Leah was the first to leave her covert meeting beneath the hidden market. As usual, her association with thieves and conmen had proven to be profitable and informational. It was bright outside, and the temperature was on the warmer end of comfortable. Stepping out of the alley, Leah looked up at the sky and reveled in the day’s warmth.
Direct sunlight rarely touched the ground during the day. Instead, Leah watched sunlight filter through the shifting purple and orange swirls obscuring the sky. The “fog” had fully lifted. Here and there a beam of sun would escape the dusty mists but other than that, the landscape remained partially shaded by the Mannah.
The strange, colorful life forms were the reason Leah couldn’t make herself a campfire when she slept out in the woods. They loved heat, and were strongly attracted to bright, hot light, but seemed to consider it an attack whenever they would catch fire. For whatever reason, they didn’t seem to make the distinction that direct contact with fire was too hot, and whenever even one of them was burned, any others in the area would fly into something like a murderous frenzy. Even in the dead of night, when the Mannah would lay still on the ground, the light of a fire could cause them to rise toward it: resulting in a swarm killing anything in the area. People knew not to light any fires during dawn, dusk, or night.
Leah had planned to walk to the meat markets after the meeting, but before she’d made it far, she noticed a skinless, chrome quattour waiting in her path. Gizmo lay curled in the same seeping position from before, but about a block away from the alley flea market. She cringed at the thought of anyone noticing the strange behavior from what was supposed to be little more than a transportation device, but decided it was unlikely anyone was following her behavior closely enough to do so. Leah strolled casually over to the Gizmo, nudging it with her elbow to wake it from its slumber. “Let’s go.”, she said under her breath, and Gizmo moved into position in front of her. Once Leah had mounted the quattour the two strolled back through the Ivy Lane district into the heart of downtown.
Eventually, they came to an intersection rife with myriad displays of goods, furs, and smoked meats. The smells in this area were so strong, that a blind man could easily find the place after entering downtown. Gizmo crept to a halt as Leah slid casually from the quattour’s back. They’d entered a surprisingly quiet ally, and Leah nimbly climbed the fire-escape steps on the side of the building. The old building must have been 9 stories high, but her destination was on the 3rd floor. Two adjacent windows had been repurposed and extended to make a door. Surrounding the creative opening were decorative signs reading “Meat Shop”, “BEST CHOPS”, and “Rare Meats”.
Sliding the door panel open, Leah was met with another surge of strong smells: robust seasonings, cooking meats, and burning charcoal. The tall, middle-aged man behind a wide counter took one look at her and called over his shoulder, “Cole!”. Another middle-aged man, shorter and kind of pudgy, came bursting through the clear flaps that separated the clerk’s area from the kitchen. Upon seeing Leah, he smiled brightly.
“Oh! Young Master. Will you be having the usual?”
“The same.”, Leah handed him one of the silver rings she’d brought from the apartment. He handed it back to his clerk, and that man scuffled away. A silver ring was worth at least a dozen food coins, and such payments weren’t kept upfront with the other change.
The pudgy butcher motioned for Leah to wait in one of the empty chairs and said, “You must do very good work to be paid so well so consistently.”
Leah nodded cordially and stepped out of the meat shop. She wouldn’t be winning any awards for congeniality any time soon. She descended the steps and gave Gizmo some quick maintenance. After a few minutes, the tall clerk leaned out of the win-door to let her know her order was almost ready. She was entering the shop as he put the last touches on the packaging and handed it to her. This one always eyed her suspiciously and did so as she made for the exit.
“Hold on…”, he said as he retrieved a tray of meat chunks from under the counter. “We’ve got some new options coming out and you’re one of our regular customers. For a while, we’re offering samples to our regulars.” He pushed the tray towards her suggestively.
Leah eyed the meats, but only smiled faintly before saying, “Maybe next time…”, and left the shop.
Leah secured her package in Gizmo’s storage containment and chose to walk beside her quattour as they headed south. Before they could make it out of south downtown, Leah noticed a bunch of kids near an alley between two abandoned buildings. They seemed to be gathered around something, and as Leah got closer, the crowd parted, and a bloodied young boy went flying through the opening.
For a moment, Leah could see clearly into the opening and instantly recognized the young man in the middle: a tall boy with muscular arms, golden hair, and wearing a bright red vest. Beside him stood another muscular boy; shorter but holding a wide scimitar. That one was definitely different from the one that had been guarding the safe last night. Leah glanced away and maintained her pace to avoid drawing attention. As far as she could tell, there were only a handful of the young ruffians from their group here. Passing the crowd, she heard the thuggish boss’ words. “I’m looking for a green-eyed thief. A girl… A girl who likes to steal things. Maybe she’s new in town or a traveler… Maybe she likes to leave town from time to time…” He went on, fully captivating the crowd’s attention.
How did he get here so fast? Leah thought. How did he know to look for me here? She had been sent on what she thought was a queer, but simple mission. Remembering the slumbering thugs in their not-so-clever hideout, they hadn’t struck her as so determined to follow her trail all the way back to this city. They certainly shouldn’t have been able to reach Koster City by today unless they had marched all night. Now, she regretted her blunder in allowing one of the boys to see her face; even making out the color of her eyes.
Careless!, she chastised herself, I should have altered my eye color just to be safe. Though, as she considered it, the presence of these raiders raised many more important questions. For one, only one of the raiders had seen her for the briefest moment, so how had they come to town with such an apt description of Leah? Had one of them faked being asleep while watching the whole theft? In addition, she’d administered her sleeping agent to the red-vested boss, but did he have some kind of immunity to it? That sure was to leave its victims weak and groggy for half a day.
Leah knew that she had used the right concoction on the boys because she hadn’t brought any others. Here he was though, late morning of the very next day, strong enough to rough some boys up and give a demanding speech. Who is he? What is that stupid stone? Leah was glad she hadn’t brought the thing with her. It might be too dangerous to have on her during her next appointment. In fact, she was beginning to think the thing may not be worth the price she would be paid for it after all.
She knew she needed to find out more but was frustrated by knowing it would be extremely difficult to ask about it without drawing suspicion. The only ones she knew were interested in the stone were the Patrician Force, her contractors, and Zinf. Maybe she could ask Zinf, but she would have to think of a strategy that didn’t make the con-lady suspicious while circumventing Zinf’s typical conversational misdirections.
She shook herself from her thoughts as the high-pitched squeal of a constable’s whistle echoed through the alleys. The crowd of adolescents dispersed quickly as two constables strolled toward where they had been gathered, clearly in no rush. The authorities joked lightly with each other as they passed the beaten boy crawling from the street. They regarded him with brief interest, then continued on their path into another alley passageway. Once she was sure they were alone, Leah guided Gizmo into a heavy brush and opened a trapdoor with resilient bushes growing out of its top. The hole was large enough for both of them and the pair hurried through the portal before letting it drop closed silently. In the dark, with only Gizmo’s glowing eyes for a guide, the two made their way through the secret passage into the aristocratic district.
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
This is the last descriptive chapter before the story really begins to take off. There’s a lot of subtle world-building here with a paragraph about people’s relationship with the Mannah, a little about the relationship of the local authorities with people, and quiet clues about details that will be important later.
I like how Gizmo’s behavior continues to raise questions that Leah seems to be actively ignoring. Imaginge if your 1998 Camry was sitting outside waiting at the curb for you when you left the grocery store. But you’d walked to the store. How would you explain this to your friends? Gizmo was easily the most fun character for me to write.
Also, in this chapter is the only mention of Cole the butcher, who will eventually have his own upcoming story.