Scenes from the City Part 7: The Recruit

Scenes from the City Part 7: The Recruit

It has been a long and unpleasant wait for all of us, imaginary readers. But here I am, once more. 

Part 6 can be found here, along with links to the rest.

The night is quiet, and the face of the forest unyielding.

It crawls and scrambles along the line of open ground, sometimes a wayward root or a questing vine reaching as far as the scree heap at the base of the wall.

The scents of the harbour, the sweaty streets and the salt and fish reek of his home seem a long way off. Its cold up here, with nothing but the gut high parapet to break the wind, the accursed serpent whistling between the high towers that block the stars like inescapable fangs. The trees ahead, the towers behind, I can almost imagine myself between the jaws of some immense and sleeping beast.

The night is quiet, and the face of the forest a unyielding as the stone it stands before.

My eyes are starting to wander.

Not far to my right there’s a torch, battered and flickering against the breeze. It casts a ray of warm light, of sanity around itself, and I trace the line. It lights the flags at my feet and the wall before me before leaping off into the black abyss like a suicide. It lights one side of the powder keg but not the other. It lights the side of myself that I can see, the image ghosting in and out of focus as the wind wrestles with the light.

The whistling sings me back to the docks, to clacking ropes and creaking boards, the rumbling voice of my father long since silenced by the sea.

The night is quiet, and neither the forest nor the stone will be moved by tears.

“Quiet night.”

I jump as the rasping voice rides the wind over my shoulder, into my dreaming ear. I turn around, and there she is, tattoos writhing on the half of her that the light touches. Night Corporal. Her boots are heavy, and she is girded by blades far weightier and more wicked than any I had seen in the quartermaster’s shed. The only sound is the wind.

“Yes,” I croaked in reply, “All quiet, ma’am.”

“Good to hear, child. Stay watchful. Can you hear anything over the wind?”

“No ma’am… Should I?”

“Better that way, perhaps. Once you start hearing the forest, it can eat its way into your dreams. That happens, and you’ll never really be safe again.”

 

There was silence between us for a time.

“Who were you before?” the gaunt figure intoned with a voice like spitting red wax.

“Pardon, ma’am?”

“You don’t talk much, do you?” she snapped.

“With respect, Corporal, I could say the same…” the statement died in my chest, aged and withered by a gaze that felt like teeth on the back of my neck.

“True,” she grimaced, eventually, “I do have a certain… reputation for solitude, don’t I sop?” The wind slithered and hissed between them, licking their bones and making a plaything of their hair.

“You didn’t answer my question. What were you before? Nobody is born a soldier.”

“I… my family live by the docks. My mother and… my younger brothers and sisters, they work at cleaning and gutting where they can, my father worked the boats until… one day he didn’t come back, so I had to find work…”

I glanced into her gaze, before averting my eyes again. The wind lashed coldly against my wet eyelids.

“Sounds like we come from similar families.”

I must have looked taken aback, the gods know I felt it, because she snorted, exposing her row of sharpened teeth.

“Something to say, soldier? Lets hear it.”

“I’m sorry, corporal.”

“Sorry for what?” the word was like frost on the wind.

“I just never… I don’t know. I… gods I feel like a fool. I thought…” I struggled for a nicety, some polite turn of phrase that would get her gaze off, “To talk about families when you’re… a Sister.”

“Well, I’m your Corporal now pup, but I sure as falling wasn’t born into this uniform either. I’ve heard some ramming tell of scholars in yonder tower” she gestured with her head, “who say that the polite terms include ‘Underkin’ or ‘Pilots’. Wasn’t me who chose that shite, and if you prefer Charnel Sister when you’re giggling with your little friends then…” her eyes wandered out over the darkened woods, taking in the thousand thousand leafy peaks above the mist, “giggle while you can, child.”

 

“I…”

“Spill it.”

“I meant no offence.”

“I’m sure you ramming didn’t.”

“Were your… family fishers as well?”

“My mother was, for a time. Fishing, trapping. That’s how things are below.”

“What drove you to leave?”

She smiled sadly in the flickering light.

“The Descent can’t last forever.”

The silence grew immense once again, humming between us. My thought were churning, trying to parse her words into something that made sense in the world in which I lived.

And all I felt was that I was far away, watching a young man atop a wall, caught in the echoes of his nightmares of the sea. A Descent. That this little boy could understand. The long fall, the crushing weight, the immensity of the ending.

“Thank you for answering, child.”

“Was… it important?”

