The Plumber's Apprentice

       Roderick Gladwish / Fantasy
The Plumber’s Apprentice
Copyright 2009 Roderick Gladwish
Published by Roderick Gladwish at Smashwords

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Prina stood in a trough full of eels. She was at the top of the fish-steps on Stourmouth docks. Clean seawater would have trickled down from one trough to the next keeping fish, crabs and eels alive until time for them to be sold. It didn’t because the valve at the top had jammed so Calder the plumber had been called and Prina, his teenage apprentice, sent to climb up and fix it.
Eels writhed around her calves and prodded her cold feet. Although she had hitched up her skirt its hem was soaked. She struggled with a large spanner on a rusted nut. Finally it turned and of course the spanner jammed her hands against the trough before falling in the water.
‘That’s it girl,’ encouraged Calder. ‘Now you can take off the valve cover and clear out the rust. Saltwater corrosion, it’s the plumber’s best friend, always keep you employed will saltwater corrosion.’
Prina felt amongst the slimy snakes to find the spanner.
‘I could do with some help, this is hard.’
‘Best way to learn, girl, hard jobs’ll help you build up your muscles.’
‘I don’t want muscles,’ she called back.
‘I can’t climb up there, not with my joints, damp plays up the rheumatism bad.’
‘This is going to give me rheumatism?’
‘O’course girl,’ Calder shouted, ‘plumbers always get rhumatis, the damp gets to the bones. O’course without rhumatis you couldn’t look the Guild of Plumbers square in the face.’
‘I don’t want to look them in the face. The Guild’s full of ugly old men,’ she snapped.
‘That’s the spirit, girl,’ Calder said cheerfully.
Prina decided the rheumatism was affecting his brain. She continued taking the valve to bits and then cleaned the pieces with a wire brush she pulled from one of the pockets in her apron.
‘That your new apprentice?’
Prina glanced round to see a broad shouldered man had joined her master (like she’d ever call him that). She was going to hear those words again, the ones Prina heard every time someone new saw her. Stourmouth was a small district in the capital city of Grande Marchet and eventually all would learn that Calder had taken on a girl by order of the King. To her annoyance, a month had gone by and still people found it strange.
‘Yes, that’s Prina.’
‘She really is a girl,’ observed Ivor the Fish, owner of a handful of fishing boats.
This town’s definitely got the best girl-recognisers in the kingdom, Prina thought sarcastically; perhaps it’s the long hair and the dress that give it away.
‘Yes, the girl’s a girl,’ Calder confirmed. ‘An ordinary plumber wasn’t good enough for Princess Aileen, she wanted one just for her, so I gets one of her maids.’
‘Snooty wench. I’ve heard she treats her maids like dogs.’
‘Dunno about that, but Prina goes to the castle every weekend happy as you like, but she’s miserable as sin when she comes back.’
Unseen Prina made some notes in a little book.
‘Need your opinion on sumthin’, follows me. Gotta keep it a secret.’
Prina liked secrets, especially other people’s. Repairing the valve in seconds and gathering her tools into her apron Prina splashed down the steps. She was moving so quickly that the lobsters in the bottom trough only nipped her toes once. Prina set off after the men.
‘Yeah, it was odd at first, but she works hard,’ Calder admitted strolling beside Ivor.
Pausing behind a barrel of salt, Prina changed something in her book as she sneaked after them.
‘Not right, girls should stay home.’
‘She can read and write, and she can do number stuff.’
‘Can’t see a use for it, specially wasting in on a girl.’
Calder continued, ‘She’s speaks funny too, uses bigger words than a person has a right too. She’s surly too.’
The two men went into a boat shed on the quay. It looked like it was too lazy to collapse properly. Its warped planks left a million slits for Prina to spy through as she entered the alley between sheds and peered in.
The shed covered a dry dock. Prina found it odd that the tide was out yet the dock was still full of water. The gates that usually stopped harbour water flooding the dock were now keeping the water in.
The men walked along the edge of the pool. Prina followed them slit by slit. Frustrated, she couldn’t hear what they were saying or see what they were looking at.
Prina reached the end of the alley and stood at the quay edge. Beyond was the harbour at low tide all mud and boats resting on it. Open to the sea, nets had been strung thickly over the entrance to the shed. Prina peered around the edge.
Ivor and Calder had their backs to Prina.
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ Calder said.
Balancing on the lip between building and drop Prina nearly fell as she strained to hear. Still she couldn’t find out the secret so when they left, Prina climbed in by weaving through the tangle of nets.
Something as big as Prina swam lazily underwater.
Prina peered over the edge.
A girl’s face looked back at her.
