The Ferryman

The waters lapped at Hectar’s bare feet.
He sat on the edge of the bustling pier, legs dangling into the River Yp, the setting sunbeams finding the creases in his furrowed brow. About him scurried rough, rural folk; villagers who straddled the divide between the Fahmal’s western edge and Yptah’s eastern border. He paid them no heed. His eyes were closed.
Ageless waters, you who have washed away secrets, so many…
He felt the dirt on his feet, the crusted lattice set along his sandals’ ridges, felt it soften to mud, drift free.
First River, you would wash away the stains of my long travels. For this I am grateful. Do you perchance have the power to free me of the time before that, from which I still fly; to wash the stains from man’s memory?
Surely, surely, given time enough…
All our endless choices, running together, the flow of who we are now, of who we become.
Now…now is determined by choices past.
Now, here I stand at journey’s end. Truly, there is but one Eternal Riddle: where to, now, from here?
His chest rose and fell in a deep sigh; the regret of reaching the end of one path, only to discover there the cruel crossroads of so many others.
Freedom; the taste of spoiled fruit. Without purpose it is no more than bitter torture of the self. Even serfdom is better than the tyranny of a soul adrift, without anchor.
Slowly, he opened his eyes. He was sick of the inside of his own head.
Outward to the horizon wound the glittering tributaries of the River Yp, a hundred golden serpents swimming into a sinking, crimson orb. From the eastern bank stretched the endless indifferent sands of the Fahmal, an evening breeze whipping the crest of the dunes into a dance: a moment’s flight, an ethereal gyrating beauty, then; inevitable collapse to a kingdom of dead sand.
Hectar saw both sides, as always. He saw the incredible, careless beauty of a moment never to be repeated. He saw also the act as utter futility, its end bound inextricably with its beginning.
This is the lesson of the desert. But there is Karma, even here, here at the outer ring of civilization’s lamplight…
He shook his head, straining to maintain a sense of the profound, but the truth was he just felt tired. It had been a long and lonely trek.
He pushed himself to his feet, shook the water from his sandals, worn leather snug against calves browned and strong from years of travel. He’d walked the entire curve of the Meditar. It took a conscious effort of will to remember just how many winters had passed since he left his homeland for the second time…
Hectar turned his back on the water. Time to finish it. Once he reached the far bank a boyhood wish would be fulfilled.
He resolved himself to worry about what to do once he got there, once he got there.
All along the pier the last business of the day was being conducted; the back and forth of haggling, ferrymen departing, the boys who worked the docking ropes. Fish sellers were all but giving away what remained of the day’s fly-ridden catch. Leathery housewives bargained even these prices down. The last boatmen pushed their skiffs off towards the far bank, to the city which loomed there, older than mortal reckoning, as if the desert itself had somehow pushed it from its barren womb.
At least, that’s how the songs of the lyre-pickers figured it. A merchant tipped a sodden basket of fish heads from the end of the pier. Even Hectar’s experienced nose curled at the stench. He pushed his way through the throng, making towards the ferries. He was met with narrowed eyes; this was no place for an outlander to tarry as long as he had done. Hectar hoped he was not too late, now that he'd made up his mind. Another night in this backwater he did not relish.
There was but one skiff still tethered to the pier. A crimson sprawl at its far end, a vagrant perhaps, but no helmsmen in sight.
Child!” came the voice of a weather-beaten man idling in the long shadows.
Hectar shot him a frown. It had been a very long time since someone called him that. The man was hunched over his bunting pole.
“You! You seek passage, there, across the river? I ask; but two shaekel.”
The stranger spoke in heavily accented Aedean. What gave me away? Hectar wondered idly.
“You are a ferryman?” Hectar asked instead, switching to the local dialect.
“I am he; this vessel is my own.” Still in awful Aedean. The man’s breath was heavy with vapors, and even his straw hat stank of wine, but his beady eyes were sharp as nails, and his taut body did not sway even the width of a knuckle. Hectar reckoned he was more unwashed than unsober.
One shaekel…he may as well ask for nothing. Who would shunt his skiff all the way across the Yp for half a hunk of flatbread?
“You ask a pittance, old man. There is no need to sell your labor short. Here.”
Hectar jiggled his coin purse until he saw the glint of copper. From the mix of Principaean copper Standards and Aedean drachma (and the other filth-encrusted oddments he’d accumulated but never spent) he plucked three coppers branded with the seal of the Empire. This was far more than the man was asking.
He pressed the coins into the ferryman’s waiting palm. The profile of Emperor Naer glared off into the gloaming. The ferryman scowled, and tipped the copper Standards back into Hectar’s hand.
“This – no. It has no power here. Two shaekel.”
Hectar chuckled. This man is as adamant about his principles as he is about speaking a tongue for which he has no gift.
The Fahmal was the sole region that didn’t accept imperial copper Standards alongside their own denominations. Most of the coastal nations had long since made a complete transition to the fiat currency.
He mused: Here, where the First River empties itself into the black waves of the southern Meditar, here live the only people yet to feel the corruption of Principaea’s culture and coin, or reel at the discovery of the barbs hidden in the Senate’s silken promises.
It was not all Emperor Naer’s doing, however. The Principaean Standard was but one of the inheritances of the previous Emperor, Aegonus, and his great vision of a Meditar united under the Pax.
Another was a bloody civil war that tore the Empire to shreds.
Still another was his son, Naer, who hacked his way through countless lives to claim a throne that should have been his by right of birth.
Aegonus the Benevolent; a strange title for a troubled man, whose legacy was as complex as his life had been, and had touched the lives of millions. Yet behind Aegonus stretched his own inheritance; the precession of Emperors past, their half-realized visions, and the vast, invisible structures of a leviathan manifest as a delirious idea: my empire
Hectar lapsed again into thought: My own life is no exception. In fact…no, I do not wish to dwell on this, again. Not now, not here on the borders of the nation most free of its stain.
Hectar focused on the weight of the money in his hand; such a small thing, it seemed, but wasn’t. The sun met the edge of the earth.
Hectar didn’t want to linger a moment longer on these forlorn outskirts. He’d have to persuade the ferryman.


pier dock boat ferry sail voyage


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