The Hell of It

Some heroes don’t carry blades or go to war. Some heroes are fathers desperately trying not to fail their sons.

Like some other stories published on Tor.com, “The Hell of It” contains scenes and situations some readers will find upsetting and/or repellent. [—The Editors]

This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Claire Eddy.

 

Russet hues lit the western horizon and caught in the surfaces of the quiet harbor. Soon the sun would set, making Malen Staned’s scrub-work more difficult. But he was nearly finished. Kneeling on the trawler deck, he scrubbed away fish blood with a stiff brush and scraped the tougher bits with a flat knife. Around his knees he wore the double-woven wool wraps that hands-and-knees workers used. But even with the wraps his bones ached. He paid the pain little mind and added a fistful of lye to his water bucket before mopping down the deck—the smell of scales and entrails was particularly strong today. He was shooing away a few lingering seagulls when Captain Lowell appeared from the small stern-side doorway. A doorway that led to the man’s cabin, where he would have been reviewing his daily catch ledgers.

“Malen,” the captain said, and waved him over before disappearing back inside.

He set down his mop, grateful to be done for the day. His arms ached, and at this hour his son, Roth, would be waiting on him. Before going into the captain’s quarters, Malen rolled down his sleeves. He always sought to be as presentable as possible when he spoke with the ship’s steward. The smell of fish was strong on him, but there was no help for that.

Just as he reached the doorway, another man emerged—one he didn’t know. The other’s eyes narrowed against the glare of westering sun, and he moved with a deliberate step to the portside plank. Malen caught a glimpse of a patch sewn to the man’s cloak, the insignia of the League of Civility—four hands, each gripping the wrist of the next to form a squared circle.

Some called the League our civic mind. They were an influential fellowship that challenged old traditions and had become the Wanship watchdog. More than that, really. Beyond the port city of Wanship, throughout the broad kingdom of So’Dell, the League, some said, was more powerful than the ruling class. The squared round of hands carried more weight than the So’Dell realm mark—a schooner whose sails resembled swooping cutlasses. But Leaguemen didn’t go about idly.

Malen watched the stranger descend to the dock before turning and ducking into the dark hall. He now felt a tug of uncertainty, coming to the captain after a Leagueman’s visit.

Inside the ship’s cabin, two small lamps burned against the onset of twilight. Malen liked the quietfeeling of authority here. The charts and compass and skyglass all gave him a sense of the captain’s knowledge, and Lowell made smart use of the instruments. Other trawlers had lain up at the dock for weeks now. Given the new levies, and the rate of their yield, most were unable to afford a crew. Captain Lowell still sailed daily to the fishing waters.

The man sat at his small desk, staring down at a ledger marked with dates and notes of catch size. He wore his spectacles, which gave him a studious, seasoned look. The lenses caught the glimmer of the lamp flames.

As if coming to the same conclusion again, the man sighed and removed his glasses.

Malen sensed it before Lowell spoke. The captain had been staring at his ledgers, as though trying to will a different sum from the numbers there. Numbers, Malen guessed, that led to a grim financial reality. Numbers that were about to take him in their rough embrace.

“I’m sorry, Malen. These are hard times.” The captain shut his eyes tight, and rubbed at them with the balls of his hands. He then finally looked up at Malen, blinking away some weariness. “There’s no other way, my friend. I have no more work for you.”

Malen’s heart began to race. This had been the only job he could find. The fishing trade, though slow, was the last profitable commerce in Port Wanship. Maybe in all of So’Dell, come to that. And even so, he made scarcely enough coin to get bread and oil and other common necessaries. His mind went instantly to his son. Malen hadn’t been able to afford to send the boy to lessons of any kind. Not even the new schools opened by the League, which accepted anyone for a two-plug tuition. After Marta had gone to her earth . . . he’d struggled.

“I can work for less,” he offered. “Please, Captain, I’ll take part of my pay in fish.”

Lowell gave a wan smile. “You already do, Malen. It’s how I’ve kept you working as long as I have.” He paused. “I know you have a son . . . I’m sorry. When the fishing picks up again, I’ll take you back. I have hope that the spring season will come with full nets.”

“I can work for fish alone,” Malen countered.

The captain shook his head. “I’ll need every pound weighed for market, and that wouldn’t be right, besides. Your work deserves compensation. I’d feel the cheat.”

Malen stared back, his panic and desperation mounting. He’d made only one promise to Marta when her womb had continued to bleed well after Roth had been cleaned and swaddled.

See that he grows up right, my love. I want him to be honest and fair. I want him to work hard and follow his heart. I want him to be like his father.

She’d reached up a cold hand and caressed his cheek. He could no longer remember how long his love had lived after giving birth to their son. An hour. A day. A week. It all blurred together now.

The only grace he felt was that she couldn’t see how he’d failed her request. He worked and lived in the Wanship slums along the wharf. And though he hadn’t the courage to ask his son, he felt sure the lad had begun to beg and hustle—wharf games, they called it—with the alley kids he called friends. Roth was only ten. Dear abandoning gods.

Malen got down on his knees, a sharp pain rising in his bruised bones. “I beg you, Captain. Please. I’ll do more for less. I’ll prepare the bait. I can move the catch to market for you. Tell me what I can do.”

Captain Lowell looked across his small desk at him, his eyes apologetic. Before he spoke, he scanned his ledger one last time. “The excise . . . I’m sorry, Malen. I can scarcely afford deckhands. I’d take you on there, but every hand’s got to turn twelve nets an hour or I’ll lose my ship. Your net days are well behind you.”

But Malen heard little of his captain’s explanation. He was seeing the man he’d just passed moments ago. The Leagueman. It was the League that had pressured the mayor to impose the new levies. And helped enforce them. He bristled with anger and confusion over it. The League liked to be seen as a champion for the wharf-poor. Mostly, their reform efforts meant taxes for men like Captain Lowell. Malen’s hands clenched into fists. What they all needed was another Cutlass Sea—a storied revolt of the sailors and fishers that had given So’Dell its realm mark.

“That isn’t the end of it,” the captain said, drawing his attention. “I don’t even have coin for your last day’s labor.” A note of shame crept into the man’s voice. “I’ll ask you to take fish for payment.”

Malen looked down at his hands, the skin still puckered from so much time in the wash pail. His fingernails held grit and fish blood. He saw only his failure to make good use of his hands to provide for his son. Not simply because the captain had no work for him, but because the best he’d been able to do, in these later years, with these hands . . . was scrub a deck. And he’d known (even if he’d never admitted it to himself) that he couldn’t raise his son doing this thing.

I’ve failed you, Marta. What do I do now?

Malen stared down into the bowl of mash he’d prepared for supper. Across the kitchen table from him sat his son, head bowed and eyes shut, waiting for his father to offer the prayer over the food. The sea trout that had been his final payment had cooked just fine. But the wheat was old. Much of it floated in the mealy stew, meaning it bore weevil larvae. They weren’t harmful to eat, but the thought of it soured his stomach. And it pained him to ask his son to eat them, too.

After some time, Roth opened his eyes and looked up. “Will you pray tonight?”

Malen regarded his boy for a long moment.. “I don’t think so, son. Not tonight.” He tipped his bowl slightly toward the boy. “Are you grateful for this?” He smiled tiredly.

His son smiled back. “You could fry the other trout, instead.”

Malen considered it briefly. “It’d be a waste. I’ll dry it and we’ll get a couple of meals out of it. Maybe tonight we’ll just pick the fish from the stew, how’s that?”

Roth carefully spooned a bite of the trout from his bowl, taking care to avoid the floating wheat. Watching the skill with which his son performed the simple feat reminded Malen that it wasn’t the first time.

He put down his own spoon. “We need to talk, Roth. I need to tell you some things.”

His boy nodded and began working at a second bit of fish.

“The captain has no more work for me. I won’t be going back to the trawler.”

Roth paused and looked up at him. His face held the kind of grave expression that a child so young shouldn’t know. The boy understood the realities of their situation, where they could wind up if his father couldn’t find work.

Before Malen could say more, a knock came at the door. He started at the intrusion, but was grateful for an excuse to look away from the concern in his son’s face. He got up and went to the door.

A very young girl stood there, her blouse pulled down off her shoulders far enough to expose the tops of her breasts. She’d painted her face more expertly than a girl her age should have had the skill to do. She would be a beautiful woman in ten years. Today, she was maybe thirteen. Still, she looked up at him with a wanton, seductive expression that Malen believed made her door-to-door trade a successful one.

“A silver. Or four realm plugs if you let me stay the night.” She looked past him into the home. “I can sleep on the floor.”

Several times a week the girls of the Wanship slums worked the doors, but Malen had never seen this particular young woman before. “I don’t have—”

“I’ll give the boy his turn for free,” she added. “Make a man of him.”

Desperation crept into her face. She needed a place to stay. And he wanted to help. But with wharf-drabs, if one let conscience get the better of caution, things of value had a way of disappearing in the night. And he had need of their last few valuables.