“There’ a story, and stop me if you’ve already heard it… of a ruined city, far below. That the dead nest there in silence, beneath stones raised up to the unflinching stone above and carved with their stories. And how those who can’t find their tale just limp along until they fall apart. Into dust.”

“No,” I replied, “I haven’t heard that one before.”

“You should read more.”

There was a little sting in that; I’d never been strong at my letters, but I don’t think the Corporal could have known that. Or perhaps she could. My mind, however, was already trailing along a jetty yet unjumped.

“Have you seen it?”

“What?”

“The city in the story.”

She laughed, and I found myself smiling along.

“It’s just a story, sop. As well as I know, at least.”

“So you weren’t… recording for me?”

“I’m no scholar, soldier, and I’m shite with a chisel. You want a decent epitaph, I’d recommend rich and loving children.”

“Thank you Corporal.”

The night is quiet, and my corporal’s face is once more unyielding as she leans out over the parapet, her face beyond the reach of the light.

“Don’t thank me just yet. If you want to give those rich and loving children a chance, you run and light the flare. We’ve got trouble.”

I ran for the signal tower without another word. Over my shoulder I heard Soma’s voice rise to its piercing, flaying knife screech, echoing across the walls and the rooftops of the City.

“Carpies by the southwest annex! Guards to me, if you like your hides! Come here tree ramming filth, let’s see what your insides look like…”

I hammered a torch into the flare bed, the coruscation blazing into my eyes as the night exploded with musket fire.

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Photo Sintra-16 by Subodh Bharati on Flickr. CC A/N$/ND. Have a frantic day. 

 

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Frying the Trickster

It was a thought that startled a friend of ours when we stayed with her in the UK.

I said that I had never seen a fox alive. I know they’re a massive pest here in Australia, but the only time that I had ever seen one before this point was as a mangled shape on the side of the highway. Usually the Hume Highway, between Sydney and Canberra. I don’t know if that’s significant.

So our host put out some chicken offcuts in her backyard, leaving a low light on and keeping a firm hand on her little West Highlands Terrier. Soon enough, to the Westy’s unhappy growls, we watched through the glass door as a trio of foxes, barely more than pups, hopped over the rear shed and dropped into the back yard. They warily snatched up the chicken before departing again, and I couldn’t help but feel like these strange animals were more like possums than dogs, leaping and clambering over fences and knocking over bins. Maybe I’m just more used to having possums near the house. For any imaginary readers who haven’t been to Australia or New Zealand, consider it a mercy to have not heard a possum’s voice at night. Scary shite right there.

Anyway, I was talking about foxes. I had met them in another context, in which they were neither flesh and blood creatures or flesh and blood road markers. Fox Shrines dot Japan, often in wild and partially forgotten places, or clinging quietly to unseen corners in the grounds of larger shrine complexes. There is a beautiful one to the side of Kamakura’s Hachimangu whose approach seems little more than a narrow forest path, leading to a flight of weathered stairs and, for me at least, a haunting sensation of being watched.

What all this fox related jabbering is leading to is the noodle recipe that follows.

Now there’s a leap of logic for you.

To explain: not long ago I attempted to make some Kitsune Udon for my partner and Ghorb, who is currently living with us. A rough translation would be Fox Noodles. I’ve never understood what appeal fried tofu has to foxes, but then I’ve never really felt much of an urge to delve into it either. Just sort of took it as given that the folkloric tricksters of Japan’s unforgiving ecosphere would , like me, be really into soy products.

So here’s how I did it.

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First, I chopped up a whole bunch of Shitake Mushrooms for broth. Because mushrooms are great.

Arrayed behind said mushrooms are my other ingredients; red miso paste, sesame seeds and firm tofu. You’ll be able to tell from these that I’m not making a traditional broth… this is really more an homage to a memory than a real recreation.

Because I’ve tried to arrange for silken tofu to hold its shape through the frying process before, and we all remember how that went.

Well, you guys don’t I suppose… it didn’t end well. Silken tofu just kind of disintegrates when you try to fry it, and this little blogger had to walk all the way back to the supermarket, which is… admittedly, right across the road, to get firm tofu.

So remember: Firm Tofu.

Here’s what you do with it.

You slice it into little steaks. I made triangles, but you could equally make rectangles or any other shape your knife skill wpid-20150629_183335.jpglevels allow.

Give them a quick skin mixed from flour, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.

Fry in oil until crispy.

Fry the mushrooms, then drown them in hot water and add a goodly dollop of miso paste to make a tasty broth. Sprinkle in some finely chopped spring onions, and your golden. Throw in noodles for your audience and… hey presto.

