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A Steam Fantasy Novel
Published by Federico Negri at Amazon
Copyright 2015 Federico Negri
Translated from Italian by Chris Tamigi
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PART ONE: UNWANTED BARGAIN
PART TWO: IN THE DAMP AND DARK
PART THREE: MAN IN A BOX
Sadhi raises the hammer and lets it fall once more against the metal structure. Her eyes are clouded by exhaustion and burn in the dry mountain air. Today she made it to the pond only once to bathe herself, and her grimy skin cries out for water.
The huge frame of the flying machine they’re constructing is starting to take shape. In her simple mind, Sadhi is unable to imagine what its final contours will be like or why it is necessary to carefully rivet every corner of the structure. But inside herself lurks the urgent need to strike and restrike every dowel, as she was asked. As he asked her, with a soft pat on the back, a few days earlier.
And today that touch still suffices to drive her to lift that damned hammer once again, such is the joy and affection infused in her veins.
If she turns her gaze upward, up among the wooden gangplanks on which a hundred of her kind were working themselves breathless, she could catch sight of him or at least guess at his kind reassuring presence. And thus find in her heart the reserve to strike another blow. But it’s too late now, they have to raise anchor.
“My beautiful lady, my Captain!”
Kasia looks up toward the merchant who accosted her, in English. Passing for German is out of the question, not even among the market stalls, however the man hit the mark with his epithet. Kasia always comforted herself by attracting the eyes of men, having to forego anything more for three hundred sixty-four days a year. And being a witch helped a lot.
“An ancient lamp, eh?”
The merchant holds his hands together, rubbing them with short movements. A greasy hood covers his hair, thin as straw.
She grabs the object and weighs it in her palm. “Why should I buy it?” she asks.
“It belonged to an alchemist,” the man says waving his hands. “Very, very ancient, eh?”
“I bought five candlesticks here years ago before the war. You were just a thin little boy then; your father was manning the stall,” Kasia answers. With a finger, she caresses the object’s curves, trying to guess at its occult qualities.
The man raises his eyebrows. “Ah, my beautiful lady! Yes, I remember. You haven’t changed at all, you look even younger.”
“Your goods at the time proved to be of excellent quality. My clients admired them. We could do business together. Give me an object as a sample, something like this lamp, that way I can show it up north where there are appraisers for these types of relics.”
“A good idea! A great idea, Captain! But, a sample… I don’t know. I had an offer for that lamp yesterday.”
“A hundred and ten pieces, and it still stands.” Another man approaches the stall and stops beside Kasia.
“Leonardo!” Kasia exclaims, spreading her arms.
The newcomer curves his wide, blonde moustache and breaks into a smile, the same smile deceiving half the women of Europe. They gently embrace, and Kasia gives him a few pats on his cowhide coat. He is a hearty man, with a prominent paunch and a strong smell of tobacco about him, mixed with some floral essence. Kasia steps back a hand’s width. The perfume is coming off his bright white shirt with a starched collar.
It stands in contrast to Kasia’s dark smock, with a stain of lubricating oil running down the seam to her elbow. Damned maintenance, forever tinkering with gears and belts when they ought to be replaced.
The witch withdraws her hand behind her back and adds, “Leonardo, I didn’t think you’d be here.”
“My airship was supposed to leave last week. Then I heard you were on your way so I decided to wait.”
“Yes, I’m sure. You’re probably sticking around to collect some debt, or because of the attentions of some blonde valkyrie.”
“My only love rejects me” He whistles, looking toward the sky with faraway eyes.
Kasia laughs. “Fool. I’m not your type.”
“Were we speaking about you?”
“Oh, my infallible intuition has failed me?” Kasia raises a hand to her mouth.
The man chuckles, keeping his big bright irises fixed upon her. Then he continues, “I’d like to buy you a drink. After all, I waited a whole week for you, just to have you deny me. It’s a bit much, isn’t it?”
Kasia narrows her eyes, so as to put him in clearer focus. What is this dandy plotting?
