Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sweet Clara

            Sweet Clara is what they called her.
            Up above the maze of crooked streets that made up the frankly rather small and insignificant city of Errister, the clouds were threatening like chained dogs. The air had grown humid, and everything felt filthy. It was not yet hot – along the northern coast of Retrein, it rarely got truly hot – but the snows had melted and everything that had been caught up in them over the winter was now unleashed, forming a miasma of putridity.
            It wasn’t that Sweet Clara had ever had an easy life. Father got killed by the Barrow Gang, and mother threw her out when she was fourteen. But there was a time when she made do well enough, plying her trade. When she was seventeen she went to work in Madam Harlan’s place. It was not a proper street-temple – the old buggers in parliament outlawed that decades ago – but Harlan kept it safe, and he didn’t take more than he needed. He had been a street-priest himself, which Clara figured gave him a degree of humanity that others in his line might not have. Madam Harlan, they called him, which he seemed to prefer over “Monsieur.” He was a strange kind of dragger that kept his masculine name. He was actually quite manly, and did not attempt any sort of impersonation, other than the clothes, but he did have a motherly instinct toward his “flock,” as he called them. Things worked out, and the enforcers turned a blind eye – probably happy that Harlan ran things clean: no drugs, no violence.
            But when the fog rolled in five years back, things dried up. People did not have the money to spend on luxuries, and for most, that meant they had given up a good weekly hook. Some of the regulars kept up, and some of the out-of-towners, but business pretty much ground to a halt.
            Harlan had gotten old, and took a bullet when a couple bloody robbers tried to take his Cold Iron safe. He survived, bless the gods, but the business didn’t.
            Sweet Clara had stayed with Esmi for a spell after that. Esmi wanted to give up the trade. She wanted to clean her life up a bit, but she didn’t mind Clara bringing clients in. Clara wished she had minded, because on a slow, boring day in the late winter, a man who’d had too much to drink and was a proper bastard to boot decided he’d get more than what he paid for. The enforcers had to be called, and they dragged the man off in chains, but Esmi was in no shape to live there anymore. The social services people took her away, kept her safe, Clara hoped, but the flat was gone after that.
            And now Clara was on the street. She had thought about going back into the trade, maybe seeing if things had picked up in Ravenfort or Wolfsmouth – the big cities might have recovered a bit quicker after the fog – but she had no way to get there. In Errister, even after the fog was gone, the shelters were overflowing. Clara had heard the stories – the fights that broke out, the crowding. There were stories of abuse, like a woman who was running one of them getting her thrills from beating up the residents. She didn’t want that – figured she’d do better on her own.
            She slept in the day. The nights weren’t a good time to be unaware. She was on the sidewalk, looking down the crooked alleyway that passed for a street here. There had been stories floating around about some sort of demon haunting the city, preying on the beggars, but she suspected it was just the usual sort of spooked rumor that seemed to spread through the city like a plague. Some poor sot must have read a book of myths about Ripper Jack or Whispering Jim and started imagining things. Still, demon or no, you kept your eyes open when the sun went down.
            The night was growing colder, and now there were tiny, timid droplets of rain falling – just barely too thick to be considered a mist. Sweet Clara tried to keep her eyes open. The sun would rise in just five hours, and then she would be free to let them close, but for now, she huddled under her blanket, her knife held tight.
            And suddenly there was blinding light. Clara squinted at it, shielding her eyes. When she could finally bear to look at the light’s source, she saw that it was a limousine.
            The limousine had pulled right up in front of her, though with such a long car, she could not be sure how its driver had managed to get it down the twisting street. The vehicle was black, and appeared strangely matte from the condensation that had collected on it.
            The strangest thing about the limousine was that there was a pipe sticking out of the back of it. Some sort of foul smoke was puffing from the pipe, cascading up into the air. And on the side, behind the passenger cab’s door, instead of a cable-plug, there was a small square door. As the limousine sat in front of her, there was a low rumbling from the engine.