Get those noodles and that broth into a bowl, place the nice little tofu guys on top, and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Much more attractive than most of the foxes I’ve encountered, to be sure.

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Scenes from the City Part 6: The Scavenger

Another installment in this delectable serialised fiction, my dear imaginary readers, after three weeks of fluff- I mean quality articles. A familiar narrator again, if you haven’t heard from the Scavenger yet his previous outing was in Part 2. For those of you who have just arrived, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

The Scavenger

“Vulture,” Twin muttered in my ear as we trod down the newly crawling undergrowth.

Twin doesn’t speak often, and I often think that is for the best.

I can’t forget the first time he told me about his brother.

“Vulture,” the witch boy whispered again.

That story had sunk in like a rock in the pit of my gut.That was when I came to understand what it was the boy had missing, something broken inside him. Like we all did.

I hammered a ragged, low hanging branch into the earth with my boot, tearing it loose from its trunk like a shirt torn in half.

He’d come in a package, you see. He and a brother, just like him, born together, and I guess that’s why he’s called Twin. The two boys, as he tells it, are happy enough. Always closer to each other than the other street rats, naturally, just like my sister and I were, as long as you forget that she was the only one with enough iron in her gut to look me in the eye.

So the boys are just that, just a pair of whippets kicking about in the streets in the times between when their aunt can sober up enough to try again at teaching them their letters. They have great fun being able to convince people they’re in two places at once.

Then it goes bad, as these stories always seem to. For most little ones, you grow up the day your dog dies, or when your sweetheart leaves off, or you find out your sweet mother lied to you.

It hit Twin when a cart, rattling along like lightning on lake water, thrashed his brother to the ground and broke his neck.

That would be enough for decent folk to fall apart. But when its your brother, a life you shared, the very mirror of your face, that’s got to be something else.

Give it that.

Now remember that it takes at least a quarter hour for the boy to die. The bells ring as the brother screams for a doctor.

There’s a saying in the City, that when its your time to go it’ll surprise you, an you won’t feel it. I’ve seen that untruth with my good eye, seen that the whole of the City is built on the lies they tell each other.

I’ll know an angel has kissed me if I have the luxury of dying fast.

So Twin has the chance to see the lights go out in his brother’s eyes, and he thinks his life is over at that moment.

But what twists the knife is that, after all this happens, nobody talks about his brother anymore. Not his ma, not his aunt, and folks start tearing up or spitting madness when Twin talks of him, so he stops. he starts to lose his memories, like little ones do, and he comes to a point where he struggles to remember his brother’s name.

“Vulture!” Twin screeches out, and hurls himself at me, taking the both of us down into the mud.

And letting the gunshot echo around us, the bullet ripping open a tree instead of my stomach.

“Stay back, you gutterfilth goat fuckers!”

That voice was familiar.

And I guess that’s what hurt the most.

His brother might have been forgotten. It might only have been Twin that remembered him at all.

“It’s Vulture.” he rasped into my ear as we took cover behind a ridge of earth.

“Vulture… is dead.” I muttered back, “You told me!”

“Plenty of bullets for all of you, come and get ’em!” the voice rang out again.

“Alright,” I nodded, “Definitely Vulture. Why did you say she was dead?

Twin closed his eyes, squeezing them shut and gripping his head.

His brother’s voice had found him, while he was trying to sleep. It had told him what would happen, about what might happen, about the terrible things he might do now that he could choose them for himself.

“Why didn’t you know?” I shouted as another shot rang out. I could see it when I glanced out of our hiding place; the Temple was ahead, and it seemed that Vulture had dug in between the pillars. The sun was beginning to set.

Maybe it was the loss of his brother that made Twin into a witch. Or maybe he was born that way, and his witch blood had made him a brother. I won’t pretend to know.

There’s a saying in the City, that a witch among you is worth a legion at the gate.

In the Woods, one can save your life.

“Damn it all Vulture, its us!”

“Great! Get the hell away!”

“Listen-”

“I can hear you just fine! It ain’t that I’ve not been listening, darlings, its that you won’t let me sleep!”

“We need to come in! Now!”

“You can come in after a course of lead, you lying pigs!”

Twin wasn’t just a witch, and City folk are fools to have only one word.

Twin, best as I’ve managed to guess, is living the gambler’s dream. His brother tells him what was, what will be, what he could bring to pass.

His brother gets quieter in the Woods, like something is trying to smother him.

There is more than one kind of witch.

Another shot rang out. I signaled for Twin and Dram to make their move around to the right, and the two lads nodded. They broke off, an I steppe out from behind the overhang, pistol in hand, flint under thumb.

I saw Vulture step out from behind one of the obscene stone pillars, the sun crawling into dusk at her back. One rifle in hand, another six at her feet, with the barrel aimed squarely at me.

“One more step and your dead, trickster!”

“Brilliant!” I shrugged, raising my own weapon, “You’re not looking to join me, are you maman?”

She locked her flint, and squared her shoulders. I took a few steps forward, then dropped my pistol where she could see it.

“Its me, Vulture! We’re pals, aren’t we? I still owe you a drink, you’ll throw that away if you put a slug in me…”

“Liar!”

Her shoulders were shuddering with her breath, eyes ringed with grey and filled with terrified fire. “No closer, imposter!”

“What’s the imposter lark, Vee?” I steppe slowly closer, hands open, mere paces away now, “You don’t have to shoot me. Hell, its bad luck to kill somebody who’s already cursed.” I tapped a finger under my milk eye. “We’re friends aren’t we Vee?”

She gritted her teeth, stifling I don’t know what.

Her finger twitched, and the hammer fell.

The empty click resounded between the ancient pillars.

I took my last three steps, and took the gun from Vulture’s shaking, unresisting hands. She slumped against the pillar, face pressed into her palms, a low scream scrabbling out between them.

Over her shoulder, I saw Twin slumped against another pillar, and he threw a mock salute as blood sloughed from his mouth and nose. Playing the odds for me.

There’s more than one kind of witch.

Vulture fell to the floor, her cache of rifles clattering around her. I wrenched my blanket from my pack, put it around the shoulders of a woman I knew to be one of the toughest creatures in existence. The story ran that as her son was being born, she laughed and told the midwife to quit making faces.

There’s more than one kind of witch. Twin’s kind play the odds better than any gambler, but the ones in the Woods are different. They force their music along bonds of blood, closing off doors, forcing things to their natural conclusion. I’d heard whispers that the Charnel Sisterhood and the Boat Tribe who live beneath the City worked dark witchery in the same way. Sickening flesh, breaking minds. Natural ends. Death. Despair.

Madness.

There’s more than one kind of witchcraft, but they all drive you mad, one way or another.

The lads skulked from the Woods and into the Maze of ancient pillars, making camp and getting a fire going. I kept my good eye on Vulture as the sky went dark.

If the Aldermen knew Twin was a witch they’d string him up like a squab for sale. But there’s not a guard alive who’d go down the tunnels to fetch a Charnel Sister. Funny how the law works, especially when lawsmiths know they’d rather die in bed.

Better in bed than on a cold stone slab in the depths of a midnight dark pit.

Eaten alive.

Vulture’s twitching quietened, and eventually she seemed to dose off. From what we’d seen, she’d earned it.

Twin wandered over to me, firewater  flask in hand, a darkening rag in the other, held over his mouth and nose.

“Why is she here?” I whispered as he slouched down beside me, “You said you’d found her corpse.”

Twin shrugged, and passed me the flask.

“Might have been. Could have been. Maybe.”

“That’s not all that helpful, if we’re being honest, Twin.”

“It… should. Should have been. But, she’s here, so… a change. Feathers and blood. New Vulture. Sacrifice.”

“A scapegoat.”

“A scapeman.”

“A curse?”

Twin laughed, before hurriedly pressing the rag back in place as the blood leaped forth again.

He did his best to talk around it.

“All cursed, here,” he whispered, “You and me both, Sarge.”

6511512805_624ea46c69_oPhoto, “Lights through the trees in the Dark Forest”, courtesy of joansorolla on Flickr. Enjoy your weekend, imaginary readers.

Scenes from the City Part 5: The Young Thief

Another Scene from the City for you folks, with the return of a familiar narrator. And my oh my does she have some adventures this time… anyway, hope you enjoy. For those just joining us, prior installments are available here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

The Young Thief

The window is small, but so am I.

It lies at the top of a spine formed of gradually rising rooftops, a great hunched creature slouched against the side of the tower in its death throws, a drunk leaning on a wall for support, a vomit of toxic sludge and refuse sloughing from its walls into the street. The thing’s uneven, clay tiled back leads to this window. The chill wraps the City, coiling serpents of mist in the streets below.

The window is small, but so am I.

