The Lost Machine: Chapter Six

WFR is proud to serialize The Lost Machine in support of its author and illustrator, Richard A. Kirk. We will be reprinting the entire novel with its illustrations over the course of five weeks with a new chapter every Monday and Wednesday. Wherever possible, formatting has been made to match that available in the e-book. This part of the serialization covers Chapter Six. To read past chapters, click here. – The Editors

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Chapter Six: The City of Steps

Lumsden Moss and Irridis stood on the Sea of Steps, looking down through the haze at the sea. Hundreds of limestone steps descended into the water and beyond. On either side the steps stretched away for miles, interrupted only by the gargantuan engine houses that moved the cable cars between the top of the stairs and sea level. It was a calm day and the steps, worn from over a thousand years of use, echoed the undulations of the sea.

Six weeks had passed since Moss had left Brickscold Prison. After departing from the Windy Woods, he and Irridis had walked the remaining distance to the city, sleeping mainly in abandoned buildings and once in the rusting hulk of a barge that was half buried in the sand at the sea’s edge. They had stuck to the coast, coming upon the city slowly and taking a full day to become accustomed to it shape before arriving. As they approached the city, the cliffs had gradually become less steep, and eventually terraced, the work of farmers that lived on the land to their left. Eventually the undulating terraces had become wide stone steps. Early that morning they had found themselves walking onto the top of the Sea of Steps in a dazzling sunrise. The two men had stopped to take in the view of the ancient city that crowded the great stairway leading down to the sea. To Moss it was like a vista from a recurring dream.

Since their arrival in the city, a prostitute had already approached them, as had a vendor selling candied bees and sticks of hallucinogenic sugar crystals, and a dwarf selling tiny bottles containing bioluminescent jellyfish. Moss had been tempted to send this last persistent character sprawling down half a mile of steps, but it had turned out to be unnecessary. When the dwarf noticed the glass disks hovering around Irridis’s collar, he backed up, muttering and spitting on the pavement. Irridis had seemed oblivious, having already turned his head toward the water.

“There is a lot of ignorance in this city,” he said, addressing Moss’s unspoken question.

“We need to get to the shipbreaking yards,” said Moss, squinting into the sun.

“That way,” said Irridis, pointing up the coast to a place where the city dwindled into the fog. “If we make our way down the stairs and along the water’s edge, it should see us to the yards.”

The city was alive with activity. Thousands of people crowded the Steps. There were large numbers of the Black Watch, the city police, riding through the throngs on their massive black horses. Large numbers of visitors to the city milled about near the telescopes that were mounted at the top of the steps on bronzed gargoyles that faced the water. Nearby, a man with a dozen monkeys worked the laughing crowd, picking pockets. The more human their actions, the greater the laughs, and the lighter the wallets.

Yet in spite of the activity, Irridis still drew derisive attention. People spat in his path and cursed him behind his back. More than one street urchin pelted him with stones. None of this seemed to make the least difference to Irridis. It did make a difference to Moss, though, who wanted to travel inconspicuously.

He looked back over the city. Steam rose from food vending stalls in an open-air market adjacent to the Sea of Steps. The smell of cooking made his stomach grumble. They had not eaten since the previous day. Here was an opportunity to get away from Irridis for a while and ponder his next move.

“I’m going to get something to eat. It might be a while before we get another chance,” said Moss. “I’ll be back soon.”

He turned and walked in the direction of the market. The crowd closed around him and within moment blocked his view of Irridis.

The market had existed as long as the city. In some ways it had been the reason for the city’s existence, a place where people could purchase food and goods brought in each day by ship or carriage from beyond the borders. Its heart was a square where a perpetual flea market took place. Here, with enough patience, almost anything could be found. The stalls of food vendors, whose steam and smoke teared the eyes and filled the air with delicious and unusual smells, surrounded the flea market. Beyond the food sellers, the market spread back into the city like tendrils, filling narrow lanes where tiny shops – in buildings centuries old – provided books, clothing, apothecary goods and other less savory services. Moss was interested in quieting his stomach, so he headed for the heart of the market where he hoped to find something cheap, hot and filling.

