Thirteen is an important age in the city, and in the empire. It’s the age when you are supposed to be apprenticed to someone and learn a trade—at least if you’re a regular sort of person who needs to work for a living. It’s a big coming of age time.
Even though it was my birthday, and even though the end of the school year was only a week away, I didn’t have an apprenticeship lined up yet. Not because I didn’t try. But Ornery would just tell me over and over that there was no such thing as an apprentice pirate. I think he said it mostly to get me to stop asking if I could be an apprentice pirate. “You’re either born a pirate or you ain’t,” he would say. Then he would point out where I lived and who my mom was.
Okay really, I didn’t have an apprenticeship lined up because Ornery was being too protective. He and my mom argued about it every now and then. It was sort of awkward, so I didn’t make a fuss. I did explore some things on my own, but none of them came to anything. I just assumed I’d be moving on to a secondary school while Ornery made up his mind. Hanging out with kids from wealthy merchant families and poorer noble households wasn’t all bad, I would probably get picked on a lot, but it meant learning about more than reading, writing, and maths.
Howper, my best friend for as long as I can remember, had already left school half a year early to work in his dad’s shop. Sometimes he still used his morning deliveries as an excuse to walk me to school.
His dad was the neighborhood butcher, Nighuysen Family Meats and Provisions, probably the oldest and best butcher shop in the town. Even the servants from the nobles’ households would risk crossing the canal just to go shopping there. They normally only snuck over at night, and for different reasons.
No one could cure a sausage like Nighuysen’s. That may not sound like much, but you’ve never had a sausage made at Nighuysens. They were better than candy, and easier to talk mom into buying.
Just like his dad, Howper was really handy with a knife, like a surgeon, or maybe a mad doctor. Once he spent an entire morning frightening the other girls after we found a dead sailor with a really big—
Okay, maybe I shouldn’t tell that story.
Andi was going to be moving out of the city to go be a dye maker for a distant cousin of hers. Most dyes are from plants and the dyes are best if they are made close to the field where those plants grow so they are still fresh and full of juice. I know because Andi told me.
She also told me that she would be living on the very edge of the Great Wastes, and some of the plants and dyes processes were so toxic the workers need a wyrd to protect them while working. You could die a horrible death—convulsions, foam coming out of your mouth, skin peeling off, all sorts of horrible things—just from picking the wrong plant at the wrong time or spilling stuff on you that hadn’t been properly mixed and cured. Then, after she had me worried almost to tears, she confessed that until she was much more experienced she would only be allowed to work with safe plant dyes.
I was mad at her for at least half a day for scaring me with tales about how dangerous her work would be before telling me it wasn’t. Though trying to pluck black nettle leaves without the right gloves will slice your hands up but good, and her cousin’s shop is known for the deep purple dye they make from black nettle.
Everyone was going to be doing something.
Yanse was even going to be starting with the apothecary. I did that. I spent a lot of time convincing the apothecary, and his wife, who is also an apothecary, but pretends her husband is in charge, to take her on.
Yanse had always been really good at maths, wrote beautifully in precise, perfect letters, loved to cook, and was really good with colors and textures. She could also face down Howper’s most disgusting practical jokes with a straight face, so she was probably ready for anything. The seamstress guild wanted to take her on for her color eye, but she didn’t like sewing, and the apothecary agreed that someone good with colors and textures, and smells and tastes, is someone who, with some luck, wouldn’t mix the wrong things together and kill a customer.
Not that the apothecary ever killed a customer. He did turn a few purple though.
The apothecary may have been good at mixing things together, but his wife was a wyrd. She could mix things together and then improve them with magick. Her name is Nona, but I always just called her Mrs. Apothecary. She was small like me, with the gray hair and gray eyes of a wyrd. Unlike me, she was also graceful and serene in everything she did. Some wyrds are like that. I always wanted to be like her, even if serene and pirate weren’t usually words you heard together.
Last year for my birthday Mrs. Apothecary gave me a box of chewy candies. They tasted like strawberries fresh from the field and when you ate one it turned you the color of the candy for the entire day. It was a day of all my friends running around town so brightly colored they were almost glowing, with lots of laughing and getting into trouble. Eating more than one a day was bad. The colors didn’t always mix well. Edwirt ate three at once and was sickly green all day, and just plain sick from the color magicks arguing with each other.
Mr. Apothecary, whose real name is Hermin by the way, liked to tell the story about how Mrs. Apothecary thought those up a long time ago to catch kids stealing candy from the shop. But parents got angry when their kids came home bright purple or blue and they had to stop. It wasn’t the apothecary’s fault they were caught purple handed. Some parents think their kids can do no wrong.
He always made everyone laugh when he told that story. You wouldn’t think a small, skinny, bald, constantly nervous man like him could be so funny and so contagiously happy, but he was.
Mr and Mrs. Apothecary were both small people. Wyrds are usually small. People say it is because energy that should go into growing them goes into other things instead. But Mr. and Mrs. Apothecary were both really small. Mr. Apothecary was not much taller than me and I could look Mrs. Apothecary straight in the eye without having to look up.
Sometimes people would whisper that they weren’t human at all, but fairies hiding out in the city for some reason. Not that I have ever met any faeries, so I wouldn’t know. But people whisper weird things all the time.
For my thirteen birthday, Mrs. Apothecary gave me a broom. She didn’t mean it as a present. I’d come over in the evening after the shop had closed to help clean up. It had been a terrible day, I needed a place to be unhappy, and it was as good a place as any. Besides, I’d said I would, and I wouldn’t really be able to sweep the floor without a broom. Well, I could, but I was only miserably unhappy, not trying to join some weird religious order that was abusively humble.
