Rorie took her bicycle down the hill to the warehouse. The two-wheeled contraption was a relatively new invention, but the company had a profitable year and, after paying the staff their bonuses, she’d wanted to treat herself. It had taken some getting used to – the balance, the speed of descent and effort of ascent, not to mention the constant maintenance – but the exercise and exhilaration it brought her was worth it.
She waved at shopkeepers and passers-by as she whizzed down the bumpy, cobblestone paths, slapping her tricorn hat back into place when she could. The streets seemed a bit less busy than usual, and Rorie wondered if some scheduling foul-up at the docks had led to larger-than-normal crowds down there.
Every storefront she passed had its decorations up: wreaths and candles and garlands, trees dotted with glass baubles and even flashing electric lights for the businesses who’d taken in enough money to afford a steam or petrol generator.
Rorie had hired someone to decorate her own shop, and they’d done a good job, as she’d hoped. In a town like Chief Quay, it was borderline apostasy not to decorate for Christmas, even if the holiday held no meaning for you.
One last sharp corner before the warehouse, and this time Rorie’s hat almost flew off for real. She turned the handlebars with one hand in a death grip and clamped down on her errant headwear with the other. The downslope smoothed out and Rorie had to pedal the rest of the way, feeling the slow burn spread through her calves and thighs.
Not for the first time, she gave thanks to live in a land where women wearing trousers was only a tiny bit scandalous. Trying to operate this bicycle in a dress with full petticoats would have been beyond a nightmare.
She counter-rotated the pedals to slow the bike, slewing to a stop just outside the warehouse’s main doors. A large facility, and all hers, though she did rent out space from time to time, especially during busy holidays. Last Valentine’s Day, the place had been filled with the scent of flowers as the local florist dealt with excessive orders and overstock from enthusiastic lovers.
Rorie thought of that, and of the multi-colored lights rimming the doorway of the warehouse, and wondered if there was a single holiday she didn’t find distasteful.
Then, with a blink and a shake of her head, she wondered what in the world was happening. As she flipped the kickstand on her bicycle into place, steadying it outside the warehouse, she looked around.
No one was doing a lick of work.
The space should have been swarming like an anthill with a teakettle upended into it. Wheeled carts shifting cargo in and out, track-staff checking invoices and crate branding, and a general sense of near-mania. Not…nothing at all.
Workers leaned against what few crates stood, chatting. Two burly stevedores even had a card game going on top of a barrel. No wagons stood at the loading bays, all of which were shuttered. A couple of stray cats, animals that normally kept away from the warehouse due to all the noise and tromping boots, sauntered along, pausing for pets and scratches from the idle staff.
Rorie looked upon all of this with confusion, wonder, and finally anger. She raised her hands to clap for attention and drew breath to punctuate it with a shout, when Liszt ran to her side, breathless. The Aelvesh woman carried her clipboard, as she always did, but it bore no papers. Rorie couldn’t remember ever having seen that clipboard empty.
“Liszt,” Rorie said, coughing a little from scaling down from a full-on shout to a sharp hiss. “What goes on?”
Liszt fiddled with one of her pointy ear-tops, a nervous gesture as rarely-seen as an empty clipboard. As she spoke, Amherst, a brick wall of a man, spotted the women and headed toward them.
“Miz Q,” Liszt said, frowning. “Something’s happened down at the docks. Amherst is supposed to figure out – oh, here he is.”
Amherst’s bushy beard was bent at the mouth with a scowl to match Liszt’s. “The bailiffs have cordoned off the docks,” he said, his piping voice not matching his height and girth. “No one’s saying why, and the people down there are stuck inside the barricades.”
“I watched the ships come in this morning,” Rorie said, crossing her arms. “Everything went smooth as soap.”
“Whatever happened,” Liszt said, “it’s put everything in a standstill. No couriers with manifests, not a peep from the tax office – and you know they always have a watchdog here as soon as the sun comes aflame.”
“I’m sorry for the lads,” Amherst said, gesturing around at his lazing crew, even dipping his arm as it swept to indicate one of the stray cats. “There’s just…nowt to do. We cleared out space for the new shipments, moved the outgoing to the loading spots, and then…nowt.”
The cat began bathing itself.
“Has anyone gone down to the docks themselves?” Rorie asked.