Leonardo is a pleasant enough companion among the stalls of this market or that. A weapons expert and a dealer in art—for which you can ask his opinion, considering it carefully, of course, but he’s fairly trustworthy. What’s more, he knows she’s a witch. At the Dresden tribunal, where he testified in her favor, they properly declaimed her particulars: Kasia Santuini, nationality: English. Identified as a Witch by the Amsterdam special tribunal. At the time Leonardo had only raised an eyebrow, but afterward he returned to the subject several times, trying to coax out trivial little details and information.
Leo jerks his head a half inch in the direction of the salesman behind the counter; not all discussions can be had in public.
A witch never says no to a good deal. Kasia puts her arm in his and whispers, “Then I suppose I can’t refuse.”
“Hey, what about the lamp!” the merchant persists, but the two abandon it with a smile and start off along the Walkway, ignoring other calls from merchants hungry for deals.
Frank Fort is an old city, clinging to ancient ruins which date back to the dawn of time when men were powerful as gods and traversed the Earth by air and by sea, masters of their world and lords of hyper-technological machines. That brilliant age has passed, faded by millennia of shadows, leaving humanity with rusty vestiges and the struggle to survive, in a world turned hostile.
A cloth merchant places a royal purple brocade, inlaid with gold, between Kasia’s fingers, “It’s Venetian, madam. I got it from a dying prince, on the street of Gran Bernardo,” he whispers into her ear.
Kasia smiles, but passes him by. The hold of her airship has already reached its weight limit and the roll of cloth is a deal wanting careful consideration, a bit outside her area of expertise.
Leo leads her toward the dark wooden door of one of the many beer halls that enliven the market stratum. A puff of steam, smelling of roast pig, escapes from the door, together with the voices of patrons and the clatter of cups and dishes. The environment is crowded with people and the air is saturated with smoke and mixed aromas, of food and burning wood, but also of warm humanity.
By means of shoves and apologies, Leo manages to sit himself at a small round table, stone, supported by four thin legs of burnished metal. Kasia squeezes herself onto the stool, her back almost leaning against that of the patron seated at the table behind her.
“So, big man,” she begins, “what duties have kept you here?”
“The pleasure of your company,” Leo insists, seeking out the waitress with his gaze.
“Swiss men are all liars.”
“It’s true, but I’m only half Swiss.” Leo raises two fingers toward the counter, aimed at a little girl with bare arms emerging behind her rubber apron.
“So you can trust me,” he continues, arching the two blonde forests that sit in place of his eyebrows, “at least half way.”
Kasia looks around. The man amuses her, but this morning she doesn’t have time for diversions. Her sisters are readying the airship; anything beyond a reasonable delay wouldn’t be advisable with them waiting there, if only to save herself from a host of grumbling.
The waitress maneuvers between the guts of two large men who laugh vulgarly through their oily beards. Their tankards clink together in a wordless toast and the hand of one of the two lingers for a few seconds around the girl’s waist, feeling under the rubber apron. She finally manages to wriggle free, to arrive at the table with the tankards, her cheeks burning and her hair stuck to her temples with sweat.
“Sir, madam,” she says with a shrill voice and a cat-like darting of her eyes piquing Kasia’s curiosity. “That will be six pieces.”
She studies the girl while Leo rifles through his purse. Beneath the apron she wears only a soiled sleeveless dress which ends a little above her knees. Her bare feet are enclosed in two wooden clogs, held tight by black leather straps. An orphan or a refugee, a child of the war, who works like a slave for the tavern keeper from sunrise to sunset, to earn a piece of moldy bread. And who might also have to warm his bed at night.
But her eyes can’t lie. The witch stretches out a hand, in order to grasp the young woman’s wrist with two fingers.
The girl looks at her with eyes open wide and tries to pull back, but Kasia has a firm grip and closes her eyelids to concentrate.
There’s a trembling in this girl, but it’s weak. Maybe she’s too old to be trained, she must be at least fourteen or fifteen. Or maybe she’s just tired. Kasia lets go of her.
