Different POV this time! Enjoy!
Jhim Neola couldn’t stop staring as Reliable dropped anchor. Before him, the city of Baroth sprawled. All the rumors had been correct. It truly was one of the great cities. Buildings climbed into the sky, the wooden slats covered in paints blues and browns and reds. Even a few yellow buildings stuck out of the masses. People swarmed over the streets like so many ants in the distance. Other ships, most of them skiffs or sloops, dotted the harbor—enough so that Jhim briefly thought that he might be able to pass from one to another all the way to the shore and never touch water. They’d passed two war galleys on their way into port. That had been the grandest sight until now.
Streets and the buildings that lined them climbed the small hills that dotted the island. But right in the center of it all, in a place of prominence—as it deserved—rested the Collusium, looking down on the rest of the world. Silbar really was the greatest of the Immortal Lords. Granted, the Collusium served as a school for all eight of the Lords, but Silbar was the best, the most benign. Otherwise, why invite all priests to train and study within the Collusium when the other nations rarely, if ever, admitted to the other Lords beyond their own. It all was just so magnificent. Jhim took an unconscious deep breath.
That had been a mistake.
The stink of sewage and fish guts mixed with the distinctive odor of stale seawater, leaving him gasping for breath. A cry from the taller section of the back of the ship—the stoop?—caused the sailors to leap about. One proceeded to shove Jhim away from the rope he’d been using to hold his balance. Jhim hit the floor with a grunt and he looked back up at the sailor. He felt sure the hurt was plain on his face, but no one took any notice. The sailor unwound the rope from the peg it’d been attached to and started letting coils of it slide through his fingers before tying it off again. A lopsided grin appeared on his face as he stared down through greasy black hair at Jhim. Reaching down with a sun-darkened hand, he grabbed Jhim by the arm and pulled him to his feet.
“Sorry, lad,” he said, straightening Jhim’s shirt. “Needed on that yesterday, if you follow my drift.” Then he proceeded to spout some jargon about boats that Jhim couldn’t follow.
Jhim nodded at all the right points. Or at least, what he thought was all the right points. There was no way for him to know, but the sailor seemed to take it for agreement. At least, he wasn’t being called out right then and there. That was the last thing he wanted.
Taking advantage of a break in the speech as the sailor drew in a breath, Jhim jumped into the fleeting silence. “Quite alright, sir. I do apologize for being in your way. Pardon my intrusion and blessings be upon your day.”
The sailor scratched his head as Jhim walked away. Hadn’t the man ever heard proper speech before? If he had talked that way, his mother would’ve knocked him upside one side of the head and down the other until he stopped. Come to think of it, most of this ship could’ve used the same treatment. Ma and Fa hadn’t been the richest of folk, barely making it by on the farm they scrabbled a living off of, but they’d understood propriety and proper etiquette.
And passion. That was why Jhim had made it this far. Without them and their love, he’d have never had the courage to speak to the priest of his local temple. The idea of journeying to study at the Collusium hadn’t even crossed his mind. He just wanted to spread the word of Silbar’s glory. But when the priest had suggested it, how could he have said no? Ma and Fa had understood that, sacrificing even more for their son’s dream. He owed them everything. The least he could do was remember what they had taught him.
Taking a set of stairs down to the floor below, Jhim entered the space that had served as his living quarters on the five-day trip. It was nothing more than a hammock strung between two posts. Light filtered down through the floorboards above, illuminating dust and. . . other things he’d rather not dwell on. The smell was something else he didn’t want to think on. There was only so much space on the ship, and not near enough air circulation. The stink of sweat, tar, and unwashed men permeated everything, including the hammock he had been assigned. Whenever possible, he’d snuck up to sleep in the fresh air, staring at the stars as they floated by. Or were the stars floating by as he stood still? No one had every answered that question as far as Jhim knew. Another thing for him to ask his teachers. But all things were possible with the grace of the Immortal Lords. Without them, it made no difference.
Grabbing the bag that held all of his worldly possessions, Jhim took the stairs two at a time as he reappeared into the noonday sun. A rowboat had pushed away from the docks and was now making its way over. Two sets of men worked the oars while another stood in the back, looking ahead with tight lips below a tricorne hat. His yellow jacket showed plenty of lace at the sleeves and embroidery along the chest, but as it grew closer, he could see it was well worn. It looked dim, the colors not as bright as they had once been nor the whites as bright. Still, it had been a wealthy man who’d afforded that to begin with. Jhim’s own purse held no more than a few coppers and one precious silver half-penny. That was everything him and his parents had been able to muster. But he’d find more and send it back to them.
