Fat raindrops fell as the sunset cast its orange glow over Hallow Nicodemia. Beck pressed her body close to mine under the umbrella, her ivory skin glowing against the encroaching darkness.
“This isn’t so bad,” she murmured.
She was right, of course. Rain in the Hallows wasn’t anything like rain in the Heavies. A warm, almost pleasant spatter of rain watered the lush plants and cleaned the streets. Many of the residents ignored the rain, preferring the refreshing embrace of cool water to the inconvenience of carrying an umbrella or rushing for cover.
We approached a castle. According to the locals, it had been converted from a warehouse many years ago. It was the same location as the warehouse where Retch made his home. The same warehouse we’d just the previous day sped through on Beck’s cycle.
“We keep ending up here,” I said.
“Maybe it’s fate,” Beck pressed close to me, shivering as if cold.
The air felt warm to me, as it always had in Hallow Nicodemia. Warm, humid, and full of the oppressive odor of a thriving ecosystem. Ivy grew up around the castle before us, and the grounds surrounding it featured red stone paths through lush gardens. Lights in the front of the mock castle flickered as if made of real flame. They welcomed travelers from a long journey, like the glow of a lantern in an inn.
There were others gathering in the castle. One by one and sometimes in pairs, tall, dark figures converged upon the heavy wooden doors. Each spoke through the small window and each, in turn, was granted access.
Beck said, “Too bad the secret entrance isn’t there in this version. It’d be fun to sneak in the back.”
It was the first thing we’d checked. The building’s modifications were extensive, and the stone facade covered anything that might resemble a poorly configured wall joint.
I said, “We’re better off if they know we’re here.”
“Not if the painting’s in there somewhere.”
“We’ll deal with that later.”
Beck pulled back. “You’re really going to do what that priest wanted?”
“Are you talking about the one you punched in the face?”
“It was a kind of prayer.” She pulled close again. A fit of shivers ran through her body.
“Are you sure you don’t need another infusion of synthblood? It’s not cold here.”
“The priest’s goons hit me with something to knock me out,” she said. “I think this is just an aftereffect.”
We made our way through the garden, lingering to enjoy a cluster of flowering hibiscus. It had been so long since I’d been in a real garden. The closest Heavy Nicodemia had was a few glossy green shrubs in the fancy districts and some stunted trees that could barely survive the gravity. Hallow Nicodemia had the corner on the plant market. Heavy Nicodemia got fish.
It wasn’t a great deal.
Rows of nicotine flowers opened as the sky grew dark. Great, purple inflorescence broke under the heavy raindrops, the scent spreading like a thick haze. It was a beautiful thing, and reminded me of home.
But this wasn’t home. Not anymore. The lighter gravity made my stomach churn, and I bounced a little too much in the lighter gravity.
As we approached the door, the little window opened. “Guests?”
“Friends,” I said. “On behalf of Lucy.”
The window closed and the door opened. A man with a bushy goatee ushered us inside. He stood several inches shorter than Beck, and if my eye was correct he bore the gravity like a native of Onegee. He took our umbrella and helped Beck out of her coat. I kept mine.
“Keeps me warm,” I said. I didn’t want anyone to see that I’d bled on the blue undershirt. Also, the suit coat looked good on me. It’s hard to give up something like that. Instead, I gave him my bowler.
The outside of the building resembled a castle, but the inside resembled one open courtyard. Above, a false daytime sky shone blue with a great yellow orb of a sun. Below, people mingled in open spaces, sitting at the scattered benches or walking along meandering paths. A fountain bubbled happily in the center of the dust-strewn yard, and small trees provided shade. The light ached in the back of my eyes.
Beck remained unbothered. “Let’s split up,” she said, strength returning to her voice. “Work the crowd a little.”
“Don’t ask anyone about the Garden of Earthly Delights yet,” I said. “Just try to gain their confidence and engage in small talk.”
She scrunched up her nose. “Small talk?”
“Trust me. These people know when it’s appropriate to do business. Before the auction isn’t that time.”
Without another word, she wandered to a group of women and her charm drew her into the fold as if she’d always belonged there.
“Wine?” A young woman stood next to me with a tray of beverages.
I took a white wine and sipped. Sweetness gave way to hints of grapefruit and blueberry. The flavors lingered in my mouth as I walked through the garden. I took another sip, feeling the flavor and memory wash over me.
How far had I come since that day the Benevolent crashed?
The next hour passed in a haze. Rumors bubbled to the surface of the conversations again and again. The Lancasters had a daughter who had decided to travel rather than fulfill her familial duties. The Howards got caught in the stock market crash. Oxygen levels were good, but everyone agreed that the help coming up from the lower two nodes was sub par, and quality had been steadily dropping.
“They’re just not very good at managing their economy down there,” said a heavyset woman with a flowing violet dress and matching hairpins. She was the very model of Hallows beauty, plus about ten years. “We give them as much freedom as we can, but who’s going to scoop them up again when they crash their markets and can’t afford to keep a stable society? One has to wonder what their instance of Trinity even thinks Community is?”
