Entropy in the Clockwork City (2006): Part Two
You can read about the history of this story in the introduction to Part One. Part Three will be published soon.
Entropy in the Clockwork City (Part Two)
The children of the city were legion, and in their numbers they found anonymity. This suited Aeshley’s purposes. As a child – he now, of course, regarded himself as a budding adult – he had grown up in a burgeoning metropolis. It was far from the Clockwork City but to Aeshley all cities were the same. He ignored the unique architecture, as for the most part it was far overhead. It meant nothing at street level.
He followed Palak for several hours, along streets and lanes, across markets and plazas, past street performers and brawls, past taverns and theatres, past destitution and opulence. Neither of them spared a glance for any of it. Aeshley wondered at Palak’s stamina. The olive-skinned priest did not slow or deviate, although sometimes he would pause as though to catch his bearings.
Aeshley began to curse his Order training. He had not realized how long it had been since he had moved like this. Now he found himself struggling to pursue his mark and remain undetected.
But then, he had joined the Order to escape this life. His mind fell to wondering why Thuun had ordered him to follow brother Palak. He had not been able to detect any tension between them, although he had had it made clear to him that he still had a lot to learn about Listening.
Perhaps it had to do with the letter Thuun had received a month ago. When Aeshley’s Mentor had read it he had silently dropped it into their host’s fire and had retired to his room to meditate. The next day they had bid their farewells to the village. Many supplicants had been left unsatiated as Thuun and Aeshley hired camels and began to make their way to the Clockwork City. From the village it had looked like a thin smudge on the horizon, topped at night by an eldritch glow.
Aeshley slowed his pace. A few dozen feet ahead of him Palak had stopped and was looking up at a sign. It read ‘Corvax. Blacksmith. Metallurge. Steelshard V.’ It was followed by the emblem of the elite Steelshard warrior corps. Palak scrutinized the sign and the window of the smithy for a few seconds, then walked inside.
Realising he should waste no time, Aeshley ducked into a narrow passageway beside the smithy. He cased the area. He ruled out the back door, which probably led straight into the metalworks. Instead he scaled a half-broken wooden ladder which groaned miserably beneath his weight and climbed onto the gently sloping roof from which the smithy’s thick chimney sprouted. He grinned as he spotted a trapdoor which led inside. It was thick, heavy and locked, but was shoddily built and he found he could peer down into the shopfront below. He could see Palak, his hood down now, thin grey hair mussed over his scalp. There was no one else visible, but at that moment a door creaked and slammed and a voice rang out.
‘And what can I do for you, sir?’
Shifting slightly, Aeshley saw the owner of the voice, who could only be Corvax. He was so thick-chested as to seem almost triangular. He was topless, sheened in sweat from the heat of the furnace, and he bore the pectoral brand of a Steelshard corpsman. His hands were gloved in blackened leather mittens which he was now stripping off.
‘Come on, speak up! I don’t bite, those days being past me now.’ Corvax slapped the gloves down on his counter and looked directly at Palak. Aeshley watched as the two of them examined one another. Palak had not moved since he entered. Corvax crossed his arms. Then he spoke.
‘I’ve just placed you. You’re one of the Ordo Exaudio, yes? A Listener. A philosopher-priest.’
Aeshley watched as Palak’s head bowed in acknowledgement. Corvax turned away and retrieved a pipe, which he proceeded to pack with desert herb.
‘We don’t see so many of you in the City, brother.’ With the pipe filled, Corvax lit it with a crank of a dial on one side of the cup. A spark flared and the weed began to smoulder.
‘Then again,’ Corvax continued, ‘there being so many folk here, I expect it would be easy for you to wander this place for a decade and to go unnoticed by most.’
This drew a nod from Palak. Aeshley’s eyes began to water as the smoke from the pipe made straight for the crack in the trapdoor.
Corvax inhaled on his pipe, making its content crackle. He blew the smoke out through his flat nose and scratched absently at his brand. ‘So what is it that brings you to me, holy man?’
Palak made a series of quick movements with his hands, which Aeshley recognized as a questioning gesture to determine another’s fluency with signing. He saw Corvax shake his head.
‘Means nothing to me, brother. Never had cause to talk with one of you before, if you understand me.’
Palak nodded and Aeshley saw his hand slip into his robe. It withdrew holding a folded piece of paper, unsealed. The priest stepped forwards and passed it to Corvax, who blew out two more thick streams of grey smoke and put down his pipe. Aeshley squeezed his eyes shut and wiped away the tears as Corvax read.
It took several minutes. The old blacksmith evidently did not read often or well, but then most did not read at all. Nonetheless he got there eventually, and when he did his first reaction was to pick up his pipe and inhale again. The embers crackled.