The boat bumped alongside and a pair of sailors sent a rope ladder over the side. A moment later, the official in the yellow coat popped his head up and climbed skillfully, if not nimbly, over the side. Captain Syten Melic met him and the two started discussing something in whispers. Curiousity overcame Jhim’s fears of the hard-eyed captain and he took a step toward the two men before a hand on his shoulder stopped him.
Jhim looked behind him and saw the face of a young man, skin sun darkened like the rest of the crew but with a shock of platinum blond hair. He was only a few years older than Jhim’s eighteen summers, but lines already showed on a clean shaven face. That was to be expected, Jhim assumed. He’d seen what the man had done way up on the tops of those poles. If he’d been spending most of his time two hundred feet above the floor, lines would surely cover his face from worry as well.
The sailor dropped his hand and gestured toward the captain and the official. “I understand wanting to be ashore again, but best that you leave those two alone, lest you hear more than is healthy.”
Jhim turned back to the two men and saw a small purse exchange hands before heads and backs straightened. How could hearing something be unhealthy? That made no sense. Ma and Fa had always said to listen as much as you could and learn from what you heard. His priest had said the same. What the sailor said flew in the face of that. Clearly, the sailor was confused. Moments later another two coins—Jhim saw the glint of silver and gold—openly changed hands and the official opened a ledger he’d carried up, jotting down a note or two before turning and heading back over the side.
“Boy,” the captain called. His head went back and forth before his eyes landed on Jhim. “You want to go ashore, there’s your ride. Get going. They’re not as patient as I. Wait too long and they’re libel to ship off without you.” He chuckled, causing his belly to job up and down in his too-tight green coat.
Looking back over his shoulder, Jhim could see that the sailor who’d stopped him had disappeared. That saddened him a little. He’d have at least liked to say goodbye to someone. The captain would have to do. Throwing his bag over his shoulder, he walked up to the man and stuck out a hand.
“Goodbye, sir,” he said. “Thank you for the enjoyable trip.” It’d rained most of the way here and today was the first day that wasn’t actively cloudy.
The captain gawfawed and grasped Jhim’s hand in a meaty paw. “Enjoyable, huh? I’ll have to show you what an enjoyable trip actually is sometime.” He released his iron grip and pointed to the side. “Better get going. What I said holds true, politeness or not.”
Jhim nodded and stepped up to the latter and looked over. The boat seemed so far away and the latter rather rickety. One of the men who’d worked the oars kept ahold of the ladder, preventing the boat from drifting away. Two of the others looked out onto the harbor, contenct that they’d be paid regardless of if they were moving or sitting still. The last picked at a lump on his nose. Whatever it was, it was red and probably needed to be lanced. As for the official, he had a pained expression on his face, and when seeing Jhim, peremptorily gestured for him to hurry up.
Sighing, Jhim climbed over the side and started down the ladder. It was slow going, trying to keep from falling while balancing with the sack over his shoulder. He’d made it only a few feet when a voice shouted up in a high pitched tenor for him to drop the sack. Curiousity made him look down to see who was talking. That was a bad idea and Jhim almost lost his balance before looking back up. But he’d learned who spoke, so it all hadn’t been a loss.
“I said just drop the damn sack,” said the official. “Edmon will catch it. Or just let go and we’ll fish you out of the water.”
Jhim braced himself better and looked down again. Edmon had been the one picking at his nose and he now looked up with a pained expression, gesturing for Jhim to drop the bag. Trusting all of his possessions to a complete stranger wasn’t an easy thought. His parents had taught him not to trust strangers. But then again, everyone was a stranger until you got to know them. The strap of the bag slid down his arm to his hand, and with the best aim he could muster, Jhim dropped it toward the boat.
Edmon caught the bag without batting an eye, stowing it under the seat. Then he looked back up and raised both hands, gesturing again. That confused Jhim. There wasn’t anything else for him to drop. Everything he owned was in. . . . No. There was no way that he was going to jump. No way in the Seven Kingdoms. True, he wasn’t a big man, but he was no boy. The idea of jumping into someone else’s arms was more than a little insulting.
He started back down again. The official was right. It was faster without the bag. A sense of confidence started to build and Jhim built up speed descending. Then his foot caught on a rung and he lost his balance. Hands slipped, then his free foot, followed by the foot which had caused it all to start. Next thing he knew, he was in free fall. Vaguely, he registered the official’s voice crying for them to push off. Then there was nothing but the harbor. His lungs caught nothing but water. They spasmed and he reflexively tried to breath it. Which only made the matter worse.
