tall and heavily muscled, with tousled thick hair that cascaded down their necks and hung down to their waists, tied loosely back with cords.  They lifted chests that Elkie was sure she'd never even be able to budge as though they were empty, or made of paper.  Now and then one might grunt, or two might lift an end of a particularly large chest between them, but otherwise they worked silently and swiftly.
"Are you paying for the return voyage already then?"  Captain Jerriss had opened her door without bothering to knock and was leaning against the doorjamb.  His smile was mostly hidden by his thick, brown beard, but his eyes still twinkled as he spoke.
"No," she said, sighing a little as she did.  "I have business here."
"I'll be back in six months," said Jerriss.  "If your business is done by then you can always come by and purchase passage with me again."
"I might," she said, meeting his eyes and surprising herself by meaning it.  "Certainly I'll look for you when my business is done."
Jerriss hauled himself from the doorway, and gestured with a hand.  "Would you need a hand with your luggage?  Or would you prefer to be carried ashore by the handlers?"
For a moment she entertained the notion of being picked up by broad, strong arms and carried down the gangplank like a china doll, but she pushed it firmly from her mind.  "Thank-you, Captain," she said, perhaps just a little stiffly.  "Only my luggage needs carrying."
He looked past her and saw her travelling bag and the miserably small chest that all her belongings still only half-filled.  "If that's all you have I'll save you the cost," he said.  She left the room, and he stepped in to pick up her bags himself and bring them after her.
"Should a Captain be seen to be carrying my bags?" she asked, glancing over her shoulder.  Captain Jerriss was carrying them as though they were no weight at all.
"The crew will think I'm sweet on you," he said.  "And that won't hurt my reputation at all."
'Will it hurt mine, I wonder,' she thought, but she said nothing, and concentrated on climbing the narrow stairs to the main deck, and then leading the way across the gangplank.  There were a couple of whistles, which she ignored, and then she'd stopped slightly to one side of the path and Captain Jerriss placed her bag and chest down beside her.
"You've been here before," she started.
"This is part of my regular trading route, yes," said Jerriss.  He didn't sound contemptuous, but she still realised that she'd been gauche.
"Yes," she said, smiling, lowering her eyes.  "Do you know of the Magister?"
"Hah, everyone knows of the Magister," said Jerriss.  "If you mean, do I know him, then no, I've never had the pleasure of his company.  He buys and sells through factors."
"These factors–"
"Will be here this afternoon, but I wouldn't get your hopes up.  I don't think any of them would be able to introduce you to the Magister."
"Why not?"
"They do business with him, they don't sit down over a cup of chai and chat about the weather and women," said Jerriss.  "Most of them won't have met him either, they'll simply put goods where they're told, and the Magister's own men will collect them and make payment."
"This all seems a little complicated," said Elkie.  "Is all business like this?"
There was silence, and then Jerriss saluted her.  "I shall be getting back to my ship now.  Enjoy your stay in Wharfhaven."
She watched him walk away, heading back to the ship, and then looked down at her bags.  She needed somewhere to stay while she looked for the Magister, and she needed somewhere that wasn't filled with the other passengers from the ship.

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