            The front door opened, and the driver hopped out. He was a slightly chubby man, with a bizarrely cheerful smile on his face, which was red around the cheeks and forehead and especially the nose.
            “Ms. Clara? Sweet Clara?” said the driver with a Canwick accent. Then he grinned again. “Of course it is. Wouldn’t be here if it was anyone else. Ms. Clara, would you be so kind as to step inside?”
            The driver opened the door and stood there, waiting. Clara did not move.
            “He’s got a business proposal for you,” said the driver. “And he says he’ll buy you dinner.”
            She had not eaten that day.  She knew it was the last thing you’d do, getting in a vehicle with a client, but with no food today and nothing she expected tomorrow… And there was something inviting about the limousine, even if she could not be sure what it was.
            “At least let us get you out of the rain, Ms. Clara,” said the driver. At that moment, the rain truly began to fall. Sheets of water seemed to be splashing down over everything, and the filth on the streets was quickly being swept up in a rising tide.
            She stood and entered the limousine. As she did, she transformed herself, the way she had learned to do with a client. Posture, movement, and expression could mean a world of difference in how men saw a woman.
            The seats were cool, smooth leather, and the windows were tinted so that they seemed entirely cut off from the foul city around them. She could hardly see outside.
            Across the cavern of a space inside the vehicle sat a strange young man.
            He looked to be around twenty, a man who was only just beginning to look like an adult. He was dressed very well – an immaculate black suit and shoes polished to a mirror sheen.
            He was very pale – so pale he seemed to be truly white, and his hair was similarly bleached of all color. Even his eyes were steely grey. The only point of color on him was an emerald on a ring he wore on the left hand.
            “Sweet Clara,” said the man. “I am in need of certain services, and I believe you can provide them.”
            Clara nodded, taking care not to display her apprehension at touching this ghostly young man. “I understand.” She looked around. It had been months, but she had not forgotten how to get into character. She hadn’t bathed in three days, though, since an old Narcian priest had let her use his tiny temple’s bath. But she had learned long ago that there were men and women of every taste, and her current state could be what this one was interested in. Besides, if this meant a hot meal and a few coins to rub together, she would do what she could. “Would you like me to begin in here?”
            The man smiled knowingly. “No, Clara, I don’t think you do understand. I do not want a prostitute. I don’t need that sort of service.” The man crossed his legs and pulled out a pocket watch. She could not be sure – she only saw the watch’s face for a moment – but she thought it had only one hand and no numbers. “I will pay you a discretionary salary of forty-thousand tolls. You will be provided with housing, a cook, a maid, and clothing. You will be representing me, you understand, and I want you to act the part. I don’t think we’ll need to see a speech coach about your accent, but I would like to impress upon you that you will no longer be living on the streets, and I do not want your voice to give the impression that you still do.”
            Clara could not pick a word to respond with.
            “You’re overwhelmed,” said the man. “Let me explain what the job will entail, and you can decide if it would suit you better than your current lifestyle.” The man began to wind the watch. “You will be my voice among those to whom I do not wish to speak. You will be my ears among those to whom I do not wish to listen. You will be my eyes among those whom I do not wish to see.”
            The man leaned forward. “I will be a rumor that resides in your shadow. Your actions will, in fact, be my actions. You will be the face I show in the mortal world. I require complete obedience. If I receive that, you will want for nothing. If I do not, I will return you exactly here, to live out this facsimile of a life you have now.”
            “I don’t know who you are,” said Clara.
            “I am a man with great influence and power,” said the man.
            “Why have you chosen me? I mean, I can use the work, I don’ t mind saying, but what makes you think I can do this?”
            The man nodded, though he seemed somehow frustrated with her all of a sudden. “You are an actress. You’ve never been on stage or film, but I know of some of your best performances. Men loyal to my cause have auditioned you for years at Madam Harlan’s. Had it not been for recent events, I imagine we might be having this conversation there instead. I need someone who can portray an extension of my will – to show neither fear nor doubt, even though I know you will be filled with both. Does that answer your question?”