“I’m sorry,” he began, “We can’t—”

“For food, then,” she broke in. “A bowl of whatever’s on your table. That’s a bargain you can’t deny.” She began pulling her blouse further down, to give him a look, as she eyed him provocatively.

Malen caught her hand before she could expose herself. “There’s no need of that,” he said. “Wait here.”

As he crossed to the table to pick up his bowl, he realized he hadn’t seen a brand on the girl’s breast near her nipple. She wasn’t yet working for a mack-man who whored her out. She was playing a dangerous game without such protection—both prostitutors and callers might beat her. Returning to the door, he handed her the food. “I need the bowl back. So I’ll wait while you eat.”

Most of the people who lived nearby weren’t really neighbors. The houses were rented. People came and went. Often quickly. Often in the shadows of evening. And of those whose faces he might recognize, some few shared his bad fortune. But mostly, the tenants at this end of the district walked with their heads down and lips shut. Wharf-drift, was what they were. Grifters, peddlers and pawners, door-knockers, and sad sacks who seemed to use what money they could come by to drink bay rum endlessly. Despite all that, he would avoid even the appearance of impropriety. He wouldn’t invite her in. She would have to eat at the doorway.

She took the bowl from his hands, seeming to understand that she wouldn’t be allowed inside. “If you don’t want me to come in, I can—”

“Never mind. The food is free.” He stood waiting.

Understanding bloomed on her face and she set to the bowl of mash, taking no note of the weevils. She’d downed it entirely in a matter of moments, upending the bowl to suck every last drop. She wiped her mouth more delicately than he might have imagined she would, and gave him a look of gratitude he’d always remember.

Then she handed him the bowl and moved on to the next house. Malen saw the door open, and the girl talk with the person who stood just out of sight. She cast a look back in his direction as a hand checked her breast for a brand, then pulled her inside.

There’d always been wharf-drift in Wanship. Young drabs knocking on slum doors. But since League reform, there’d been more of them. And younger. He was no economist, but it didn’t seem to him that the levies and programs were helping the people who paid them.

Malen studied the bowl in his hands for a moment before returning to his chair. His son watched him as he settled himself and prepared to tell the boy what he’d decided. Before he could begin, Roth spoke.

“I can help, Da. I’ve learned some of the wharf games. I’m good at them, too. Give me a few thin plugs and I can turn them into silver, I know it.” An eager look shone on his son’s face.

“No!” He surprised himself with the violence of his response. He supposed it had to do with letting Marta down where Roth was concerned. And wharf-drift.

The boy stared back at Malen, looking a bit afraid, but more than anything else, sad. Sad in the way one feels when they helplessly watch someone they love suffer. Malen knew that look. He’d seen it in his own reflection. It had stared back at him from the still morning waters of Wanship Bay every morning since Marta had gone to her earth.

“Roth,” he began, finding a soft tone and giving the boy an understanding smile. “I don’t ever want you playing wharf games. Just remember that the people these friends of yours are fleecing are families like us. Every thin plug you take off them is a bowl of mash a father can’t give his son.” He thought a moment, and added. “We’re down. And we’re going to be down for a while. But I want you to remember this: Any man willing to work, if he’ll let go his pride, can find something to lift or push or drag, and someone to place a cold iron plug in his hand for doing so. That’s a heavy net to haul, but you keep a stitch of honor for hauling it.”

His son looked back at him in a way that made him think he understood. After a long moment, Roth licked his lips and spoke. “The dock chamberlain was here.”

Malen’s heart beat hard as if mule-kicked. And he began to silently calculate the day’s date. He’d completely lost track of time inside the endless routine of scrubbing down the trawler decks, scrambling together whatever ingredients he could scrape up into barely edible mash, getting Roth to bed with a story or two, and sleepless nights with Marta on his mind.

Roth showed his father sympathetic eyes, worried eyes. “He says you’re behind with rent. He says he’s coming back in three days. With help. He says it’ll be coin or culling when he comes.”

Pay the back rent or they’d be evicted; Malen had known this was coming. There won’t be time to earn a silver and three. Never mind find the work to do it.

But he didn’t want these things tolay heavy on his son’s young heart. A child should get to be a child, have imaginings, sing tuneless songs out loud and expect applause. He should get to chase daring adventures for no other reason than that they occurred to him. There’d be time enough later on for sober-mindedness.

Malen gave his son a comforting smile. “Here’s the truth of it, son. Like I said, we’re going to be down for a while. But it won’t always be so. We’ll get back on top.” He paused a moment, considering. “You may plant that seed in summer soil,” he added, reassuring his boy that sometimes things come later than they should. But they still come.

He reached across the table and took his boy’s hand. “But until it yields up, you and me, we have to stay together. I don’t mean just under the same roof. I mean up here.” He tapped the side of his own head. “We have to get set on the same plan. And more than just that, we have to get set on the way we’re going to see that plan done. Understand?”

Roth nodded.

A long silence stretched between them. Malen was about to break the uncomfortable tension when Roth lowered his eyes and spoke words that broke his heart.

“Da, do you remember Bryen?”

“Sure I do. Good lad, as I recall.” He tried to lighten the mood, and said with a small smile, “Not much with a song, though. Boy sounded like a drunken loon.”

Roth didn’t see the smile, still looking down the way boys do when they share things that scare them. “When spring season began, his da lost their house. Couldn’t pay the chamberlain. One day, they came—”

“Who came?”

His boy shrugged. “The chamberlain’s men? Or maybe the mayor’s? Could have been the League, I guess. But they came, and his da couldn’t pay, and so they took him to the stocks.”

Malen kept the cringe off his face. The stocks were a debtor’s prison.

Roth’s voice thickened with grief and fear. “Bryen does wharf games to get plug money for his ma and sisters. Sometimes . . . sometimes he gets caught . . . and beaten down hard. And his oldest sister, Mery.” His son finally looked up, eyes glassy with tears, but holding on to some thin measure of boyhood toughness. “She got taken, too, Da. But not to the stocks. Someone got her. They make her go wharf-door knocking.”

His boy looked past him to the door where the drab had just eaten Malen’s bowl of mash before going to the next house. When Roth’s eyes returned to him, they were plaintive and needful. They pleaded for him to make a shim of sense of these things.

Malen didn’t have an answer for this. Not one the boy would want to hear or understand, anyway. Work was scarce. And itinerant laborers needed a solid skill if they hoped to succeed when moving to a new city to find work—word was that crowds of men waited on what few jobs came along. Which meant moving inland wasn’t really an option for Malen. And finding another port to scrub decks . . . that wouldn’t make a life any more than it had here. In Malen’s silence, Roth pushed on, seeming to think his da needed more information to offer a solution.

“Her ma can’t stop it. The mack-men threaten to do the same to Bryen . . . and his little sister, Jemma.” Roth’s words grew sharp with anger. “And the mayor’s men don’t seem to care, since she’s not paying tax. Bryen and his family sleep in the nook beneath the Dyer’s-side pier. His ma’s afraid to leave her family to go find work. She’s worried about what might happen while she’s gone.”

Roth stopped, wiping his eyes with his sleeve and visibly holding down a sob. “She’s got a tin cup. She sits outside the taverns along the lower harbor. Clean-boot places.” His son looked down again. “She begs, Da. She says mercies to passing folk, so that her other kids don’t get taken. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen a plug or two drop in her cup. I’ve seen mean, drunken men lash her face for sport. Mostly,” and his eyes returned again to Malen, begging some relief, “mostly they ignore her. Mostly they walk by like she’s wharf-drift. Like she’s not there. Like they can’t hear her or see that she’s got kids . . . like me.”

Malen got up, went around the table, and put his large, rough hands on the boy’s shoulders. He meant to offer some reassuring words. Fathers do that. They stand between childhood and the harsh ways of greedy men, whether those men wear uniforms or leathers with week-old meal-stains. Except that it was too late for reassurance. All this had already gotten inside his boy. There was nothing to be done about that. And Malen wouldn’t lie or try to refashion hard truths his son had learned too young.

Instead, he hunkered down so he could look up into his son’s face. “Listen to me. Your da won’t let that happen to us. It’ll be rough. But we’re rough men, aren’t we? We can handle anything. And I have an idea for us. It’s going to mean parting with some things that will be hard to part with. But things aren’t family. And your da knows a way—a hard way, mind you—but a way to keep us going a while.”

He tried a smile, and coaxed a return grin from Roth, who sniffed and nodded.

“Trust me a league more.” He squeezed the boy’s leg to instill a smidge of confidence. “We’re going to get through.”

And he did have an idea. A painful one. Risky, too. And it meant breaking a promise. But he’d come to believe that sometimes oaths and laws ceased to apply, like when stealing bread for a hungry child. Even the abandoning gods, who’d forsaken this world rather than govern it, wouldn’t condemn a man for that, would they? Even they, whose charter of principles had led them to believe the world was lost, even they would have shown him some mercy.

