(Due to the prep for, running of, and recovery from an awesome week at Gencon, I am providing a bit of an interlude from The Roanoke Sessions. Instead, I give you the first chapter of a young adult novel I began working on back in 2014. Enjoy, and let me know if you would like to read more.)
In all the the days of a person’s life there is a single one that holds the potential to change everything. The day that the path one thinks they are walking down suddenly forks or falters, becomes a bridge or crumbles underfoot. All plans change and chaos reigns supreme. It is a day where choices must be made, and delusions must be discarded.
This is the one day that scholars try to pinpoint in the lives of great historical figures. The day it all started, came together, turned towards greatness, went horribly wrong, set them on the path that would dominate the remainder of their days, etcetera etcetera, ad nauseum. And though the historians will undoubtedly argue about exactly which day it was that set the wheels of fate in motion; there seems to be a universal theme that a single day can make all the difference in a person’s life. What those same scholars fail to recognize, in their academic zeal to compartmentalize and label everything, is that often this one day can be all those many things together.
Today was that day for Bailey Bathlander. This was the day when it all went horribly wrong, started her towards greatness, and set her own wheels in motion. There would be other important days in the future, as there certainly had been in the past; other days of failure, and choices, and triumphs. But today was the day that fate reached in, swatted the cobwebs away, and tossed the wrench in the works of a fifteen year old apprentice. Today was graduation day, and Bailey was destined to be the greatest shopkeep ever.
We should say, as Bailey would insist, that she is a young woman of fifteen years and eight months. For indeed in the traditions of her city, a child of the middle class was considered responsible for their own actions upon the dawn of their 15th birthday. For Bailey this had happened back at the end of January. A horrible time to be born in her estimation, as the guild to which Bailey was apprenticed did not assign journeyman work until the Autumn equinox. This fact left Bailey in the awkward position of being both legally an adult, but technically still an apprentice and thus, a child.
Now on this fateful day in September, as an apprentice of the Honorable Guild of Merchants for just one more day, she lay awake on her cot staring at the cracked ceiling above. She was waiting impatiently for the morning bell to sound the gathering to breakfast. Already dressed, as she had been since around two in the morning, the excitement welled up inside her like a fever and sleep was simply out of the question. She had brushed her short red hair four times already, had put on the least worn of her three identical sets of clothing, and had even dusted a bit of rouge on her lips and cheeks. Then she had spent a good while simply staring at herself in the mirror by candlelight and frowning critically at her appearance.
What she saw staring back at her was a thin and gangly youth, mostly legs and arms and very little in the way of womanly features. She was a hair taller than most of her peers, and that combined with her slender and long limbed form had earned her the nickname of Beanpole, or to those trying to be slightly less cruel, simply Bean.
She didn’t really like her wild tangle of hair that seemed to have an ingrained aversion to lying flat and tame against her skull. Nobody else she knew had hair the color of sunset, and that made her an oddity. She also felt that her nose was too small to be taken seriously, and the smattering of freckles plastered on her cheeks were nearly impossible to cover up with makeup; without looking like a clown or a harlot, that is. She wanted so very much to be dignified and respectable, and thus she spent at least an hour of every morning perfecting her posture and practicing her aloof and disapproving scowl.
She did not need the time for studying, as most of her fellow apprentices did. All of her classes were complete, the exams were finished, and in her opinion there was nothing left to learn. She knew that she was graduating at the top of her class, excelling not only in figures and sums but also in the fine art of haggling. Perhaps she wasn’t the best at window displays, and her interpersonal skills lacked polish, but these things would be extraneous when she was employed at one of the elite shops in the city. The trick was to know that your wares were without equal, and convey that fact clearly to the customers. Then you did not have to pander to false compliments and niceties. And you did need to bother with just any customers, but only the right customers. These were the ones with class, but most importantly money.
Bailey had been born with neither of these things. She was the only daughter of an unwed washerwoman. Conceived in a drunken stupor on the first of May, she had no idea who her father was. In her mind, he had romantically been a sailor. He had left with the tide in the morning, as flotsam and jetsam usually does, never knowing that her mother was now with child and never once realizing that there would be a daughter to return home for. Not that he could return if he had known, for the day that Bailey was born his ship encountered a typhoon and all aboard were valiantly drowned. As she broke free of the womb, her imagined father and his crew were sucked below the waves never to resurface again.