“Why did you grab my wrist?” the scullery maid squeals.
“Because you are a good girl,” says Leo, handing her the money. “And my friend adores good girls.”
The waitress look at both of them as if they’re insane and dives back into the crowd.
“Always on the lookout, eh?” says Leo, raising his cup slightly.
“Absolutely not,” responds Kasia, tapping the rim of his goblet. “My crew is full and I can’t afford another mouth to feed. She stirred my curiosity, that’s all.”
“So how goes business? You’ve been on the go for a year and half, correct? Give or take a month.”
“Yes,” Kasia answers. “We left June of last year. Business, bah... it goes. The problem is the line of credit. We need to race from one port to another just so we don’t get swallowed by interest.”
Kasia allows herself a sip of the sour beer, studying him over the top of the chipped mug.
“And you, Mister Hunter?” she asks him. “You still haven’t told me why you were waiting for me. And if you don’t tell me in the next five minutes, you’ll need to carry the secret away in your black heart because I need to catch the wind.”
“I imagined you’d be on the hunt for a good deal. And I’ve got a great one in the palm of my hand.”
Kasia raises an eyebrow. “It’s hard for two people to carry out a deal together. Usually one makes money and the other loses it.”
“Not in this case. It’s a simple trip: Londion.”
A mirthless laugh escapes her and she sweeps a lock of red hair behind her ear. “Sure, why not? No witch has returned to Londion since the armistice; they won’t let us enter.”
“Why in heavens not? Your permits are in order; where is it written your kind can’t go to England?”
As if it were natural for one of them to go to England after twenty years of conflict. After the English almost managed to win that blasted war, thanks in part to the witches’ help.
Kasia grabs her tankard and swigs three bitter drafts.
“Leo, it’s been a real pleasure and thank you for the beer. Now I really must be going, and good luck with your business.”
“Such haste. I see you have no need then for these hundred and twenty thousand pieces,” he says and searches in his breast pocket for his cigarette case.
Kasia is forced to stop mid movement and sit back down on the stool’s hard surface.
One hundred twenty thousand pieces. It would pay off her debt for the airship and advance her enough to finance a new trip.
“Who is the client?” Kasia whispers.
“This is not the place to disclose details.” Leo raises his cup, takes a couple of swigs and wipes the foam from his moustache.
Kasia opens the palms of her hands in front of her. “What would I be transporting? Documents in a sealed envelope? No thank you. I have already been in prison, one large as an island, for twelve years.”
“No,” Leo leans forward and gestures for her to come closer. Kasia tilts her head lending him her ear and he draws in close enough to brush it with his lips. “We are dealing with the transport of a man,” he murmurs.
“For two thousand pieces,” she replies, keeping her voice low, “anyone could do that. Maybe with a few stops along the way.” Kasia searches deep into his bright eyes. “But it’s not a question of speed, is it?”
He lights a yellow cigarette, shakes his head slightly and extends his strong paw halfway across the table. “Agreed?”
Kasia looks at that hand, pink and free of callouses, for a few seconds seeming to last a few centuries. She’s just been readmitted into commerce after the long years of exile on Gothland. After having risked extermination, for the sole crime of having served under the English who lost the war. Her papers were valid for travelling anywhere. It’s true, they were issued by the Dutch authorities, thus they were only fully recognized on the Continent. In England, theoretically, she would need a new visa. However Dutch and German traders have been travelling back and forth for years, heedless of the required authorizations. With the arrogance of victors.
Kasia extends her bony hand, black lacquered fingernails glistening again her alabaster skin, and seized that of the Swiss merchant.
“However,” she says, without loosening her grip. “You need to sign a bill of lading for me. Stamped by the Frank Fort Chamber of Commerce.”
Leo smiles under his moustache and runs his thumb over Kasia’s knuckles. “I gain nothing from the deal, apart from these fleeting moments with you. But perhaps I may be able to obtain that letter.”
“If it smells counterfeit, the deal’s off.”