Today was the first time I truly recognised the value of formal credit. With nothing to my person but the clothes hanging off my shoulders and the sad sack on my back, transit was not going to be easy to arrange. All I had was my name.
But my family is a litter of Callij, and beyond those boundaries the name carries no weight. So, of course, when I approached the merchants, they scoffed at my offer of promised payment upon the safe delivery of my person to a preagreed destination. There was simply no reason for them to trust me.
And this was, therefore, the most common response I received; “throw your scrawny arse into the drink, you scavenger.” And that from the civilised merchants.
A plea to creative readers: as I look upon this, my eyes grow bored by the uniformity! I crave inspirational images, but alas, my hands fail me in that regard. I am not a ruddy artist. Are you? If you are inspired to articulate your (related!) imagination, then please, send it to me, and I will refresh this blot with its vibrancy.
The second problem was thus: boats were not common to moor at Namcalla – it was a dangerous approach, and the town had limited needs; thus it was not a trading hub. And therefore, between each boat arriving, I grew hungrier and hungrier, more gaunt and melancholy. Tired and defeated.
Ready to die.
And even less likely to talk myself into transit.
It had never occurred to me that Mandaria – Jewel of the East and charged by Rhanna to endear the world to his ways of enlightenment – could be so dismissive and wantonly destructive. I am a citizen of a higher family; and yet here, I am left to rot like the piece of dirt my mere image betrays. So hungry. But what is so different in this place that creates such a stark gap between wealth and poverty? Where are the middle classes?
Why is Namcalla so different from Callij?
Thinking about it, even the lower classes of Callij are not blighted by poverty. Those lowest classes are contained within the bloated mass of the city, and they feed off of the wealth and wastage of the upper echelons. No families of Callij are truly poor – at worst they are gilded filth. But here, in Namcalla, where resource is genuinely constrained; this is where the true Mandari psyche bears itself, and where the lines of Rhanna’s enlightenment are plain to see. It makes me heave.
Or that could be the pain in my stomach.
And that there, ladies and gentlefolk, is the very reason I am travelling and blotting my adventures – insight like that. I am seeking my own enlightenment. I will tear apart the fabric of the Mandari social and political structure, all in the name of exposure. You, my readership, will know what is not made plain, and I will be the vessel of that knowledge. This is my charge, and that is what I may suffer for. That is what I must suffer for. This will steel my resolve.
Right after I’ve scavenged some food.
Here’s another irony for you. It turns out that the most generous people are those who have the least to give. A kind beggar offered up half of his pleadings. I was so overwhelmed that I offered my tattered old boots in return, but he refused. Yet my insistence paid off, and despite the poor gift, he was beside himself with joy. Gratitude is ever a relative quality – those with nothing have it in abundance.
So it was that I returned to the wharf with a marginally less empty belly and still no way of getting out of this place. And I couldn’t walk out; not without any shoes in any case. And so it was, as Mother dipped and the night gods grew radiant in her absence, that Father Fortune smiled down upon me.
One particular trader, on the last leg of his journey, grumbled aloud as his crew hauled pallets of rich food from the fat cog. Oh how my stomach rumbled at the sight of the rich meats being hoisted ashore, but my attention overruled my hunger, and my ears devoured the man’s grumblings. It appeared that he lived up the coast, and that his villa had a real design flaw in it – one that he was going to have to sort out before he sailed again. The poor rich bastard was going to miss out on valuable trade as a consequence of this inconvenience.
And do you know what the best thing about this was? The problem he had was one of roofing. And do you know what my architectural career led me to specialise in? Roofs.
Thank you Father Fortune. You may not be my god, but you are appreciated nonetheless.
“May I offer my services?” As I approached with as generous a smile as I could muster, the merchant turned and looked upon me as filth.
“What possible services can you offer?”
“Roofing services. I am handy with repairs.” Perhaps pushing the limits of the truth, but following my experiences in the Between, hopefully this was now a lesser stretch.