In the years since his last visit, the market had changed remarkably little. Certainly many of the familiar stalls and characters he remembered had long vanished, but a self-organizing principle was at work ensuring each ring of the market remained true to itself. For a short time when Moss was a boy, Buttons had kept a booth where she sold medicinal plants and tea. Moss passed the spot and found an old woman selling tiny monkeys with large eyes. Whether these were for the dinner plate or intended as pets he did not pause to find out. Instead he headed toward a ragged line of booths where a permanent bank of steam rose high into the air.

He passed through the narrow spaces between the stalls, weighing his options. He had yet to see Irridis either eat or drink, so he looked for something to please himself. He found it behind an large stall under a sun rotted canopy. An enormous man stirred rice noodles into a series of large pans. Steam whistled from beneath clattering metal lids, and the smell of the sea was strong in the air. A second man stood before the concave surface of a chopping block, preparing the pink flesh of a large fish with surgical dexterity. He folded the paper thin slices of the flesh into bowls of noodles that were handed to him by the giant. Slivers of toasted almonds and ginger followed. The final touch was a drizzle of red oil from a cloudy decanter.

Moss’s stomach reminded him of his purpose. He pulled a handful of dull coins, which Irridis had given him, from his coat pocket. Without a word the man who had been cutting the fish handed him a bowl of steaming food and whisked the money into his blood soaked apron.

“Have a beer?” The fat man leaned forward, heavy folds swaying on his face. Clear eyes regarded Moss intently. He was chewing on a chin braid several inches long, and the tips poked from the corner of the man’s mouth like a serpent’s tongue. Droplets of condensed steam clung to his eyebrows. Moss nodded and reached for more money. The man pulled a bottle from a trough of ice and handed it across the counter.

When Moss put his hand out for the bottle, a powerful grip closed around his wrist. Another man, with long black hair and dressed in an oilskin, had appeared at the stall. His hands were covered with prison tattoos. Moss fought the man’s grip but the hand merely tightened. The fat man put the beer on the counter, shook his head and walked away. Moss thought he caught an exchange of glances between the men, but couldn’t be sure. The fish cutter continued his work without looking up, carefully folding thin slices of flesh onto white steaming noodles.

“A word to the wise,” said the tattooed man in a thick accent. His teeth were stained and his breath smelled of alcohol.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” demanded Moss, all too aware that he was at the other’s mercy. A large dog, which looked more ape than canine, sat on his foot. It was hairless and covered in scars. Moss could feel its testicles shift across the top of his boot. He rose from his stool.

“Not until I’ve said my piece.” The man cocked his head at Moss paternalistically. Moss looked down at the powerful hand that still covered much of his forearm. The crowd seemed to sense trouble brewing and hurried past, darting glances at the two men. Moss sat back down. The dog smelled his thigh and licked it before losing interest.

“I saw you on the Steps with that witch, didn’t I? You know him well?”

Moss laughed in spite of the danger. “Witch?”

“If I ever saw one,” said the man. “I ask you again my friend – how well do you know him?”

“None of your goddamned business,” said Moss, angered at having been spied upon.

“Maybe not,” said the man, pushing his tongue behind his lower lip. “You might be right there. Yes. But I’d bet from the look on your face that you don’t know him all that well. They almost never travel in company.” The man smacked the dog’s nose away from his crotch with his free hand.

“And why would this be of any interest to you?” asked Moss.

“A man that likes to get to the meat of the thing. I like that. I am the same way. Right to the heart of the matter.” He jabbed Moss’s chest with a finger and smiled. With each movement of the man’s coat the stink of diesel oil filled the air. “I’m just looking out for a brother. Just can’t bear the sight of a brother walking around with an Irridian Witch. It shows a lack of self-respect, I think.”

“If you’re trying to tell me something, spit it out, or let me eat in peace,” said Moss, meeting the man’s gaze.

