The chime of a wind-beaten bell rang softly through the dense smog, which clung to the water’s surface of the Mistweave Canal’s. A boat, narrow and flat in shape, silently skimmed the shallow waters; helmed by a figure muffled under a thick cloak which draped his body and hooded his face; shielding him from the cold dead air. He stood at the rear of the boat, posed dourly under an oil lit lantern which swayed back and forth from a standing pole. Beside it, hung a salt-crusted bell made of old and worn cast iron, which chimed occasionally while the cloaked figure pushed the boat along with his long wooden pole that he held firmly in his grasp.
The hooded figure stared into the gloomy abyss, unable discern anything beyond the edges of his boat—navigating the ever-winding waterways by memory alone.
After some time, a light began to emerge in the distance. It was small at first—beginning as a hazy amber globule. Then, as the boat neared closer, a wooden pier came into view. It harshly creaked in rhythm to the surging waters below, while the globule of light bobbed along its surface and towards to boat until it revealed itself to be a lantern, carried by a thin lad named Cooper, who waited impatiently at the edge of the pier.
“It reeks out here, Mister Syn!” Cooper called out, placing his lantern at his feet while the prevailing winds tousled his perpetually messy hair.
“Aye!” Syn replied, “These canals will never run dry for there will always be someone to piss in them.” Syn tossed a rope out onto the pier and asked, “Are they feeding you up there? You look like you haven’t seen a meal in days.”
“Food is plenty,” Cooper replied, “It’s the drink we’re lacking.” He deftly knotted the rope to a sturdy cleat, then gave it a good hard tug before helping Syn lay down a thin sheet of wood between the boat and the pier.
“The usual?” Cooper asked.
“Aye, the usual,” Syn answered, pulling back a leather tarp that draped the open deck of the boat, revealing multiple rows of large and hefty barrels. “Three-dozen kegs, and then some extra scraps thrown in—for free, of course,” he chuckled. “Wouldn’t recommend drinking those’ns though. Not unless you want it to be your last.”
“I’m sure we could find a fair few folk who’d drink ‘em,” Cooper replied. “A’ight, let’s get them inside shall we—bit nippy out ‘ere.” Cooper rubbed his hands together and exhaled a deep breath. Then, he bent his knees, straightened his back, shuffled closer and wrapped his arms around the coarse wood of the keg, paused… and heaved.
The first keg was always the easiest. It was when you got to the fourth or fifth that you begin to truly feel their weight. Most folk couldn’t even get to six without needing to stop and recover—but that was where Cooper truly shined. He was not particularly strong nor did he excel at many things (and especially not at maths), but what he could do—and do very well—was be resilient. And so, even though it may hurt and strain him, he could continue lifting kegs until the night’s end; and then do it all again the next day.
Syn watched as Cooper waddled from boat to pier and back again, hauling kegs to and fro. Eventually he thought to ask, “Would you like some help, lad?” and he did so in an almost sardonic tone.
“Can you help?” Cooper said in between haggard breaths. “That is, with your self-proclaimed ‘bad joints’?”
Syn let out a soft chuckle, “Have you ever stopped to question, Coop, who loads the kegs onto the boat in the first place?”
“Oh I have, Mister Syn,” Cooper plopped his keg onto the pier and took a moments respite, leaning cross-armed against the hefty barrel, and then continued. “I have wondered many things about you, and I have concluded that I simply just do not dare to question them. For example, in all these years, not once have I lay witness your face.”
“Is that a fact?” Syn mused. He lowered his head and gently tugged at the harsh dark fabric that hung over his face. “Well then, will you do me the honour of lifting back my hood?”
“No—” Cooper laughed with disbelief, “—I don’t think I will. I feel like you’re baiting me; and if I was stupid enough to fall for it, something tells me I would forever struggle to sleep soundly.”
Syn pulled back his head and near fell back from his hard, unnerving laugh. “Ha! Wise decision, Coop. Wise decision.” Eventually his laugh stifled, and he made the gesture of wiping tears from his eyes—although Cooper felt that it was simply that, a gesture. Then, Syn asked: “Now, regarding payment…”
“Oh, yes—of course,” Cooper reached for a small, but well stuffed, leather pouch that hung from his belt and tossed it towards Syn. “Thirty golds worth of copper coins, as per usual,” he said.
Cooper paused and then pondered. Then, curiosity finally won, and he asked, “Mister Syn, why do you always request copper coins? We have the gold pieces to give.”
“Ah, so this you allow yourself to question.” Syn offered a quick peek into the pouch before slipping it deep into his loosely hanging sleeve where it remained out of sight. “If you must know, I simply enjoy the textile feel of copper more so than silver or gold… Does that satisfy your curiosity?”
“Frankly, it does not,” Cooper said, immediately regretting his decision. “If anything, it brings to mind far more questions and very few answers.”
“A pity, then,” Syn replied solemnly. “How unfortunate. Regardless, it’s best that I be off. You take care now, Coop.”
He began to reel in the rope which Cooper loosened from the cleat. He then pushed off from the pier using his punt, and nudge the boat outwards where it then drifted out into the Mistweave Canal.
“Oh, and before I forget—” Syn called out, and he tossed to Cooper a bundle of cloth. Cooper unravelled it to reveal some stale bread. “You look like you need it more than I ever will,” Syn added, before disappearing into the thick smog—vanishing out of sight.
Cooper happily took a bite into the stone hard crust and focused his gaze further down the pier; watching as the smog slowly thinned to reveal a series of rickety wooden stairs which the perennial sea mist left crusted and damp with age. They snaked and climbed over themselves, upwards and towards a tavern raised high over the Mistweave Canal, supported by an array of thick wooden stumps that stood defiantly in the waters. From the tavern was a murmur of banter and shanties echoing through the stiff air, providing a lull of disjointed melody to the gentle lapping of waves and the elongated creaks from the shifting pier.
Cooper eyed the stairs, and then the kegs, and then let out a deep sigh. The easy part is over, he thought.