Chapter One: The Man In The Wings
Maynard Trigg tried not to listen. Madam Isobel had been talking about the same thing for an hour as the children stood in the muddy street, waiting for an opportunity to do anything whatsoever except stand and listen. She paced on the porch above them and continued talking.
‘The skyport’sengine is regulated by Stone’s Fifth,’ she said, marching back and forth. ‘And this chemical flows through the skyport spillways, causing the mud we walk through every day.’
Maynard shuffled, trying to keep his legs awake. He nudged the girl next to him. ‘Hey, Nell.’
‘Shut up,’ Nell whispered.
Madam Isobel coughed. ‘Now then Nell, did you have something to share with the class?’
‘Thanks a lot,’ Nell hissed.
‘She was trying to talk to me,’ Maynard said, stepping forward.
‘Mister Trigg, is it possible to go one lesson without you disrupting this class?’ Madam Isobel said. ‘Are you incapable of listening? Are you incapable of standing still even? Was there a question you had, Mister Trigg? Perhaps you’d like to share something important with the class? Or shall we all move on with our lives?’
‘I was just hoping we might… do something? Anything at all, actually.’
Madam Isobel removed a singular boot, plunging her foot back into the sickly mud. She held the boot before Maynard’s face.
‘We are learning,’ Madam Isobel said.
Maynard took a cautious step back from Madam Isobel’s boot.
‘We came outside, Madam Isobel. I just thought it might’ve been for something specific,’ Maynard said.
‘What do you imagine it is like for me having to teach with your constant interruptions? I have not brought us here for my enjoyment, Mister Trigg. Now, look at me. Observe.’
Madam Isobel held up a vial of yellow liquid. ‘This is Stone’s Fifth, the very same chemical that causes the skyport’s year-round mud. The same mud on this boot.’
Maynard looked at the slurry of dirt and dust under his own boots. Further into the street, people were going about their day, shouting and whistling from the thoroughfares toward the rooftops of sad-looking shanties. A squalid cook served a foul-smelling soup from a bucket on the fire. The people who gathered for it did not look happy, but they did not look sad either. There was a figure in a dark cloak, standing perfectly still on the far side of the street.
‘Now, Mister Trigg, given your obvious interest in this lesson, what do you imagine will happen if I add this Stone’s Fifth to this boot.’ Madam Isobel held up her boot. She held the vial of yellow liquid in her other hand.
Maynard shrugged. He stole a glance at the street once more. The cloaked figure was gone.
‘Nothing to say?’
‘I don’t know,’ Maynard said.
‘Precisely, because you never listen.’
Nell nudged his arm and then stepped forward.
‘If you add the Stone’s Fifth to the boot it should strip off the mud,’ Nell said.
‘Very good Nell, let us observe.’ Madam Isobel poured the vial over the toe of the boot. The mud slid off with the liquid, dark and viscous, dripping from the boot. ‘The Stone’s Fifth binds to the Stone’s Fifth already in the mud, creating one cohesive compound. The mud is diluted, thus its adhesive nature is reduced and the boot is freed.’
Maynard rolled his eyes at Nell. She stepped back in line and suppressed a laugh.
‘Now, pair up and
come collect a vial of Stone’s Fifth, a brush
and flag.’ Madam Isobel gestured to the three bags next to her. The children broke from the line and swarmed over the material.
Maynard and Nell didn’t move.
‘Could we go one day without you getting me in trouble?’ Nell said.
‘You gonna go get the stuff?’
‘Really?’ Maynard said, gesturing at Madam Isobel. ‘She’s getting us to clean Veil flags. It’s bad enough they’re making my father hang them at the festival.’
‘Might be a nice change for you to actually do some work.’
‘You’re getting the next one.’ Maynard slumped his shoulders and trudged up the step and onto the porch. He collected a vial, flag, and scrubbing brush, and then sat at the edge of the porch where Nell joined him.
Carthage wove out before them. The muddy streets diced up the city carelessly. Houses were stacked atop each other in close favelas with planks connecting third and fourth storey landings. It was a city of corners and dark places. The streets grew busy as sundown approached.
‘What do you think he does?’ Nell said. She pointed at a portly man wearing overalls.
‘His jacket’s old, pretty worn in the elbows. Maybe he’s a pilot.’
‘Nah, he’s too tall to be a pilot.’ Nell poked Maynard’s arm. ‘Oh, maybe he helps flatten steel into sheets… are you listening?’
Maynard didn’t respond.
‘What is it?’ Nell insisted.
‘Who do you think that is?’ Maynard said quietly.
‘Far side of the road, there’s someone in a cloak. They were watching us before.’
‘I don’t see anyone.’
Maynard pointed. Nell followed his finger but the figure in the cloak took three long steps forward and became part of the shifting crowd.‘That was weird,’ Maynard said.
‘Probably just a drifter.’
Nell kept pointing out people and guessing their jobs or what they were thinking. Maynard did his best to play along but his mind was on the cloaked figure.
Class ended, and Maynard left before Nell could catch up. He wanted to go home. He wove through the crowd, avoiding being trampled. He was wondering about his father’s preparations for the festival as hands grasped his shoulders and dragged him from the road into a narrow alleyway. The cloaked figure loomed over him and pulled his hood down. His beard was thick and he wore many earrings.
