Rain fell in thick globs. It merged with the mud on the verges of the path, mixing up dirty water that filled the worn dents and potholes. Dot stepped demurely, dancing between the puddles. Victor and Sigmund tramped through as if they hadn’t noticed they were even there. They each held a thin grey umbrella stiffly above their heads. Dot battled with a headscarf that needed constant adjustment to prevent it from flying away. The hem of her dress was soaked and splattered with mud. The wet fabric clung to her ankles.
“You wear perfume in your hair,” Sigmund said suddenly.
Dot was surprised, no one had ever noticed before. She didn’t want anyone to notice. She did it to hide the stale smell.
“You have a keen sense of smell,” she said.
“How can you afford it?” He added, ignoring her.
“I make it myself,” she said, “out of fruit skins and petals.” There was a pang of pride in her voice.
“It doesn’t work,” Sigmund said. “I can smell the dirt underneath.”
“You just ignore him my dear,” Victor said. “Sigmund always gets grumpy when it rains. It does murder to his skin.”
“I know something that’s good for skin,” Dot said, trying desperately to be nice, to diffuse the tension.
“Do you make it yourself?” Sigmund asked.
They walked in near silence for a while; the only sound was that of the rain and the scrape of their boots on the brick road.
The road had been made years ago, miles of golden sandstone that reflected the sun up into traveller’s eyes. They had made it as straight as they could, but it curved and bent around large trees and hillocks that would have been too much trouble to remove. Thick clumps of old trees lined its edges, making it feel more like a corridor than a road. It stretched all the way from one city to the next, passing her little town on its way. Save for a single crossroads halfway to the Glass City it was a straight road, simple, easy to follow. She couldn’t help but wonder why they had needed her to guide the way, simple directions would have done. She felt guilty for having taken the money and hoped to God they wouldn’t be angry when they found out how simple it was to get there.
They had been walking for half an hour when Dot suddenly darted up a small hill. Her feet slipping into the inch thick mud.
“From up here,” She called out “you can see the City, through these trees. It’s the only place you can see it without walking for another hour.”
She looked through the gap in the trees at the city, hidden behind the thick rainfall. Time slowed for a moment as she gazed at the bright jewel lined towers, which seemed to make the rain glimmer and sparkle. A rainbow emerged from somewhere behind it, but beneath the dark rain clouds the colours were greyed and without lustre.
“How does it look today?” Victor called up to her.
“It looks beautiful,” she said. “It always looks beautiful,” she added, slightly quieter.
She looked down at them, standing in puddles. Sigmund looked impatient, he shifted his weight from leg to leg and looked alternately at her and at the path ahead. Victor simply smiled his crooked smile. Through the trees Dot took another look at the city, breathed in, breathed out, and then went back down the hill to them. Sigmund exhaled audibly and Victor poked him in the ribs.
“We’ll be on time,” he said.
Dot continued to walk ahead. The rain began to ease; Dot let the headscarf drop to her shoulders like a shawl and walked a little easier. The muscles in her calves were aching slightly. Victor and Sigmund had walked mostly in silence, aside from occasional cheerful comments on the weather or such things from Victor and dismissive grunts from Sigmund.
Dot was tired of the silence. She hazarded a question: “So, why are you going into the City?”
“None of your business.” Sigmund’s reply was curt and sudden.
“Honestly, Sigmund, if I didn’t know you better I would think you were the rudest person I had met,” Victor said.
“Are you going to the Brothels? I have heard about them. From what I hear they are...” Dot paused, trying to think of a word that would accurately describe the stories she had heard, “...extraordinary.”
“If we wanted more prostitutes we would have offered you three coins, rather than two.” Sigmund said.
Dot’s hands clenched. “I told you, I am not a prostitute.”
“You spend the mornings on your knees scrubbing the floor and the afternoon on your back in the bedroom... or on your knees again. I suppose it depends.” Sigmund’s voice almost cracked into laughter. “You may not be a prostitute full-time, but I’ll bet you have sold yourself before. Really I don’t know why you are so ashamed.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“You clearly need the money. I can just tell,” Sigmund replied.
“Honestly!” Victor interrupted. “You do over-think things, Sigmund.”
“And you smile too bloody much.”
“Maybe, yes, maybe.” Victor sighed. “But anyway, to answer your question, we are going to see a man. Do you know your way about inside the city?”
“Yes,” Dot said. “Mostly.”
“Excellent. Perhaps you can help us find our way once we arrive then.”
“Who are you going to see?”
“The Artificer.” Victor said.
“The Artificer? In the palace?”
“That’s him.” Said Victor.
“You need an appointment to see him, I hear the waiting list is...”
“We have an appointment.” Sigmund interrupted.
“Do you know the Artificer, dear?”
“Well, sure, I mean not personally, but I know about him.”
Sigmund rolled his eyes.
“Well, he’s a magician, an alchemist. Or so they say. They say he can create things out of nothing.”
“Not out of nothing,” Sigmund said, “always out of something. He can change forms, turn one thing to another. And he is damn good at it.”
“But from what I hear he mostly just performs abortions, which doesn’t make sense. If he can create things so well why does he spend all his time destroying things?”
“Easy,” said Sigmund. “Who is the best lockpick?”
Dot thought for a moment and then shrugged.
“The locksmith. Once you know how to make something, you gain a greater insight on how to unmake it.”
Dot nodded and they walked on in silence a while longer.
“So, why are you going to see him?” She asked.
“He’s going to help us with a little project.” Victor said.
In time the horizon drew close and vanished beneath their feet, replaced by more path, more trees, and eventually the shining towers and walls of the Glass City, the only straight lines in a panorama of organic shapes. The sun was set low in the sky.
They entered the city, which seemed to sprout up below their feet, grass and scrub segueing into dirty cobblestone roads that caught the rain and held it captive in filthy little puddles.
An anxious excitement rose in Dot. The decrepit outskirts of the city closely resembled her own little village, though larger and more densely populated. In the hazed dusk light the crowds, who both walked and stood, laughed and shouted, intimidated her greatly. She hunched her shoulders and tilted her head and took to stealing glances at the people around her.
Men with beards seemed to lurk in shadows, she knew very well why. Drunks staggered; talking at random to anyone they passed. The homeless sat under shelters, huddled in layers and layers of dirty, unkempt clothing. Groups of women in outlandish make-up and clothes that were thoroughly unsuitable for the weather stood on the street corners, lifting their skirts seductively and eyeing strangers who walked past. Prostitutes, thought Dot, and she turned her head to watch them with an intense curiosity. Most of them, she noticed, were uglier than the make-up and clothes would have you think. Some of them were worn and tired, others, younger, called out inappropriately to any man that walked by.
One of them noticed her looking slyly over. She hitched her skirt a little higher, revealing tears and rips in her stockings which rose out from her shining red boots and gave her a wink. Dot looked away sharply and walked faster, closing the gap between her and Sigmund and Victor and remained closer to them. Suddenly she felt grateful for their presence. They walked through the city streets with emotionless confidence, seeming to take no interest in the people around them. They ignored the calls from the prostitutes, and the begging from the homeless as though they simply had not heard them at all. Dot felt naked and exposed and vulnerable, she imagined that to the regular city-folk she was the very image of bumbling naivety. When she daydreamed of the city, she didn’t daydream of this.
“We want to go right to the palace, please, dear,” Victor said. “Our appointment is tonight, no time to waste.” Dot nodded, relieved.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2003 by Toby Wallis