To reach the old beasts spine, I had to cross briefly over one of the streets. The shopfronts I had reached were low, and their drainpipe was an easy grip. The rattle of my ascent barely broke the mist, and I had almost come within reach of the rooftop when the crunch of their boot heels on the cobbles drove the silence from the night.

Two men, a young man and an old one, in the colours of the City Guard. I froze, hugged the wall, knowing their path would take them almost directly beneath me. Knowing the scent of the old man’s pipe smoke as it wafted up to meet me, knowing the limp in the young man’s blistered feet.

Knowing that if I released the drain at the moment I already knew, I could use my falling weight to crush the young man’s face into the cobbles, and slash the old man’s throat into a toad’s smile before his smoke-addled lungs could raise a scream. I knew the arc his blood would make on the storefront, the portal of blank plaster it would paint.

I knew the scent of smoke, the limp over blistered skin.

I knew the gaze of the sick woman. One of them… maggot ridden. Silent. Hungry.

Underkin.

Silent. Empty. Who would be across that very street at that very time but may not, her dead eyes on me even now but yet maybe not.

I let the guardsmen pass, and they did not see me.

After their footfalls had faded, I relaxed my chill stiffened fingers and hauled myself onto the rooftop.

I glanced behind me.

And… that sick one, maggot ridden Underkin… was not standing in the door, nor had she been.

The window is small, but so am I, and again I stand above a harsh drop to the street below.

The old, drunken beast slouches beneath the window, so close as to be almost touching.

Almost.

The alley may be eight paces across, but the tower did not want the old drunk touching her.

Here, packed together in the filth and the sweat and the terrible cold, she still stands alone. Almost.

Almost touching.

I back along the great beast’s spine, press my back against the old warmth of the chimney stack, and focus on the small, forgotten opening in the face of the dark monolith, gouging at the night sky beyond, like a thumb in a man’s eye. I breathe in the chill air.

I might have torn my way into this world as a bird, but that would be too great a change.

It is not so far.

The old beast slouches, almost touching the monolith’s face. Almost touching.

I drag the cold of the night sky into my lungs, and I run. I take three long steps, and on the fourth I take flight.

The mist wraps me for but a moment.

The birds here are sick and mangy things.

My hands flash out and I catch the window ledge. My feet move to the wall, to slow my flight, but the stones are wet and old, and I have no claws.

I hang from my fingers, and my ribs crash into the cold slabs. The weight of the sky flies from my lungs.

I hang from my fingers, far above the street, and my Sin surges into readiness, begging for a change, begging for the other path that we both might live.

I deny it.

I may have no claws, but my fingers are strong, and with a heave I force my right arm over the ledge and latch on to the inner side of the wall.

The window is small, but so am I, and my breathless right arm drags my thin chest between great, ancient stones that try to force me out, scratching along my ribs for my insolent intrusion. I fall into the empty, dark staircase, and I curl into a ball in the depths of the shadows. The life of the City has been pushed far away, and I am alone with my furious heart as I let my breath return to me.

My ribs would bruise, but they would heal one day too. It took time, but soon I could breathe with little enough pain that my chest didn’t shake.

I pulled myself to my feet, dragged my ragged scarf back over my nose for all the good it would do. I began to limp quietly up the stairs.

The bastard had not been precise. I had no map, nor even where his bounty would be in exact terms. What I had was the rest of the night, at the pleasure of a noble house grown into decrepitude.

And failing that, the window grew no smaller.

I took the stairs higher. The furnaces, the kitchen, they were most likely below me and held little of interest. The guardhouse, too, would be down there too, shrouded in House Raleigh’s tattered banners. Up here, it was just the remaining decadents, any treasures they had yet to pawn off, and a young woman blooming in her Sin.

These things I knew.

I began my search.

The first door I found ground open with a ghost of dust rising around my ankles, and I slid inside. The dust was within too, and not a breath of wind, guard or moonlight stirred. I wandered past racks of blades and shields, heavy things built to crush and hinder, some ornate but far too cumbersome to be worth my carrying. I pulled myself up a short ladder, and found the bunk room above equally still.

Running my fingers over the threadbare palettes, I heard snatches of speech, and a strange rattling croak above all. I waited in the silence until the silence remained.

The ceiling here was low. Whoever had slept in the upper bunks must have had to turn his head to avoid skinning his nose.

The smell.

I pulled myself into an upper bunk.

The smell.

I pressed my bare fingers between the stones of the ceiling, and no dust fell. I drew them back, and saw that they were stained even in the shadows that surrounded me.

The smell.

Tar.