            Feigning confidence, she said “Yes, it does.”
            “Do I have your answer?” he asked.
            “I don’t rightly think I can refuse,” she said.
            He smiled. “Good. I knew you were a sensible woman.” He leaned forward, opening a mini-bar in the car’s wall. From there he retrieved a thermos. Slowly, he unscrewed the lid and poured a cup.
            “Sweet Clara,” he said. “My business will require you to know certain things about the world that most people do not. Before we can begin, I’d ask that you drink some of this.”
            He handed the cup to her. Inside, there was a black liquid that splashed up with only the slightest movement of her hand. The smell of it was awful – it reminded her of the smoke coming from that odd pipe at the back of the limousine.
            The man smiled. “It’s not poison. I know what you are thinking. It is unfair that prostitutes are so often targeted by the deranged. Their lives are rarely happy to begin with. But rest assured, I am no Ripper Jack. I see no reason that a woman of your professional experience is any more deserving of cruelty than another.”
            Clara looked back down at the beverage. “I can’t.”
            He frowned. “That is most unfortunate. I will be unable to employ you if you do not drink.”
            Clara inhaled some of the fumes. There was an underlying scent that was strangely pleasant – like some kind of coffee. Yet it was twisted, as if all of the flavor had been squeezed out of it and only the bitterness remained.
            She thought about that sad patch of pavement she’d made her home, thought about Esmi, who had only been given a proper home after a brute had broken half her bones.
            So what if it is poison?
            She downed the cup. The drinking was just as unpleasant as she had feared, and for a moment she thought that it really had been poison, and that her insides were about to be torn up, and the pain would end her life.
            But that moment did not come. After a few seconds, the flavor of the foul liquid evaporated away. Yet this was followed by a thudding headache. What few lights there were in the limousine grew blindingly bright, but this, too, passed.
            And then Sweet Clara realized that she and the strange man were not alone in the limousine’s cab. On either side of him were two other men, staring at her without faces.
            She screamed in shock, but quickly quieted herself. Henry smiled.
            “Sweet Clara, allow me to introduce you to our clients. We will be working very closely with them.”
            She stared at the one that sat to his left. Even as she saw the strange being before her, she felt as if she was looking through it.
            “Do they frighten you?” asked the man.
            “I don’t know what to make of them.”
            “You cannot make anything of them. I suggest you do not attempt to do so.”
            Sweet Clara swallowed. She narrowed her vision, focusing only on the odd man and trying to act as if the faceless beings were not there. “Tell me what to do.”
            The man leaned on his elbow. “Once we’ve taken you to your home, gotten you cleaned up and dressed, and I daresay once you’ve had a decent night’s sleep, I would like you to travel to Ravenfort to speak with an old school friend of mine. His name is Richard Airbright, and I wanted to give him notice that I’ll be coming to town myself shortly and that he should be prepared.”
            “Sir,” Clara began. One of the faceless men had somehow gotten closer to her, such that he was nearly seated next to her, even though she had not seen him make the move. She took a breath, remembering the part that this man had assigned her. “What name should I give this Mr. Airbright?”
            “The name is Henry Thall.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Good Arizradna Boy

            Azjar tapped out a command on the keyboard, and the projective sigil shifted by just a hair. The moon had come again – the second time this month – and its properties seemed to interfere with the xenogravity field holding up the telescope. The spell keeping the telescope aligned was a form of glyphic magic, using the sigil to substitute the underlying gravitational field of another universe within a set space, thus allowing the enormous instrument to float miles up above. Azjar had always had a better knack for invocative magic, but after a little training, he had learned to maintain the observatory’s key asset.
            Most observatories tended to have a number of astronomers rotate through, and while there were a few people within the community who would come to make their own observations at the DFO, the Sinret Project insisted that they have a presence at the observatory at all times.
            Azjar liked it there. It was far enough from the city that one could feel a degree of privacy without being so far that one could not go into town on a whim. He had grown up in Damana, the capital of Arizradna, and though he loved his hometown and appreciated how lucky he had been to be born there, he was happy to be living outside the city.