Malen knelt beside his bed, his elbows resting on the thin straw mattress. Across from him, Roth had done the same, looking like nothing so much as a younger Marta. Between them, neatly laid side by side, were Marta’s nice things. They were the small tokens that had made her feel pretty, made her feel more than a scullery maid.

One was a thin silver ring, something she’d carried with her into marriage. It had been her mother’s wedding ring. Marta’s father had been lost at sea—a deep-water sail-fish man—and so her mother had graciously given it to Malen to present to her daughter as her betrothal ring.

Beside it lay an ivory pinch-comb. Pinch-combs were a fashion for folks with clean boots. Not wharf-drift. He smiled fondly at the memories of Marta wearing it. She’d always put her hair up most delicately when she wanted to feel feminine, allowing a curl or two to fall out of the comb to gently caress her neck. He half-believed the whole purpose was so that he could softly remove the comb when their talking was all through. That was a fine moment, feeling her hair tumble down over his rough hands and across her neck and shoulders. What he wouldn’t give to feel it one more time.

Next to the pinch-comb lay a thin rosewood flute. Recorder, Marta would always correct him. It might have been a hand and a half in length. Plenty big for her small, delicate fingers. The instrument had six holes on top, two beneath, and held a bit of luster still. No surprise. Every full and perfect moon, Malen took out the flute and with slow and deliberate care rubbed it with a rose-oil rag. He never tried to play, or even put his lips to it to touch where Marta’s lips had been. Pity that Roth had never gotten to hear one of her evening tunes. Never rushed, they seemed to keep the meaning of the instrument’s name—Marta had liked to remind Malen that recorder also meant rememberer.

In some ways, even more than the pinch-comb, the recorder alluded to a life they’d only ever dreamed about. While scops played taverns all along the wharf, talented musicians found their way to courts, or better still, conservatories. Marta had enough of an ear to understand the value of well-played notes. Enough of an ear to know that well-played notes were more than music. And there were colleges in Masson Dimn, Vohnce, and elsewhere that taught the truths inside those notes. When she’d played her little flute, Malen had heard her poet’s heart reaching out for that understanding.

The last of her nice things was the hardest to look at. And would be the hardest to part with. He gave Roth a long look, trying to keep the regret from his face. With trembling hands, he fingered open the tiny clasp and drew back the lid. The pleasant smell of cedar filled the small space between him and his son as they looked down on a used pen set. Used, as in not new. Marta had never had the chance to put it to her own use.

It had been a gift he’d intended to give her after Roth was born. Since their first meeting, she’d talked about writing down poems and thoughts and fables of her own making. She practiced on him in the evening hours when they’d lain together in bed. She’d liked the musical way of words, and thought someday it might be a delight to write down her best efforts and fashion them into a book. But a poet’s tools were expensive to come by. Especially when three days in ten she and Malen were boiling free butcher bones to make broth for supper.

He tenderly touched the pen. The vial of ink was so small it might scarcely have held enough ink to write a single sonnet. And the clever sander had been fashioned to look like the face of Angeline, the fabled muse of lilac and lion. He’d meant to encourage her to pen her poems. He’d meant to see to it that others could hear the music in her words. It was a thank you for standing beside him, one she’d never known about. She went to her earth before he could give it to her.

She would have liked it. She would have put her hair up, so it could be taken down. He smiled sadly, and looked up into the face of his son, still a picture of his mother.

“Are you sure, Da?” Roth asked.

Malen felt like crying. Emotions swept through him at dizzying speeds, upsetting even an old trawler-deck man. “They’re nice things. Your mother’s things. But like I said, things aren’t family. If she were here, she’d hesh me for dawdling then slap my ass to get to a skiller and price them in for coin.”

Roth’s mouth quirked in a sweet smile. Probably over his ass comment.

“Besides,” Malen said, “it’s the memories they stir that matter. And a sorry set we’d be if we needed them to keep her in mind, wouldn’t you agree?”

The boy nodded. “Are you going now? Aren’t the skillers all closed? Anyone taking a pawn at this hour isn’t going to give you good trade.”

It was true. Reputable skillers kept reputable hours, even on the wharf. Men who traded goods by moonlight were pushing ill-gotten gains or buying cheap what had been stolen. Roth knowing this was just another sad reminder of their circumstance. It made him wonder if his boy had guessed at his true intent—where else did you go with nice things in these hours of evening?

“I’ll find a worthy buyer,” he said, maintaining a bettor’s composure.

He sighed heavily, closed the cedar-box lid, and drew in the corners of the cloth to bundle up Marta’s nice things again. If it weren’t for the new levies, he probably wouldn’t need to do this thing. In all likelihood, the Leagueman he’d brushed by on his way to see Captain Lowell had been there to collect the city’s purse, leaving the captain with no option but to trim his crew.

“Pull down the brace when I leave, and get yourself to bed at a decent hour. Hear me?”

Roth nodded again. He came around and gave Malen a shoulder hug. Malen returned the lad a firm embrace, and held on to it for as long as he could. Then he got to his feet.

“We’re rough men,” he said softly, and winked.

Roth winked back. “Rough men don’t wink,” he said, and giggled.

Malen belly-laughed, and got going. Out the door and down the road a piece, he turned not left toward the skiller shops, but right toward the harbor. Toward the riverboat he knew was moored along the Saelish pier. Where he’d do his level best to resurrect his skill as a man of chance.

The riverboat teemed with bettors and whores and cardsharps and gamble-makers and men hired to keep fights brief. Laughter and scowls and jangling lutes filled the air as Malen approached. His heart began to thump a mighty pattern. He’d put all this away at Marta’s insistence when he’d given her the ring he now carried in the bundle slung at his waist. A ring that might fetch a bag of meal, or half a silver in a skiller’s shop, where booty turned back a tenth its value. But a sharp wit with odds could make a thing worth a hundred times its purchase price. And Malen had been damned good at it in what he thought of as his net years—when his back could handle sea-work.

And he wouldn’t deny the bit of thrill it gave him, coursing again now in his middle-years blood.

At the plank that ran onto the boat, three men milled like tethered, restless sentry hounds. A finely dressed couple—they both wore hats—had just boarded, as Malen approached the men.

Rather disinterestedly, the tallest man sized him up, his eyes quick and appraising. “Three plugs.”

This was new. Years ago, when he’d frequented the gambling barges, the only boarding requirement had been that you didn’t carry onto the boat anything you could get foolish with if your luck spoiled—knives, knuckle-punches. Usually, a heavily oiled deck locker—the kinds used to store perishables—sat dockside, where it was repurposed to hold such things while you played your chances. But an actual fare?

Malen had only Marta’s four nice things. And he’d need them all for actual wagers. He thought quickly. The dock hound had seemed to make a bidder’s assessment of him. Which the manwouldn’t have needed to do if the price to board was standard.

Malen took a step to one side and called over the railing to the elegantly dressed couple now striding the deck. “Excuse me. You there.” They continued to walk, unaware he was calling to them, in particular. “You, with the two-feather hat.”

The woman stopped and turned back, a question in her face. Her man, arm linked with hers, was jerked to a stop, and stared back with irritation.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Malen said, bowing in apology, “But may I ask, did you pay more than six plugs to board?”

The gentleman turned to face him fully, just as the three dock hounds laid hold of Malen.

Quickly he shouted out, “Please just tell these fine men that your coin also paid my way. I’m sure they mean no harm.”

The woman’s face tightened in understanding a half-moment before her gentleman’s did.

“Well, indeed. We’re not half-wits. And you’re terribly slow. Now, hurry.” The woman made an almost comically scolding gesture, wagging her finger. Malen nearly smiled, seeing how much she relished playing her impromptu role.

“You heard the woman,” Malen said quietly. “Or do I have my lady fair go in and find someone who might care that you’re fleecing the gamesters before they can come aboard? Less coin for those who pay your wage to troll the plank, isn’t it?”

The tall man pulled Malen’s face into his, so that their noses mashed together. The fellow glared, his eyes perfectly still. Then he sniffed, and Malen felt it in his own nose. Finally, the man muttered, his lips so close Malen could feel his breath. “You’re too desperate. It will please me to watch you walk away out-at-the-pockets. Or go over the side into the drink when you can’t pay a mark.”

They let him go, and Malen nodded gratitude before high-stepping across and onto the riverboat. The woman with the two-feather hat kept up appearances, reproving him lightly as they walked through the first-deck doors together.

“Thank you,” he said, once they were safely out of view of the dock hounds. “And if you care, anything more than a thin plug each is more than you should have paid. The boat’s straw-boss can see you get it back.”

The woman patted Malen’s shoulder. “We plungers must stick together. River’s luck to you.”

Malen bowed slightly. “River’s luck to you, too.” Plungers. That was the word heavy-purse and clean-boot folk used to refer to themselves when they came a-gamblin’. For them, it had to do with condescending to the places where they could play at chances. Its original meaning was a reference to those who went over the rails into the river when they failed to pay a mark. He couldn’t fault her for knowing only one side of the word’s meaning. And she’d done him a kindness. He was half-tempted to warn them, too. Their mistaken sense of a bettors’ fraternity would likely cost them dearly, since no such thing existed. It was a telltale sign of their inexperience in a place like this.

