Cricket Boy is a multi-chapter story I'm releasing on my website, among other venues. Click here to start with chapter one.
Chapter Three: The Compass Mate
Trew slowed but didn’t stop moving.
He was looking for a gangway, but the Fortress didn’t seem as busy as the merchie had. All the white and green uniforms he’d admired before must have belonged to the Pride.
Was he a day early? Was the ship’s company all on leave?
He slowed more.
The end of the dock was filled with casks and crates.
So their stores were ready for them, but they weren’t loading them.
Trew thought to call out, but perhaps it would be better to listen.
He moved with silent feet as he closed to the first cluster of casks.
He got beyond them, still nothing.
He ventured closer and the Fortress loomed, but in a ghostly way. He slowed some more and doubt seized him.
He turned for a moment, but he couldn’t see his family, not with the Pride in the way.
The size of his strides narrowed and his tip-tap-tip-tap got quieter and slower.
Trew had a war beginning in his mind.
On the one hand, here was the Fortress, the first posting for any Boy who wished to join Sea Guard. On the other hand, he was remembering a life’s worth of ghost stories. He wasn’t yet a sailor but he was feeling the grip of superstition.
He kept moving, kept closing. He went around a stack of crates then had a much better view of the Fortress and nothing else. Or no one else.
There was just one more impediment before he reached the end of the dock, the largest tower of crates.
Before Trew had his unobstructed view of the Fortress, he could hear a voice.
Trew sped up.
The sound was coming from behind that tower of crates, Trew was sure of it. He grinned.
That relief snapped quickly.
Trew wasn’t overhearing a conversation. That voice was someone tearing lashes with his tongue.
What in Admiral Glader's Sea Guard was happening?
Trew got around the tower of crates and paused.
The person attacking two familiar boys with his words resembled a three-armed bronze lantern more than a person. The color of his exposed skin — arm, head, and arm — had been cooked in by the sun. The only variation was the greenish color of his uniform, as if the bronze lantern wore weather-lashed copper.
Trew envied the bronze color of his skin and that green of his uniform. That meant this person was a Mate for Sea Guard.
Trew looked at the unhappy boys. They had been in Trew’s shore school, though Trew hadn’t been allowed to ask their names. They were unhappy but not to the point of walking back down the dock.
Yelling seemed to be the prerogative of the Mate — or, Trew realized, anyone else. There was no lower beast on a Sea Guard ship than a Boy so everyone could yell at Trew and these others.
The bronze lantern turned his suspicious eyes to Trew. "Late. You’re late.”
He remembered what Father had told him earlier in the year. Never argue with a bully.
“Boy, you’d better not be a bad bargain.”
Trew moved away from his hiding spot. "Sorry, sir.”
“My name isn’t sir.”
Trew nodded. He’d just have to get used to people who always had a trick ready. You’re late. The form of your apology is improper. And on and on.
That was a fact not mentioned in the flimsies Trew collected. This human lantern wasn’t a noble soul like Admiral Glader.
“Ahh. You’re here, though. The third, and smallest, and oddest, out of the three.” The man-lantern pushed an inked quill into Trew’s fingers. “Sign the crew book, Boy."
The Mate pointed at an open volume resting on a cask.
“Write neatly, Boy.”
Trew moved to it. The page had three lines drawn in its lower eighth. The rest of the space was blank.
“Should I…,” Trew began.
“Sign on a line. Yes. Quickly now.”
The Mate took back his quill and peered down at the volume.
“You may have a strange look to you, but you can write.”
The Mate blotted the ink and Trew’s name seemed to disappear from the page.
That explained why he thought he was signing a blank page.
“Stand with these others. Dawdling is for nappy-wearers. You’re out of nappies?"
Trew felt a blush overtake the pale blueness of his skin.
“Well, I won’t call you Blue. Blue and red turn purple, blue’s bad enough, but I hate to think what the wags would make of a purple child.”
Trew stared at his shoes.
He waited for the Mate to move on and bully someone else.
He wasn’t going to react. He wasn’t going to invite more of this Mate’s wit.
He didn’t like people staring at him or talking about the blue color of his skin. He and his twin sister both had it, along with black hair that was whitening at the tips, like dark waves breaking. Trew’s younger sister and parents didn't share those color quirks. No one alive in Gawgrie did, and it seemed rare in other places, too.