“They don’t have our appreciation for art,” I said, tipping my glass at the far end of the courtyard where various works were displayed. “Here, our community thrives because we value art. Down below, all they care about is work.” The words tasted like ash on my tongue, but it was necessary.
“As they should, I suppose,” said the woman. “It just seems that many of them work but nobody thinks about what they’re working on. Shouldn’t they be working on expanding food production to meet the growing population? Who is managing their technology industry?”
“Nobody, it seems,” I said, hardly paying attention to the conversation.
“Exactly. They require a stronger influence from above. From us.”
Her words caught my attention not because of their content but because of the intent she placed in the words. She wasn’t talking about idle ideas of a upper crust aristocrat. This woman in her violet dress actually advocated stronger control over the lower districts. The idea reeked with danger, and should never be allowed to fester.
“They do well enough.” I drained the last sips from my glass. “You’ll have to excuse me. I have a painting or two calling to me.”
We bid our goodbyes, and I left with a lingering sense of abstract dread. Her words bothered me, and even if she had the best intentions, her lack of understanding of Heavy or Onegee culture would cause problems if the Hallows ever went down that road.
But that was how it went, wasn’t it? The upper echelons of society always misunderstood those beneath them, starting with the idea that they were beneath anything. Not they they were alone in the belief. How much better would McCay’s life have been if he had only learned to truly see the problems of those farther up the chain. Instead, he had idolized them, and it had gotten him killed.
I picked up another glass of wine on my way through the crowd. The courtyard wasn’t packed by any means, but crossing from one side to the other meant picking my way carefully past small clusters of guests. They chattered about art and culture and moaned about their servants and praised their leadership. It brought me back to my childhood. As a teen I’d been forced to attend more than one of these little functions, and the memory of it refused to go away, no matter how much wine I drank. Wine was good, after all, but it took something stronger to flush away the past.
A face in the crowd caught my eye then disappeared behind a group. My tail was here. Doing my best to avoid tipping him off, I worked my way his direction. Circling a group, I meandered along a stone path between a koi pond and a hedge row of currants and viburnum. I leaned close to the blooming viburnum and sniffed a flower. It had no scent, but I closed my eyes and tried my best to look like it brought me peace.
The angle from bending down got me a better look at the man. It was him, all right. The bastard wore a pinstripe suit with a matching fedora and looked good in it. Dangerous. When I’d seen him outside the gambling hall he’d been disheveled and lumpy. In the flyer he’d worn a tan overcoat and looked as plain as a man can look. This man at the auction bore himself like the upper of the upper crust. Like royalty.
He moved away, pointedly wandering a zigzag path. The pattern was clear, however. He was aimed for the exit. He maintained a calm demeanor, and so did I. Keeping my pace without purpose, I made my way after him.
Then, he hopped a short stretch of turf between paths, a social faux pas if I ever saw one. I strode after, but I kept my steps on the designated path.
“Excuse me,” a woman said at my elbow. She wanted me to stop to chat, but I didn’t have time.
“Sorry, Miss,” I said with as much propriety as I could manage. “I see someone I absolutely must speak with before I leave.”
She huffed and let me go, but the distraction had been too much.
Where was he? He’d worked his way into a group of three men each wearing a different colored tuxedo. I recognized them as the Vincent triplets, and though they didn’t look anything alike, they all had the stature of pure-bred Travelers. They dwarfed the man I was after, but soon as I spotted him, he took his leave.
The distance between us had closed. He had only a dozen paces from the door, but a steady stream of guests still poured inside. I needed to catch him before he left. He needed to get out through a crowd running the wrong way. He was going to win if I didn’t act fast.
Discretion was my friend, but not my boss. I raised a hand and opened my mouth to hail the man.
“Mr. Demarco?” interrupted a man behind me.
I turned to see a man in a scarlet suit and matching tinted glasses. He had a scarlet top hat and a black cane topped with a ruby larger than any I’d ever seen. His smile deepened the creases in the corners of his eyes.
It was Trey Vitez.
“August Savior,” said the man, sticking out his hand for a shake. “You may call me Augie.”
The man in the fedora bolted, pushing his way out and through the incoming crowd. I’d lost him again.
I shook Vitez’s hand in my massive paw. “Pleasure,” I said. “It’s nice to meet someone who takes such an interest in art.”
“Where I come from we have a saying: Art is the body and soul of the community.”
His words were like a fist of ice over my heart. I’d only ever heard one person say that, and I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t from anywhere Vitez had come from. The last time I’d heard that saying was years ago, when my father talked to me about forcing me to yet another art gallery party. He had spent hours teaching me about the value of the statues, and I had persisted in ignoring him as only teenage boys can. “Art is the body and soul of a community,” he had said, echoing “Body, Soul, Community” of Trinity’s triple directive. At the time it didn’t occur to me how important his use of those words were. Now, the inkling of its value scratched at the back of my brain.
But Vitez had used the same phrase as my father. I might never know who had originated the saying, but was it possible Vitez knew my parents? Was it possible they dealt with the illegal art scene?
Was it possible they were involved in manipulating Trinity to their own purpose?
“We have a lot of catching up to do, Mr. Demarco,” Vitez said.
I didn’t doubt him one bit.
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Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub