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Posts Tagged ‘The Infinite City’

Hypione’s shop squats in a tangle of alleys on the edge of The Briers – an abandoned area where the streets went sour many years ago. The rent is cheap, The Baron often overlooks taxes, and it has the vibrancy of many a poor district in the Infinite City. All this despite its proximity to the poison, horrors and byblows of streets lost to the darkness.

It’s an odd little place, her shop: a schizophrenic space that is neither one thing nor the other.

In the one half of the grubby little storefront, there is a menagerie of creatures — nothing anyone would want as a pet, perhaps. There are insects, rats, mangy curs and battle-scarred cats from the alleys, the occasional lice-infested pigeon. Well cared for, considering, but caged.

On the other side of the store, there is gleaming gold and brass, shining silver. It sounds out with a cacophony of tick-tocking that creates a background hum like the thrum of a cockchafer’s wings. This half is neat and ordered, the smell of oil stronger than the smell of piss, dung and musk from the animals.

It’s not the sort of place you’d necessarily expect to draw children, but there they are every day. The honey-cakes and sweetmeats of the other shops are beyond the street children’s meagre earnings; the other shops are esoteric, obscure, dull or ‘grown-up’. Hypione’s menagerie, and the gilt contents of her glass cases, on the other hand, are endlessly fascinating.

For her part, Hypione welcomes the interruptions, recruits the urchins who genuinely seem to care to feed and help care for the animals. Her few, well-paying, customers are not much company, and the children remind her of her sons, one killed by road-pirates as a child himself, one long gone to find his fortune in the far districts. She more that tolerates them, she loves her little visitors, though she never shows it. She also tolerates their shenanigans, or at least most of them.

Hypione is sat upon her high stool one morning, behind her countertop. She swaps her spectacle lenses back and forth, increasing magnification and clarity. She tinkers with the fine-tooled device in a near-trance. Her tools are even more delicate than the brass-and-silver thing held in the clamp, almost microscopic. All the while, she resolutely ignores the street children as they chase and play about the store.

Then Hox, one of her regular visitors, does something that even she, old and blithe as she is, cannot stand for.

A spider, fat and glossy and beautiful, barely the size of her little fingernail, descends from the ceiling on a fine gossamer thread. She alights on the counter, where Hox notices her. She preens with her forelegs and Hypione is momentarily distracted. In the magnification of the lenses, the little creature is more beautiful, not less, and for a moment she is lost in the predatory perfection of eyes, jaws and carapace.

Then Hox snatches up the tiny seamstress. “Ew!”, and before Hypione can react, he has plucked off one of the spider’s delicate little legs.

“You little fucking beast!” Hypione cries out. “Let that spider go this very instant and get out of my shop!”

Hox jumps almost out of his skin, dropping the spider and fleeing from the store, in shock that Hypione should swear, which she never does. The other children follow in a frenzied train, all flapping rags and chattering.

Hypione picks up the delicate little spider; her legs all curled in against her body. She takes a moment to shut the door and flip the sign before she gives her little sister a closer look.

Her little sister’s carapace is cracked. She leaks a tiny amount of fluid. One of her legs is gone, another has been snapped and is dangling. In the magnification of the spectacles, Hypione cannot fool herself that this tiny creature is meaningless, that it isn’t suffering, that it is just a pest to be stomped or swatted.

“This shall not do little sister. Your weaving keeps the flies from my food and the silverfish from my stores. I apologise for the way my house guest has treated you.”

She carries her little sister back into her workshop and, moving swiftly, immerses the tiny creature in a vat of sparkling, glutinous fluid.

The spider’s carapace begins to melt away, but she is not dissolving. Not completely. As the chitin, muscle and lymph dissipates into the fluid, what remains is replaced. A delicate filigree, as fine as any web she had ever spun, a sapphire net of her ganglia, nerves and brain.

While her little sister is stripped back to her most vital essence in the fluid, Hypione finds an empty shell. A clockwork spider carapace, no bigger than her thumb. Chip-emerald eyes, a body of platinum, palladium with jaws and toe-tips of tungsten.

She unscrews and opens it up with a deft and precise hand. She cleans it, oils it, winds the mechanism until it begins to tick – the only winding it will ever need. She swabs it with a delicate touch, a thin sheen of alcohol removing the oil from her fingers and evaporating into the air, leaving her wanting a nip. Not yet, though.

Tweezers lift the sapphire net from the tub, a squirt of water strips the gel from what remains. She holds her breath as she sets the spider-net on her bench and teases out the hardening sapphire thread to replace the missing and broken legs.

A pair of rubber-tipped, minuscule tweezers lift the little sapphire and nestle it into its body. The faintest dab of glue on the tip of a needle fixes the glittering blue weave in place.

A few twists of the screwdriver and the case is closed shut. Then the switch is clicked into place. The silvery spider flexes its legs and twists over onto its front with a twist and a kick.

She stands there a moment, staring up at Hypione, though there is no way such a little thing can know gratitude.

Tick-tick-tick.

“Gods speed your way, little sister.”

Then the ticker-tack of tungsten feet on hardwood, and she is gone. Scurrying away into the darkness of the workshop.

Hypione heaves herself out of her stool and pauses a moment, running her hand across the front of a much larger tank of the glittering goo.

The size of a child

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insects-in-amber-distantCaruth cries and the tears soften and cut tracks through the crust around his eyes. He’s forced flat by the weight of them, three of them, pinning his legs and his trifurcated trunk to the cold, rough cobbles of the alley. He can’t move, can’t do anything but protest as the straddle him and pin him with their weight and even his cries are stifled, a boot pressing down and crushing his trunk, barely a squeak making it out of the nostrils.