He settled on “Be careful,” and moved into the first room.

There were two paths open to him. There’d be an exchange table, where he could put down items and a man roughly equivalent to a skiller would push him back a handful of coins for the tables. But the return on Marta’s nice things would be even less here than in the skiller shops. So he didn’t bother seeking exchange.

Which left the straw-boss. Somewhere onboard there’d be a man who laid down house rules and kept a private table for his own games and stakes. He’d be a man who didn’t have much use anymore for coin; the game would be the thing. And he’d be happy to make liberal valuations of Marta’s nice things, if he thought the game Malen proposed was interesting enough. Or so Malen hoped.

He wound his way through the haze of tobacco smoke puffing up from pipes and leaf-rolls. Men and women generally had one hand around a cup or mug and the other alternating between their game and the body of someone close enough to grope. There were boards of dice, tri-stick throwing games, a variety of plackard tables, number grids, and new sports with spinners and marbles.

But for all the chances being played, no one man seemed to hold himself separate from it all. No corner boasted a neat table where bettors wore long sleeves with starch-stiffened cuffs rolled back once—the gentry’s way of adopting a common appearance.

Malen found the stairs and went up a level. Which was smokier, if that was possible. And the coin stacks taller, the laughter over wins and losses louder. But he still hadn’t seen anyone looking aloof enough to be a straw-boss. So: up again, to the third deck. Here, the laughter was softer, but the smiles sharper, more wicked and insinuating. Here, bets were mostly made with markers—promissory notes that carried more weight than a barrel of thin plugs. And the tobacco had a sweet tinge to it. This was imported leaf, or dyed with cherry-stone bitters.

He wound slowly through the haze, watching men and women whose eyes held sharp looks. They played plackard games of immense complexity—High-Bow Check-Down, Three and Eight, Six and Gain. It was said only mathematicians out of Aubade Grove would ever master these gambles.

And it made him wonder. Why were the riverboats tolerated at all? It seemed to him that their whole purpose ran counter to League reform. They encouraged the citizenry to take financial risk, place hope in something beyond their control, rather than self-sufficiency wrought by learning in League schools. Why did the League suffer these barges and their temptations?

Before he could think more on it, he saw, through the smoke, what he’d been looking for. In the far corner, set apart by a waist-high wall, stood a table. A man and woman were seated there, grimly watching another man, whose hat had three feathers and was tipped so far back it was in danger of falling off. There could be no question: the straw-boss.

Malen’s blood began to race, and he put a protective hand around the bag at his waist holding Marta’s nice things. He squeezed once, gently, then went to the table. Two men just inside the low wall eyed him closely, gauging what threat he might pose. When he did nothing more than watch the current game play out, they relaxed hands that had edged close to weapon belts.

The gamblers here bantered very little. Impassive faces around the table watched every move of the others with careful scrutiny. There was the occasional thin smile. These may or may not have indicated the strength of down placks that the others couldn’t see. The wiles of sharp chancers. And here, not a single coin graced the table. Only slips of paper with written promises. From where he stood, Malen couldn’t read the offerings, but if history was any indication, these weren’t about coin or even rare metal. These would be favors, maybe physical voluntaries. The holder of such a marker could call it due when it was most advantageous to him, or when he needed a bedfellow, depending on the note.

He knew the game they played—a variant on High Dash. But really, the cards were immaterial. At this level, the gambler played the person. And the straw-boss appeared to be more than expert. Some of that, Malen guessed, probably stemmed from the fact that the man was in want of nothing. If losing had no impact on your life when you stood up from the table, then emotion never played you false. But then, the thrill would have gone out of it for him, too.

In a very real way, that’s what Malen was banking on.

Toward the end of the current game, markers got written down with more urgency—pens, ink vials, and small stacks of paper to the side of each bettor being put to quick use.

When it was over, the straw-boss smiled benevolently. “Tuomas, Cynthee, always a pleasure when you play at my table.” He gathered in the markers, stacked them neatly, and held them up with a playful wave. “I’ll talk with each of you soon, I’m sure.” His smile held a hint of deviousness.

The two gamblers muttered as they left the table, passing on Malen’s left. The straw-boss was tucking the markers into a pouch when, without looking up, he said, “You don’t have the look of man with ante enough for my table. If you’ve come to argue on behalf of a friend who lost his trousers . . . well, I guess I’d like to hear it, actually. Might prove a welcome distraction from the stream of losers.”

“I’ve come to play,” Malen said evenly.

The other looked up, his brows rising in new interest. “That so. Your last plug, I’m guessing. Chance for a new life. You’re good at wharf games, and so you think you can pass muster on a riverboat table. My table.” The man smiled good-naturedly.

“I don’t even have a plug,” Malen replied. “And I don’t play wharf games. But I’m no plebe at odds, either.”

“That so.” The man sat back and retrieved a pipe from an inner coat pocket. He began tamping some leaf into the bowl. “Then a cardsharp. Winning drinks in dock taverns.” The man shook his head at his own conjecture. “No, else you’d have two thin plugs to rub together. Must be a new life you plan to win. But with what?”

The straw-boss lit his pipe and after chuffing several thick, sweet-smelling clouds of smoke, fell into quiet appraisal of Malen.

One last time, he squeezed Marta’s nice things, and then untied them from his belt and stepped up to the table. Before explaining, he put out a hand, to shake, to have a sense of the straw-boss’s honor. Decent gamblers took a hand when it was offered. And the grip told you plenty about their intentions. This straw-boss stood. That was a good sign. And his grip: not too firm as to be compensating for something he might conceal; not too brief either, the way a man shakes when he’s already scheming in his head.

“I’m Gynedo, straw-boss here on the River Queen. And you are?”

“Malen.” And fully met, he gently emptied the bag on the table between them.

Gynedo looked down, puzzlement rising in his face. “The exchanger—”

“Would have robbed me blind on value,” Malen interrupted. “Which in these . . . isn’t obvious to the exchanger’s eye.”

The man sat back down, gesturing for Malen to do the same. He puffed at his pipe. “Explain it to me, then.”

So he did. He quietly gave the history of each item, why it was important to him, why it was important to his son, Roth. He exaggerated (a little) how much he’d miss these things if he were to lose them.

“. . . because here’s what I think,” Malen concluded. “You don’t need another thin plug. Or a thousand. Or even another River Queen.” He gestured around him to indicate the boat. “You don’t play to win anymore. You play to see others lose. You play for the grip a won-wager gives you over your opponent. You play for the value of the thing not to yourself, but to the player who loses it to you. You relish the toll it takes on them.” He paused, staring intently into Gynedo’s eyes. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

After a long moment, the straw-boss smiled again. “And how should I counter bet? What do I put up against a used pen set that a would-be poetess never had the chance to use?”

“They are everything to me,” Malen answered evasively, looking down at Marta’s four nice things.

“And the game you’d have us play?” The tone in the straw-boss’s voice sounded the way Malen did when he was placating Roth on some trivial request.

“Double Draw will do,” Malen suggested casually, though in truth it was his best game.

Gynedo sat still for several moments, looking from the items on the table to Malen and back. And for all the man’s ability to keep a bettor’s expression, it was clear he was intrigued. Malen had in all likelihood just proposed a game (not the plack deal itself, but the stakes) that opened a new way for the man to take a thrill again from games of chance he’d clearly mastered long ago.

“You like your chances, then?”

“I’m not wet, am I?” Malen said, referring to the joke of plungers thrown overboard. He then offered the first smile of his own.

With an enthusiasm he guessed the straw-boss hadn’t felt in a very long time, the man said eagerly, “Let’s play.”

Gynedo pulled out a fowl deck with which to play their hands of Double Draw. It added a layer of difficulty to the game. These plackards had been painted with the semblances of birds, each plack bearing one of five: quail, crane, grebe, vulture, and magpie. And each bird had one wing tucked neatly against its side, while the other was raised high, a clear number of feathers on display—one to twelve, to be exact.

Games played with fowl decks, though, weren’t straight pairing games. With this deck, the feathers were at the heart of the odds. A vulture feather was worth two grebe feathers, a grebe feather worth two crane feathers, a crane feather two quail feathers, and a quail feather worth two magpie feathers. Magpie cards were different. A magpie card allowed the player to multiply the feather count of any single card in his hand by the number of feathers the magpie displayed.

In truth, the birds represented five So’Dell families that had spent time in the ruling seat over the last several hundred years. Some decks had human faces in place of bird heads. And if you happened to play a member of one of those houses, the feather weighting was likely to change. As were the puns about fowl and foul—the ruling class weren’t a popular sort. But mostly, the placks made for good gamble-sport.

Double Draw went like this: Two plackards were dealt down, two up. Chancers made a bet, then got to exchange any three cards. They’d bet again. And, if they desired to, exchanged one more card after their second wager. Of course, betting can escalate back and forth between players after that, but no more cards are drawn.