He raised a hand and straightened Moss’s spectacles. “I know who you are. Recognized you right away when I saw you on the Steps. We were following the witch when he met you outside the prison. Then we watched you leave the old Bricks. We went for him once you were gone, but he messed up a couple of the lads with those floating things of his. Grown men cut to ribbons. Friends of mine.”

The man pulled his coat aside. In the middle of an expanse of white skin there was a tattoo that Moss knew well, a brick wrapped in a vine, which all the inmates of Brickscold Prison wore as a badge of their brotherhood. Moss had one of his own, put there in an initiation ritual during his earliest days. It had been made using three needles bound with thread and dipped in a pigment made of burned boot heels and urine. “That bastard killed two of my lads. Did he tell you about that?”

When Moss did not answer, the man’s grip tightened. His rambling tone became serious. “I am trying to do you a favour, my friend. He is offensive. His people haunt the countryside stealing, and murdering. They never bathe. It’s enough to make you sick. I heard that once, when an Irridian Witch passed through a village north of here, every child born for the next few months had a cleft palate and hands like pig trotters. It mighta been this very bastard. You never know. Think about it: what ordinary man could levitate a collar like that? It’s telekinesis, that is. Sound natural to you? He’s up to something – they all are. You’re being led, brother. So bearing this in mind, I have a proposal – brother to brother like.”

“What kind of proposal?” said Moss. He pulled his arm, and the man released it. He clenched his fingers and fanned them, to restore the blood flow.

“I have some partners. We want you to lure the bastard into an alley, and then we surprise him and give him the shitkicking of a lifetime. When he’s laid out, we can grab those jewel things. I know a guy in the market here that would give top price for Witch magic. Then, we split the proceeds. You can stay with us or go on your way. Whatever you want.”

“Not interested,” Moss said. He stood up.

“Think carefully. Think about who you are dealing with. You don’t want to go against your real friends.”

“You’re an idiot,” said Moss. “Do you really think that because we were locked up in the same prison we are brothers?”

“A choice you’ll regret by and by. You’ve had your warning,” the man said. “Choose your friends carefully or you just might get what they deserve.” He stood and wiped his hands on the front of Moss’s coat. “I wouldn’t stand too close to him in the near future.”

The man put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. He turned into the river of passing bodies, and the dog loped behind.

Moss watched the crowd long after he was gone. He had met a hundred men like this one in the prison – men desperate to believe in a fraternity, even if it was only a fraternity of murderers and rapists. The man had gotten under his skin, though, feeding the uneasiness that Moss had been nursing since the boy’s execution back on the beach. It was true that he knew nothing of Irridis and his motives. For a brief moment he thought about melting into the crowd as his assailant had, and not rejoining Irridis on the Steps; but then he decided to wait.

A few minutes later, Moss walked in his companion’s direction. He stopped with a busy walkway between himself and Irridis. Seen through the moving bodies, the black-wrapped figure was as still as a heron except for the revolving pieces of glass. Moss wished Irridis would do something to dispel his sense of unease, or at least show some sign of remorse at the boy’s death. So far, Irridis’s behaviour had been anything but reassuring. He was silent for hours at a time and offered no reference to his past or his plans for the future. Moss’s sole, grim, reassurance was that the man had not yet harmed him despite having innumerable opportunities to do so. And yet without the medicine in the forest hut, Moss would probably be dead. He sighed – there was nothing he could do for now but bide his time and keep his wits about him. Damn it, Moss thought. Despite the murder, the man was becoming a friend.

Moss turned and looked back the way he had come. He felt a surge of adrenalin as he recognized the convict’s dog marking a rusty bicycle nearby. Moss hurried across the walkway toward Irridis. He would say nothing to him about the encounter unless the danger was imminent. The last things he needed was Irridis hunting the men through the market.

As he approached, his companion turned to meet him. “We should be off,” was all that Irridis said, and he started to descend the hundreds of steps to the sea.

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