We used it to proof the hides of ships, when we still made ships.

Tar.

We used it to seal roads against the fury of the wind and rain, when we still made roads.

Tar.

We used it to protect corpses from the weight of eternity.

And it was hungry.

It would take the animals of the forest or plain, four legs or two, and drag them down into the smothering dark, crushing, filling their lungs and drinking their voices for ever and ever and-

I wiped my fingers hurriedly on my shirt.

I rolled off the bunk, and did a cursory check of this old barracks room. Nothing shone, and I returned to the staircase.

The next door was grand and gilded, and I could find no quiet way through.

The next was of heavy wood that I could not force.

The servant’s stairwell was little more than a hole in the inner wall, and the door to it was ajar.

A smell like a cesspool met my nostrils.

But the warren in the walls might be a great opportunity to a thin little creature like myself. I slid sideways into the narrow stair.

After a brief but dusty crawl, I emerged from a small arch behind a dankly frayed banner, my feet on smooth wood.

On the other side of a railing, candles burned on iron stands, each a dozen paces apart. The platform on which I stood must have run around the whole inner wall.

To my left there was a strange chair that looked to have been carved from a single stone block bigger than I was, at rest near the rail. The scent struck me again, harder, as I slid forward in the dark between candles.

It was the stink from behind the fishmongers at the end of a hot day, where the ravens fight for scraps. It was the ocean as a plague.

The shadow was small, but so am I.

Peering between the uprights of the rail I saw two more stone chairs, bedecked in candles with their bases disappearing into a black and flickering pool of water. The candlelight caught the gilded door, and its steps led down into the pool.

It caught the shape of something moving beneath the surface.

The shadow as small, and within it I bit my tongue in silence.

The boards to my right began to creak with laboured footsteps.

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And there you have it for another week my dear imaginary readers. A double plus bonus sized serve of fiction for you, to make up for the time the nasty, mean internet took away from us. Photo courtesy of Miguel Soll, aka 1nsomniac on Flickr. Creative Commons again, so you can use it yourself, and feel free to hack and slash at this chunk of fiction for your own works, as long as we’re credited and your not making money out of it. Have a good one folks.

Scenes from the City Part 4: The Highborn

Another episode from the City as it teeters on the precipice of the end of the world… another narrator, once again. If you haven’t read the previous installments, follow these linkies: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Indila had me again.

In a sudden and merciless sweep, her war elephants smashed through my scouts and chariots, edging my general off the battlefield. I sighed as my army collapsed into empty sigils, and Indila made to return them to their box. I refilled our wine glasses.

“Run me off again, cousin. There’s not a merciful bone in your body.”

“The problem, as I see it,” my waifish relative replied, rolling my general over in her fingers before entombing him in the box, “Is we just know each other too well, my dear Corrie. You might have grown into a responsible lady on the outside, but your still the reckless little girl I grew up with.”

I gasped, covering my mouth in a clown’s gesture of shock.

“And you, my love, are still the little liar who claimed it was me kissing stable-boys under the silos.”

She shrugged.

“I guess that’s why I win.” She smiled, “Besides. You’re drunk.”

“The very nerve!” I grinned back, fanning myself furiously, “You’ve had just as much to drink as I have. Besides, you never lose, sober or not.”

“Your too good for either of us. I don’t know… I don’t think you could close in for the kill even if you had the chance…”

There was a brief silence. Indila leaned back in her chair, drawing in the crisp air of the high chamber. She looked over her shoulder, out the window, at the moon as it hung over the inky black pit of the ocean.

“Not a hint of spite in you… even if you caught me in a lie you’d stick to it, let me get away with anything. Like when we stole that wine from your father’s cellar and went swimming in the lake. Even when Lyla got hold of you… well, you left me naked and alone in the woods. And I had to lie to Nursie about how I came to be nude and dripping at her door with bleeding feet. But she was nice.  And at least I didn’t get whipped…” She turned her gaze into her glass.

“I miss swimming. I miss when swimming was safe.”

There was another moment of silence, the wind whispering between the curtains that partitioned the room. My eyes remained on the sea, stretching out beyond the lights of the City below us. It was a cold night.

“We’ve been lucky. We held on to more than most.”

“That might be true. Doesn’t mean we saved all we could though… I mean, why couldn’t we keep the lake? It was just one lake…”

We both rose in silence and walked together, through the archway and onto the balcony.

“What’s wrong?” she murmured?

“Nothing.”

“I thought I was the liar.”

I smiled gently in the moonlight, and she squeezed my hand as I gripped the bannister.

