THE morning was damp and slightly chill, causing fog to hover over the streets of Laitha, joining with the billowing steam and smoke from the foundries and factories to create a twilight miasma. It was difficult to see anything through the smoky haze, giving an impression of near total isolation. Only the cacophony of noises from the trundling clank of the inclined rail to the cries of the horses and the thudding of feet on the sidewalks gave shadowy evidence of the city coming alive. On top of all of this were the loud and brash cries of the news hawkers, selling the morning edition of the Laitha Liberty.
Aster Genisov smiled a bit as he took it in and let himself be swept up into the flow of the city. As he neared the corner of Artmore where he would turn to reach the beginning of the merchant districts, he paused. Tilting his head to the side, he listened for one particular voice among the many.
“Three more ships shot down by the Sky Pirate Rivas Ramshot! Suva Coal Company asks assistance of the Archduchy Naval Fleet to stop the Bloody Aria!”
Aster smiled at that, heading toward the boisterously boyish voice shouting impossible-sounding headlines to those passing by.
Out of the misty morning he could make out the short figure of a boy no more than eleven standing on a street corner, waving a newspaper. His clothing consisted of brown pants patched and worn and a dingy white shirt and equally worn brown coat. Straggly and unevenly cut brown hair shadowed a pair of very shrewd green eyes and a dirt-smudged face full of the impish roundness of boyhood.
“Three ships, Arnie? Truly?” Aster fished in his pocket, pulling out the sixpence coin that he dropped in the grubby hand, taking the proffered paper in exchange. “The sky pirates must be feeling very bold to take so many in so short a time. Even for the great Rivas Ramshot.”
There was a rough snort and the sound of spitting before he got a response. “Prolly all went down ’cause the navigator was sniffing the elf powder sure as any bloody sky pirate did it.” The haze parted enough to give more detail, showing a face full of freckles, a slightly upturned nose, and a bow mouth. Arnie was one of the best news hawkers in all of Laitha, and one that Aster had a particular fondness for. “Lots of gory details in this one, makes it right easy to sell. Of course they prolly don’t really know what went on, but they’s wanting to act like they do.”
Aster chuckled, glancing over the headline boldly informing him of Rivas Ramshot’s latest exploits before folding the paper in half and placing it under his arm. “Perhaps. Never can trust what they put in these things. Anything new been going on, Arnie?”
Like many news hawkers, Arnie had no real family except for a mother who spent most of her time in the sanatorium or the poor houses with no time for a young child. So Arnie was on his own, living off what he made selling the papers and the other odd jobs he could get. He would never tell Aster what the other jobs were, even when Aster had asked. Tough as the mountain rocks Laitha was built on, Arnie would take no pity from anyone. Nor would he take the kindness of strangers or acquaintances, as Aster had more than once offered to bring Arnie into his home. He had even offered Arnie an apprenticeship in his shop to teach him a valuable trade.
“How is your watch holding up? Are you remembering to wind it properly?” It had been a gift, the only thing Aster had been able to make the boy take.
Arnie grinned, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a plain-looking brass pocket watch on a simple chain. He flipped it open, showing the glass-enclosed face proclaiming the time as 8:24. “Wind it three times a day like ye told me to. Never stops running and never gets off the wrong time, even when I drop it. You some kinda wizard with these things, that’s what everyone says after they see that shop o’ yours.”
Aster smiled a bit, attempting to hide the twinge of discomfort at the words. “No magic in making a clock like that. It’s mostly skill, and one I can teach you if you ever wish to learn,” he said, reaching out and ruffling the shaggy brown hair. “I’d best be getting to my shop now. Take care of yourself, Arnie. Try to not get into too much trouble.” He grinned at the disgruntled look he received at the action. He tipped his hat politely before turning down the street and continuing on his way.
The Cog and Gear, Items of Mechanical Magnificence was stenciled in gilt on the display window of his small shop above a display of clockwork trinkets. He sold a variety of mechanical contraptions and devices, everything from the normal clocks and watches that were found in other stores as well as more fanciful wind-up devices that did any number of things. Those were his most popular ones that drew the wealthy women and their children into his store. To emphasize this, besides the small selection of wind-up automatons he had set up in the front window consisting of a collection of small birds that walked and flew in short bursts, he had placed several shelves of similar items close by.