Prina staggered back as the head came out of the water. Expecting it to be between the teeth of a monster Prina tripped over backwards as she tried to escape.
Supporting herself on her arms the head’s owner looked at her. No older than Prina, she wore a tight waistcoat leaving her arms bare and her hair was cropped.
Feeling stupid Prina began collecting the tools that had spilled out of her apron.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
Opening her mouth then thinking better of it, the girl slipped back into the water, her tail briefly appeared as she dived out of sight.
‘A mermaid,’ Prina said.
Prina made a mixture of clicking and whistling noises.
The mermaid popped up nearby repeating the sounds.
‘You heard me,’ Prina said, ‘Speak land-language I know you can.’
‘Yoooou ahhh princessss?’
Even though the words were from a foreign language and no one else heard them, Prina panicked.
‘Shhhh, I’ll lose my job if anyone knows I’m Princess Aileen. It’s very important I don’t lose this job.’ Princesses learn many languages because it comes in handy for meeting princes. ‘You’re a long way from home,’ Prina-Aileen judged by the land-language.
‘I’,’ the mermaid began. ‘I’m Dolphinfast Tuna-Hunter. I’m a shepherd—’
‘Another peasant,’ groaned Prina.
‘—I was nursing a sick whale—’
‘Stop there,’ Prina held up a hand. ‘Did I say I cared?’
‘I’m so glad you’re here. You can get me free.’
‘Not so fast fishgirl,’ Prina responded. ‘I didn’t hear anyone say I was going to help you escape.’
‘You can’t leave me here,’ Dolphinfast moaned.
‘Of course not,’ Prina agreed. ‘You should be in my father’s menagerie.’
‘What is menagerie?’ Dolphinfast asked.
‘It’s where father keeps strange animals. He has a great collection of animals, you’d really set it off.’
‘I’m not an animal,’ Dolphinfast declared.
‘Half-girl, half cat food, sounds pretty animal too me.’
‘You’re a Princess, you can’t do this,’ Dolphinfast argued.
‘Shhh!’ Prina warned. ‘Yes I can, a you-know-what can do anything she likes. Now, if you don’t do as you’re told I’ll have you stuffed and mounted like a hunting trophy.’
‘What happens if people know you a princess?’
‘I’m not going to tell you,’ Princess Aileen said.
‘Something nasty because you are being punished for being a bad person.’
‘Maybe.’ As if trying to feed a maid to a dragon made her a bad person.
‘Princess, princess, PRINCESS! I have a P.R.I.N.C.E.S.S in here with me!’
Prina sprang up and ran for the door which opened with Ivor on the other side of it.
‘What you doing here?’ Ivor demanded grabbing the collar of her dress and twisting it into a knot.
‘She’s nosey, I did say she was nosey,’ Calder said nervously from behind Ivor.
‘I knows those words, them’s foreigner lingo. Do you speak foreign?’
‘No,’ Prina said weakly, ‘it started babbling at me.’
‘She’s a princess, princess, PRINCESS,’ Dolphinfast sang out.
‘I know some fishermen who speak foreign, I’ll find out what she’s saying.’
‘Probably nothing, fish and hairstyles.’
‘I’ll find out,’ Ivor said. ‘Now, what are you doing here?’
‘How do you expect me to work for my master —’ she cringed — ‘if I have to go sneaking around to find out what the next job is. You’ve not been thinking this through, ugh.’ Prina found the fist under her chin tightening the cloth.
‘Calling me stupid are you?’
‘No sir,’ Prina squeaked.
‘Did I say she was surly too? If she were a boy I’d beat some obedience into her, but of course can’t do that with girls.’
‘It might work with her,’ Ivor said very slowly.
A slimy eel of fear wriggled down Prina’s back.
‘Please,’ she whispered, ‘I meant no insult. Building a proper tank for, it, that’s a big job and will need me to be involved, so why keep it a secret from me?’
‘She’s right, I would need my apprentice.’ Calder agreed. He didn’t like the way Ivor had not loosened his grip.
Prina liked it less, but it didn’t stop her saying something stupid.
‘Of course the smart thing would be to give it to the king. All strange creatures are his by law. Ugh.’
With one powerful arm Ivor lifted Prina off the floor.
She struggled to get free and more importantly to get air into her lungs.
Ivor brought his face to hers.
‘This is my catch. This is my way to get rich. If you say one word of this to anyone I’ll cut you up and use you for bait.’
‘No you wouldn’t, Ivor,’ Calder said in a friendly manner.
A knife flashed in front of Prina’s eyes.
‘It goes for you too plumber.’
