At some point tomorrow, Signal to Noise will be up for free for a whole hour – so if you haven’t yet nabbed a copy, here comes your chance! It’s a good time to brush up, because its sequel Klaxon at the Core makes the drop in June!
Today’s WIP Wednesday is a teaser for my most recently accepted story, “Castle on a Cloud,” which will be a part of the Project Fierce charity anthology.
- Jant Keed came to the cloudborne city of Skyrill to live out the opportunities that he and his brother Brannant could only dream of from afar. Instead, he finds himself on the street scraping by for each brass bit to make it from one day to the next. As he seeks shelter from the cold, he finds himself trading the tinders he could sell for visions that lure him to a turning point. The choice Jant makes could mean a bright future, or the end of one.
Jant Keed braced himself against the cold slap of wind that rolled in from the far side of the park’s expanse of manicured lawn. He tried to warm his chilled fingers with scant breath and wondered if there was a chance in the Frozen Hells he’d sell enough tinder to rent a cot to stay alive one night longer. The odds for a sale were increasingly small in the affluent upper terrace he’d spent his last brass bit to reach but the locale hadn’t been his choice. Skyrill was packed from lowton to royal tier for Midwinter’s Festival of Turning.
The Festival of Turning was such a pivotal celebration to the Four Aspects faith that Jant wasn’t surprised the cloudborne city of Skyrill was filled to capacity. Even guttersnipes had been evicted from trash bins by those higher on the street pecking order. Tradesmen were crammed in like canned fish in the gear district, grinders and beggars were pushed out of their usual pockets to fend for themselves, and even the tiniest tots had been displaced to seek a mercy shelter or run barefoot until they found a night’s charity. Jant himself had been elbowed out of the plot where he usually sold his pitch—a poor enough place between an alley and a trash heap—by a pair of older air whips with tousled dirty hair and sneers that promised violence.
On a clear, fair weather day the upper terraces like Proudmarch weren’t such a bad place to be. He’d even come more than once to admire the houses as much as to attempt his pitch. Jant shivered as another cold gust cut across his back. He attempted to curl himself into a tighter, more compact ball with his arms looped around his knees and gazed out over the empty walks that criss-crossed the front of the park. The sight summoned fresh misery that made his stoic expression crumble but he could only allow a brief, pained grimace before wiping it clean. He’d taken the steamcar to Proudmarch because he’d figured he wouldn’t have to fight for shill space, but there would be foot traffic enough to keep him in coin for one night more.
Showed how much Jant knew.
Proudmarch was deserted, and likely the other upper terraces as well. Jant had seen exactly two souls since his boots had left the steamcar and both of those had been servant class, proud enough in their finery but pressed for time or money. They didn’t need Jant’s tinder. All the fine houses were closed up tight, none in need of the heat or light Jant could provide with the self-contained globes of fire he could summon up to his palm and sell.
Fire was auspicious and in need in a place like Skyrill that had its share of a plentiful three—air, earth, and water—but was touched by fire only at dawn and dusk. Jant’s Aspect was fire and he thought he’d do well enough on the streets of Skyrill for all that, but he’d learned fast that his command of his Aspect was so slight as to be considered laughable. He could conjure tinder and make flames dance but not much more.
His eyes pricked and he steeled his face to hardness again, lifting a hand to summon up a bit of tinder. Fire burst into red-gold glory for an instant before Jant pulled on the flame with the ease of long practice, twisting it round itself. The surface formed a glassine orb, warm to the touch and etched in the flickering colors of the flame he’d summoned. He cradled the tinder in his hand and bit his lip against a sigh. He could cast it at his feet to release the flame again and it would warm him for a little while. Without a sale, though, it wouldn’t do anything for him; not fill his belly, nor find him shelter for the night. Each tinder used up a bit of his spirit and without the replenishment of food or sleep he’d be done for. Jant had seen his share of wide-eyed corpses over the past few days, left out overnight without any other option. He didn’t want to be one of them.
He straightened and hugged his knees as a tall man strode past with purposeful strides, his back toward Jant as he passed by the park. Jant half-stretched a hand and croaked, but by the time he’d cleared his throat Fehrad was gone.
Why wouldn’t he be? Jant’s doleful thought followed. Fehrad Bezuyt was a kind man, to be sure, having stopped a fair number of times on the street to buy tinder from Jant and share a few words of encouragement or advice. He was also too important to be dallying with the likes of Jant. A butler of House LeVries could have scraped Jant or his peers from the soles of his boots. It still caught Jant by surprise to be addressed by Fehrad on occasion.
If Fehrad was headed for Clairewater, the LeVries’ estate, at such a clip then he had business and no time for dallying. Jant balanced the tinder he’d conjured between his knees and stared with longing at the place where Fehrad’s wool-garbed broad shoulders had disappeared.
Jant had never seen a Kemet, one of the dark-skinned races to the far southeast, before coming to Skyrill. Fehrad had been the first and remained the most handsome to Jant’s eyes. He had a lean, sharp face with a pointed nose and thin lips that parted to reveal a brilliant smile with ready ease. He cut a stunning figure in his wool suits and waistcoats, or light linen when the weather permitted. Even in milder seasons the winds that buffeted Skyrill could be fierce. It was his hands that had truly snared Jant’s attention, though, being sturdy and calloused in a way that denoted he was no stranger to laborious work but well-shaped as fine sculpture for all that.
If he could have garnered Fehrad’s attention for a moment, he might have kindly purchased the tinder—at twice Jant’s asking price, as usual—but offered no further solace than for him to move along. There was no place in lowton, though, and Jant’s shiver wasn’t inspired by the wind when he considered the places he’d already been pushed out that day.
The cold was fierce enough, and the terrace empty enough, that Jant had considered breaking a window and crawling into one of the fine homes to hide for the night. At least the afternoon. Mayhem & Mischief’s patented alarm system would send up a clamor right quick, though, rousting the constables from their comfortable seats in the gastropub by the steam-rail station. They would find him with no great effort and the lockup would await him.
Jant’s thoughts traveled involuntarily to the sight of the great gray slate of the lockup, a terrace set apart from Skyrill’s storied propulsion-suspended levels. The dread that choked him was born of more than the prospect of being jailed. If he were to go there … they would find out. People would discover what he was. And a swift death would be the kindest thing that could await him.
His own parents had turned him out after his older brother Brannant had died—and why wouldn’t they? A boy spirit born into a girl’s body was evil, unlucky, impure. Jant’s spirit was tainted and it had been no great surprise to discover his Aspect was so limited. It had probably been stunted by the twisting of his own spirit from what had been intended in the body where he’d taken root.
He breathed on his chapped hands and turned his thoughts forcibly from the miserable realities that had brought him there. He had to focus on what came next.
Instead of breaking in someplace, Jant would keep watch in the park, alert for some stray worker who wasn’t at a worship center. He’d hide as the constables made their final rounds before turning in for the night to take their ease at the gastropub while they watched the main worship rites on the transmit-tube. At that point he could wedge himself under a bench and hope for the best. It wouldn’t be warm, but he’d make as compact a shape of himself as he could. Theft had never much occurred to him even when he was scraping cobblestones for a bit of brass, but right then Jant would have eagerly taken a blanket from a line if anyone had been amiss to leave it there.
Jant looked down at his hands with numb concern as he realized he could scarcely feel them. He chafed his fingers together, blew on them again, and bitterly considered the impact of each exhalation as his spirit left with it.
He would freeze or his last breath would leave him before the constables made their next round.