At the Puffing Grampus
“Look,” said the first mate of the Amber Skycruiser. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t know—”
“Shut up,” Fritz said, trying to hold back his rage. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But we need to,” the first mate replied. His eyes were bloodshot, and his breath smelled like stale whiskey. Fritz might have felt sorry for the man—if he hadn’t hated him so much, that is.
The first mate looked pitiful, indeed. He was dressed in tattered rags, and he stank like sweat and piss. “I shouldn’t have ignored the readings,” he said, and then bit his lower lip. “The monitors all indicated there would be some turbulence, but I didn’t expect the dorsal fin to snap in half and tear the gasbag. I really am sorry, you know. I didn’t know a kid was out—”
Fritz hurled a bottle at the first mate. It missed, but shattered against the wall behind the first mate. Everyone inside the Puffing Grampus turned to stare. A few of the barflies kept drinking, but most had turned their attention away to stare at the two men near the back booth.
“What—” the first mate stammered. “What was his name?”
Fritz just shook his head. “His name was Owen.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the glass marble. “And this is all I have left of him. All I have to remember him by.”
The first mate nodded solemnly. “I’m sorry,” he said. It was barely a whisper. “About Owen. I really am.” He paused, as if trying to find the right words. “I just thought the monitors were wrong. I didn’t expect the turbulence to be that bad.”
“Yeah, well, I guess it was.”
“What about the boy’s mother?” asked the first mate. “How is she holding up?”
“She’s dead,” Fritz said. “Died of a brain aneurysm just a few months ago.” He tried not to cry. He wouldn’t cry—not here, amongst the riffraff that drank themselves to sleep at the sleaziest bar on the Spire. “That’s why we left Garden Point.” He scoffed. “We wanted to get a fresh start here. Some dream that was, right? More of a joke, really.”
“I’m sorry,” the first mate said again and looked down at his feet. “I guess you’ve been through a lot.”
Fritz pointed to his wounds: bits of flesh had started peeling off his body and there were boils all along his arms and face—side effects of the fog. “You should have left me to die out there. I would have been better off. Now I’m just a monster, a hobgoblin.”
“You shouldn’t have gone after your son like that,” the first mate retorted. “You’re lucky I twisted the ship around to scoop you up before the fog could really do some damage.”
“Lucky.” Fritz let out a long sigh. “Right. I’m lucky.”
“Yeah,” said the first mate. “You’re also lucky Captain Fruscia was incapacitated at the time.” He shifted nervously, as if he knew he was about to go too far. “He wouldn’t have tried to save you.”
“If Captain Fruscia hadn’t been incapacitated,” said Fritz, “then my son would probably still be alive.”
“What do you want from me?” the first mate yelled. He slammed his fist onto the table, and once again everyone in the Puffing Grampus turned to look at them. “It was an accident! I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, but it did. Why else do you think I’d been drinking myself stupid at this ratty bar?” He wiped tears out of his eyes. “I feel guilty…”
“Look,” Fritz said. “If I had known you came here, too, I wouldn’t have come inside at all. But if you’re looking for forgiveness, I’m sorry, but you won’t get it from me. My wife is dead, and that boy was all I had left. My son was all I left. And now, all I have to remember him by is this stupid marble!”
There was a long silence.
“So—so what are you going to do?” the first mate asked.
“I don’t know,” Fritz said. “I guess I’ll try to find work on an airship. There’s no way they’ll still let me have a job at the magistrate’s court here. They don’t give jobs like that to hobgoblins. Then again, most airships don’t hire hobgoblins, either—”
“Will you stop saying that?” the first mate said. He twisted uneasily in his chair. He was no longer the cocky kid Fritz remember seeing from afar on the Amber Skycruiser. He was now just another disillusioned adult left to wander the skies.
After a long pause, the first mate continued. “How about I give you a job? I was scheduled for a promotion as soon as we docked here. This airship tycoon named Alfred Gangly is hiring me to fly one of his vessels—a Hosing ship. Even with this—” He searched for the right word. “—incident he’s letting me take the job. I’ll be captain of my own ship—well, Gangly’s ship—but you understand what I mean. Why don’t you take a job on it? I get to hire all my own people.”
“I don’t know,” Fritz said. He would need the money—and the water—but he didn’t want to take a bribe from the man responsible for his son’s death. “I don’t know if I could live with myself if I took a job from you.”
“Come on,” said the first mate. He flashed a dashing smile that made Fritz hate him even more. How could someone still be so confident after getting a child killed? The first mate didn’t seem to notice Fritz’s sneer. “What do you say?” he asked. “I’ll let you be first mate. The pay will be good, and I—”
“No,” Fritz muttered.
“You won’t take a job aboard my ship?”
“No, I mean I don’t want to be first mate,” Fritz said. He considered his words carefully. “I’ll take a job on your boat. But only because I need the pay. I don’t want any vanity position. Just make me a regular Hoser.”
“An educated man like you?” the first mate scoffed. “Why waste your time as a Hoser?”
“Because I won’t have to see you, or talk to you.” Fritz snorted, then said, “Or even think about your existence. You’ll stay in the pilot’s house, and I’ll get to stay down below with the rest of the chaff.”
The first mate seemed to consider this for a long time. “Okay,” he said, extending his hand. “You’ve got a deal. I won’t bother you, and I won’t even speak to you, if that’s what you want. I know it won’t bring back your boy, but I’ll pay you whatever you want.”
“Just pay me whatever you pay the rest of the Hosers,” Fritz said. He couldn’t bring himself to shake the man’s hand. It felt like a betrayal to Owen’s memory. “And don’t you ever try to get me promoted. It won’t work.”
“You’ve got yourself a deal,” he replied. He seemed to give up on Fritz shaking his hand and scratched the back of his head, smiling awkwardly. “I, uh, don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Fritz. William Fritz.”
“I guess I’ll see you soon, Fritz,” the first mate said. He stood up to leave, but turned around and smiled again. “I’m Schlocky, by the way. Allister Schlocky.”
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