Fort Eden – Chapter 12

“Grey Skies and Black Memories” by Chris Kluwe and Edwin McRae

A body, lying on the dirt floor. In front of her, dark hair spilled out like an inkblot. She reached out with a childish hand, knowing what she would find, what she would always find, what she had found those years before.

“Mama!”

Filmy eyes clouded, the life leeched from her emaciated face eaten by the white man’s sickness. Influenza. A crude smear of ash across her forehead, “salvation” from the missionary to their savage flock.

Her perspective shifted. Now she was holding her father’s letter opener, its weight heavy in her hands, dull golden blade trembling side to side, loud ringing in her ears like a bell at noon. In front of her, that same missionary, black blood dripping down his chest and staining his tailored robes. Cracked yellow teeth grinned at her, his eyes filled with pus and madness. She stabbed him again, and again, and again, the puncturing thrusts jerking him in marionette twitches, but still he reached for her, closer, closer, closer, the nightmares crawling beneath his skin filling her entire world along with steaming gouts of black blood from his chest…

Patricia jerked awake with a startled shout, her heart pounding.

That bloody dream. Ten years and I still can’t get rid of that bloody dream.

She looked around, slowly at first, and then with greater urgency, trying to make sense of the unfamiliar surroundings. A thin, scratchy blanket covered her still clothed body, and muted light flowed through a curtained window, the muffled sounds of passersby echoing through. Her saddlebags lay stacked in a corner next to her boots, while a chipped washbasin covered in fading lilies drooped from the wall across from her, a small pitcher perched on its edge.

Someone knocked at the door.

“Are you okay, miss?”

“…I’m fine.”

“Only, it’s just I need to clean the room, miss, otherwise Master Harlan will be upset if I don’t, and it’s nearly mid-morning already…”

I must be at the boarding house. Don’t know what she’s going to clean, though, there’s nothing in here but dust and loneliness.

“Give me a minute.”

Patricia pushed herself off the mattress, wincing at the sudden tightness in her shoulders and back, and splashed some water across her face, trying to scrub the remnants of sleep away. After a quick trip to the chamberpot she buckled her gun belt around her waist, checked to make sure the draw on her revolver remained smooth, slid on her boots and opened the door. In the hallway beyond, a thin young woman in a maid’s apron stood against the wall holding a small bucket.

“Room’s all yours.”

“Thank you, miss,” the maid replied, bobbing a curtsey. “Oh, the gentleman in the next room over wanted you to visit him when you woke.” She pointed to Patricia’s right.

“Thanks.”

Patricia stepped aside to let the maid pass, and rapped on the next door over. It swung open to reveal Luc hunched over a small table, writing furiously. He looked up as she stepped inside, a smile widening his face.

“Ahh, Patricia, you’re awake! Excellent. I’m transcribing all the information we collected last night. Quite an eventful evening.”

“That’s one hell of an understatement, Luc. Where’s Farlan?”

“Out and about, trying to track down that Jacek Polanski character.”

Patricia leaned against the wall, racking her still foggy brain.

“Oh, right… that merchant mentioned him, yeah? Ewing?”

“Correct. You fell asleep nearly as soon as he started talking, but Mr. Ewing gave us some credible leads to indicate that Polanski masterminded the gold thefts. We left for the boarding house not soon after – Farlan wanted to make sure you got proper rest.”

“Considerate of him, especially after dumping that potion down my throat. What’s our plan for today?”

“While Farlan’s chasing down Polanski’s gang, I thought we should investigate Mr. Ewing’s holdings, see if any clues pop up. If this mob boss is actually a Culler, he’ll probably have left something behind somewhere.”

“Like a body or five?”

“Unfortunately, that’s generally the case with Cullers. Based on Mr. Ewing’s statements, and the information from the chief constable, we know he owns a gambling house, a smithy, and several fisheries. I planned to start with the gambling house, if you’d like to join me.”

“Don’t see how I can say no to a morning filled with desperate degenerates and rotting dreams. Where is it?”

Luc dotted the last line on the parchment, then carefully brushed fine sand across to dry the ink. His nimble fingers folded it into thirds, and placed it into one of the many pockets of his overstuffed pack.

“Forth Street. The bellboy gave me directions earlier. First we make a left on Frederick, then a left on Harrow, then a-”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Patricia interjected, waving her hands in acquiescence.

Luc swung his pack onto his shoulders and laughed.

“I still don’t understand how you’ve lived in this area so long, yet gained no knowledge in navigating one of its largest cities.”

“I only visit cities for work, Luc,” she replied grimly. “In case you’ve forgotten, I don’t exactly fit the expectations of a ‘lady’.”

