The Spark – Snippet 05

CHAPTER 2: Finding My Place

I reached the line just as the clerk processed Rilk, the last person from the group I’d arrived with. The old potter hadn’t set his pack down while he waited, I guess because he struggled so hard to lift it again.

I’d helped him mornings on the Road and I’d have helped him again here, but I’d been off watching the warriors. I felt a little bad about that, but Rilk wasn’t my business either except because I tried to be courteous to other people.

The clerk looked about as beat down as Rilk did, but in case it was the weight of overseer on his back, the Herald the Gate as the steward called him. “Name and business,” he said. He didn’t raise his eyes, which meant he could see my trousers and sheepskin boots; and maybe the wooden closure of my belt that Jimsey had given me after I chased the creature back into the Waste. I’d just knotted the leather before then.

“I’m Pal of Beune,” I said, standing straight. “I’ve come to Dun Add to join the Company of Champions.”

The clerk looked up then, his eyes opening wider. He was young, not much older than me, but I could see the strain at the edges of his eyes.

I don’t know what he might’ve said next, but he didn’t have time to. The overseer jumped like I’d goosed him and shouted, “Are you mocking me, hobby? Do you think I’m just another yokel that you can jape? I’m the Herald of the Gate, and if you think you’re so funny you can just take yourself back into the Waste!”

“Sir, I’m not mocking you,” I said, keeping my voice as calm as I could. Right now I was bubbling with anger and fear too. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong, but it sounded like I might not even get into Dun Add. “I’m not the kind that does that sort of thing.”

For a moment it looked like the Herald was going to bust. I guess he didn’t know how to take me. That could happen even back home where most folks knew me or at any rate had heard about me. It’s too bad when people figure there’s got to be something underneath the words when I just tell the truth, but it’s happened enough that it doesn’t surprise me any more.

That was when the boat appeared right in the middle of the landing place. It quivered back and forth a couple times, coming into balance with Here and shifting a hair to get above the short grass.

“Oh!” the Herald said. “That’s Lord Mofflin’s boat, surely it is.”

He went bustling off toward the boat, a cylinder thirty feet long, lying on its side. “Sir?” I called after him.

The clerk grinned at me and made a mark on his notebook. He thumbed me toward the castle and said, “Good luck to you, buddy. Whatever that means for you.” Then he followed his boss, walking a little straighter than he had a moment ago.

I headed for the path that seemed to lead straightest toward the castle above. It may seem funny, but as rare as I knew boats were, I’d nonetheless seen two of them in the past.

Beune isn’t close to much of anything by the Road, but if you travel by boat it turns out to be on the way to a lot of places. That isn’t a reason to stop, of course, unless your boat needs repairs or restocking. Which at least the two I saw did; repairs and restocking, I suspect, but restocking for sure.

The first boat landed when I was only six. I’d started fiddling with the bits of Ancient artifacts that had drifted to Beune. I’d go into a trance and enter the piece, and after a while I started to fill the places with what it seemed to me that it needed. I didn’t talk to anybody about what I was doing, and I don’t know that I’d heard the word Maker.

The boatman wore black leather and had a full red beard. I thought he was God Almighty come down to Beune. It was just him and his client alone in the boat, and I know now that the client must’ve been rich enough to buy all of Beune. That was nothing to me when I was six; and tell the truth, it isn’t much to me now.

I’d have sold my soul to be the boatman, though. He superintended my neighbors as they loaded the boat’s hoppers with all sorts of things, rock and wood and corn and twenty products besides.

Now that means to me the fellow didn’t have a clue as to what was missing and was hoping the boat’s automatic systems would find enough in the hoppers to let them limp to wherever they were going–or at least to a node with different selections where they could try again. Then to me it was all wonder and wonderful, though.

I was fourteen the second time a boat landed, though, and by then I think I could’ve done them some good if they’d let me. They didn’t, of course; I was a kid and a hick, and they–a fine lady with her maid and her fancy boy; their boatman was less impressive than the first one I’d seen–had me chased away. I think the gigolo would’ve clouted me if the maid hadn’t grabbed his arm.

They loaded up with wood after tossing out the decomposed wood that’d gotten them this far. Though they wouldn’t let me aboard the boat, it was easy to get hold of some of the waste and check it in a trance. The boat had drawn out the carbon.

Well, the wood the strangers bought would give them that; father and some of our neighbors made nice money by selling brush that was too small to build with and too prickly to be anything but bedding at the bottom of a haystack to let the fodder breathe. Thing is, we’ve got a thick seam of coal on Beune, and that would’ve provided the carbon in a load that would’ve packed might tighter.

I was willing to bet that I could’ve done something about the processor that was making the boat go through carbon so fast too, but the only one I’d have given the time of day to was the maid. I wasn’t sure who owned the boat, the lady or the boatman himself just hiring it to her, but it sure wasn’t the maid.

As I looked at the choice of paths now, I heard a woman with a pleasant voice call, “I’m back, George,” behind me as I neared the trees. I turned. A really pretty girl with pale blond hair had come in from the Road. She had a three-colored cat in the crook of her left arm and a basket of tulips in that hand. She was waving her right arm to the Herald and his clerk.

“We’ve got you, Miss May,” the clerk called back, and the Herald himself even turned and swept off his puffy hat with a bow. I wondered which one of them was named George.

I paused for a moment, because she was coming my way. I waited till she looked around and noticed me. “Ma’am,” I said. “I’m new here. Can you tell me which of these paths best leads to the castle?”

“You can follow me, I suppose,” she said, and her tone wasn’t much more friendly that the set look on her face. I guess a girl so pretty must have a lot of men pestering her.

I didn’t let it bother me, just said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and followed as she swept past me. Buck looked up at her cat and it was giving him the eye, but Buck’s well behaved.

Miss May’s dress was the same as girls on Beune wear in weather this warm: a knee length skirt and short sleeves. The waist was pinched just a bit by a fabric belt, enough to give it shape without being a couple layers of cloth tight against the skin. Thing is, back home the dresses were wool, maybe with a little embroidery on the sleeves or neckline. May wore silk, and I couldn’t tell if the light peach color was dyed or the silk came that way from the worm.

The trees were nice, horse chestnuts about thirty feet tall. They were in flower, too. May took me along a path that forked twice, first to the left and the second time to the right. I didn’t know where the other branches would’ve led me–I couldn’t really get lost in a belt a hundred yards thick–but I was glad to have a guide.

I stayed a pace behind her, keeping a bit off to the left. There was plenty of room for us to walk side by side, but she pretty clearly didn’t want that to happen and I’m not one to push in where I’m not wanted.