‘You’re serious about this?’ said Corvax. Aeshley, blinking again at the renewed torrents of smoke, only heard the gravity of his voice. Palak must have motioned in the affirmative, as Corvax spoke again.
‘This will present quite a challenge. I have some knowledge of this sort of… but no one’s ever tried to build a voice before.’
This didn’t seem to make much sense to Aeshley. He pressed his eye right up against the crack, trying to take in more of the scene below.
Corvax had picked up the piece of paper again, and was tapping a thick thumb on it as he smoked. ‘You can really pay this?’
‘Then for that, and for the challenge, and out of respect for your order, I’ll accept your commission.’
Aeshley saw that Palak bowed his head at the mention of the order and did not look up again. Perhaps, he thought to himself, that is a mark of respect or gratitude among the Steelshard.
Corvax coughed and shook the embers in his pipe. ‘Brother, since I do this for you, would you do me the honour of Listening?’
Aeshley watched Palak’s thin hair tremble as he nodded and smiled acquiescence to the blacksmith. He felt suddenly guilty at his eavesdropping, as to overhear the most intimate knowledge released during a Listening was to violate the central covenant of the Order. To his relief, Corvax led the priest to a narrow set of stairs after locking the front door. They were going somewhere more private. Aeshley settled down and prepared to wait for Palak’s return. Thuun’s orders had been quite specific.
When he awoke several hours later, it took a few seconds for the sense of horror and failure to blossom. He still lay on the roof of the smithy. The city had cycled on to its night life. The skies above were bleached of stars as the diffuse glow of the city’s artificial lights crept upwards. Greens and oranges and blues lit the night. As Aeshley climbed to his feet, suddenly slick with cold sweat, he heard distant laughter, shouts, breaking glass. He hurried over to the decaying ladder and slid down, breaking a rung as he did. He ran out of the alleyway and back onto the street, heading in the direction of the city’s great clock face. He dodged without effort the crowds of drunk and homeless and lonely that congregated now, like blisters on the skin of an insomniac city. His only thought was of Thuun, and his disappointment.
When Aeshley walked into the front room of their lodgings he found it empty save for Thuun, who was sat staring into an ebbing fire with both hands tight about his staff. Aeshley sat down beside his master, letting the fire overwhelm the residual chill of the streets. Thuun did not move, did not look at Aeshley, who finally grew awkward and spoke.
‘I lost him, Mentor. In the streets. I don’t know where he went.’
Thuun frowned, but did not free his hands to sign to his acolyte. Aeshley fidgeted from side to side, sitting on his hands to warm them.
‘He went to see a blacksmith. He’s an old warrior. The sign on his shop says he was a Steelshard.’
This finally drew a response from Thuun, a sharp intake of breath and a glance sideways. Aeshley continued.
‘I managed to sneak onto the roof and hear what the blacksmith said. Brother Palak Listened for him, after he accepted the brother’s commission.’
Thuun laid his staff down on the ground, stretching and flexing his nimble fingers before he signed. What was the commission?
‘I don’t know, Mentor. It didn’t make any sense. The blacksmith said it would be a challenge because no one had ever made a voice before.’
His Mentor’s eyes shot wide open. He actually opened his mouth to display his severed tongue as he hacked and coughed in a brief fit. He quickly composed himself, but his skin remained hot and red.
That, acolyte Aeshley, is grave heresy. I am sorry that I exposed you to it. But now you must lead me to this blacksmith. We cannot waste any time.
Aeshley had stopped his fidgeting, shocked at the reaction his news had produced. Now he jumped to his feet. ‘Yes, Mentor!’
His mind raced as Thuun dug through his large travel bag. He had had no idea of the severity of the situation he was involved in. He wondered if his Mentor had always suspected the truth about brother Palak, and if their actions tonight would forward his own advancement to brotherhood.
Right now there was no time for him to dwell on it: Thuun had collected his items and was ushering him out of the door. The front door of the tower slammed hard in a sharp gust, making the hearth fire gutter momentarily.
Corvax woke to the sound of a hammering on his door. He cursed at being disturbed, but his curses were milder than they might have been. This night he had fallen asleep without the assistance of narcotics, which is more than he’d been able to say for a while. He’d found the act of speaking to a Listener deeply therapeutic. After so many years in this city, distant from the homelands of their Order, he had almost forgotten how much of a release it could be.
He was greatly surprised when upon answering his front door he was met by another priest, accompanied by a boy who must have been his apprentice. The boy bobbed his head respectfully and spoke.
‘We offer you our most humble apologies, mister Corvax, but my master must speak with you most urgently on a matter of the most great importance.’ The boy paused for a second, and frowned. ‘Grave importance.’
Corvax shook his head to try and clear it of sleep, absently patting himself down as he searched for his pipe. Bloody woolly-headedness of old age, he grumbled to himself. But to the priest and his acolyte he was civil. ‘Well then, you had better come in. And I suppose we’d best talk.’