The ruffian tears back his robe, revealing his face, his back. A glittering trail of golden gems studding his thick, oily skin. It hurts as the brute grasps and squeezes at the flesh and there is a ‘pop’ that is felt, rather than heard.

The amber lozenge pops from the thick skin, dripping sebum  and leaving a raw, pinkish hole in his flesh. The footpad shakes the oil from his prize and holds it up to the lamplight. An oval comedone of hard amber and –  deep in the centre of it – the preserved and perfect body of a flea.

Caruth tries to shift, his skin raw now, desperate to be free of them. They’re stealing his only legacy. It’s hopeless, years on the street have left him week and feeble. He freezes, feeling the point of a knife against his brow.

“Cut the skin free. We can pick ’em out later.”

This is it.

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gypsycaravan2Hoon sits on the back gate of the caravan as it lumbers its way down the long road. He pops a sweet into is mouth and chews, the gummy texture of the Nirtan Square confection giving way to an intoxicating sour-sweetness that makes the top of his mouth tighten and wrinkle.

Behind them, keeping pace with their own caravan is that of Uncle Nedrad. He sits in the driver’s chair, hands on the reins though the great, placid orox know where they’re going – straight onwards – same as they have all their lives. Hoon and Nedrad and all the others of their clan are just passengers, along for the ride.

It’s not even midday yet. They won’t be stopping the wagons for a long time, if at all.  Still, they always draw a crowd from the surrounding streets. Traders, the curious, those seeking news and always the children and youth who find the wagons glamorous.

A great pile of orox dung hoves into view, emerging from under the wagon. Fresh, unmarred by the wheels of any other wagon. Come from one of the wagons ahead. A wagon-brat runs into the gap, expertly timed, grabbing a lump of dung in each hand and scurrying out again before the next orox’s heavy tread runs them over. A grin to Hoon from a grubby face and the wagon-brat runs off with his prize to find the patty-cart.

From the roadside crowd a little gang of juvenile buggerbillies scampers out alongside the wagon, babbling questions with clicks and whistles barely discernible as the trader tongue. Their carapace gleams like bronze and their six-sleeved waistcoats compete with each other in a riot of colour, but he can’t discern a word they say.

“Does it ever end?”

He blinks, there’s a girl amongst the buggerbillies. Is she their governess perhaps? Employed by some grand buggerdam to teach them the trader tongue and not to eat civilised folk? She’s young and pretty and so, despite some eighteen years of mostly ignoring the sedentenfolk he answers.

“You ever seen a wagon moving antispin lady? No, the long roads go on forever and ever and never stop.”

She hitches her skirts up around her knees and trots to keep up. The orox are slow, but the’re steady and they never have to halt, they can walk forever without getting out of breath – unlike people.

“Really? Forever?”

She starts to slow as they approach the marker. The streets beyond this point belong to Baron Schell and not to The Motley. She stops there at the way-marker, like most sedentenfolk she’s not one to stray beyond the familiar roads and buildings.

Hoon stands, swings on the pole at the back of the wagon and gives her a cheery wave, calling out while he can still be heard.

“My great grandfather tells stories that it circles round and comes back again, so maybe, in another life I will see your beauty again!”

He laughs as she blushes beetroot red, but he knows that no, they’ll never see each other again. Slowly as the orox plods on she and her little charges fade into the distance and disappear. The great, curving, rising horizon beckons.

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Out on the frontier the streets are straight and the houses grow in neat little rows just waiting for someone to come along and occupy them. Mile upon mile of identical looking boxes stretching away into infinity, curving up to the horizon. It is maddening, dizzying and any sense of progress is difficult to find. The only thing that’s wild, the only thing that’s different are the plants growing in the untended gardens, window boxes and parks with nobody to tame them.

Where people live things are more chaotic, more interesting, more different. The straight lines become ragged, the houses are shifted, changed and moved. Lithomancers work their magic on bricks and mortar, tiles and stone and force the houses to grow as their owners want them. Even without the tender touch of a loving craftsman a building will shift and turn over the lifetimes of the residents, reflecting their dreams, their aspirations and their crafts.

Straight lines disappear beneath the babbling and bubbling humanity of the streets. Street stalls cling to the twisting, living houses and ruin the lines of the streets. The drains overflow with the waste and detritus of the people. It’s a glorious, living mess and so different to the unsettled areas.

Sometimes though, a street turns bad.

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The sickly sweet smell of half-rotten flesh, the jingle of bells and the curving, beaked mask are the shop signs of the Phylomancer.

He stands at the street corner, bowed under the weight of the cages on his back in which his menagerie yips and yowls, barks and squeaks. Beneath the sweet stench of corruption is the sweeter tang of honey and the urinal miasma of damp leather.

His sleeves are rolled back from his gloved, claw-like hands and the greenish, flaky skin, pocked with hexagonal wounds crawls with the grubs and insects of his trade.

It is never silent with the Phylomancer, his familiars’ cacophonic chorus and the high hum of his insect courtiers create an unmistakable and unending sound. A song individual to each and every practioner of his gruesome trade.

He lifts his mask a moment, scarred and scabbed flesh, cracked lips on show and crooked and pointed teeth behind them. His tongue uncoils like some bloated canal eel and – with great delicacy, a mosquito alights upon that swollen muscle and shares a gift of blood, a droplet of life from the patient before him.

The mask descends and gives his voice a strange and booming quality above the sounds of his zoological burden.

“The wound is infected. My grubs can eat away the diseased flesh, but it will scar and it will cost you fifty centimes.”

The hobbling man nods, sweating, fumbling for his coins as a magpie swirls out of the smoky sky and alights on the Phylomancer’s shoulder, whispering secrets in his ear, just for him.

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