Aster bypassed the front entrance, turning down a small alley and unlocking a rear door. The back of the shop was a work space where he made most of his creations. It was dusty and small, with a long table taking up a good portion of the space, covered in different tools and half-finished machinery pieces waiting to be worked upon. Upon unlocking the door, Aster quickly removed his coat and hat, hanging them up before he went about the daily task of opening the shop.
He started with carefully winding the displays, and then he moved to the various clocks that lined the store, making sure the time of each matched exactly. Unlocking the main door, he swiftly moved behind the counter to the back room, carefully examining himself in the small mirror he kept there. Running a hand over the dark curls that fell over his ears, he carefully straightened them to frame his face. He had been told it was a handsome face with distinctive, ruggedly exotic features and dark blue eyes. Those features and his tanned skin made him stand out from most of Laitha’s pale and wan residents.
Moving back to the counter, Aster sat down to read the paper as he always did in the morning. He leafed through the main stories, pausing to read the headline of the three ships that had supposedly been sunk by the increasingly infamous air pirates that had taken to terrorizing the shipping routes. In particular they seemed to have taken a keen interest in the Suva Coal Company. Aster wasn’t sure if the pirates were brave or had perhaps been hitting the spirits a little too liberally. Suva Coal Company was the most powerful coal consortium on the continent and was known to hold both the royal patronage and the patronage of the archduke of Laitha. They shipped all the coal and steel that was used for both the military and the industrial factories of the region.
He glanced up when he heard the soft jingle of the bell and smiled as a lady in a plum dress and ermine muff entered, accompanied by a young girl wearing a royal blue frock with a muff of her own. He stood as they entered the shop, waiting patiently to attend them if they decided to look at anything closer.
The girl was most energetic, flitting about everywhere as if she couldn’t decide what to take in first. “Mother, Mother, look at this one! It’s so adorable!” Blonde curls bounced gaily as she turned toward her mother, pointing to a small mechanical kitten with a ball. “I wonder if it moves like the ones in the window.”
“It does in fact move. If the young miss would like, I can wind it for you,” Aster said, bowing slightly. Without waiting for a response, he moved to the small contraption, turning the key in its back three times before withdrawing it. With a soft whirring clank, the kitten began to move, stepping forward and raising its paw to bat at a ball that was connected to it by a thin wire. The ball then rolled forward, and upon lowering the paw, the ball rolled back. The kitten then repeated the entire process.
The girl squealed in delight, watching raptly as the cat moved through its arranged motions. As it began to wind down it sat down, then curled up like a real cat would. “Can you wind it again, sir?” She turned such bright and hopeful eyes toward him that Aster couldn’t deny her. He wound it again, watching the innocent wonder that bloomed on her face. “Look, Mother, isn’t it amazing? Oh please can we get it?” The girl grabbed her mother’s hand earnestly. “Why, it’s just like the mechanical parrot the gypsy man at the dockyards had.”
Aster hid the wince at her mention of a gypsy with a mechanical animal. Gypsies were outcasts, viewed with mistrust by most for the arcane powers they wielded. It was rumored that gypsies had found a way to marry arcane magic to mechanical contraptions, creating devices that were a mixture of machine and magic. The items created acted as more than just machines; they seemed to have acquired a will of their own. The magical knowledge was applied to all manner of contrivances, the most well known being to replace pieces of their bodies with mechanical devices inscribed with occult symbols. Due to such abilities, besides being outcasts gypsies were also feared and mistrusted.
“Now Molly, don’t say that. I’m sure the storekeeper does not want his items compared to something like those made by a gypsy,” the mother lightly scolded her daughter, beautifully coiffed blonde hair exactly matching her daughter’s. “I do apologize for my daughter. You know children say just whatever comes into their heads, I’m afraid.” She looked apologetic, turning to the small mechanical kitten, which had wound down for the second time. “It is a very charming piece. How much is it?”
Aster managed to give a convincingly charming smile, forcing his right hand to unclench as he quoted them the price of the item. Once the transaction was complete and the item wrapped and placed securely in the hands of its new owner, only then did he allow himself to relax.