“A fair point. Now come! The fair streets of Fort Eden await, and we have a villain to catch.”

As they struck out into those ‘fair’ streets, Luc’s expression grew increasingly glum.

“I don’t remember it being quite this… dreary, last time I was here.”

Around them, people thronged past, hunched into their coats against a biting wind, the sky above the color of dead fish scales. A gust threatened to lift Luc’s hat from his head, and he clamped his hand down to keep it in place.

“When was the last time you were here?” Patricia asked.

“Oh, must have been fifteen years or so, during the summer. The ship I was on stopped for several days to take on fresh supplies before continuing to Singapore. Gave me a chance to stretch my legs, get a feel for the town.”

“That explains it. Summer’s the only time of year this bloody place gets a peek at the sun. Rest of the time it’s like this. What was in Singapore?”

“A Culler. Seeder. Wiped three tin mining villages clean away, like they’d never even existed. Almost three hundred dead when all was said and done. At least, we think that’s what the final tally was. The carnage was… excessive, and frankly, there wasn’t much left that was identifiable.”

“Ouch. That’s rough, even for a Seeder.”

Luc and Patricia stood to the side to let a horse and cart pass, its wooden wheels clicking over the cobblestones. The driver gazed sullenly at them, then spat on the ground, narrowly missing Patricia. She frowned.

“That’s new. Usually they just call me a halfbreed whore. Let’s keep moving before I give in to my urge to rearrange his face.”

Luc continued on without comment, lips set into a thin line, his pack pulled tight against white-knuckled fingers. It wasn’t until another four winding turns later that he spoke again.

“I must confess, I do not see why they hold you in such contempt. True, you may not fit the classical definition of the word ‘beauty,’ but neither are you homely nor lacking in hygiene.”

She sighed.

“It’s not my looks, Luc, it’s what I represent. My people, well, my mother’s people, they’re thought to be savages. Brutes. Some would say they shouldn’t even be called people. And if I was full-blooded, I would be easy. Another ape walking the streets – that they can deal with.”

Patricia paused, memories flooding through her mind. Taunts and slurs from the missionary children, worse from the occasional passing merchant or miner. Spiteful looks of unvarnished hatred. The occasional dead rat left on her pillow, or spoiled fruit thrown from a shadowed alleyway on the rare occasions she visited another town.

“My father… in the village, his kind were considered soulless demons. Rapers of the land, of tradition. As far as I know, he didn’t treat my mother poorly the few weeks they were together, but he also didn’t stick around. She was a brief distraction between jobs, nothing more. I never even knew his face. I just inherited some shade of his skin.”

More memories. Bullying at school the few years she went, pages torn from books and filled with crudely gross drawings. Mud smeared on her face, her clothes, her hair. Withering scorn from teachers, and constant punishment for fighting. The stinging crack of a ruler brought down on bare flesh, the deeper bite of its edge drawing blood.

Patricia forced her fingers to unclench from the grip of her pistol.

“And that’s where the problem lies. What I am to them, what they see when they see me. An ape mocking its human betters, wearing clothing no ape should wear, or an outsider who could never be considered family. Nothing pure. Nothing good. Just a filthy mixture of things that shouldn’t mix.”

She raised her hand to her chin, rubbing her moko, and began pushing the memories back down. It wasn’t easy, anger and rage snarling for release, but years of practice had given her plenty of time to tighten her inner demons’ leash. Beside her, Luc drew in a soft breath, and turned to face her.

“I can’t pretend to know everything of what you experienced, Patricia, but I might know some.”

He opened his mouth as if to say more, then placed a hand on her shoulder instead.

“Regardless, we are there for each other now. We are Falconers. And if we cannot choose the family we are given, there is still nothing stopping us from creating the family we desire.” Luc hesitated. “Though, I am somewhat reluctant to declare any sort of commonality with a man who thinks alcohol and explosions are the answer to every question.”

Patricia cracked a grin and put her hand atop Luc’s, feeling his bony knuckles beneath her leather gloves.

“Now now, I’d say those are two of Farlan’s more redeeming qualities. Thanks, Luc.”

He squeezed once, then lifted his hand from her shoulder, rapping it on a sturdy metal door set into ash smeared stone.

“No thanks necessary, Patricia. We must support each other, lest the Cullers rip us apart.”

Patricia felt her lightened mood slip away.

“This is Ewing’s gambling house, then?”

The door swung open in response, a giant of a man blocking any view of the interior, two curved knives hooked into his belt sash, two glowering eyes set deep beneath beetling brows. Muscles popped and rolled along his crossed forearms, and a wickedly dancing scar ran nearly the length of his hair-matted chest.

“It is.”

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