“Corrie?” The voice echoed up from the entrance hall, and even baffled by the curtains I recognized my husband.

“I’m up here my love!” I called back, and I could almost hear his soft step as he made his slow ascent. Indila smiled into her glass as I left her on the balcony.

Marcus gave me a smile as he ascended the last few stairs, placing the brandy bottle on the sideboard and almost slumping into my arms.

“My darling…” he sighed, “I feel like I’m dying.”

I took his face between my hands.

“You’re not that old, Marcus.”

“No… it’s just…” he trailed off, glancing over my shoulder. He forced his smile wider like a workman hefting a barrel. “Indila, how lovely to see you. I didn’t realise you’d be visiting tonight.”

My cousin leaned against the pillar, gesturing with her half empty glass.

“Well, your children have cleared off to your brother’s, and the serving staff are apparently healthier when they have some sleep… someone had to keep your little bride company didn’t they?”

My husband chuckled, and Indila stepped up, taking his hand and kissing the wrinkles on his temple that hadn’t been there when we married.

“I’m glad that it was you that came. I’d hate to think how much trouble she’d have gotten into otherwise.”

Indila grinned again.

“I won’t tell you about the trouble I started then…” she looked past him at the brandy bottle, and smiled at me.

“Well, I appear to have appropriately diminished the wine stocks, I might leave you two lovebirds to your own devices…” she swanned off towards the door, “I trust the guest room is made up?”

“Of course, cousin,” I smiled back, “Just the way you like it.”

“I like that… means I’m not out of wine after all.” She waved cheerfully, and began to descend the stairs.

My husband turned to me after Indila’s footsteps had faded.

“How does she do that?”

“Do what, my love?”

“How does she keep smiling… how can she sit and joke while everything’s falling apart?”

I wrapped my arms around his waist, letting his forehead rest against mine.

“Marcus, not everything’s falling apart. The world changes, it has changed, and we’re still here…”

“I can’t sleep Corrie.”

“It’s alright… we’re not going to fall apart. Are we?”

He didn’t answer, so I got hold of his greying hair and looked him in the eye.

“Are we?”

“No. Of course we’re not.” he leaned back to wipe his eyes, “Its just… I’m not cut out for this, little bee. I don’t know why they decided to make me the judge, because I can’t bring them the results they want…”

I took him by the hand, and we slipped between the curtains and sat down on the edge of the bed.

“What happened?”

“These… I don’t even know what to call them. Like ghosts slipping out to murder people… these murderers have haunted three of the noble families. Killed in their sleep, eleven now… they’re in my dreams Corrie, I can’t get them out!”

I held his head to my shoulder, felt his shoulders shake with exhausted sobs.

“Don’t be afraid, my love. I’m here.”

15185610813_e944b432ed_oPhoto “Waking Up In Auxerre”, courtesy of Benedeicto de Jesus on Flickr. To confirm, no; I am not making any money out of this blog. You are free to give me money if you want to, imaginary readers; but only if you really feel you have to.

Scenes from the City Part 3: The Recruit

Scenes from the City Part 3: The Recruit

More fiction for the lot of you! New narrator again, back inside the wall this time. Enjoy!

Part 1 and Part 2

“And here, son, is where we make our nightly stand in the vicious defense of civilization against the terrible forces that would grind it into the dirt for their own sick amusement… Toli, Sim, a happy morning, this is the new lad… well introduce yourself boy! That’s the way… anyhow, along to your left you’ll see one of the little watch points, Flares we call ’em, because if their lit they light up the big old mirrors… so eh, you see a growling huge light in the sky then you lug your bugs that way and trouble’ll find you soon enough! Eh! Ah, don’t looks so worried. The damn carpies might get onto the wall, yeh, but with steel in hand and your mates at your back then what’s to worry?” The instructor chuckled, and drove the stem of a pipe into his walnut face. The smoke he spat between words smelled strange.

“The damn girlies come up here in wooden armour, barely a sharp stick to aim ’em. What they going to do, wrestle us until they get tired. Mad, every bloody one of ’em… you’d think they’d learn after – Neg, good to see you. After the first few dozen et lead shot on the ascent. Keep coming though… powder stock here, you can duck back here for more shot, just don’t be a bloody turkey and try doing it when carpies are up here and swinging at you eh?That’s what your blade’s for.”

He leaned over the cache of powder bags in their tarry shelter and spat yellow phlegm over the Wall, through the snatching winds and onto the mountain of scree that set up against the heavy blocks at the base. The instructor winked.

