The tavern's main room was almost as dark as the night outside. It was late in the evening, and the fire was burning low and the short ration of tallow candles that dotted the room were beginning to gutter out. It hardly mattered, the only people left were regulars and the patron.
I was there, too, perched in the shadows on the stairs and risking a whipping from my Pa. I'd crept out after my Sis had put me to bed, as I often did, to listen to the yarns the sailors told each other, after enough of the watered ale loosened their tongues.
I'd been doing it for almost as long as I could remember. It had been a game between me and Ma. Could I look enough like I was asleep to fool her. She'd never leave until I did, no matter how much and how often Pa yelled for her to get back to her work, or else.
My big Sis, however, was terrified of Pa, and she barely checked that I made it into the cot we shared before skittering back to the taproom, where she delivered drinks and flirted with handsome young sailors, hoping a little desperately that one might not be a penniless drunkard.
But Ma was long gone. She'd left us in a pool of blood one stormy winter's night, birthing a baby who should have been my little brother, but who arrived, blue and still, instead. When I think of that night, I can still hear the way that the waves pounded against the harbour wall, and the wind howled eerily through the masts and spars of the ships which lurched and strained at their moorings, unquiet in their berths.
This evening's tale was another about the perils of the Southern Seas. The narrator's dark, greasy hair only started halfway back on his scalp, and with his bound queue he might have passed for an Asiatic, if it wasn't for his huge, bushy beard. I'd never seen one of them manage more than a wispy moustache, at best.
"Suddenly, t'wind changed and we were headed for rocks. Cap'n had been warned 'bout the narrow route, but he'd heard tell of the waves in the seas, and he was a yellow bastard. And he thought we could save time in the channels."
I grabbed my knees, and must have gasped at the suspense, because suddenly, and with as little warning as the change in winds, Pa was there, his belt ready in his hand. I didn't stop to look twice, before scampering away, and barely missed being caught by the collar of my night shirt when his meaty hand shot out after me.