Of course, this was just her childish fantasy. A product of her morbid and self centered imagination. More than likely her father was a poor fishmonger, or a pig farmer, or a stable hand. The absolute best that she could have hoped for was a blacksmith or the wandering prophet of the neighborhood. Her father could only have been one of seven men in reality, but it honestly could have been any one amongst them. It had been Mayday after all, and her mother didn’t mingle in high society. Washerwomen, especially the prettier ones, are often sought on festival days for intimate pastimes but are almost never seen as the marriageable sort.
Regardless of who her mystery father was, his blood flowed in Bailey’s veins. It was he who gave her a talent for numbers, a feisty streak, and her trademark red hair. Most of the people in her township had brown or black hair, with the occasional family of blonds. Red hair was almost unheard of, as was her creamy pale skin, and the spattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. If her mother had been smarter, or less friendly with the bottle, these traits alone would have hinted very strongly at who Bailey’s father had been; but the washerwoman was not a terribly observant woman, nor the sort who liked to dwell on past mistakes.
In the end it did not really matter anyway. Bailey’s childhood was a fatherless and shoeless romp though hanging sheets, towering landscapes of soapy bubbles, and the sharp burning scent of lye. To say that her mother was not cut out for parenting would be a gross understatement. She wasn’t heartless or cruel, and she did make sure that Bailey was fed most nights and had clothing to wear. Worn out secondhand clothing, most often horribly stained, but at least she was not the sort of woman who let her child run around the neighborhood naked and relying on the kindness of strangers.
The worst thing Bailey’s mother ever did to her was giving her a name that was synonymous with ballif. For that is what the child was in Miss Bathlander’s eyes; a jailer. An unwanted responsibility, a crimp in her lifestyle, not that she had one of much worth, and a guarantee that she would never be married. No man in their right mind wanted a woman saddled with another man’s child.
One of the better things her mother did for her was basically ignoring the girl-child and letting her wander where she would through the working neighborhood of her youth. This gave Bailey a realm to explore, and other people to study and learn from, and an escape from her mother’s displeasure.
Bailey lived as a child in a one room shack in the slums of New Virgil, a populous and well established city state near the western edge of the Goliath Plains. In the years since the founding of the city, a rigid social structure had emerged. Laborers and beggars at the bottom, guild merchants, craftspeople, and artisans in the middle, and idle governing nobles at the top. The nobles were the direct descendants from those original settlers, or so they said, and since their ancestors founded the city then the city must exist to serve them. For the most part they were simply ignored, and the middle class engineered the growth of New Virgil into a teaming trade hub and beacon of art, culture, and wealth.
Being the daughter of a washerwoman put Bailey squarely into the laboring class. Her street in particular had a lack of clean water, good food, suitable housing, and not much at all to be happy about. The four festivals of the year, which were celebrated by the other classes with music and dancing and feasting and gift giving, were simply occasions in the slums to take a day off from work, sleep in, and then get roaring drunk. The upside to living in the slums was that there was also an absence of theft. Nobody bothered stealing from the poor. Instead the ragged children wandered to the nicer neighborhoods to beg, steal, and learn how to deftly evade the beatings of the police.
This unsupervised early upbringing forced Bailey to learn her own style of street smarts and form her own illusions about the world at large. She marveled at the riches she saw on display outside her own slums. She yearned for the unpatched clothes of the merchant class, delighted at the flickering of candles on display in windows for the winter festivals, and swayed in rapt wonder at the music coaxed from a myriad of strange instruments on street corners and through the windows of elegant salons.
This brings us to the very best thing Miss Bathlander ever did for her daughter. Which was to give Bailey over to the Honorable Guild of Merchants at the tender age of six, in exchange for a single coin of plated gold. An escape for her mother proved to be the salvation for our young heroine, otherwise doomed to a life on the streets.
Traditionally an apprenticeship was only seven years long. There was a catch though, as one could not enter a professional trade as a journeyman until after their 15th birthday. This meant that Bailey had 2 years and 8 months beyond the normal span of an apprenticeship to toil under the guild’s tutelage. She started her training by learning to read, and write, and clean. And though the guild academy had a laundry room, to which she might have been quite suited, Bailey managed to weasel her way out of this service by begging to spend extra hours scrubbing floors, or dusting candlesticks, or peeling potatoes for the nightly stew.