“One more thing for ’em to slip on eh? Anyway, Graf says you know your powder drill, and you can spear the bag just fine…” he seemed to think for a moment, the weed he tapped from his pipe wafting inelegantly over the powder cache. I didn’t have a moment to jump away, to even hurl myself back off the rampart. I must have twitched, because the instructor blinked at me slowly, before shrugging.

“Yeh, it gets pretty breezy up here, don’t it? Not like living down in the streets, no shelter. You’ll get used to it, then you’ll wonder how you ever got by in some of the Rose Lane Houses, eh?” He laughed again, and slapped my shoulder. “There’s a little scrap room down this way, careful on the stairs, come on… I’ll pull you a mug, get that chill out of you… then we can get you into the ledger so you can start raking in your Rooks, yeh? There’s a good lad. The guard’s a good place for a young chap like yourself, no more muck hauling down in the alleys, oh no; real blood and glory we get up here, with whole nests in your purse to match. We’re glad to have you, that we are, just think of how the good folk’ll gaze at you when they see that you’re one of their valiant defenders…”

We reached the bottom of the rickenback stairway and he began to fumble with the catch of a little wall-leaning shanty, one like a dozen or more I could see in the smoky alley of wood and scavenged stone.

“There we are, takes a bit of a wiggle somtimes… for all the harlots, they might leave the light by the door-”

“Put the damned light down, Gams.” It was a scratchy female voice from the dark within the hut. The instructor twitchedf involuntarily before puffing himself up and striding purposefully into the shadows, clattering amongst the detritus of a bench in search of the lamp lighter.

“How many times, Soma, must I tell you not to sit down here in the blood dinge? We need a light in here!”

“Go ram a consumptive milkmaid Gams, you know I don’t do day shift.”

“Then why-”

“Because I was ordered here by the scum-ridden Major, who has yet to make his appearance so shut the accursed door!”

The voice felt as angry as a pan of spitting oil, and far more dangerous. I slowly closed the door behind me, my eyes growing slowly used to the gloom.

“Who’s the sop?”

“The new boy. Where are the ramming wicks woman?”

“Burned out, and that’s where its staying.”

“In case you have forgotten, Corporal, I outrank you, so if say… ha! If I say that this wick is lighting then it will be so! Can’t sign the boy on in the dripping dark now can I…”

There was a brief striking of flint, then the lantern flickered into life. The glow crawled over the scrap room, slowly bringing into focus the figure who had been sitting on a desk by the wall, her legs crossed. A low growl surfaced in her chest  as the light scrambled between the twisting claws scratched in ink across her taut, blue-white cheeks, reaching eyes in red centred on wide dark pits.

“More meat for the market.” she snarled, her gaze drilling into me, her tattoos seeming to crawl in the lamplight. “What the hell are you doing here?”

I stammered a few brief syllables as the instructor put two pages on the table before me, urging that I make my mark on each.

“I…” I scrambled for purchase on my words in the oily firelight, “I need work. And there’s always a need for fighters, keep the… keep the barbarians off the Wall.”

“Just one more mark lad,” The instructor said, eyeing the tattooed woman who glared right back, “And you’re one of us, ready to walk out of here head high and rooks in hand…”

The woman he had called Soma snorted and rose to her feet, the uniform draped around her skeletal form looking filthy and askew.

“You sure you’ve been told everything boy?”

“I was first in my cadre when we went through drills ma’am.”

She chuckled, and her hair shone like oil in the light. I saw that her teeth were filed to points.

“Good,” she whispered in my ear as she glided past me, “So next time I see something that has no right to be anywhere on this earth or below it, I’ll know who to run to. Those Outsiders are clever, witch-ken and all. Glad you know all their little… tricks and secrets already…” she was silhouetted in the open doorway for a moment, “I’ll be outside.”

It was only when the door slammed shut that my brain began to register that the boards hadn’t creaked under her boots.

“Good to see boy!” Instructor Gams bellowed, slapping me on the shoulder again, “Now you take these and go rest up. You’ll be up here mostly nights, well… almost always nights, because that’s wen the trouble is ain’t it? But I’ll see you tomorrow just before sundown, and we can get you started on our good work…”

He was making for the door as I turned to speak to him.

“Instructor,” I near whispered, “Why do the barbarians attack the Wall?”

7185716675_fc071137eb_oPhoto “Sintra-16”, courtesy of Subodh Bharati  on Flickr, presented unaltered and with no money changing hands. Have a good one, y’all!