The story begins
By Chris White
The narrow, dirty streets flow like capillaries through the ghettos, the oldest parts of the city cordoned off by heavy walls of stacked, unmortared rock, held in place through the weight of tradition and the perfect placement of prison-stones. The walls mark the boundaries of the Kraken’s domain, separating the slum-dwellers from the white-stone, classical facades that stand just beyond the barbed-wire and stone girdle. Empty windows stare, in disgust or in disdain, down into the slums.
On Market Day the tentacled gates swing wide open, a vast mouth swallowing up a feast of citizenry. The streets swarm, a hive of pockmarked concrete and cobblestones, of will-o’-the-wisp pickpockets and cut-purses, dancing bears and spit-dogs turning joints of roasting beef, the pages of old, unwanted books cringing at the fingertips of the flames. The smell of smut-brown coal smoke mingles with the smells of the market, of too ripe bananas and mango and goat curry. Fugitive glances pass like wildfire around these streets, between the prostitutes and the drunkards, alongside cheap-inked pamphlets calling for rebellion, or calling for order, or calling for a moment’s silence, blessed silence.
This is the City of Lind.
Across the Empire the city calls out, and pilgrims and immigrants answer. It is the terminus of their long trek across the desert sands, through the cabbage-and-sugarbeet bedecked plains; a siren, a swamp of spice and sweat and sound. Visible for a thousand miles, the city is a black smudge on the horizon that seems to leak into the sky. It is a magnet, the weight of it heavy and permanent, drawing them ever nearer with promises of wealth and fortune, and of freedom from the grind and toil of life behind the plough-horses.
Dragged from all corners of the Empire, from sea-bitten coastal villages to hidden alpine monasteries that see no sun, they flow along the heavy, metal footprints of the railway that seeks to bind together an entire continent. Huge, bronze-filigree engines wheeze and labour through the city’s outskirts, each night ringing with the sound of progress, each day filled by the vomiting of smoke-stacks. It is never-ending, a steady influx of coal and cacao, horse-meat and glass trinkets, scientists and preachers and innocent farm-hands, all ready to be consumed by the city, each body adding to the cacophony.
Gilantine Station, a squatting, red-bricked toad, buried within the Innards is where their journey ends. From here the newcomers issue forth, easy pickings for the cudgels of guards and the light fingers of pickpockets. They crowd into ancient streets, a melange of tongues, of creeds, of refugees and criminals, witches, rogue physicians, sorcerers and chemists.
Grey-skinned, drunken tenements loom overhead, crowding out the sunlight, like talons clawing at the sky, or the bones of some great beast, fallen and fossilised, excavated then inhabited. The buildings lean together, as though conspiring. But, even here, in the capital of the Empire, in the shadows of parliament, are the signs of failed revolution. Black-clad guards stalk the cobblestones, like insectile monsters, black-carapaced and inhuman. Each day fresh corpses adorn the gallows-tree walls of the Innards–around their necks are placards, chokers announcing their crimes; Conspirator. Looter. Regicide. There is rarely a day when the executioner is free. Guillotines sing, ropes jerk and swing. Each day fresh corpses; Revolutionary. Sorcerer. Thief.
Over the huge, octopodial gates cerulean-blue banners snap and dance, while the Kraken’s spies wander among the crowd, taking note of their master’s enemies pushing through the markets. It amuses the Kraken to know of their secret trysts in tumbledown haunts hidden at the heart of these warrens. He knows of their desire for forbidden knowledge, for aphrodisiacs and for forgiveness, even if only temporarily achieved, no matter the cost. And he knows they need to walk the length of the ghetto – he banned steam-cars and litters in the Innards for this purpose – making them easier to shadow.
Immigrants. Pilgrims. Enemies. They are all going to the same place, past the droning of didgeridoos and throat-singing monks, past the serpentine dancing of priestesses and priests prostituting their gods, past the chiming of countless crystal bells.
Beyond the smoke and murmur of bartering shoppers, their passage is obscured by the press of meat-lenders, vegetable-soakers and worm-gatherers. Here the effluent-slick cobbles disguise the more sordid of the merchants, the more unusual traders hidden in plain sight. Here, where the criminal element mingles most closely with the bourgeois burghers of Lind, hidden signs, in hobos’ code, direct the more discerning down narrowing alleyways and into the Lane, where apothecaries and libraries, fire-lizard farms and inventors’ workshops sprout like mushrooms in grave-soil.
Here the most unusual of traders live, surrounded by the joss-stick smell of burning herbs and hell money, by thousands of ritual libations—offerings to dark, near-forgotten gods. Here curses are granted and wishes denied, and here these incognito travellers congregate. It is here the Kraken’s putsch finally halts, beneath the shadows of gargoyles and grotesques that guard this certain stretch of flapping canvas mercantilism.
It is here that the denizens first rose up, united against the Kraken, a cobbled fist erupting from the streets. The saurian Oshenk and human mages, the cat-faced Javain in their monkish robes– together they fought against him, and lost. Now it is a stretch of the city he fills with Them, The Others, The Undesirables, despised and ignored, until their services are needed.
But, the Kraken and his parliamentary foes see only opportunities, no obstacles. So they allow this lane of unusual traders to survive, or so they tell themselves.