Her two managers shook their heads. “We thought we ought to stay in case the logjam broke. As busy as we typically are, it’s going to be non-stop once they sort this out,” said Liszt.
“Very well,” Rorie said, scratching at her temple. “Get everyone back to readiness. At least break up the card game, for heaven’s sake. Find those cats some mice to kill; they need to earn their keep.” She squared her shoulders and turned to leave.
“Are you going to open the shop?” Liszt asked.
“No,” said Rorie, heading for her bicycle. “I’m going to put a boot up that logjam’s arse.”
Back on a downslope, the remaining bike ride took no time at all, but Rorie slowed as she reached the harbor. Even if she’d been blind, she would have known when she’d reached her destination. There was an almost physical change in the air after a certain point: it became chillier, thicker, redolent with the scent of salt and ocean-cured wood.
But with her eyes, she could see the rumors trickling uphill to the warehouse were true. Bailiffs, arms crossed and truncheons at the ready, stood in regular spacing in front of sawhorses arranged to block off the street. On either side of the barricades, crowds crushed, divided into those who wanted in and those who needed out.
Neither group seemed to be getting their way.
She could pick out shouts from the protesting, flanking crowds. “Let us in!” “Let us out!”
From the guardians: “Please keep calm!” “We’re sorting things out, just be patient!”
And, at least once from somewhere: “We’re all going to die!”
Rorie hopped off her bike and walked it as close as she dared, shaking her head at peoples’ endless capacity to overreact.
“Miz Quarry,” a woman called out, and Rorie swept her gaze over the kept-out crowd until she saw a waving figure: Nella Fagen, who owned the dairy farm outside of town. They knew each other and were acquaintance-pleasant in the way of successful business-people whose customer bases overlapped.
“Nella,” Rorie said, sweeping an arm to encompass the chaos. “No one told me it was National Go-Mad Day.”
“So you’ve not heard?” Nella gave a nearby bailiff a pointed gaze, and tucked a hand in Rorie’s elbow, guiding her a few paces back.
“Just that this was going on, but nothing about what caused it.”
Nella nodded. “The lawkeepers are trying to nail the lid down on a burst barrel,” she whispered, “but word’s getting out.”
Rorie shook her head. “You can just tell me, Nella, it’s not like we’re -”
Nella shushed her, and took her down a nearby side street, Rorie dragging the bike along. In the wide alley, they quickly strode to a building that had a salt-corroded iron ladder bolted to its brickwork. A couple of urchins hung from the ladder, and Nella shooed them away. She looked around, then waggled her hand between Rorie and the ladder. “Up you get.”
Rorie looked at the decaying ladder with a skeptical squint. “Nella,” she said again, “you can just tell -”
Nella shook her head, wide-eyed and serious. “Hand to heart, Miz Quarry, you wouldn’t believe me.”
Rorie looked at her a second longer. “Watch my bicycle,” she said, and, with a grunt, hoisted herself up the ladder, rung by creaking, pitted rung.
At the top, she found a group of townspeople already there, gathered at the edge of the roof facing the docks. Rorie strode over, getting tired of the secrecy, the craziness, and the delays that were sucking money out of her coffers by the minute. She inserted a hand, gently but firmly, between a couple of brushing shoulders, and squeezed in so she could see.
And finally joined everyone else in feeling a jolt of fear.
The ship sat, like a bloated, scabrous beetle, in the last empty dock she’d seen before leaving her watch to get dressed. The craft was painted tar-black, with even its sails dark as oil.
But the blackness wasn’t the worst part. Painted at regular intervals along the hull were large white skulls. A bright skull had been likewise sewn into the fabric of all the sails.
They sent a message, those grim symbols, to pirates and freebooters: this ship carries only death. Plunder it at your absolute peril. Ships like that hauled only the deadliest cargo: fatal magics, poisons, deadly beasts from monstrous continents.
Those ships carried things that were never supposed to be brought to civilian harbors, and everyone who dealt with the sea had a name for them.
Rorie felt the roof sway, the slightest buckling beneath her feet, and she recalled that one hysterical shout from the crowd…
We’re all going to die.
Today’s Words: 1634
Total Words: 2687
Notes: I may not be able to write every day on this, as I was feeling a bit under the weather yesterday. Hopefully it’s not a holiday cold…
I’m attempting to write a Christmas-themed fantasy novel in December! Check it out from the beginning here, and come back for new chapters every day…ish!