* * *
That night Prina crept down the alley by the boathouse. After walking through deserted streets she had expected the boathouse to be dark, but light was streaming out of its sides. A rotting seaweed breeze chilled her. Pulling her heavy wooden jacket round her shoulders, Prina peered through one of the cracks.
Oil lamps cast shadows on the water. Ivor was inside and shouting. She hoped it wasn’t because he had found her book.
Prina had not been so scared since she had been stuck to a dragon’s nostril. The same one that would eat Aileen if she stopped being Prina. Where Aileen was so important that Ivor would be thrown into the dungeon for touching her, Prina didn’t matter to anyone. She didn’t have guards to protect her. If Ivor caught Prina, she could be fish-food before dawn.
She was risking her life to find her favourite book. In it she listed all the people she hated and what she was going to do to them when she became Queen Aileen. If found that would be bad enough, unfortunately it also had ‘Property of Princess Aileen’ written on the inside. It was normally in her apron but it was missing. Prina guessed it had escaped when everything fell out in the boathouse.
Shouting even louder, Ivor marched along the pool edge carrying a boat hook. At times he would smash down creating explosions of water.
‘Jump you stupid fish!’ screamed the fisherman.
Hanging from the rafters was a hoop made from rope.
‘If you don’t learn this trick, I’ll have you stuffed!’
Prina felt like she’d been poked with the boathook. Her own threat sounded worse when it came out of another’s mouth.
Ivor caught the mermaid. Snagging Dolphinfast’s waistcoat Ivor hauled her to him. He said something in a dangerous low tone.
Imagining the words, knowing what it was like to say them and receive them, Prina was already walking to end of boatyard.
‘I hate empathy. This is not going to help me be a queen.’
Her clogs didn’t grip well on the iron rungs set into the stone side of the jetty as she climbed down. Rising quickly the tide had covered the majority of the slipway in front of the drydock. Seawater was lapping at her heels when she looked up at the gates propped closed with tall timbers. Wooden wedges were jammed beneath the beams holding them in place. From her apron Prina pulled her favourite tool — the biggest hammer she could carry. Stooping she struck the wedge. It barely moved. Her second whack shifted it.
‘Oi!’ Ivor’s boots clumped onto the gates. His huge shadow moved across the nets.
Whistle, click, click, whistle, whistle click, Prina sang out ducking behind the beam.
There was a huge splash as Dolphinfast jumped through the hoop.
The shadow stopped.
‘That’s it shark-bait, keep up the acro-bat-tics and you’ll get some nice fish,’ Ivor called, he was standing on the gates his back to Prina. ‘Your kind can make all the noise they like out there, but they can’t save you.’
‘I can.’
The wedge flew from under its prop with Prina’s final whack. The tree trunk fell away.
‘Oh,’ said Prina weakly as the gates burst like a fat man’s trousers.
Washed into deep water Prina didn’t know which way was up. All sorts of hard things had struck her as she tumbled with the flow. Her tool belt’s weight found down and pulled her that way. Prina thrashed. Her dress was soaked and tangled her legs. Sinking deeper into the black sea with her chest feeling like a bursting balloon, Prina wanted to gasp for air. One gulp would be a glug and both Prina and Princess Aileen would drown. Her mouth wouldn’t obey and stay shut.
My first good deed gets me killed — typical, she thought.
Dolphinfast rammed Prina so hard she bent double and opened her mouth.
Coughing salt water Prina was tossed up onto the mud at the side of the harbour.
‘You will life?’ Dolphinfast asked lying beside her.
‘That’s ‘live’,’ Prina said coughing. ‘Yes, I’ll live.’
Looking past the mermaid, Prina saw Ivor fighting the water. All his strength couldn’t stop him from sinking.
‘Save him,’ Prina ordered the mermaid.
‘Bad man, better dead.’
‘No, go and save him!’
‘Because...’ because as an ordinary person she had seen how widows and orphans suffered, because she knew exactly what it was like to drown, because...’ because he did everything I planned to do to you.’
‘You learned to do the right thing.’
‘And you’re not giving him the chance to learn. Let him drown and you’ll be no better than me.’
Dolphinfast slipped into the water to become a silver flash in the dark.
Prina waited until she saw Ivor surface with the mermaid pulling him to the mudflats. He was coughing and cursing in equal measure.
Deciding it wise to vanish before the fisherman reached safety the dripping princess made her way home.
She never found the book. No one did. Princess Aileen guessed it had been washed into the harbour and she didn’t feel like starting another. Meanwhile Prina already had the makings of an excellent plumber.


About the Author
Roderick is an aerospace engineer whose day job is designing spacecraft structures. When he loses self-control he writes stories. In 2008 he won the British Science Fiction Association 50th Anniversary Short Story Competition. He also illustrates his own work.

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