I went there after a busy day of everyone asking me about the knife and the body and the letter. I told them everything I knew, which wasn’t much, but it happened at my home, so I got to be the authority anyway. I even made some bits up too just because people kept asking for more.
It was all very exciting for a while. Then it started to sink through my self-appointed glory that in all that attention not a single person remembered it was my birthday.
I wasn’t the center of attention for the right reason, and I was not happy. By the end of the day I was not only not happy, I was miserable. Some mysterious dead body was more important than me, and I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Then my friends called me snooty, and other things, and said I was just being mean.
People aren’t supposed to forget your birthday, especially your friends. It’s how you tell who your friends are. By the end of the day, I was ready to give Ornery a run for his money on being the most ornery person in the empire, even if I couldn’t harrumph to save my life.
When I arrived at the shop, Mrs. Apothecary was cheerfully organizing things, glancing at labels on shelves behind the counter and comparing them carefully to little cards with notes written in her delicate hand. Without even looking away from her work, she reached over and grabbed at one of the brooms in the cabinet next to where she was working.
“Thank you for stopping by,” she said, wrapped up in her work. “It was a busy day with a few unfortunate spills from less than careful customers. At least they didn’t blow the place up.”
She didn’t even look at me, she just handed me the broom. Well, more sort of knocked it into my hand. I had to catch it so it wouldn’t clatter to the floor. She was very focused on some very small print on one of the cards.
I think she meant the last bit as a joke, but she totally missed the dark cloud over my head that was just a single shade of dark shy of raining all over her floor and she took no notice of my lack of laughter. At least she didn’t ask me about the knife and the body and the letter. I probably would have screamed. Then, still without once looking up, she disappeared into the back room, lost in paperwork and things that needed counting and arranging.
I stared at the broom glumly. It wasn’t my normal broom. Usually, when I picked this broom up, Mrs. Apothecary would take it away from me and hand me another one. It was a weird broom, with a thick bamboo shaft and scraggly bristles made out of twigs and straw that had to be magicked, because there is no way they could sweep otherwise. And the broom swept really well.
It felt like it wasn’t really a broom so much as something meant to look like a broom, like a kid’s art project gone horribly wrong, but proudly set in the pantry by respectful parents anyway. I could have traded it for another broom, but the ugly broominess of it and the way it looked wrong for what it was meant for fit my mood. It if had worked as badly as it looked it might have been even better.
I scowled at the heavy broom. It was a broom. It didn’t care. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t even bother to try to remember my birthday. Not that I would expect a broom to remember my birthday.
I glumly worked doing glum things that weren’t anything like proper birthday activities. I was in such a dark mood that it felt much heavier than a broom had a right to be, like I was trying to drag around a small tree. With my heavy broom, everything was too much work and took forever. It improved the darkness of my mood a lot.
I slowly swept the dust and the spilled ingredients on the floor into little piles, and slowly swept the little piles into bigger piles, and then got the dust pan which was magicked to cheerfully suck up piles of dust and dirt and make then disappear to who knows where. No really, it would whistle a happy tune while sucking in the dust and everything. On a good day, you could find yourself whistling along with it.
Its cheer was not rubbing off today. Its happiness made me want to throw it out the door in the hope a stray carriage would run over it and all the years of dust would come exploding out, covering the street in a dark, messy, dusty murk. All I wanted to do was go home, crawl under my covers, and be miserable.
The sun was down by the time I was done. Mrs. Apothecary appeared out of the back room as if she knew exactly when I had finished. Instead of a few coins, she gave me a small box of very nice chocolates, the most expensive in the shop. They were the type that were sprinkled with gold leaf and everything. I stared at them blankly, not understanding the box. Then she thanked me for making time to help in the shop on a day as important as my birthday.
It took a little for the words to sink through my gloom. I looked up at her with tears starting to fill my eyes. Then the tears kept coming until the world was a watery blur. It wasn’t that she said something terrible, but suddenly I didn’t know which emotion I was supposed to be. Inside my head was running around in circles and I couldn’t speak to say thank you. I started sobbing and sniffling. “Everyone forgot,” I finally managed to say.
She took a step forward and held me close as the flood gates opened and I cried myself out. She was no bigger than me, but I felt so terribly small wrapped in her calm warmth.
When I was done crying, standing there with my head down, red eyed, and wiping my nose on my sleeve—no happier than I was before but drained of the dark storm that had been building—she told me to keep the broom, because everyone needs a good broom to sweep their troubles away. Really, I was clinging to it so tightly she would have had to pry it away from me anyway. Not that it was all that comforting, but it gave me something to hold on to.
I trudged unhappily out the door, the chocolates now the thing hugged close like a precious treasure, and dragging the broom behind me. I trudged around the corner, down the alley, and into an empty home. Ornery and mom were out somewhere, probably dealing with the blowback from the body and the knife. Even Officer Puppy was off keeping the city safe from the evil schemes of the rats.
I grabbed a small hunk of bread from the pantry and a candy from mom’s secret stash I wasn’t supposed to know about. The chocolates Mrs. Apothecary gave me were too nice for me to ruin the box by opening it. Then I went to bed alone, not caring that I was still hungry. I didn’t even bother to wash up for bed or take off my street clothes.
I hugged the broom for lack of anything else to hold close, and moped myself to sleep.
At least the day was over and it was too late for it to get any worse.
I totally missed the note on the big table in the middle of the main room. It was written in Ornery’s rough hand. It said I should stay at the apothecary’s place for the night. I never lifted my gaze high enough to see it. Though I did toss the box of chocolates right on top of it, covering it perfectly, without even trying.
The Pirate Apprentice by Mootly Obviate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.