The Mate stepped back and used his fingers to show Trew where to stand.
Trew stepped into line and looked forward.
He wanted to go to sea. If this witty, talking lantern was the price, he’d pay it.
"First lesson, which all of you need, you never call me sir. I don’t have a name aboard ship, either. You call me Mate or Compass Mate. That stick inside your facet factory?”
The lantern tapped at his own bronzed head.
Trew nodded. The other boys joined in.
“So, it’s ‘yes, Compass Mate.’ Try it.”
“Yes, Compass Mate,” all three of them said.
The Mate looked disgusted. Trew supposed that was inevitable.
“Don’t ask me my name beyond Mate or Compass Mate. I won't tell you and don't try to get anyone else to tell you what it is. We don’t have names here.”
That hadn’t made the flimsies, Trew thought.
“When your parents pushed you down that dock, you became my responsibility. I’m your trainer for the few weeks until we get you to your shore school in Northguard.”
That, at least, matched with what Trew already understood.
The boy on Trew’s left stepped forward.
“Shut it and step back,” Mate said.
The boy did.
“I’m not asking you your names. I’m telling you your names. In Sea Guard, you have to put away what you had before. That’s how it works.” Mate pointed his finger at the eager one. “You’re first. I dub you Clock Boy.”
The finger sped past Trew and landed on the boy who looked even more terrified than Trew felt.
“The next one is Sparrow Boy.”
Mate’s finger then pointed at Trew. “Last, in all possible senses, is Cricket Boy.”
Cricket? Like the noisy little bugs?
“So you understand, I won’t call you anything else. Don’t try to tell me your land name. I don’t care. I’m not paid to care.”
Clock Boy went to say something. Trew gave him a little elbow. The boy shut his mouth, for now.
“You’ll carry that name until you go from Boy to Ordinary. Then someone might be interested in giving you a better name. Understand?”
He dared anyone to say no.
“Now, why are you staring at me? Up on the ship. Take your dunnage.”
Trew hadn’t brought a trunk. He’d been told not to.
Trew started to turn toward the gangway.
“Hold.” Mate wasn’t finished with his remarks. “You're the lowliest students on our floating palace and some days you’ll be the servants, too. If there's a bloody horrible thing to do, guess who gets called first to learn how to do it? Right. Clock Boy, Sparrow Boy, and Cricket Boy. This is your last chance. Walk back down the dock or get on the Fortress."
Trew knew he wasn’t supposed to like his first trainer. Mate had done a good job ensuring that was true.
There was no time for that. This bully wasn’t important, right? Trew was less than pleased with his new name, but a name was just a name.
Clock Boy got moving first. He walked toward the gangway.
"Stop,” Mate called out.
Clock Boy kept moving.
“All of you stop, even the dumb ones.”
That got Clock Boy’s attention.
“You don’t walk up onto the ship, not the first time.”
“No?” Sparrow Boy asked.
“No. No, you climb up. The gangway is for hauling up these crates and casks. You’d be in the way."
Very amusing. No one was moving crates, casks, or anything else.
Trew didn’t argue. He accepted he would be climbing.
Trew looked at the Fortress when Mate pointed at its net.
A net was better than nothing. Trew walked to the Fortress. He put his hand on the netting and began to climb.
Mate watched and scowled.
Sparrow Boy joined in and Clock Boy got started last.
Trew looked back at Mate a few more times. The man was getting angrier.
"Stop. Climb back down.”
Of course they were climbing the net the wrong way. Maybe they were supposed to go up feet-first?
Trew hit the dock first. A moment later Clock Boy and Sparrow Boy stood next to him.
“Step away from the net, all three of you."
Mate waved at the ship and Trew saw a collection of faces peering down at him and the others. They’d all witnessed this bizarre humiliation.
That signal, though, started them moving. A few moments later, the gangway was jammed with men and cargo. Three boys really would be crushed inside that motion.
“What did I tell you? What did you forget to do?” Mate asked.
Notice that there were a few dozen people watching them?
Other than that, Trew didn’t know. This was why he was a student, he supposed, even if the lesson would probably turn out to be a cruel one.
Continue to Chapter Four.