The City part 1: the inner city
Leah had just entered Koster’s west entrance. The stone slab doors opened onto the West Courtyard, which was busy with shops, cafes, and official buildings. Most of the structures within the city were combinations of mud-brick and wood. Three main roads broke off from the entrance path, divided in part by the many buildings that lined them.
The north road on Leah’s left traced the inner north side of the city and inclined steadily until it connected to the East gate. The city’s main road was the center path and took its name from the city. It wound its way from the west gate into the city’s heart before breaking off into three more roads, further dividing the city’s districts. On her right, Southern Lane led into Carver: Koster’s private district reserved for the higher aristocracy. Southern Lane was slightly narrower than the north road and gated off at the courtyard.
Leah took Koster road as it led her past Zephyrs, the district home of most of Koster’s upper-middle class. Since owning a private business in Koster required a battery of special permissions and privileges, most of the merchants and tradesmen fell into this category. Few people waved at her as she moved through this area, and into downtown proper.
Downtown was a queer arrangement of old buildings and skyscrapers, with all sorts of merchant tents and stands filling its alleyways. An incredible range of smells filled the air from the myriad inks, fabrics, crafts, and cuisines found at all corners.
Leah turned north just before the narrow lake that connected to the city’s port in the east. Ivy Lane led through the Ivy Gardens: a community-driven mosh posh of gardens and farms. This area was filled with hydroponic and aeroponic farms as well as greenhouses and public plots for community gardens. Ivy Gardens was Leah’s favorite part of the city. For her, it was reminiscent of the freedom she often felt when outside the city walls. She came here regularly and selected this district for open meetings.
Ivy Lane eventually led into Zellwood, Koster’s poorest district. Zellwood’s status on the social hierarchy was evident upon arrival. People meandered aimlessly in ragged and unkempt clothes. Barefoot children played in the streets as stray dogs speckled the scenery. Most of the homes were weatherworn or incomplete. Refuse littered the area as if debris had been scattered about like some kind of baroque décor.
Mud-brick huts were organized in blocks, and between some of these blocks were alleys full of make-shift tents. Leah and Gizmo approached the center of one such housing block where there was a gap between the buildings. The beaten structures were nearly adjacent on the opposite side of the block from her, but here there was about a 3-meter-wide covered niche that extended halfway into the block. The building was about 5 stories high, and in that niche was a small wooden deck on the third floor.
Because it didn’t look too secure and didn’t connect across the gap, the deck was useful to almost no one. Leah, however, found it extremely useful as it sat just outside her third-story apartment window. She held on tight as Gizmo bounded between the building walls once and hopped onto the deck. Gizmo’s “paws” were equipped with rubber polymer padding and each paw was equipped with retractable climbing claws. Its hydraulic system enabled it to move almost exactly like a cat. It could even right itself mid-fall to protect its rider.
Leah dismounted, and Gizmo curled itself into a sleeping position and powered down. There was no doorway access from the shelf to the building, but Leah had rigged her window in such a way that she could easily enter and exit it. She had completely replaced its locking mechanisms so that she could lock it and unlock it from the outside. She took a second to use her heightened senses to evaluate her surroundings, making sure that she was truly alone, then entered her apartment.
Little light came through the small studio’s only window. Leah left the place intentionally cluttered. A kitchen, sitting area, and simple bed seemed to fill the same space in such a tiny room. The bed was furthest from the window and lay almost completely in shadow. Leah crossed the apartment and knelt at the foot end of her bed. The mat and frame were raised on four solid wood legs.
The bed’s frame was old and heavy, but Leah easily raised one corner end to expose a key panel. After selecting a small rectangular key from a secret pocket in her shoe she pressed it against the panel. The bottom half of the leg slid down so that there was a hollow opening. Leah dropped the sack with the brown stone into the leg opening and slid the leg back into place. With a “whirr”, the locks fastened behind the surface, and the bed returned to its inconspicuous state.
Leah changed out of her black clothes into a thick, lime green blouse with short sleeves and gray trousers. She secured her utility belt in a hidey-hole in the wall near her simple stove. She was fortunate enough that her apartment’s bathroom had a privacy door. She entered the bathroom and shut the door. Removing one of the tile panels in the shower wall revealed another hidey-hole where Leah kept her coins. She selected a few silver rings and put them in her trouser pockets.
Taking a moment, she looked in the mirror to review her appearance. She was dirty. Her single simple braid held but was becoming disheveled. There were holes in all of her clothes. Perfect. She left the bathroom and headed for the apartment door. Before leaving, grabbed a small, shoulder strap purse from a rack hanging near the door, throwing it over her shoulder.
She locked the door, headed down the hall, and exited through the stairway onto the street. Once outside, she headed back the way she came with Gizmo. After a few blocks, she turned into an alley, covered at its entrance by several blankets to make a crude door. The alley was shrouded in shadow but alive with orphaned or abandoned children trading simple wares.
