I hadn’t always lived here. But I had lived here long enough to have found my feet on the sheer and shining streets of the city. I know where you can get the fairest price for fish, and where the clerics congregate, like rooks come to roost, as the dusk settles in purple waves. Where the pickpockets lurk in the high days. I can tell you which physicians will half poison you in their attempts to heal your ailments, and then deliver you your bill while you are still retching and puking in their stained-glass cells. And the secret place in the Commons’ vaults where you can climb a dark stair up into the innards of its dome and look down on the principals and magisters as they cast their secret ballots. I know, too, the shadows that are reflected in the glass and crystal faces of the houses and the halls and the lords’ high places; and how, when the killing clouds gather overhead and the heavens fizz and whip, the city becomes a dark mirror, a glassy black void that seems to swallow both the heavy air and the lethal shards that fall from it.
Captivated by the morning light, an unseen body nudges past me and I am jolted aware in time to see, a short distance ahead, a surge of the city’s citizens congregating on the plaza outside the Glass Deck. A small unrest tickles at the atmosphere and I draw towards the growing crowd, curious. A girl I know from the docks wanders into the throng to stand behind me.
“What news, Iris?” I ask. “Surely we are not to expect another suitor for the prince’s hand?”
“Not that, Tab,” she replied. “It’s these unicorns again. The people are riled; they’ve heard the stories out of Tythburn.”
We had all heard the stories that had made their slow drift south from Tythburn: tales of terrible beasts, hugely muscled and murderous, their horns serrated and venomous, that gored and trampled and terrorized that village last winter, turning its frost scrimmed cobbles red with blood and torn flesh.
“But they were driven out, Iris,” I returned. “Tythburn’s dragons destroyed them.”
She looked at me steadily. “There are those that say they have come again.”
“Let them come,” I said, turning as the gates of the Glass Deck swung open and a small company advanced out onto the waiting plaza. “They will find the Second City closed fast against them, and we shall shoot them down from the walls. What a diversion it shall be, Iris! You will be able to add unicorn fillet to your fish cart.”
“Tythburn was closed against them, also,” Iris said softly at my back, “yet many died.”
I realized, as the Captain stepped forward to address the masses, that the plaza had filled almost to capacity, and a prickle of unease tracked across my spine, despite the stoutness of my words. The Captain said some unheard words to her small retinue.
“Citizens of the Second City,” she called, her voice bouncing from the sun-streaming glass of the surrounding buildings. “I understand that you come here in fear. I am aware of the rumours from Tythburn. It is true that a herd of wild animals fell on that village last winter and caused a number of deaths. But I have it on good authority that those animals have been hunted to near extinction. The recent appearance of a single beast in the foothills – most probably a lone survivor – should not trouble you.”
The crowd rumbled and grumbled.
The Captain continued: “Think you this, also: Tythburn is a small settlement, its fortifications comprised of ditches and wooden walls. The Second City has not fallen before beast, nor raiders from the sea, nor even the crawling filth that springs from the Night Desert, for five centuries or more. There is nothing to fear.”
“We must awaken Kragool!” came a lone voice, rising shrill into the early morning air. The momentary silence became thick with the focused attention of the gathered people.
“Not at this time,” said the Captain. With a curt nod, she turned and stepped back through the gates of the Deck, her guards close behind. The gates closed on the small group and, almost instantly, the crowd began to drift and wander, losing its coalescence, unravelling to spill into the streets and avenues that radiated, spoke like, from the plaza. Chattering groups dissolved into the city’s markets and bath houses; bands of men, shaking their heads and murmuring, disappeared into the docks and piers that flanked the bay; children dispersed into the various schools and apprentice yards within the Second’s walls. I turned to speak to Iris, but she was gone.
I hurried across the plaza, realizing I was going to be late for my shift, padding through the city’s slick byways. The sun continued to rise, throwing sharp spears of light against the crystal and quartz turrets of the palace, the stained glass heights of the Electric Cathedral, and the fluted outcroppings of the guild halls. My thoughts wandered, as I walked half the length of the Second, and I found myself picking, again, at the scab of memory. Picking and feeling the raw flesh beneath: early childhood; the blue sands of a place over the sea and beyond the horizon; my mother and I, taken by raiding strangers and brought to these shores; a caged cart; an altercation; our exchange, at Tythburn, for a handful of gold. Our covered and fly blown journey to the Second City and presentation as a wedding present to the Old Queen. My mother’s gift paraded as an entertainment at state dinners and for wealthy patrons of the city. The two deaths that set me free: that of the Old Queen, and that of my mother. I have been ‘patriated’ into the Second. It is my home. I can barely remember the one before it. They have watched closely, these years, and think I have not inherited my mother’s ‘talent.’ I have been given a small suite of rooms below the Commons, a modest income, and a master. I have been well recompensed by the liberal minded queen that now wears the city’s crown. I have been a good citizen.
Breathless, I reached the sanitarium. I was pulling my tunic over my head before I’d even reached the staff mess, and was on the wards before, I hoped, the master noticed my late coming. I hoped in vain.
“The under ward please,” a clipped voice came from behind me. I pulled up short. “And you may spend your midday rest helping Cassius in the laundry. While thinking on the joys of proper timekeeping.”
I dipped my head and hurried away, through the softly illuminated corridors and down a double set of stairs to the dim rooms below the ground. The usual moans and whimpers floated out of the half-light: soft sobbing, a giggle that rose in jagged ascensions to a hoarse scream. I was still tying my apron at the neck as I approached the Under Master, who looked at me with relief.