He stood to one side as the two of them trooped inside. The boy shuffled nervously, but this didn’t surprise him. Children were so often nervous, especially those drafted into religious orders. The priest was stony-faced, striding with purpose.
‘So who are you, and what is it that’s brought you to me?’ he asked, closing the front door. The priest was looking at a rack of display items behind the counter. Corvax stared at his back, shapeless in those grey robes.
The priest turned to his acolyte and his hands moved. Corvax watched, trying to understand what was passing between them. Then the boy nodded gravely and looked up at the metallurge.
‘My Mentor would like to know if you have accepted any commissions from the order of late?’
Corvax came alert, the remnants of sleepiness driven from his head. Something was amiss. He shrugged, putting on the appearance of being relaxed, and walked over towards the counter. ‘I accept a lot of commissions,’ he said. ‘Business is good. But I don’t tend to talk about my arrangements without good reason. And you still owe me a name, brother.’
A few seconds more signing. ‘My Mentor apologises for his rudeness. His name is brother Farlan.’
Corvax nodded. ‘My pleasure, brother Farlan.’ He looked down at the boy. ‘And you?’
The boy looked startled. ‘I- Aeshley, sir.’
‘Good,’ said Corvax. ‘And now, why do you want to know about my business arrangements?’ He rested his hands on the counter, ready to seize the blade underneath. In the back of his mind he was reciting Steelshard battle prayers, feeling the old juices beginning to flow once more. They slid invisibly through his veins, a restrained violence akin to the tension in the room.
There was more signing before the boy spoke. ‘We didn’t wish to be rude, mister Corvax. We met a friend in the city today, and he explained to us what he wanted, asking us to bring some materials for you. We wanted to make sure you were the right man.’
‘I don’t know who you might be referring to,’ said Corvax. ‘And no-one has informed me of such a request. You should leave now.’ His brand was beginning to throb, and he resisted the urge to scratch at it.
A look of mild resignation passed over brother Farlan’s face. He could be genuine, Corvax thought, but I damn well doubt it. The priest made a last few gestures to his acolyte and bowed his head as a farewell, raising a cupped hand to his mouth. Corvax nodded back, stiffly, as the boy began to speak.
‘We’re sorry to have woken you, sir. Please, give our regards to brother Palak when you see him next.’
‘Perhaps I’ll do that,’ said Corvax, looking down at the boy. The child still seemed nervous, twitching as he tried to refrain from hopping foot-to-foot. He looked up at the priest, and his muscles went stiff. He went for his blade.
The priest’s eyes were black, like the bottom of well shafts. His hand had remained over his mouth but as Corvax moved the priest pulled it away and stretched his jaw wide. Something dark began to flood out.
Chemicals surged through Corvax’s body as his Steelshard training and alchemical modification came to life. He seized his blade with one hand, hurdling over the counter with the other. The scars of his brand split asunder and new skin rippled out, surging over his torso.
He was only a few feet from the priest, and moved so fast that Farlan’s arm was still lowering. The darkness moved faster. Corvax tried to duck under it but where he moved, it already was. He swung his shardsword through it and it parted like smoke. Before he could swing again the cloud poured into his mouth and nose and ears and eyes. He went blind. His muscles stopped responding, and his charge turned into a tumble. His blade dropped from numb fingers as he crashed to the ground.
Incapacitated, he clung to those senses left to him: the feel of rough wood beneath his body, the sound of the fake priest and the child moving around him. Soon there was a smell of smoke and the sound of licking flames.
Corvax realised that he was going to die. Two things passed through his mind again and again as he succumbed to asphyxiation. Firstly, he felt gratitude that he had been able to release his sins before death. Secondly, he wondered at the why and how of his murder, and just what he had inadvertently become involved in.
He found no answers before blessed unconsciousness took him.
Palak walked the streets, well-rested and fed. He thought briefly of the work ahead, as he and Corvax refined the design for his voice. But his mind continually drifted off the subject, distracted by the teasing warmth on his face.
The city had, for its own inscrutable purposes, grown a series of large mirrors over this guild district. They reflected sunlight onto smaller mirrors, which passed it, diffused, down to the streets below. Some of the buildings were so tall that direct sunlight struggled to get through. This was probably one of the city’s efforts to counteract this, although Palak was aware that no one knew this for a fact. He struggled to think of any other reason for the mirrors than to benefit the city’s organic populations. At this moment he did not care, instead enjoying the simple pleasure of warmth as he walked.
Then he turned onto Corvax’s street, and his pace faltered. Smoke was rising into the air. It was thick and ugly but not unending. A fire had been recently extinguished. Carefully, Palak moved to the far side of the street and walked slowly towards the source.