Two hands grabbed his shirt while two more grasped his ankles. They hauled and Jhim coughed and gasped for breath in the bottom of the boat. Water dripped from his hair into his eyes. It took a moment or two for enough sense to return in order for him to stop thrashing about like some fool. A snort or two helped clear his nose and a wet hand wiped drops of water from his eyes. Nothing pleasant, but enough to clear away the water so he could see. Looking up, he saw the four men bent to work on their oars. The official held a lace handkerchief to his nose as if trying to disguise a smell by the perfume Jhim could smell despite the odor of fish on his clothing.
The boat bumped up against the dock and the official jumped out and started off down the docks before anyone else had time to react. As the other three men put away the oars and tied the boat to a peg set in the posts of the dock, Edmon stood up and helped Jhim out of the boat with a rueful smile and a knowing wink.
“Happens to all of us,” Edmon said as he handed Jhim his bag. “The trick is to stay dry next time.”
Jhim smiled thankfully and walked off after the official. He really had no idea how to get to the Collusium, but he could see its towers in the distance above the buildings that lined the docks. If nothing else, he could just keep climbing roads that led up. It wasn’t the greatest of plans, but it was better than nothing.
Sailors and dock men busied themselves with a myrid of tasks as Jhim walked by. Not many of them made sense to his untrained eye. A man hauled a barrel here. Another a box there. More than once he saw a crate put down by one man only to be picked up and moved by a second and then a third. It was confusing. But it had to make sense to someone, if for no other reason that no one said an unkind word or threw a fist.
Perhaps an unkind word was incorrect. More than once, Jhim heard one man insult another, or another’s parentage, or one of a million things. Several times, he paused looking at a group of men, puzzling out what one or another had said. When it clicked, he could feel his face turn a deep shade of red. Such things were just not said—or even suggested. To do so was incredibly inappropriate. What parents would let their children speak so?
That wasn’t the only thing that shocked him. The closer he got to land, the more that the colors of the buildings faded or flaked. Most looked run down and in need of a new coat of paint which would restore some of their faded beauty. Alas, no one seemed inclined to do so. Signs hung over doors, depicting names and businesses in both words and pictures, several quite lewd. More than one shop door hung open with rank smells of rotting meat or sweaty men rolling out into the street. Inside, Jhim could see men hunkered around tables, stout clay mugs grasped in grubby hands among dimly lit tables. Grime covered windows would do a better job letting in light had the barmaids been more interested in cleaning than—
Jhim’s face turned red when he realized why some of the women had skirts sewn up to revel petticoats or a well-turned ankle and bodices cut low. And they seemed to relish in the attention it drew. Both inside and outside of shops, Jhim saw hands slap away pinches and groping fingers with nary a thought. It was like they expected it, and in doing so, was able to prevent it. Such behavior would never have been tolerated at home. He felt sure about that. Sure, the barmaid at Ledwin’s Luck back home knew how to step lively, but she’d never had to fend off such an onslaught as this. She’d have been overwhelmed in the first minute. But then again, she’d never have had to. Ledwin’s Luck didn’t open until a proper hour, well after the workday ended for most men.
All this took place while people danced around and ignored the rubbish lining the streets. Crates and boxes, barrels and casks, filled any open area larger than three men abreast. Fish filled some, rotting waste others. It made the stomach churn to even look at it. No one noticed the smell or the papers which filled the street, blown by the wind or caught wet in puddles on the stone street. Seabirds filled the air, their rawkous cries unnoticed by any but him. Occasionally, one or two would attempt to filtch some food from a stall or a cask. Usually they were ushered off by angry proprietors, but enough succeeded to keep the hopes up for the rest.
Jhim just tried moving forward as fast as he could, keeping his head down. Once or twice, he could have sworn he saw the brown robes of a priest inside a tavern with squirming woman on his lap. But that would’ve been impossible. Such activities were forbidden. But he did stop one time, peering inside the darkened common room of a tavern just off the docks. Indeed there had been a priest with a young woman half his age sitting on his lap with her tickling him under his chin. Standing in the doorway, he gaped at the sight until another woman saw him and came sauntering over. What she suggested had him red in the face, embarrassed that it even sounded entertaining. He could still hear her and the other girls laughter as he fled down the street.