New Beginnings… Part 2
J.C. back again, though it may be two weeks plus before Part 3 appears. During that time, Barb and I will be busy settling into our new home, preparing for work on the coming new series, and going over our line-editor’s notes for S3B5: The Night Voice. August will be a very busy month for us.
For those stopping in on this series for the first time, you might take a peek at Part 1 to get caught up on what this is really about. Be mindful that these are extracts from a copyrighted work in progress. And so, let us continue…
Chapter 1, Scene 1
Vàtz Kōbanusk—shortish, skinny, sharp chinned and eyed, and just beyond his fifteenth year—strolled under the squawk of seagulls wheeling overhead in the pre-dawn. On any morning, he was always up this early to walk all the way into the king's city through its three great walls ringing its center to pick up his younger cousin Pìnt before heading off to work. But today was special.
On the first day of a new moon, he headed straight for the port's waterfront, after which he'd have to go a little inland and up-slope. Because it was the last moon's end, he'd dress up a bit, though he'd had little luck taming his wild shock of dusty chocolate hair.
Vàtz never had luck with that, though he did in other ways.
Over an old canvass shirt and pants—one yellowed more than white and the other more dun than tan—he'd donned his special vest before kissing his fussy mother goodbye. The vest was too big, being cut for a small man instead of a youth, but still, it made him feel important, like he was. As owner and proprietor of the Fire & Flood Porter Service—“FFPS” for short—that required dressing up now and then.
The vest's burgundy brocade was worn—well-worn—alright, thoroughly worn. He'd had to snip a snagged thread or three every time he took it out. After setting up a real place of business for the FFPS, he'd purchased the vest for a silver groat—a fourth of a silver penny—at Mag's Rags, the old thief! It'd do until he could afford something more distinguished, as that'd been more coin than he should've spent.
Meaning more than he'd wanted to spend.
But a true—and finally—owner of a real business had to look proper at times. In feeling more than proper at any moon's end, Vàtz strutted the awakening waterfront of Bela, “The White.”
The king's city was so named long, long ago for the bleached white granite of its oldest structures. That included the fortress castle atop the midpoint of the huge hill ridge that ringed the Outer Bay. “Outer” because there was also an “Inner” bay on the eastern side of the peninsula atop the nation of Belaski. Of course, any port city got a bit dingy over time.
Bela wasn't so white anymore. More so for how it'd sprawled out along the hill ridge and down to the bay over too many centuries. It was still the grandest port along the eastern shore of the ocean, or what locals called the Brink. Bela's largest docks were double tall with double decks and could handle the biggest vessels of the ocean, even the few giants with five or more sails up their main masts. Nowhere else in this kingdom—no, the whole land—could you find nearly anything from anywhere for a price. Thereby, it was the best place to make one's fortune, and more so for anyone ambitious if a little unscrupulous like Vàtz.
Of course, he did have his own principles.
He'd barely neared the first dockside warehouse when he spotted a familiar face and called out, “Hey, Duchess, got my breakfast ready?”
It was just a friendly ritual; the Duchess—who wasn't a real duchess—never forget his scheduled splurge.
She snorted back. “It's moon's end, ain't it, you little penny-bender.”
Her glare never bothered him. Well, except for that left eye gone milky white in a wide face like a gnarled oak stump. She was also that short and stout in her garish quilt-and-patchwork skirt and vestment beneath a weathered cloak. Wispy ashen hair peeked from under her cloak's hood.
Vàtz smirked as he halted before her rickety, scrap-wood cart. He ignored sausages on the coal pot grill and fried buns dangling from a stick rack. She knew what he'd come for, and he leaned in with a wink and whisper.
“Ah never, I know you wouldn't forget.”
The Duchess grumbled something as she squatted behind her cart. All of her bangles and bobbles of cheap jewelry and trinkets chittered as she dug into the cart's backside. When she straightened up—more slowly than she'd dropped—she thrust out a bulging flat-bread wrap.
Vàtz took it and peeked inside of it. Scrabble eggs were mixed with dried shreds of onion and red pepper. There was also crumbled garlic and goat cheese along with tumble-fried, spiced potatoes. It was too early in spring for tomatoes, but this time sliced mushrooms took their place. Everything was as expected, as always, just for him.
He fumbled one-handed into his pants' front for the well-hidden pouch and blindly groped for a coin. He didn't need to look. He knew any coin's value at a touch by its size, thickness, and weight, and he held out a copper penny the size of his thumbnail.
“Thanks again, Gryta,” Vàtz said another wink.
Few knew let alone dared use her real name. The Duchess snatched the coin like a seagull stealing a scrap from its own flock. He didn't mind that either, and not for fear of being cursed for his gall. Not that he believed she could put a curse on him.
“Get on, now,” she grouched. “I've more to feed than the once-a-moon likes of you.”
With a nod and a smile, Vàtz turned away but paused, wistfully eyed very special moon's end breakfast, and took his first bite. He might've overpaid a bit, but he didn't mind this time, and it had nothing to do with a curse.
Some suspected the Duchess was a Móndyalítko, which meant “the world's children” or some such. If so, she was one of those ever-traveling people of shifters, witches, fortunetellers and the like. Others called them Tzigän or “vagabond thieves,” though not to their faces if outnumbered—and never ever to the Duchess. Maybe people thought she was one of them because of the way she dressed.
No one asked what she was doing working a food cart at her age. Everyone minded their own business on the waterfront. Well, unless someone else's business was their business... or profit. Maybe she'd been tossed out of her tribe for spitting a curse on one of her own.