“Five, brought out of the Night Desert at dawn.”
“Where have they come from?”
“They are too far gone to tell.” He laid a hand on my shoulder. “I will return at noon. The youngest may not be beyond saving. For the others…give them what comfort you can, Tab.”
The Under Master was the only person in the city who knew the truth of me. Secrets unspool down here, in the dim, among the insane. They nose out from the dark places to stretch their waxy wings. For, after all, who would give credence to the ravings of those that find themselves in the under ward? Few enough are re-united with the upper world again, and the last faces they see are ours, or, more likely, those of the things that have hunted the humanity out of them.
As the steps of the Under Master faded on the stairs, I took stock of my newly arrived charges. Three women and a man, gently bound, raving and drooling, and a young child, no more than maybe two or three years old, lying motionless in a cot and looking into the darkness above him with hollow eyes. Although I knew myself to be alone, still I glanced behind me before reaching over to lay a hand on the child’s chest. The other hand I moved so that it hovered just in front of the child’s blank face. His eyes did not move to meet mine.
They did not move even as a white disc appeared in front of my outspread hand, its fuzzy edges spilling a diffuse light onto the babyish curve of his cheek and chin. The women and the man, seeing the light, yelped and cowered, thrashing their heads so that their eyes were pressed into their sweat soaked pillows and sheets. I ignored them, instead focusing my attention on the small pitch and heft of the child’s chest. Gradually, blurred colours appeared on the disc that floated before the boy’s face; colours that pooled and broke apart, reformed and then sharpened so that, wondrously, an image appeared. A village: scattered dwellings, small and neat. The edges of the Night Desert a charcoal smudge on the horizon’s lip. The image moved so that it appeared we were slowly approaching a hut on the outskirts of the hamlet. The child’s eyelids flickered, once. Again. His pupils contracted and found their focus as they fixed on the moving picture in the thin air before him. He made a gargling noise in his throat and, tentatively, raised a finger to the light. The picture rippled at his touch, its hues fracturing like disturbed water.
A noise on the stair broke my concentration and the disc of light collapsed down to a single bright point and winked out. The child’s hand instantly dropped back to the cot, and his eyes became fogged and vacant once more. Simmons, the Under Master’s cat, hissed at me from the steps before slinking into a corner.
I swore at the miserable, prying beast, then turned back to the child and, calming my breathing, called the portal into existence once more. Again the village, again the Night Desert a dark blemish in the distance. A circular hut. We passed into its interior, beneath a doorway framed with vines blossoming white flowers. The fragrance puffed out to us in our fetid corner of the under ward, and the child stirred again; something ignited in his eyes and his hand reached up to the hole I had pulled open in the fabric of reality. He recognized his home. The picture tracked to a low patchwork-quilted cot in a corner. Inside, a furry toy, battered and chewed. The little boy, his chest rising and falling beneath my palm, made a muffled and wordless noise. Slowly, I lifted my hand from the child’s body and, bearing down with the full force of my will, reached towards the portal. Where the boy’s touch had rippled the image into a thousand quivering fragments, my own fingers, hand, wrist, went cleanly through the portal, appearing in the interior of the hut before us. Reaching further, I snagged the toy from the cot and pulled it back into the under ward. As my hand withdrew, the disc-doorway span instantly closed, and twilight again reclaimed the cell.
The boy let his head slump to the side so that he looked up at me where I stood over his bed. I held the toy out to him and he reached for it, hugging it desperately to his chest and murmuring words to it that I couldn’t understand. His eyes met mine, and there was clarity there – clarity and remembrance. Nearly all of the human flotsam we plucked from the shores of the Night Desert never recalled their previous lives, their names, their most basic human urges, again. But, sometimes, one could be saved. The little boy began babbling to me, and stood up in the cot, reaching up his arms in an unmistakable gesture. I lifted him clear of the low wooden bars and, tucking him tight against my hip, made my way back across the under ward.
Passing through the dim, I thought of the portals I had opened in the past. Of the time, just last winter, that I managed to create two simultaneously: one that gave on to Tythburn, and one that opened on…somewhere else. A place where the sky writhed and twisted in serpentine strands of blue and gold and the earth was a cracked red crust. Where horned beasts thundered and raged.
The child in my arms squirmed and muttered and mouthed at his toy as we climbed the stairs to the upper wards. I thought of the man in Tythburn who, long ago, had bought my mother and I for a handful of gold. I thought of the terrible beasts crashing through the huge doors I had opened from one world to another, and how I had cried as they pounded past me and into that frost cobbled village.
I know what will happen to me if my actions are discovered. I know, too, that the unicorns will one day find the Second City. Find me. I know that they seek me. Hunt me. I will be taken to the pit, then, by the people I have lived amongst for so long. A lethal silence will descend; from the midst of it, a single stone will be thrown that may strike me, hard, on the chest. And then a rain of stones will fall, but even as I feel the blood flowing from my head and body the mass will surge forwards, crushing and trampling. And then Kragool, released to save the city, will be in the sky above me, and I will feel the touch of his molten fire falling on me, melting my flesh to red slag and I will know, in my last moments, cold triumph.
©May, 2017 Melanie Smith
Melanie Smith lives and writes from Gloucestershire, England. Her story "The Locked Door" appeared in The Flash Fiction Press. Her story “Smoke Out” appeared in Swords & Sorcery Magazine in December 2016.