LIFE OF SPICE
By Stephen Couch
Chapter 1: In Between Days
The ships came in that morning, their hulls repainted in holiday green, red, and white. Multicolored lights adorned their prows and masts, blinking out of time with each other but no less merrily for it. From the right angle, it looked like a swarm of fireflies in every color of the rainbow was descending upon the harbor.
First light in the seaside town of Chief Quay, the sun barely peeping over the horizon, but already the townsfolk were up and active. Trade and commerce waited for no one, and sleep was just a hindrance to getting work done. There was cargo to be loaded and unloaded, crews to be fed and doctored, and mounds of paperwork greater in size than any sea vessel to be filled out.
The ships came in that morning as they did every morning, and the arrival of the Christmas season only added to the volume and complexity of their dealings.
Up the hill from the shore, Rorie watched from her balcony as the ships glided into position, dock by dock, and wondered what new headaches they brought.
She sipped her hot chocolate, careful not to daub her nose in the dollop of mallow-fluff on top, and exhaled, her breath coaxing a waft of steam from the mug. From her eyes, the steam looked like a roll of fog creeping in to obscure the dockyards. For a moment, she let herself dream it was exactly that: a fog that killed visibility, keeping the ships at bay for a time, stopping the flow of trade for just a couple of hours. Just long enough for her to sleep in this morning, for once.
Rorie laughed at that, and the steam swirled and broke apart, bringing the dockyards into sharp focus once again. Rest? No such thing, not in the life of a trader. Any time of day, someone in the world was awake and willing to give you money for what you had to offer. So, you grabbed sleep when you could, ate when you were able, and took a moment to rest and contemplate – preferably with a mug of hot chocolate – at times like these, when business ground to a brief but inevitable halt as the ships sailed into port.
She turned to the small, framed portrait fixed to the doorway at such an angle so that it, too, looked out from the balcony. Prester’s face, with that wry smile of his, gazed back at her.
“Almost three years, love,” she told the little painting. “I’ve managed not to run us into the ground yet. What do you think of that?”
Rorie took another drink as the painting said nothing. This time, she got a blob of mallow on her nose and wiped it away with the baggy sleeve of her flannel robe, smiling at her clumsiness. She probably shouldn’t put the sweet froth on top of her cocoa, but some traditions were hard to break, like standing watch as the ships sailed in each morning.
Like talking to her husband’s picture when he’d been dead since nearly three winters ago.
Three winters ago, Rorie hadn’t spoken to him when he’d said, “I’m catching a ship out to shift some cargo from that other craft. The one with the hull breach.” They’d had a fight the night before over something silly and inconsequential, and she was still feeling spiky and petulant that morning, not wanting to acknowledge him.
Prester never came home. Those who did said the sinking cargo ship had created too much suction going down, pulling a couple other craft into collision as it did. Not many hands survived.
Rorie turned back to gaze out over Chief Quay, watching the people leave their homes to head to the docks or their businesses elsewhere in town. Smoke rose from chimneys in regular gray columns, and lights winked on in windows in greater and greater numbers.
The wind shifted, sharp and quick, and Rorie took a step back as it fluttered her robe and sent the smell of chocolate back to her. She breathed in the rich scent gratefully.
Once, a wind like that would have run its fingers through her long, blonde hair, riffling it behind her like a pennant. But in the madness of mourning, she’d chopped off her locks into an angular, boyish cut she’d kept ever since.
She put her mouth close to the mug and slurped up most of the mallow-fluff before taking her next sip. The sweetness almost overwhelmed her, and she closed her eyes, noting only a couple of dock-spaces had yet to fill.
To the warehouse first, as normal, to make sure all the day’s paperwork was in order. Manifests and invoices and order slips and pay stubs and…Liszt would be doing her typical stellar job of keeping all the papers present and correct, while down on the floor proper, Amherst would be doing an equally good job of making sure what cargo need to go, went, and what needed to arrive, came.
They hardly needed her at all, but it was Rorie and Prester’s name on the company. If she didn’t put in an appearance, she’d feel guilty.
After the warehouse came the trek to the harbor. Again, she wasn’t needed there, but the daily walk had become as much superstition as anything else.
And then, a quick trip back home to bathe and open the one place she did still feel needed: the storefront for Quarry Exotic Spices, which took up the bottom story of her home.
Rorie drained the mug even though it was still a bit too hot, grimaced at the bitter dregs of undissolved chocolate, and went inside to get dressed. On the way, one more piece of the morning ritual: a kiss to her fingers, and a press of those fingers on Prester’s portrait.
“Another day,” she said, and made herself smile.
The painting, as always, smiled back at her, genuine and pure.
Rorie stepped out of the cold and into her quarters, closing the balcony door behind her.
She left too soon to see the final ship cruise into position at the last remaining dock, and closed the door too soon to hear the uproar and panic its arrival caused at the harbor.
Today’s Words: 1053
Total Words: 1053
Notes: Away we go…!
I’m attempting to write a Christmas-themed fantasy novel in December! Come back for new chapters every day…ish!