Gynedo dealt out the first game. Malen had a strong plackard down, an eleven-feather magpie. With some hesitation, he pushed in Marta’s pinch-comb. And almost immediately, he felt at ease, back where he’d been as a young deckhand.

He went on a winner’s streak, which is to say he lost only four of eighteen hands, but only after he’d won some coin, so that he wasn’t risking Marta’s nice things anymore. At this rate, after a full night of gambling, he’d have several months’ worth of food money, and rent besides.

But Gynedo grew bored playing hands with no real consequence to either of them. Malen could see it in the man’s wandering eyes. On the nineteenth deal, the straw-boss carefully assessed the coin neatly stacked in front of Malen, and after the plackards were laid, matched the lot of it, plus a marker for a shamble-shack deed.

“What’s this?” Malen thought he knew, but wanted to hear it.

“My raise. A leaky-roof, blood-cough nursery that I can’t find a buyer for.” He grinned wickedly.

The lower east end of the harbor had become a shantytown, where people taken with the blood-cough were quarantined away from the rest of city. Or at least, the poor blood-coughers were. Clean-boot folk had money for physick healers and fresh water. The rest wound up in the shantytown. In the beginning, the little shacks had been temporary quarters built for itinerant deckhands who followed seasonal work from harbor to harbor and needed a quick roof. Built in haste, these places were riddled with holes and uncomfortable besides.

When deck laborers set down roots in Wanship, the shanties became a slum within a slum. Until the blood-cough. And yet, the current wave of disease would pass, and property was no bad bid. A deed meant land ownership. Malen could hold on to it until this season of illness passed. Then, move in, or sell. Either way, it was a significant raise.

With only the briefest hesitation, he pushed Marta’s pinch-comb into the center of the table.

Gynedo made a disapproving noise in his throat. “My friend, I don’t wish to be indelicate, since I know what these items mean to you. But take stock for a moment. Do you think this pinch-comb calls my shanty deed?”

Without hesitation, Malen said, “No, it’s a raise.”

The other’s eyebrows rose in surprise and curiosity. “That so? Let’s hear why.”

“I’m betting the memory of love. The . . . the subtle suggestion of a woman that I should touch her.”

The man’s eyes glittered with interest and scheme. “So you’re wagering your fondness for sex. I can see—”

“That’s not it at all.” Malen held up a hand, asking for a moment to collect his thoughts. “I can get a woman’s box. Any man can. A tumble in the sheets can be had on the wharf for a dry night in a warm bed.” He tapped the table near Marta’s pinchcomb. “What I’m betting is the memory of tumbling with a woman I love. A woman who loved me back. And your raise . . . it’s a disease ward. It may come eventually to be worth more. But today, right now,” he tapped again, “it don’t mean a plunger’s damn.”

“A call then,” Gynedo conceded, still smiling.

Malen nodded agreement. “First draw?”

“Two,” he answered, tossing in his two up placks, which were middling feather counts.

“And two for me.” Gynedo dealt out replacements.

The straw-boss then tapped his lip several times as he seemed to be considering what to do. He had the look of a man now fully enjoying the game, its slow waitings, its considerations, its swift turns and long odds and sharp bites when bad placks turned up.

Gynedo looked up from his hand, giving Malen a long, thoughtful stare. He then picked up a pen, dipped it in ink, and scratched out a note on a small square of paper. When he was done, he slowly blew it dry, catching Malen’s eye as he did so. Then he slid the paper into the center amidst the rest of the plack pot.

Malen sat still for several moments, denying his eagerness to read the man’s bet. When he’d held back long enough to seem dispassionate—a key for good gamesmanship—he leaned forward and turned the paper around so he could read it.

A year’s free access to Gynedo’s provisions-and-goods account at the dock mercantile.

His heart raced. This was an unreal bet. It took everything he had to keep his excitement off his face.

As straw-boss, the man would have buying authority for the entire riverboat. His credit with wharf shops would be top drawer. It would mean as much food as he and Roth could eat for a year. It would mean household items they’d gone without: new mattresses, gifts on important days. It would mean academy for his son, since he’d have ready access to supplies and books and clothes that weren’t thrice-mended.

When he caught Gynedo’s eye again, he saw the expectant look of a raiser, who sat anticipating what bettor’s response Malen would make.

First, he took a long, silent breath, stalling his countermove. He had a twelve-feather magpie in his down placks. And he’d drawn a second magpie in his two up placks—a seven-feather. Not bad. This straw-boss either had powerful down plackards, or was expert at inspiring uncertainty in his opponents. Probably both.

Still, Malen took his time, putting on the cool face of the unconcerned. And, if he was honest, it wasn’t easy to part with Marta’s things, even now. Yes, he believed what he’d told Roth—it was the memories that mattered, not the artifacts. But a measure of that was tough talk by a man pretending to be rather rough. We’re rough men, he’d told his boy. In this moment, the truth struck him: He might lose. And if he did, those memories would be his only connection to Marta. The thought left him heartsick. He hoped he was doing a good job of keeping all of this off his face. But he couldn’t be sure. At last, he nodded, and pushed Marta’s silver betrothal ring into the pot.

“My good man,” Gyendo began, “are we to do this every time?”

He understood immediately. And with this wager, he’d have a harder argument to make. The ring might be an heirloom, but its main value was the memory of his shared love with Marta. He’d already spoken to that. The ring itself held scant rare-metal value.

So, after a moment’s consideration, he silently picked up the rosewood flute. He fingered its stops, imagined one of the simple airs Marta used to play, and reluctantly placed it beside the pinch-comb and ring.

He showed the straw-boss a hint of defiance, silently letting him know not to challenge this one. To his credit, Gynedo only pursed his lips and nodded approval.

“Second draw?” the man asked, gesturing at Malen’s placks.

“One,” he replied, tossing in a five-feather crane.

“And me,” the straw-boss echoed, and dealt them each a last plackard.

Malen had drawn a third magpie, a nine-feather. He had an exceptional hand. Gynedo had one magpie up, a ten-feather. The other of his cards was a twelve-feathered grebe. A very strong card.

At this point, Gynedo could turn up his down placks and they’d count out. The drawing of cards was done. But the straw-boss was again fingering his lower lip, looking over Malen’s hand, his own, and the pot piled up between them.

As the man pondered his next move, Malen realized they’d drawn more than placks. Around them, standing pressed against the low wall, were countless plungers watching, anticipating, muttering to one another.

When he looked back at Gynedo, he found the man’s eyes fixed on him with a penetrating stare. “What really brings you here, my friend? Is it as simple as an empty breadbasket? Is it an impatient landlord?” He paused a long moment before saying in a softer voice, “Or is it the thought of failing your child that has you wagering your past?”

The riverboat straw-boss was goading him. The man had a devilish light in his eyes, as though a game had finally captured his imagination again. But Malen wouldn’t be a part of any of that. Not over Marta’s nice things.

“Are you calling for down cards, then?” And Malen offered a subtle smile of his own.

Gynedo laughed hard, from deep in his chest. “You’ve got salt, my friend. And by the deafened gods, no. Here’s what.” He took up his pen again, dipped for ink, and scratched out another promissory note.

He didn’t bother to blow it dry before pushing it across to Malen, whose jaw dropped at the words there: Three years guaranteed labor on the high-seas trawler Corian Comfort.

“With access to my mercantile account, a dry place to sleep, and steady work, you’d be flush, my wharf friend.” Gynedo tipped his hat back a stitch further, staring wide-eyed at Malen.

For his part, Malen looked down at the used pen set. It was all he had left to wager. It would have to be enough. Again, he took his time, thinking, not rushing to match. Fingering open the clasp, he lifted the lid to the cedar box and stared down at the face of Angeline, muse of lilac and lion. Tell me what to do, he thought.

But that was late-game weakness. There was only one play. Pushing aside thoughts of the poems Marta never got to write down, he slid the pen set into the pot. “That’s all of me,” he said, indicating that they would have to turn up placks and be done.

Strictly speaking, Gynedo could raise again, and Malen would be required to try to match or throw in.

His heart began to thump when the straw-boss picked up his pen. Dear abandoning gods, I’ve nothing left to bet.

Twice, while he wrote out this new promissory note, Gynedo glanced up at Malen, gauging his reaction, looking for him to falter somehow. Malen kept an even eye, though his blood raced. He’d been arrogant to sit at this table, no matter how good a chancer he’d actually been as a younger man. I might have put some romance on just how good I used to be. He should have guessed that this straw-boss would push the game beyond his grasp. That he’d devise to win at any cost, especially given the glint this game had put in his eye, the glint of new excitement over an old game.

When he was done, he actually sanded over the note to dry the ink, drawing out the moment, before slowly pushing it across the table. Gynedo had one-upped his last raise: Title and deed to the high-seas trawler Corian Comfort.

“Your own catch, my wharf friend. Put a price on that, if you can.” The slim smile that followed was all expectation and devious delight.

Malen mentally cataloged all he owned, all he thought he could get or borrow if pushed to do it. But the exercise was futile. A few long moments later, he pushed the note back to Gynedo. “I’ve nothing left to bet.”

