The Short Docks was Kell’s least and most favorite place in the city.
Skiffs and dories and skipjacks and cutters all crowded into their moorings, tied up, creaking and bobbing in the tides. Their lines and short masts and rough-bound canvas criss-crossed each other across the bottom of the sky. Cramped and lively, the walkways were carved deep by sea salt, and scrubbed down by the heavy breeze. The warehouses and stayhouses, dry docks and taprooms, slipways and repair yards leaned into each other, until the whole place was a tangle.
Everything smelled like fish. Everything clattered, creaked, or groaned. There was always someone on a corner playing something with strings. There was always someone shouting. Girls and boys ran through cracks between men and women hauling and bartering, and everywhere there was the distinct hustle of living. Noisome, and brilliant.
Kell came once every eight weeks. At dawn, he started down the long line of little boats. In the cool air of his little office, his mornings were steady and sedate. He couldn’t find an hour early enough to keep the Short Docks quiet, and he kept his head down in the gray light, trying not to feel the clamor under his skin. He checked the names of every boat – Second Wind, Island Girl, Zanna – against the list registered to his office, collected their fees, and checked them off with a careful hand.
The afternoons were worse, shouldering his way through crowds which always seemed to remember him better than he remembered them. Men he almost remembered shouted hello to him. Children knocked him to the side as they chased each other, then apologized to him by name before he even caught their faces. He touched his purse constantly, though it had never gone missing, and checked off the boats one by one.
But he ate in a taproom tucked up behind a lumber yard. The wood smell was better than the fish, and the owner always had a genuine smile for him. He had spent the first year of their acquaintance calling her Arra. Her name was Arian. She pretended not to hear him if he called her that. When he spent too long over his lunch, she picked up his emptied plate and pointed him toward the door.
Nothing slowed at sundown, but in the dark, the noise didn’t bother him at much. The whole mess seemed farther away, locked into the distance without the sunlight to bring it close. The boats left on his list were few enough to begin to calculate the end of his day. And perhaps he learned patience somewhere in the last few hours.
Kell always saved Darid and his Grace for last.
“Get a drink with us?” Darid always asked, even with his purse lighter after the transaction.
“Of course,” Kell said, because it would be rude to refuse.
He only made it home again, to his quiet, empty room, a little before daybreak. There had been too many drinks, too many stories. His cheeks always hurt a little, stretched from sudden laughter. He imagined himself wound too tight to sleep, and for a few minutes, he would stare at his ceiling, watching the gray light begin to touch his room. Then he dropped into sleep, without knowing when he shut his eyes.
In the morning, tucked sleepily into his office, with his pen scratching out formal reports of payment, he almost wished for the noise.