            Freya had made her great big stew, and while Azjar typically did not eat meat, he was satisfied that she had acquired the beef from a reputable institution that treated its animals as humanely as one could.
            The Deep Field Observatory had been built at the instruction of the Sinret Project, thousands of miles away in Arkos Province in the Redlands. Azjar had never been to the Redlands, but it was said that most of it was a fairly dangerous place, thanks to the wars that came in and out like the tide near the coast or the general lawlessness as one got farther inland. Azjar did not like to look down on another culture, but he found it strangely poetic that Arizradna and the Redlands were almost mirror images of each other, his homeland spread along the west coast of Sarona and the Redlands occupying much of the east coat six thousand miles away.
            He had once made an offhand comment, carelessly denigrating the Redlands in front of Tessa, and begged her forgiveness for his insensitivity, but she had only laughed and mentioned that there was a reason she never intended to return to the country of her birth.
            Still, Arkos province, where the Sinret Project was based, was said to be stable and even pleasant, at least in the cities. He imagined one would have to have some semblance of order to attempt a project of such magnitude, and truthfully he was glad the people of Arkos had entrusted his country with the construction and maintenance of the observatory. Not only was Arizradna a far safer place to invest the millions that the DFO cost to build, but historically it was believed that that position on the planet would give the best angle to stand a chance at finding Arashka.
            The people of the Redlands - or at least most of them, as of course there had inevitably been some racial mixing after living so long on Sarona - were originally refugees from an entirely different planet called Arashka. There was some myth passed down among the Redlanders that Arashka had been beset by a terribly calamity, marked by the arrival of an entity called the White King.
            The Gods of Arashka all had dual-identities – a day aspect and a night aspect. The most powerful among them was called Ternis – the God of Time. Ternis represented ambition for the future, and the promise of a better day to come, with new opportunities, growth, and the limitless potential in what had not yet happened.
            Ternis’ night aspect was Sinret, who represented nostalgia, history, and the striving for what had been lost. Depending on who you asked, Sinret could be a sorrowful being, or a seductive one, or potentially destructive and dangerous.
            There were many nuances that were lost on Azjar, but he suspected the legends and myths of the Pantheon of Arashka had mutated and been rewritten a hundred times in the ages that had passed since the exodus.
            The only member of the pantheon still known to exist was the night aspect of Sirca, the warrior god, who was named Ashtor. After the White King’s arrival, Ashtor flew through the heavens toward Sarona-Ki, leaving behind a wake of red flame that came to be known as “Ashtor’s Bleed.” For whatever reason, even when the Arashkans landed on the planet, he chose to shun them and instead found worshippers among the Sardok.
            For this reason, Azjar felt oddly out of place. Both Tessa and Freya had a connection to the project – one was searching for the land of her ancestors and the other was searching for the land of her god. Meanwhile Azjar, a good Arizradna boy, was less interested in the mystical or romantic side of things. Instead, he was drawn to the project primarily because of the puzzle of the technical logistics.
            When he was satisfied with the adjustments, Azjar made his way to the lodge. He was not yet sure what to make of Tessa’s boyfriend. For one, he did not remember her mentioning him before, and there was something… off about him. They had only interacted twice, first when Tessa brought Jack to his station and introduced him and again when Azjar had gone to the kitchen for breakfast.
            Oh hey, you’ve only eaten a bowl of cereal today, Azjar thought. Once again, he’d allowed himself to get lost in his work.
            But his thoughts remained on Jack Cart, Tessa’s sudden boyfriend from Narcia. He seemed friendly enough, though oddly thin. The man looked as if he had recently kicked a drug habit or been through months of torture, yet his manner and tone were lighthearted and friendly. Admittedly, Azjar was used to people being a little more rotund – thanks to what he had once heard a comedian call “The Arizradna Padding.” Yet Jack, well, he did not look unhealthy exactly, just strange.