‘You were watching me before,’ Maynard said. ‘Who are you?’
‘The boy does not know an old friend when he sees one?’
The man pulled back the length of his cloak and reached out to shake Maynard’s hand. Beneath, he wore layers of leathery scarves and a dark vest. He had belts with scores of pouches and pockets. On one hip hung a pistol, and a sickle as large as the man’s torso on the other.
‘I think I would remember a friend with so many weapons,’ Maynard said.
‘The boy does not recognise this face? The man is named Kar’Madra, though the boy may call Kar’Madra by Moony, for the boy’s mother did once also.’
‘Wait, I do know you.’
‘The boy remembers.’
Maynard recalled seeing the back of a man with earrings, drawing on a pipe, talking in the darkness with his mother and father; the roaring wheeze of Moony’s laugh which made Maynard think of extinct, storybook animals.
‘Why were you watching me before?’ Maynard asked.
‘The boy must focus. Did the boy’s father return this night gone?’
‘No, he probably just stayed at work. He has rooms at the council chamber and the mid-winter festival’s got him working all hours.’
‘The boy is certain?’
‘I didn’t see him this morning either.’
‘Moony was sent by the boy’s father yesterday to protect the boy. Moony was to meet the boy’s father today. Did the boy’s father leave with him, a note? A key? Anything for Kar’Madra? For Moony?’
‘Well, did you try the chambers?’ Maynard said. ‘He’s probably rehearsing his opening speech.’
Moony was perfectly still for a moment. Then he frowned. ‘The boy will come with Moony.’
‘You’re a pirate, aren’t you?’ Maynard responded, recoiling.
‘The boy will come.’
‘I’m not going with you. I need to change before I meet my father, we’re to offer the blessing of the festival.’
Moony bent down and leaned in close to Maynard. He wore kohl under his eyes, smeared in uneven clouds. Maynard had difficulty imagining a reason for the face paint and wondered why it was applied so poorly. Perhaps the pirate wanted to look like a ragamuffin. Moony clicked his fingers at Maynard.
‘Is the boy listening? Yar’Kara,’ Moony said. ‘The boy must learn to trust Moony, for if the boy’s father did not return this evening gone, the boy is in danger.’
‘Danger?’ he said.
‘Da, a bad man seeks the boy’s father.’
Maynard feigned hiding from a monster.
‘A bad man is after my father, oh for Veil’s sake, not again!’
Moony stepped away and shook his head as Maynard carried on.
‘Moony, this is Carthage. People eat what they should throw out and what they throw out is unutterable,’ Maynard said. ‘And my father is a council member. He is in part responsible for keeping these people from running amok and eating one another.’
Moony recoiled and looked perplexed.
‘Not literally, not like that,’ Maynard said. ‘All I am saying is, if a bad man is after my father, this bad man would have to wait in line.’
‘Da, fine. A very bad man seeks the boy’s father. Moony will protect the boy from the very bad man.’
‘And who exactly is this very bad man?’
‘The second in command of Carthage, this man Parker, seeks the boy’s father.’
‘Parker is my father’s friend,’ Maynard said. ‘My father’s known him for years. He wouldn’t hurt me, let alone my father.’
‘The boy must trust Moony. Moony has no reason to lie.’
‘And I have no reason to believe the word of a crazed pirate in an alleyway. Goodbye Moony.’
Moony rolled his eyes and retrieved a nasty little knife hidden within his cloak. As if to make a point, Moony pulled Maynard in close with his free hand and brandished the knife beneath his face.
‘Why does the boy not trust Moony? Moony would have already cut the boy’s throat here if this was Moony’s plan.’
Maynard stepped back, glancing at the street, thinking about how quickly he could escape the alley. If he could be strong and quick enough.
Moony calmed down. He sheathed the knife and crouched so he was level with Maynard. ‘Moony will protect the boy from Parker. Moony made this promise to the boy’s father.’
The sunlight caught Moony’s earrings. Maynard looked at the bustling street and tried to imagine Parker, a rake-thin man with greying temples, striding from the crowd to take him away. He couldn’t.
Maynard turned back. Something approached from the alley behind Moony. It advanced without making a sound.
‘Do you know them?’ Maynard said.
‘Moony is alone. Perhaps this is a very bad man?’ Moony said.
‘Parker?’ Maynard called out in disbelief.
The figure drew closer and Maynard knew it was not Parker. It was far taller than Parker and its movement looked rigid and uneasy the closer it approached. Moony stepped back, putting himself in front of Maynard. ‘The traveller will halt.’
The figure took a step forward.
Moony drew the pistol from his hip and levelled it at the figure. ‘Who approaches? The traveller will reveal themselves.’
The figure stood very still. For a moment nothing happened and then it rushed forward, reaching for Moony with a hand wrapped in a metal gauntlet.
Moony fired and the shot sliced through the figure’s robes, sparking on something beneath, skimming away harmlessly.
The figure advanced and Moony took up the sickle from his belt.
‘The boy will run!’
Maynard didn’t hesitate. He darted into the street and hurried through the evening crowd, shoving and shouldering. He ran, and he kept running until he could no longer.
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