“You are a vagabond.”
“On the contrary, dear sir. I come from a respected architectural family of Callij.” I presented my family crest, carved as it was into my signet ring. The merchant turned up his nose.
“Never heard of you.”
Again – how did the name travel so badly? Callij really is blinded by its own opulence.
“We are not Jinq of course, but we are a highly respected family in the building trade nonetheless.”
He was about to cast me aside like the filth I portrayed, but as I was about to shrink within myself, Father brightened once more. Luck was truly with me this day.
“I am out of Callij, and I know that family. It is a good name.”
It was the mate who backed me up, and I smiled gratefully at him. The merchant still looked rightly dubious.
“Then why do you look like the lowest smearing of shit? You’re not even wearing shoes for Ero’s sake.” He was not a Mandari then.
Let us forego the rest of the tortuous conversation, and summarise as follows: the merchant remained deeply suspicious, and he only accepted my word in exchange for passage when the mate agreed to keep a tight rein on me, and also that I would ‘pull my quarter’ on the journey. I didn’t know what ‘pull my quarter’ meant.
I do now.
‘Pulling a quarter’ related to the allocation of oars to crew members. In the deep sea, the cog would be powered by a single square sail, but close to shore it was safer and more agile powered by oars; and therefore by men. The oars about the boat were split into quarters, with each group working largely independently of the others. I was to be allocated a quarter.
Oh how my arms ached and burned. I thought that I had known work at my time in the inn, but I realise now how wrong I was. I shared an oar with a brute of a man, which seemed like a blessing at outset. But the man was seasoned, and he recognised my efforts at shirking with impossible certainty. I would not be given an easy ride, and my skinny arms screamed desperately for release.
And my posterior too. The motion upon an oar is rhythmic beyond anything I have encountered, and despite the fact that this motion smooths somewhat the bench that I was sat upon, the wood was old and weathered. I’m certain that splinters still furnish my arse.
But the worst thing of all – being stuck below deck as we pulled from Namcalla meant that I had no view of of the great town-wrapped falls as we strode away. I had concluded that her beauty is best observed from afar, and hence this was a real missed opportunity. But as I reflected on it, I recognised that the damned town had near enough killed me, and perhaps to ogle it wondrously would be a disservice to myself. No indeed – that place did not deserve my wonder.
And yet within a full circle of Mother, I yearned for the wretched existence of that place. We Mandari may be bastards, but the Deep Blue was another proposition altogether.
This was the East coast of Mandaria; and therefore the exposed coast. As I stared out to sea, I recognised the cold hard facts – there was nothing for a very long way. Perhaps forever. This was the Grand Blue, the eternal horizon, and I found myself marvelling at the sheer expanse of it. So much ocean; so much water; so much majesty; and so much power.
Oh and the power. The mysterious power. The hand of the Blue is an unforgiving cradle. Only the hardiest may hope to survive – and I am far from the hardiest.
I was surprised that the great ocean was not greened with my vomit, but all I needed was to appreciate the scale once more to understand. No amount of vomit could sully that beauty.
And do you know what? Despite my clear discomfort at the journey, pulling one’s quarter turns out to have a more expansive meaning than oar pulling requirements. I was in charge of the deck; an entire quarter of the deck was gifted to my keeping for the entire journey. Can you imagine that? And do you know what the deck demanded of me? Apparently, it demanded to be scrubbed. It liked to be scrubbed a lot. And then it liked to be scrubbed again, because by the time I was finished, slime and salt had sloshed over the side to sully her again.
I scrubbed and I scrubbed and I scrubbed, only breaking to catch brief snippets of rest or to force watery gruel into my mouth – gruel that would soon be returned upon my person as I heaved over the side.
It only took three cycles of the sun to reach our destination in the north of Mandaria, but in those days I resolutely concluded that sailing was not for me.
I was beginning to wonder whether anything outside the capital was for me – the only experiences I seem to have encountered are cracked dreams. Perhaps I should have stayed in Callij after all?