Of course, Vàtz didn't believe in curses, and he nibble that special breakfast again, savoring it slowly a little at a time. The Duchess had always been nice to him. Well, nicer than to anyone else that he knew. And he'd never swindled nor shorted those with much less than himself. But anyone who swindled or shorted him was fair game, regardless.
At that, he paused in his nibbling and wondered if Tryx would beat him to the FFPS this morning. She was the oddest and newest addition to his crew, his staff, from only a few moon's ago. There was just something... wrong about her.
Tryx was just too good—and too little—to be that good at keeping his books. At least too good to be working at the FFPS. Then again, such luck wasn't something you questioned or it might turn on you and vanish. That thought made him wonder something else.
Hopefully, Pìnt didn't wander off again in heading to the FFPS on his own. It was the one thing about a moon's end that always worried Vàtz—aside from how much profit had been made and how much he could keep.
“You going to get on, already?” he heard the Duchess grumble behind him.
Vàtz glanced back, noticed the sky getting lighter over the city, and with a last nod to the Duchess, he started off along the waterfront. At a loud squawk and thrashing, he stiffened and froze with his teeth half-sunk into the flat-bread
Three seagulls fidgeted on a pier railing ahead.
He side-stepped the the other way in eyeing them. Three pairs of glassy, black eyes followed his every move—or that of his breakfast. He wasn't watching where he was going, for he didn't dare take his eyes off those birds. One downside to the largest port in the land were those big, flying wharf-rats, and lots of them.
“Hey, out of the way! We're workin' here!”
Vàtz flinched, stumbled, and tore the flat-bread wrap in his teeth. Two huge dockworkers came at him with a cargo net draped between them and coils of rope and tackle slung over their shoulders. They didn't even slow and, without thinking, he quick-hopped back the other way.
There were those beady-eyed birds still watching.
Again, he forgot to watch his step, and Bela had something else as abundant as seagulls. At a sudden slosh of seawater from a bucket, his next step slid forward and up off the waterfront's boards. Floundering on one foot for an instant, he bobbled his breakfast, tore more of it in his teeth, and slammed down on his buttocks with a wet smack. Seawater on the walkway soaked quickly through his pants.
Vàtz sat stunned with half of his special breakfast in his lap. He stared at the seawater spreading around him and at what was in that water besides scattered bits of his breakfast. Black and white swirls curled and looped, some already blurring into a sickly gray.
“Come now! Watch where you're goin',” someone scolded.
Vàtz still didn't look up from those swirls of... bird poop!
That's what else the waterfront had. So much so that clean-up crews couldn't keep up. Everyone had to mind their step not to slip on poop from those filthy, filching, feathered wharf-rats! He didn't have another instant to worry about the three still watching him, for snickering pulled his gaze toward nearest warehouse.
“Mind your way,” a gravely voice chuckled, “and you should know better by now, ya little schemer.”
With the warehouse’s bay door’s now open, “Thumbless” Boddack leaned on the frame in his sailor's canvas pants but with dockworker's boots and a leather vest. The out-of-place, white linen shirt with billowy sleeves said a lot more about the lanky, top-heavy, warehouse foreman. Boddack didn't do real work anymore. He had a position to make others do it all. And he wasn't completely thumbless, just missing the left one from a season ago.
Vàtz spit out what was left between his teeth. “Mind yourself... thumbless!”
The foreman straightened and uncrossed his bulking arms. With a finger of the thumbed hand, he flicked aside dingy locks draping his gray eyes and gull-beak nose.
“Oh no, looks like you need a wash, cloths and all,” Boddack said in mock concern, and his voice turned threateningly soft. “Care for a long drop and a dunk?”
Vàtz looked away. He didn't have his “protection” with him—not yet—and he didn't care to fish himself out of the bay far below the walkway—not this morning. Struggling up, he was too quick in swatting off what he'd spilled in his lap.
That was his second mistake of the morning.
A maelstrom of squawking, beating wings, and loosened feather whipped up around him. Three then four, five, and more airborne wharf-rats descended on him and the scraps of breakfast he'd scattered. One tried for the torn wrap in his hand. By the time feathers settled, and he kicked a gull pecking potatoes on his left boot, everyone nearby was laughing.
Except for him and the old man leaning on a worn-out push-broom.
The elder waterfront tender, who'd sloshed seawater to clear the boards, stared down. Among the squabbling gulls, bits of Vàtz's scattered breakfast had soaked into the poop-swirled water. Those flying rats didn't care in their pecking and thrashing, and the old man raised his eyes and glowered.
“Sorry,” Vàtz mumbled, but Thumbless chuckled even more.
“Hey, schemer,” Boddock barked. “Don't ya remember? You're not supposed to feed the birds!”
Vàtz cringed, flushed, and kicked another gull. At the squalling squawk that erupted, he tromped off in plucking egg bits out of his vest's brocade. The waterfront was awakening, and now he was a mess and late in getting to business.
More warehouses opened their front bays. Workers trotted out in teams for the docks to take in cargo from ships in port. More ships were anchored off in the huge bay. All of this meant passengers as well, who'd need porters to haul luggage and maybe more. But the FFPS didn't have the only private crews competing with those of the warehouses.
Among others, Boddock had his own side-crew, all men and big ones.
After a groan, Vàtz chomped the last two bites of his breakfast. This wasn't the way to start a new moon. It was a bad sign at best, and though he didn't know why, he suddenly worried a bit more about Pìnt. His littler cousin was the luckiest runt that ever lived, but that didn't matter.
Pìnt's luck had a way of ruining everyone else's. And after this morning, Vàtz's felt like his luck had just turned on him.
FINAL NOTE: The big move is imminent, so the next installment is two more weeks away, at least—for real this time. See you then.