The one household chore that no young apprentice was ever commanded to do was to clean the fireplaces. The guild placed a high degree of importance on cleanliness and appearance, and having a troupe of sooty children underfoot was simply unacceptable. They did have the apprentices toil occasionally in the garden, to learn about fruits and vegetables and herbs and what was involved in the growing and sale of such commodities. The male apprentices also spent one day a week in the stables, learning to care for the horses and mules and all about tack and transport and such.
Once she proved her ability in reading and writing, it was on to sums and balances and budgets. She learned the theories behind market economics, geography, and the basic sciences. She studied how to speculate and hedge her bets against the ravages of the weather and the laws of supply and demand. She mastered the art of appraisal and was taught to use all her senses to determine the actual worth of any given goods. And not once, after she had been shown how to spot them, did a counterfeit coin make it’s way past her well trained eye.
It was no wonder that she received the highest marks of her class, as she had been a resident of the academy the longest and thus had the most opportunity to learn her lessons. It had even been hinted at, by some of the elder tutors, that she might be asked to stay within the hall beyond her graduation and teach the younger pupils the basics of the trade. To Bailey though, this was out of the question. She was a doer, not a teacher, and there was no way she would agree to spend the rest of her life as a cloistered matron of the guild hall. She was planning to be a proud woman of business.
Under the guild’s tutelage, the apprentices had to keep their hair short. She was going to grow her hair long and plait it in braids and fancy whirls. Nevermind the fact that it’s very nature rebelled against such things. Apprentices wore white shirts, black trousers, hard shoes and scratchy wool socks. Bailey was going to wear gowns, and dresses, and silken hose, and soft slippers.
Being a resident of the Merchant’s Guild Academy was not the roughest living by any means, as they did have some nice amenities, such as rugs on the floors, panes of glass in the windows, and candles to light up the night. None of the pupils in the blacksmiths guild, for instance, had these fine things.
But Bailey yearned for much more than this. She had escaped the pits of washing to nestle in these halls of learning, and now she was going to escape the hard wooden chairs, the stuffy tutors, and the chill of the stone hallways. She would be placed in a grand shop, prove her worth within two years at the most, part from her new master with blessings and riches to start up her own enterprise, and then become the most successful merchant in the city by the age of twenty three.
She had it all planned out. Her children would not have to apprentice to a guild to earn their position in society. They would start their lives in the merchant class; they would have toys to play with, good food to eat, and nice clothes to wear. They would grow up with a father.
The whole future unfolded in her reckonings like golden bridge across the chasm of toiling drudgery to a land of success and fine living. In a few hours time, she would take her first steps down that road and into the life she was certain that she was destined to have. All that was needed now was for the elderly bell ringer to climb the one hundred and twelve creaking wooden steps up the tower, grab hold of the rope, and yank it sharply downwards five measured times.
She had waited nine years and nine months for this morning, much of it without realizing just what it was that she was waiting for. But now she knew. These last months, and especially these last few hours, had been torturous. She lay impatiently in her bed, fully dressed, and tired of waiting. In her minds eye, she saw the old man standing there with rope in hand, deliberately hesitating to take that first pull, just to torture her a while longer.
Over the moments of restless expectation her teeth began to grind in frustration, and she felt ready to scream out ‘Hurry up, you old fart!’ Such an exclamation would be terribly frowned upon, and so she whispered it beneath her breath instead. And then, as is by the power of her suggestion, the morning bell rang out at last. Five times it tolled, as it did each and every morning. But before the first note was even done echoing through the cold stone chambers, Bailey was off like a shot to the main hall to claim what her future held.
The most important day of the rest of her life had finally begun. After today, she would be a journeyman merchant and not just an apprentice. Today was the day when Bailey Bathlander would become Bailey De la Mercer. Today was that single day that would change everything.
Of course, Fate had an entirely different definition of change in mind.
Continued in Chapter 2!
The Merchant Morrow – Chapter 1
Copyright 2015 by Robert A. Turk
All Rights Reserved