Those with food had the fanciest stations and were the only ones with actual booths. There was almost always a larger teen posted near each of those to act as a guard. Children trading clothes were huddled together in clumps at the far end of the alley and those with household wares occupied the stations at the fore-end. Among the food carts, the middle center alley was speckled with sellers of miscellaneous items, and juvenile patrons perused the entire scene.
Leah was one of the older ones now and soon would find no place here unless she became a bodyguard to a food cart. She moved to the Zellwood district at 14, just after graduating from the Ferretkata. She made friends quickly and began working the streets as a pilferer and larcenist. Before long, she was part of a small gang of crooks that mostly worked alone. They shared intel with each other on jobs they pulled so that each of them could target booty from jobs that were conducive to each person’s skill.
A pile of clothes lay in a sloppy stack in a cart that sold rags and wares. Leah reached down near the edge of the pile and took hold of a hidden handle. Bracing herself, she lifted until the entire pile of clothes shifted on the wooden panel covering a hole at the edge of a building. Leah slid the panel to the side and stepped into the hole. Her feet met a narrow stairwell that led down into the building’s basement. Once inside, she slid the panel back over the hole and proceeded down the stairs. At the bottom, Leah entered a dim room with a single hanging light over a round table. Five chairs circled the table, while 3 others stood in random places around the room. Three of the chairs at the table were occupied.
A long, slender woman with a pearly skin tone sat closest to Leah. She wore a woolly, ankle-length gray dress and scrap-leather sandal flats. Her long, brown hair fell loosely behind her but was well combed, and she wore round spectacles with the left lens missing. Across the table from her, and on Leah’s right, sat an Asian teenaged boy in black shorts and vest. He wore no shoes and no shirt but wore black biker’s gloves with the thumbs removed. A riddled, black scarf was tied loosely around his neck, and he sat a little back from the table with his legs crossed.
The third character sat next to the pearly-skinned woman, sipping from a traveling cup. She was also a teenager, with her long hair dreaded and pulled back into a single long ponytail. She exhibited strong African features and dark skin. Her forest green blouse was lined with lime green trimmings and she wore the typical gray trousers you might see on almost anyone in Koster city.
All of them regarded Leah as she descended the steps and watched as she approached the table. Leah didn’t sit but nodded a greeting to each one in turn. The outer edges of the room were hidden in shadow, so it was difficult to gauge how big the room was from its center. Leah’s augments, however, allowed her to be fully aware of the room’s meager dimensions and of its two proper exits (one on Leah’s left, behind the two ladies, and one directly opposite her).
She sensed Reggie before he opened the left door and strode casually into the room. Despite being in his late sixties, he moved spryly and had a strong physique. He had arrived in his usual gray vest and trousers, mute-blue shirt, and walking cane (which he didn’t need).
Reggie ignored the empty chairs at the table, instead of grabbing one near the door he came through. Once he reached the table, he spun the chair backward and plopped down into it unceremoniously, sitting and resting his arms on the backrest. His hair was mostly gray and, unlike most men of his age, he wore no facial hair. Eyeing the four, he waved a curt greeting before, “I think this is everybody…,”.
The teenaged girl smiled humorlessly, “Let’s get started. Lajuana,…”, she motioned to the young man.
He motioned back agreeably and began, “Juliette and me found a mark north of the business district, but it may take everybody’s help.” His hair was jet black and dropped straight down around his head. In the murky light, his bangs seemed to totally obscure his eyes. He had a surprisingly raspy voice for his youthful face. “The cut’s not that big, but it’s worth the take. We’re talking a few jewels and maybe some land rations…”
“Do you have a buyer?”, Reggie was looking back and forth between Juliette and Lajuana.
Juliette sat up in her chair, “We might have multiple bidders, but we can’t pull off the job alone. We want to scope it out for any other takes, but even scoping it could be risky. There’s no point in sticking our necks out if we can’t even get it done.”
Sensing someone approaching the far door, Leah lifted a warning hand. She was met with bewildered glares before the far door opened and a middle-aged man in a brown shirt and black denim trousers strode in. Shutting the door behind him, he strode forward and glanced at each of them, then opened his hands in a presentational welcome.
“Kenneth!…”, the simply dressed woman rose from the table, looking aghast.
This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.
Special Author’s Note
I intentionally left Gizmo behind for a while to do some worldbuilding. We follow along with Leah as she ventures through the city that will be the backdrop for most of the story. Leah moves through the city pretty constantly, and I wanted to establish the basics for navigation as quickly and simply as I could.
The characters in this room are throw-away characters, but they’re being set up here with a potential plot forecast. Meanwhile, the stone is being set up as a possible McGuffin. The real purpose of this scene is to give more details about Leah so that the following events would have more relevance and context.
At this time in the writing, however, I still didn’t really know where the story would end up, but I was pretty sure that I wanted Leah to be the bad guy. I still liked Leah as a character but I didn’t have much sympathy for what happened to her at the end. So it’s in the next few chapters that I began to realize how things would end up for her.