            When they had sat at the dinner table, Freya handed him a very large stein of beer. “Drink up, witch. It’s not Varhall unless you’re stumbling drunk at the end of the night.”
            Azjar took a sip. The beer was thick and rich and very bitter. Azjar usually preferred bluewine, but he also recognized the need to get into the spirit of the holiday.
            “So how long have you been working at the DFO, Azjar?” asked Jack.
            “I came in with Freya. We had met in undergrad at Al-Akthi University up in Tevali. That was about four years ago.”
            “So you guys were here a year before Tessa?”
            Freya nodded. “Yeah. We’re the old-timers around here.” Freya then proceeded to grill Jack on his life: where he grew up, how he and Tessa met, what he did for a living. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but still Azjar thought that Jack seemed uncomfortable, despite his confident answers to this impromptu interrogation.
            Azjar reasoned to himself that it was possible he was simply projecting his own discomfort over having a stranger there.
            They feasted for nearly three hours, and soon Freya was nearly unable to stand. Tessa left to help walk her to her room, leaving Jack and Azjar alone.
            They sat there, quietly, until finally Azjar felt he needed to break the silence. “So what do you think of Arizradna?” he asked, grasping for something to talk about.
            “It’s very nice,” replied Jack. He did not elaborate. Again, Azjar thought he could sense some discomfort underneath Jack’s friendly attitude.
            More silence.
           "Well, we made it to the couch," said Tessa as she reappeared. "Jack, you coming?"
           "Sure," he said, and they left the dining room. Azjar went to the kitchen and put his plate in the dishwasher, then began to make his way to his room. The beer had hit him harder than he expected. Much harder.
            He walked down the hallway, nearly tripping over his own foot. He supposed Freya would be happy with him, but she was already passed out, draped over the sofa in the enormous living room, absolutely reeking of beer and whiskey. Azjar opened the door in front of him.
            “Azjar!” Tessa nearly cried. He looked into the room. The room was dark, illuminated only from the lights in the hallway. Tessa was in bed, in her bedclothes. On the floor to the side of her bed, Jack was stretched out on a comforter, his bony chest uncovered. “What are you doing?” she asked.
            Azjar paused for a moment.
            What am I doing?
            He turned around. “I think I took hold of the wrong door.”
            Tessa nodded. “Yeah.”
            “I have a theory… bear with me here. I have a theory, that I may have ingested greater quantities of alcohol than I realized I was… doing.”
            Tessa laughed. “Yeah, that beer Freya brought is something like fifty proof.”
            Azjar nodded sagely. “Yes, that might account for it.” He looked around the room and nodded. “Right, well, carry on. Carry on.”
            He closed the door and walked toward what he now realized was his own door.
            That would have been pretty embarrassing if you were sober, he thought. Funny that Jack was sleeping on the floor.
            He went into his room and collapsed on the bed. It was amazingly soft and warm. He didn’t even mind that his face was pressed down against the mattress. It was still wonderfully comfortable.
            It was odd, though. Tessa was hardly a prudish woman – living with her and Freya for so long, he was privy to all of their “girl-talk.”
            Why would she make him sleep on the floor?

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Mote of Dust in the Air

            Lydia Lisenrush awoke at five. She sat up out of bed, did a set of push-ups, and went to the shower. The water was very hot. She got dressed, tied her hair back, and went on her way to the office.
            It was well into spring now, with summer just around the corner. The snow should have melted by now, but it was still there, black and dirty from the mud it had soaked up over the months.
            The faceless man was walking behind her, and part of her knew that he was there. The part of her that understood made her walk faster. Yet there was a disconnect – some gulf between the part of her mind that saw the faceless men and the part of her brain that saw nothing out of the ordinary other than a discouragingly shrunken ranger corps.
            Actually, it had been a long time since they had lost a ranger. Lisenrush suspected that they were not trekking quite so far into the woods. Yet the rangers who had returned from their journeys seemed very hesitant to set out again. After Vymer came back as a draugr, Lisenrush had become conservative with the rangers' assignments. She's gotten word - top secret information - from the forensics team back in town - Vymer was not a typical draugr. His flesh had not rotted or mortified, rather it had somehow fused together, such that each muscle transitioned smoothly into other parts of his anatomy, and the internal organs had become so undifferentiated that it was almost as if he'd been replaced with a man made of plastic. He was hardly "undead," as much as he had been turned into something quite unlike a human being.
            He was on his way to becoming like the faceless men.
            There was dissonance, and both halves of her thoughts recognized this. She blamed the numbness on it, even if she had still not come up with a satisfying theory to explain how they could be connected.
            It would be troubling enough to feel that she was losing her mind, but she noticed it in the men as well. Perkins had even come to her, volunteering that he may not be fit for service, given his current mental distress. She admired that he had the courage to speak up about it. So many of the men were in denial, even when they were clearly just as affected. Still, there weren’t enough men to rotate people in and out. She had sent Perkins back to his post.
            There was only one person in all of Far Watch Outpost who seemed normal – one person who seemed to have a cohesive mind, who was not distracted or spacey. It was Ana Sweeney.
            Lisenrush had begun to entertain a very dangerous notion. Part of her, the rational part that knew that there were no invisible men stalking her, considered that Sweeney could even be the cause of this strange malaise, and that it was foolish for them to keep her here. Yet even that side had been forced to consider that Sweeney could be telling the truth.
            Once or twice, a thought from her mind connected with her brain, like sparks jumping between two wires held just close enough together. Sweeney had been going on about some sort of hidden presence at the Outpost, a man that was everywhere.
            You can see them. There is one next to you right now.
            Lisenrush felt her heart begin to race. Only now, after walking across the entire compound, did she realize she had walked to Sweeney’s cell. She looked to the man guarding the door, whose name was Andersen. He seemed hardly there, as if he were catatonic.
            The door opened, and she went inside.
            “Ranger-Captain. What answers would you like to ignore today?”
            Lisenrush crossed the cell and sat down on the bed. Ana backed away, eyeing her as if a lion had just wandered into the room.
            You’re not the thing she’s looking at. Her eyes are not watching you, they are focused on the air in front of you – as if there were a mote of dust floating there.
            “Ana,” said Lisenrush – that was unusual, she usually stuck with “Sweeney,” or “draugr.” “Tell me about the faceless men.”
            Ana swallowed. She looked up at the faceless man, standing mere feet from her. The thing seemed to be focused on Lisenrush, rather than her, but it was still deeply unsettling to be in such close proximity. There was a strange kind of pull in the air, like from a vacuum, toward it.
            “You won’t believe me,” said Ana. “You haven’t yet.”
            “I want to know everything you can tell me about them. I’ll decide if I believe you.”
            Ana was very still. “I started seeing them in my dreams. I don’t know when it started. In my dreams, they weren’t as dangerous. I started seeing them for real after I was shot.”
            “What do they do?”
            Ana was now against the wall entirely. Lisenrush was better at hiding her fear, but she had the same instinct – to straighten and stiffen, to remain motionless until the danger had passed. “They stand there. Sometimes they touch someone. It’s… it’s like they are sucking the feeling out of the air. I don’t… Captain Lisenrush, I… I don’t know much else.”
            Lisenrush looked up at her. “Something horrible is happening here, right now, all over the compound. But I cannot say what it is. I think you can.”
            Ana took another step back. “Captain Lisenrush, there’s a faceless man standing right in front of you, right now.”
            Lisenrush looked up, and for a split second, she saw it. Right there, less than a foot away, staring without eyes right down at her.
            For the first time since she was a child, she screamed in terror. She climbed backward, scrambling over the cot and to the floor. She could not see the faceless man anymore, but she knew that it was there.
            And it was now that she realized she had been seeing them for months. At Far Watch, in town, even on a trip to Port Sang. She had been seeing them everywhere. Why had she never noticed?
            “Sweeney, we’re both leaving here right now.”
            Ana did not need to be told again. The two of them ran out of the room, down the corridor and out into the open.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)