As he feared, it was Corvax’s smithery. The building had been gutted, and the flames had evidently spread to the neighbouring properties as well. Only the wall of the cloudscraper they backed onto was undamaged.
A sizable crowd had gathered, probably including those who were newly homeless, or the residents of the ‘scraper woken by the heat and smoke. They held back from the ruins, watching as a pair of Surrogates prowled through the wreckage. Palak shivered as he watched the creatures move.
He realized that Corvax was dead, and also knew that it was probably because of the blacksmith’s involvement with Palak. Without wishing to seem panicked, he turned around and began to walk away.
Behind him three pairs of eyes shifted their wandering gazes onto his retreating figure. Thuun and Aeshley, lounging in the shadows of a run-down café, stood and began to follow him. Similarly unnoticed, one of the Surrogates stopped its slow exploration of the gutted smithy and glared intently at Palak’s back.
The sunlight on his face was no longer pleasant and relaxing. Palak had begun to sweat in fear and the heat only contributed to this discomfort. He tried not to hurry, to keep his pace steady and natural, but knew that to a trained observer his panic was clear. He cursed himself for approaching the gutted smithy. He should have left as soon as he saw the smoke. No doubt he was being followed again.
He assumed that the fire was Thuun’s doing, or at least something performed at his behest. Palak clenched his fist, angry at the slim chance that had resulted in his encountering Thuun the day before.
Palak tried to consider his options, but could not think clearly enough to establish what they were. He walked aimlessly, vaguely in the direction of the hostel where he had slept, conscious that to return there would be a bad idea.
He felt something move in his robes, twitching in a pouch or pocket. He stopped and reached inside, pulling the culprit out.
It was the little toy machine that the street vendor had given him. Its limbs were moving, stiffly and feebly. Its jaw moved steadily up and down like a herd animal masticating grass. Palak realized now just how much like a Surrogate it looked, a replica in miniature.
As he stared at the thing its eyes lit up, brightly enough to be seen in the reflected daylight. Its mouth stopped chewing.
‘Go west,’ it said, in a tinny, scratchy voice.
Palak’s mouth went dry. He cast the thing aside, hurling it into a gutter amongst the dry mud and excrement. He looked up to get his bearings, estimating the sun’s position, and began to walk eastwards.
His panic was growing each minute that passed as he realized he had no idea what to do, or where to go. The one man who had seemed an ally was dead, and Palak felt alone. He realized that at this moment he was more isolated than he ever had been. His Order were trying to kill him, and where the kinship with his brothers had been there was only hard resolution to defeat the intent of their leadership. But his resolution failed him now, and it was all that he could do not to sob.
Instead his gaze moved, through eyes wide with fear, over the pedestrians and creatures that he passed as he stumbled east. The rich variety of the city now felt oppressive, the strange faces and bodies prompting distrust rather than curiosity. Every casual glance felt like a knife in the back. His route curved and veered as he gave others a wide berth. Some part of him knew how irrational his behaviour was, but could not protest.
A Surrogate appeared before him, dropping from somewhere above. Its attention was fixed on him. He stopped abruptly, almost tripping into the thing. Around him others backed away uneasily, distrustful of the city’s servitor.
‘Go west,’ it growled. The voice was not tinny or scratchy, but bass and rich with menace. ‘Go west.’
Palak stared at it in fear until it reached out with a claw. It took his arm roughly and turned him around. Then it began to walk, and he was forced to keep pace. He tugged at his captive arm as he jogged alongside the machine, but the Surrogate turned its head to bark at him as he did so. After that he concentrated on keeping pace with it.
The denizens of the city parted before them. The hubbub and noise did not cease as they passed, but it was subdued. A living man, particularly some kind of priest, being escorted–alive–by a Surrogate was a rare enough sight that it commanded some novelty. A few followed the pair, curious enough to risk incurring the wrath of the city’s servitors, but most returned to their business.
Amongst those who trailed the machine and Palak were the grey-robed figures of Thuun and Aeshley, hanging back as far as they could without losing their mark. Palak was unaware of their presence, retreating into himself as his arm and mind went numb.
After half an hour of walking, the Surrogate led Palak onto one of the city’s steam train platforms. It was decorated in the same baroque style as the Surrogates themselves, making it clear to the city’s population that this was not a train that they should board. Palak came out of himself a little, feebly resisting the prospect of being bundled onto one of the servitor’s trains.
‘No fear,’ growled the machine. ‘We hurt you, no. Be live.’ It pulled at his arm. Palak gritted his teeth at the movement, which almost dislocated his arm. In the core of him that remained rational he understood that the creature was trying to be gentle. He stopped his struggling, understanding that there was nothing he could do now, and allowed himself to be led onto the train.
[‘Entropy in the Clockwork City’, Part Two, Shaun Green, 2006. Cover image is a close-up photograph of a piece of jewellery by Tjep.]