It was a breach of etiquette. More than that. It broke the game rules. If he couldn’t match, he had to throw in. But Malen couldn’t do that. He couldn’t let Marta’s things go like that. He couldn’t fail Roth. So, back the note went, as firmly as he could do it.

“Tsk tsk tsk.” Gynedo made the disapproving noise with his teeth and tongue. “But of course you do. You’re just not broad-minded enough to see it. Your greatest asset, my wharf friend.” He paused. “Your son.”

It took Malen’s every bit of strength to keep from lunging at the bastard. He swallowed, giving himself a half-moment to frame his words. “That’s a very nice attempt to strike fear in my heart. But I don’t own the boy.”

The straw-boss laughed out loud again. “Nonsense. Here.” He pushed a slip of paper over to Malen and handed him his pen. “Promise me the boy. You realize, the life I can give him is a far cry better than you ever will . . . unless you win out tonight.”

Malen began shaking his head.

“Consider it like this, my fine wharf friend. Either way, you win. Either all this,” he swept an arm over the pot at the center of the table, “is yours. In which case your wharf worries are through. Or, should your plack count come up shy tonight,” he now swept his arms grandly, indicating the entire riverboat, “you’ll have given your son a life of daily meals, soft beds, and—dare I say—adventure, that he’d never have had running the docks.”

Malen listened, but didn’t give a tinker’s damn for the exchange. There were inviolable limits. He’d turn full thief before betting a life. Roth’s life. And still, he did have to counter. That was clear. Gynedo wasn’t going to let the stakes be called. But what can I offer?

Looking at the slip of paper and the pen in his hand, an idea flared. He shot the straw-boss a glance. Without asking, he reached and took Gynedo’s ink vial. He set aside the man’s pen, and gently reached into Marta’s writing set and retrieved the used stylus.

He rolled it in his fingers for a moment, then dipped the tip and set to the paper with the slow hand of one remembering something he’d heard long ago.

A girl will dream the day she takes a man
Of satin, beads, and clear skies filled with blue.
But I had no such dream or certain plan
The docks had long since taught me to make due.
But one thing I did hold as private wish
Against what I could see in poor Mum’s face
When bruises there from Father’s angry fist
Made her feel a woman’s poor disgrace—
That hands with which I shared my nightly bed
Were only rough when standing my defense
And gentler once to him I finally said
That rough men should possess the simple sense
To turn the fight against his actual fear
His worry that his child will grow up here.

When he’d finished, he let it sit for several moments, the ink drying naturally. The tension in the corner of the third deck of the riverboat grew thick, as onlookers waited with held breath. Finally, he turned the poem around and nudged it toward Gynedo, who read it with obvious interest. The man’s brows rose and fell comically, as his eagerness lapsed to confusion.

“And what is this?” he asked.

“It’s one of the poems my wife never had the chance to write down. One of my dearest memories of her.” He stopped, realizing something himself in that moment. “I’m a hard man to talk to. To tell things to. But she could make me listen, make me . . . understand when she told me her rhymes. Like that one.”

The straw-boss fingered the slip of paper, re-reading the newly-penned poem. “Are you putting this poem up as a bettor’s call? To the Carion Comfort?”

“No, sir.” Malen gave him a wicked grin. “A raise. I think it’s safe to say we’re in new waters here. You’ve already shown that you’re content to wager real collateral against items whose only value is what I place on them. So there you go.” He pointed to the poem.

The man made a long resonant sound that started in his nose and slid down his throat, the pitch dropping as it went. Clever, it seemed to say.

“And I suspect that if I were to continue raising the stakes, I’d get a slew of poems.” Gynedo was nodding, as one does when impressed.

“My memory’s water-tight where Marta’s poems are concerned,” Malen replied, holding the pen poised as though ready to write another one down.

The straw-boss barked a single loud blast of laughter. “Very well, my wharf friend. What say we call an end then? I’ve only so much paper, anyway.”

There was some laughter from the spontaneous gallery that had gathered.

Malen put the pen down and nodded. “Turn them up?”

“Turn them up.”

And together, they flipped over their down placks. Malen quickly calculated Gynedo’s cards, and felt a wave of relief when it came up well shy of his own feather count. He sat back, suddenly very tired. But the look on the other man’s face wasn’t the typical defeat or anger or appreciation for a worthy opponent. The man’s eyes and slim smile held the appearance of a winner. The casual good grace of one who doesn’t hoot over his victory, but takes it all in as though it was just as it should be.

Malen glanced down at his own plackards. His gut tightened painfully. Disbelief and dread filled his chest. His twelve-count magpie . . . was gone. In its place was an eleven-count quail. He rubbed at his eyes and picked up the plack, staring closely.

It’s changed. By every abandoning god, this was a magpie before!

As calmly as he could, he set it down, his mind racing to find words. To his right, as though through a haze, he heard a few gamblers clapping or laughing or remarking to friends. With the magpie, his was a winning hand. With a quail, it was far from it.

He finally looked dead into Gynedo’s eyes, trying to read the truth of what had happened. The straw-boss returned the stare, giving nothing away—a better gambler’s stare Malen had never seen. The fellow looked only amiable, maybe a tad sympathetic for Malen’s loss.

“You’re one hell of a chancer,” the man said, and offered his hand.

Malen shook his head, keeping his hands on the table, just as he’d done for most of the game. Finger down, they called it. Save those times when he was writing, he’d left his hand laid casually over his down cards—an old bettor’s habit to avoid the simple cardsharp tricks of placks being replaced when distractions pulled his eyes away from the table. He didn’t see any way the man could have replaced the magpie plack.

What, then? He puzzled it over quickly. A glamour? Did the straw-boss have that simple rendering skill? Or did he have an accomplice nearby who did? One of these onlookers?

“. . . don’t be sour,” Gynedo was saying. “Take my hand in good faith. It was a square game. A good one.”

Malen gave him a dead glare. “The plack changed. I don’t know how. But this quail was a magpie. The pot is mine.”

The straw-boss’s smile faltered, his hand dipped. Then he sat back, his expression becoming serious. “You’re calling me a cheat.”

“That’s not what I said. But I’m no plunger. Not wet like half the bettors who sit here. I know my count.”

“Yes, I’m sure you do,” the man said. “But a quail looks an awful lot like a magpie in this set of placks. And there’s a desperation in your play.” He sat forward, folding his hands together on the table and leaning toward Malen. “You tried to keep it to yourself, but I saw it clearly enough. No doubt it clouded your vision.”

Malen shook his head. “No. The plack was a twelve-feather magpie. It has changed.”

Gynedo’s expression darkened, became threatening. “Then you are calling me a cheat. And I won’t have it.”

Leaning in himself, Malen let all the dread of what losing would mean sharpen into a counterthreat. He spoke softly. “Here’s what. We either play again—this time, all-up Double Draw—or you will simply give me my things, and I will leave your boat. Anything else, and I will bring the city guard to investigate all your games. Which would you prefer?”

The man’s face slowly lit with a new kind of smile. There was a hint of pity in it. Maybe a dusting of appreciation for Malen’s audacity. What could not be found in this new smile was concern. He gave a very deliberate look to two men standing in the makeshift gallery of onlookers.

Then, he spoke with utter casualness. “Unless I’ve missed something, you’ve nothing left to wager. And others are waiting to play. Please do me the courtesy of getting off my boat without a fuss.”

Malen glared back at the man. Then his eyes slipped down to Marta’s nice things. He couldn’t let them be taken this way. Not by a cheat. So he simply started to gather them.

Before he knew what was happening, three very large men had seized his arms, ripped Marta’s things from his hands, and were roughly escorting him out a rear door at the back of the third deck. He struggled, but the hands gripping his wrists and shoulders were like iron. A few moments later, his arms were free, pinwheeling as he fell from the third deck, tossed overboard into the dark harbor waters.

Thrown overboard like a damn plunger.

The cold bit his skin as he sank deep into the bay. He flailed wildly, trying to reach the surface. Every direction looked the same. He swallowed several mouthfuls of briny water before calming himself long enough to note the glimmer of light behind him. He got himself oriented and kicked hard. A long, desperate moment later he broke the surface and gasped for air.

The three men hadn’t waited for him to emerge. And in the night, the sounds of laughter and shouts of loss and elation rolled out over the harbor like the calls of loons. Malen got his breath back and swam to the pier ladder, where he climbed up and sat, exhausted.

His wet clothes clung to his skin. And he shivered in the cold night air, too weary just now to stand. Several moments later, the sound of boots on wharf planks came in muted rhythms, until two men stood on either side of him. They hunkered down, staring out at the harbor with Malen.

“Damn cheat, Gynedo is,” the man on his right said in a confidential tone.

“Saw the whole thing,” the other said. “Been there myself. Lost my own catch to the bastard.”

Malen wiped his eyes and turned to look at each man. “What’s any of that to me?”

“Only this,” the first man replied, still looking off into the harbor. “We know where Gynedo lives. His dockside rooms, you understand. We have a mind to take back what we’ve been cheated out of. Or as much in coin, if that’s what we find.”

“You’re going to rob him?” Malen found the idea distasteful, but not unthinkable.

“That’s the wrong way of looking at it,” the second man answered. “He’s got things that don’t belong to him. Things he took unfairly. The strong law won’t see it that way. So we’ll go quiet-like to get them back. We’re putting balances right, is all. You in?”

Malen imagined returning home, facing Roth empty-handed. Marta’s things gone, nothing to show for it. But if he went with these men, and they succeeded, how would he explain it to his boy? He could maybe rationalize it for himself, but even that felt wrong. That wasn’t the way ahead for him and Roth. He’d very nearly turned the men down, when something occurred to him: A man saved from robbery might show a generous hand to the one who saves him. He would be playing a dangerous game. But the night had been filled with such.

He stood, slicking back his hair. “Let’s go.”

The first man clapped him on the back. “Damn straight,” he said, and led them from the dock.

They walked back alleys all through town, weaving in and out of various wharf districts, always careful to keep distance between themselves and other folk strolling the night. After the better part of an hour, they’d wound back to within five hundred paces of where they’d begun. There was some logic in the approach, Malen realized, coming at a dockside inn from the rear, down a narrow, untraveled footpath.

A set of wooden stairs rose to the second level, where a row of dark windows indicated vacancies or sleeping guests. The two men started up, Malen following.

The first man stopped. “No,” he whispered. “All we need is a lookout. Just stand here.” He pointed to one side of the staircase. “If anyone comes, stop them. Make like you’re drunk if you have to. And if someone gets by, go around to the inn tavern. Make a fuss. Get them all going loud and angry. Understand?”

Malen nodded.

The two men gave him serious looks, then ascended the stairs and disappeared inside. He stood alone, still damp and cold, in the moonlight. His breath steamed the air, and he wondered if Roth had gotten himself to bed. He hated that the boy was having to look after himself while his da was out gambling to try and get them a stash of their own. This wasn’t at all what Marta wanted. The docks be damned!

But then, maybe, just maybe, this one indiscretion would put them ahead. And that plack had been a magpie. He knew it. His eyes could be fuzzy at times, he’d grant that. But he’d seen that bird clear—twelve feathers, black and white with hints of blue.

The night filled with the sound of boots scurrying across wood steps. He turned fast and saw his accomplices rushing down the staircase, wild looks in their eyes. One took the time to nod to him. Together they lit out from the rear of the inn, relaxing into a casual gait once they got to open roads. The first man led them on another circuitous walk through wharfside districts. They even began to share idle banter.

They passed a uniformed city-man slowly walking the street, and ducked into a narrow byway. The alley jutted left then right, then left again, leaving them utterly alone. The sounds of the city faded to practically nothing here. In the shadows, the first man stepped up to a door and quietly depressed the latch. He slipped inside, the second man following close behind. Malen hesitated only briefly, caution beating hard in his chest. The door closed quickly and softly behind him, a cross brace swung down with a bare tep sound as it locked in place.

A small candle was lit, and the two men positioned themselves between it and the shuttered windows. Then onto the table they emptied their pockets and several small sacks hidden beneath their coats. Malen’s eyes widened at the stolen bounty: gold handcoins, silver half-bars, a good handful of gems (every color you could imagine), maybe fifty promissory notes, and three sacks full of steel plugs (realm-embossed). On a bad day, the realmcoin would trade for eighty thin plugs.

He spent a moment memorizing their faces. Malen figured that sharing a description of the thieves and handing over some of the loot besides, he’d come off a hero. And stand a very good chance of being on the right end of Gynedo’s gratitude.

“I’ll take my third now,” Malen said. “I need to get home.”

Almost as if rehearsed, the two men drew knives and pointed them at him. “Appreciate your help. You can go.”

I’m a fool.

“The hell I will. You can draw all the knives you own. I’m not leaving without my share.”

The second man picked up a steel realmcoin and tossed it to him. “There. Paid.”

The men sniggered, and one began separating the loot by coin type.

“And if you get brave, remember that son of yours,” the first man said, his fingers gingerly building piles of coin.

“Exactly right,” Malen muttered.

These thieves had no idea who they were speaking to: A father who’d run out of options for how to put meat on his family’s table; a widower who’d gambled away the last tangible pieces of his lost love; a man whose only thing of value left was a promise he’d made. One he’d keep, by damn.

None of which meant he wasn’t scared at the prospect of fighting men with knives. Foolish thing to do. He’d avoid it if he could. But it might wind up being the only way to make good on that promise—to take care of Roth, see that the boy grew up proper, even if it had to be on the wharf.

The men had begun putting the loot back into bags, this time organized and divided for each to carry. Roth thought about the city-man not too far off, and backed slowly toward the door.

What came next passed in a blur.

The men turned just as Malen threw back the cross brace, flung open the door, and cried out into the alley, “Here! The thieves are here!”

The two men dashed toward him. Malen ducked into the alley, raising the alarm again. “The thieves are here!”

Just keep them in the alley until the city-man arrives.

He’d gotten five paces from the door, and was just turning to meet his pursuers, when hands yanked him back. He swung around and struck blindly, hitting nothing. A barrage of heavy fists beat his face and neck and chest. He fell. Boots laid into his gut, stealing his air, and kept pounding at his face and groin. He took a severe beating, tasting blood in his throat and feeling bones snap as he tried to curl into a defensive ball.

He drew ragged breaths down his throat trying to withstand the assault. And mercifully, one hard strike on the head sent him into blackness.

He awoke to the cries of harbor gulls. Muted grey light filled the sky high above the alley where he lay stiff and cold. He knew this time of morning, when men would soon be trudging toward the docks for another day with their nets. It held a strange quality, both hopeful and sad. Make a good poem for Marta, he thought randomly. Morning seemed to bring with it the promise of some new thing, and yet, walking through the grey dawn toward another day aboard a trawler, eking out a thin plug . . . it was a dreary, monotonous life.

Malen rolled onto his stomach, grunting with the sharp pain of ribs he knew were broken. But it was the only way to push himself up to his knees. After struggling to his feet, he began his slow, painful walk home. He hoped his boy was safe. Hoped that he’d slept well, not knowing Malen hadn’t come home. And hoped he would forgive Malen. For everything.

His body had loosened up somewhat by the time he came to his stoop. He brushed back his hair with his fingers, scrubbed his face briskly with his rough hands, and began to key the lock . . . but it was already open.

With his heart beginning to race, he hurried through the door. One step inside, he stopped abruptly. Four men sat in his home, two city guards and two Leaguemen. And between the latter stood Roth, looking terrified.

He knelt as his boy raced into his arms. The force of it against his beaten body, not to mention the lad’s tight embrace, hurt quite a lot. But he didn’t let it stop him from hugging his son in return.

“It’ll be all right,” he whispered into Roth’s ear. He felt a stuttering breath against his neck, a shuddering sob.

He looked over the child’s shoulder. “What’s this about?” he asked.

“Are we going to begin with deception?” one Leageuman said. “Or should we start simply with the fact of a father leaving his son alone all night in a wharf tenement?”

“You can see I was beaten,” Malen explained.

“About that,” one of the city guards said, stroking his bearded chin the way a man does when he wishes to appear thoughtful. Or smug. “Can you tell us who would have beaten you . . . and why?”

Malen glanced at the other city guard. He could read the bluff there better than on the first city-man. They already knew the answers to their questions. But how? Regardless, he’d have to answer carefully.

“I was beaten trying to alert men like yourselves about a pair of thieves.” He felt Roth tighten his grip around his neck. “No one came, though. I suppose no one heard me, since I was left to lie in an alley all night.” He gave his questioner a knowing look. “City guards wouldn’t leave me out at the seams if they knew I was there, right?”

“What strikes us,” the second guard said, irony dripping from his words, “is how you knew they were thieves. Lying in an alley, beaten, sounds like the tale of a wharf-game fellow betrayed by his flimflam mates.”

Then one of the Leagueman chimed in. “Turn out your pockets.”

Malen hesitated, until one of the city guards drew his sword. He couldn’t have violence in his own home.

“Roth, it’ll be all right,” he said again, and disentangled himself from his son.

He did as he was told, and a half-moment later, the steel realmcoin hit the cold wood floor with a sharp ting. It rolled a bit and settled into a hum as it spun for a few moments. When it stopped, the tension in the room thickened. The first city guard took slow, ponderous steps forward, bent, and retrieved the coin.

In the weak light of morning he studied it back and front. After a long moment, he said simply, “It’s him.”

“Now wait a minute, you don’t know—”

“The mayor’s secretary personally marks every plug,” the man said sharply, and held the coin toward Malen. He took it and made a close inspection. A small, thin mark had been inscribed just above the impression of Dilena’s nose—Dilena being one of So’Dell’s influential matriarchs from some time ago—occasionally seen on a crane card.

It all became clear to him then. He’d been hoodwinked. He hadn’t helped rob Gynedo, he’d just robbed the mayor’s secretary. The two men who’d come to him on the dock, pretending to enlist his help in fleecing the straw-boss, they were Gynedo’s accomplices. It had all been an elaborate wharf-game. This one, though, truly played for high stakes.

Malen had threatened the boat gambler with the law. Gynedo wouldn’t take the risk that Malen might make good on that threat. So he’d used Malen to help rob a city official, then set him up as the dupe. Malen’s anger and desperation had been used against him. It was devilishly brilliant. But now what?

“Let me go, and I’ll help you find the two who kept the secretary’s treasury,” he offered evenly.

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” the seated guard said, a sly grin on his face.

More of this elaborate wharf-game slid into place.

Of course not. You’re part of the scheme. The two men last night: probably city guards. That’s how they knew where the secretary was staying while he was traveling on tax rounds.

Much of what took place on a riverboat was illegal. And docked in the harbor, it fell under Wanship law. So buying some allegiance with the city-men who enforced the law was practical. Men Gynedo would use to play an entirely different kind of game. With the kind of stakes that could warm his blood.

Malen felt suddenly small and silly for having gone to the boat with Marta’s things. Had he really thought he could gamble his and Roth’s way out of their lot?

I’m tired, Marta.

But he couldn’t afford to be tired. He still had Roth to look after.

The city guard who was seated looked across at the Leaguemen and nodded. In a swift movement, one of the Leaguemen swept Roth close, holding him tight. The bright sound of steel being drawn filled the small room as the first city guard drew his blade and held it out in front of Malen. A warning.

“Let him go!” Malen cried.

Roth looked scared. “Da?”

The other city-man stood and came around behind Malen, hauling him to his feet and jerking his arms back. The guard crossed Malen’s wrists, and bound them with a lash of leather. “Let’s go,” he said, and began pulling him toward the door.

“No, Da! Don’t let them!” Roth began to struggle with all his boyhood strength, his eyes filling with tears of worry and fear.

Malen yanked his arms free, feeling something tear in his left shoulder. But he got loose and went to Roth, kneeling down again so the boy could see his eyes.

“It’ll be all right. I promise.” He hated the taste of those lies. But they were the only words that made sense to say. “I’ve made some poor choices, but I can get past them. Be brave until I do. I’ll come for you soon.”

Malen then looked up at the nearest Leagueman. “You’re taking him to the orphanage?”

The Leagueman’s eyes showed a touch of sympathy, but before he could speak, the city guard broke in.

“It’s no loaf of oat bread you took. You robbed the mayor’s tax man. You stole the coin of people all along the seaside district. People who will now be asked to pay again.” There was a long pause. “Finish making your goodbyes.”

Roth began to weep openly, silently. Malen’s boy shook his head, trying in his only way to deny what he’d just heard.

“No, Da. Don’t go. Tell them about Ma. Tell them we’re rough men. Tell them we just wanted to sell her nice things. Get a stash of our own.”

It took all the strength he had left not to break down. Because he was looking at his last broken promise. He’d never be able to make good on the assurance he’d given Marta that he’d take good care of Roth. He’d tried. He’d done the only things he could think to do. But it hadn’t been enough. And maybe worse . . . he’d had some real lapses in judgment. His boy would now pay the price for his failure.

He turned it all over in his mind. Could he have done any of it differently? What play did he have left? After a few moments, his thoughts only jumbled together, pressed under the reality of what was happening.

He looked up at the Leagueman still holding his son. In a broken voice he said, “Isn’t the League supposed to see past the lettered law? Can’t you help us?”

The second Leagueman opened his mouth to speak, his expression sharp. He looked like one ready to reprove. But the man holding Roth held up an arm, calling silence with the motion.

He looked down at the top of Roth’s head, then back at Malen. There was an idea forming in the man’s mind. Malen could see it. A moment later, he loosened his grip on Roth and hunkered down beside him.

He gave Malen a serious look, and spoke softly. “I have an . . . arrangement for you to consider.” The lean Leagueman sounded genuine enough. “I’ll appeal to the city.” He looked at the two guards. “Get you acquitted here, now, without trial. And in exchange, you’ll place the boy in our care and service until the debt is paid.”

“I’m innocent,” Malen said rather weakly. Then stronger: “I’m innocent.”

The Leagueman leaned close, keeping his own voice low when he spoke. “That may be. But a prudent man sees when he’s beaten, doesn’t he. And finds the least painful way to lose.”

Malen looked into the other’s eyes. This fellow wasn’t part of the larger game. He was, perhaps, as caught in it as Malen was.

Quieter still, the Leagueman suggested, “A free man can work to pay a debt. A man in prison has fewer options.”

In the silence that followed—a silence of broken promises—Malen finally accepted the least painful way to lose. At last, he nodded. As the Leagueman rose and went to talk to the city guards, Roth fell against Malen and put his arms tight around his neck.

“Da, don’t let them take me. I just want to stay with you.” His boy shivered with fear.

With his arms tied, he couldn’t hug his son, but he laid his cheek against the top of Roth’s head. “This is the only way. I think the Leagueman is a good man. And if I’m free, I can find work to pay back the debt. I won’t rest until I have.”

“Please, Da.”

“We’re rough men, remember,” Malen said, and nudged his boy back so he could see his face. “We can handle anything. You’ll learn all kinds of things, I imagine. More than I can afford. And when I come for you, you can teach me.” Then he nearly lost control, his voice thickening. “I’m sorry it turned out this way. It’s my fault. But I’ll make it right, son. I swear.”

The Leagueman returned and gave Malen a simple nod. The deal was made. The League was constantly recruiting. The city-men likely saw this as a straightforward ploy by the League to boost its membership, assuming Roth stayed on with them. And the League had become more than influential in So’Dell, especially with the people who gave city-men orders. It hadn’t taken much to strike this deal.

Malen let out a long breath, and gave Roth a reassuring smile. “Think of it as an adventure. A good one. For a rough man. And I’ll come for you soon.”

Roth nodded, but stepped close again and clung to him. Malen gave the lean Leagueman a look. You’ll have to take him.

Gently, but firmly, the man pulled Roth away from  Malen. The boy sobbed, and it broke Malen’s heart. Then the other Leagueman rose, a bit perturbed, it seemed. And together the three left his small dockside home.

He sighed heavily, sad to his bones. But eager, despite his weariness, this very hour to find work and begin to earn back what would be needed. He struggled to his feet and turned to the city guards. It took only half a moment to recognize the look in their eyes. They had no intention of keeping their end of the agreement with the League.

“Let’s go,” the more senior city guard said. His smugness was gone. He just wanted to be shut of this affair. He grabbed Malen’s bound arms and began pushing him out the door.

Fury and frustration and deep, sickening loss flared inside him. Beyond the door, he looked up the wharf where the Leaguemen walked on either side of his son. The boy’s shoulders were slumped, his head down. Malen’s only thoughts were that he might never see his boy again, and that perhaps, if nothing else, Roth would find a better life with the League.

In that moment, something occurred to him. Something he desperately needed to tell his son. He called out, his voice echoing up the wharf front, “Roth!”

The boy jerked around, pulling his escorts to a dead halt. His eyes had widened with surprise. Hope, maybe.

“Not rough men,” Malen said, shaking his head. “Good men. We’re good men.” Malen straightened his back, the motion an invitation for his son to do the same.

Roth stared a moment, as if fighting the feelings inside him. Then, his boy straightened too. It was the bravest thing Malen ever remembered seeing. He smiled at the lad. Nodded.

Then the Leaguemen urged Roth back to their course. And Malen went the other direction in the company of the city-men, thinking mostly about the thin line a man walked as he tried not to disappoint his child. And the hell of it when he did.

He’d told his boy not to worry. He’d told his boy to trust him. That they’d get through all this together. But in the end, he’d lost Roth anyway, even after being willing to gamble Marta’s nice things. His last things of her. And now the very last, very best part of them, Roth . . . was gone too.

But even in that bitter moment, Malen felt a hopeful smile play at his lips. Yes, he’d disappointed his son. He’d have to live with that for a long time. But the League would see to Roth’s schooling. The boy would never go hungry. He’d have options when he reached his Standing, became an adult. And as for Malen himself, the stocks wouldn’t hold him forever. Five years, perhaps. Maybe ten. And during that time he’d eat better than he had in months. Sleep more, too. He had the League to thank for that, since they believed a man could change, and made sure he had the strength to try.

Being away from Roth would be the true hell. But it was temporary. The city-men may have thought they were clever, deceiving the League about their bargain. And the League may have thought they’d eased Malen down a bitter path. In reality, they’d all given him and Roth new life. And when he finally made it back to his boy, each of them better for the years in between, no heaven or hell would part them again. That was a promise he’d damn sure keep.

He straightened his back further yet, and made the city-men work to keep pace.

 

“The Hell of It” copyright © 2015 by Peter Orullian

Art copyright © 2015 by Tommy Arnold

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