Two hundred years ago cemeteries became useless.
Nobody truly died. Not anymore.
They just turned into machines.
Mechanical gulls shrieked in the distance. Waves crashed and clockships docked above and below. A boy sat on a ledge and his hand of wood and steel hovered over a nearby pier. Dusty light spilled past the hand’s wooden fingers and streaked the back of it, admitting lines of yellow that intermingled with grey. A blue glimmer pulsated at the center of it, further muddling the aggregate. Steam escaped the knuckle gaps and the hand tensed.
The fingers bent, the wrist turned and the dying light painted the boy behind it in fire. Evening rays shimmered off his brown rimmed goggles. His iron jaw appeared a greyish bronze in the light.
The pier was for ships that sailed the sea naturally. The one above, far above, remained for the ships that could fly along timelines. Those were never meant for the likes of him.
He touched the wooden planks. Wood against wood. Cold against unnatural warmth.
“One day,” He hushed, letting the voicebox buzz in his throat, “I will escape.”
Most had taken to the main streets further down by now, if not there, then the taverns. He could hear cups clanking in the distance. He could smell the sizzling fried fish both from the sea and the sky.
Peg legs tapped behind him. He smiled. Only one woman had steel pegs for legs.
“Well you’re not exactly trapped.”
He saw her white witch hat first. “Wilma,” he said as he faced her.
“’Ello Love. Whatcha doing out ’ere, eh?”
“Tonight’s the festival, Wilma. Those ships will be empty, unguarded.”
The woman lowered to a seat beside him. Her crimson corset blurred in his peripheral. The frills of her dress fluttered as she kicked the air mindlessly.
She spoke after a breath, “You should go.”
“What? The thing you do every year? Your ever secretive plan of sneaking to the docks whilst swearing you’d escape? No ’ow could I?” She gave him her ever famous Wilma grin, even ruffled the black hairs on his head. “Tig, you naff, everyone knew. Though Hours forbid that would stop you from dreaming.”
“It’s not a dream, Wil, It’s… my duty. I will see it to the end and then --”
“Find your family?” she finished.
He smiled back at her. If only it was that. “If anything they would want me to stay.”
Wilma stood up and brushed her dress. Her red locks bounced and Tig focused on her one mechanical eye. It was completely black with a white splotch for an iris. Little bits of metal and wood encroached upon the edges of her face. She had half turned.
“Not right they abandoned a fourteen year old boy. Even if it’s been a year at best. So go.” She implored him. “I ’eard a couple sailors talking about ’ow they might look the other way this year. Not sure which ship, though I’m sure should you pray to the Hour of Serendipity, you’ll find your way.”
He made a grin with his iron jaw, “No one prays to that Hour, Wil. But—if you’re really ok with me going-- don’t blame me if I’m gone tomorrow.”
Tig leapt to his boots and Wilma’s eyes followed his ascent. He saw her frown for a moment. But only a moment. She was laughing the next.
“Right right,” she said, “well I’m off. The wards will be busy with all these drunks bumbling around. If it doesn’t work ’cause of a certain someone, try not to dally too long for supper, eh?”
He ran after that, waving back at Wilma as widely as he could. His steps played hollow drumbeats, and the tails of his black coat ruffled behind him.
The sun vanished in the sea and eager fireworks crackled in the sky behind him. It prompted a twist from the boy. Verace, the city of rivers stretched behind him. Lamps and fireworks became momentary artists upon canvases of inky river streets, splaying it in bursts of rippling reds and yellows. Well-lit shops, topped with green terraces, towered two to three storeys on either side of each river street. Other buildings, closer to the piers, were practically edifices that led out with stiff scaffolding to support the flying clockships. Vines snaked down upon the countless lime walls, and dipped into the flowing waters.
His eyes followed one river back to the edges of the pier. A few strands of black hair cluttered his view.
One after the other the pier’s three lamps flickered awake and illuminated the two vessels docked there, one on either side.
One was a clipper, a narrow yet heavily sailed thing. The other a caravel, large and plated in gold. He paused. The pier was empty. The sailors were most likely enjoying a drink in the tavern down the road. Perfect. He swiveled to the caravel. He saw his escape that he planned of a thousand fold. Today would be the day. He would walk on to an empty ship, hide in a barrel and none would be wiser. He would go and do what he intended for years. Even if it meant leaving Wilma and those of Verace behind. He would…He would… He swallowed. He felt sick as he realised his duty. The true intention of his trip. His wooden fingers dug deep into his wrought iron palm.
The Caravel balanced in his goggles.
“No time to doubt yourself, Tig.” He whispered to himself. “One step. That’s all.”
Breathing hard, he took that step and stumbled. His foot froze. A book shut behind him.
He turned and saw a man dressed in a violet hat and robes approaching him. A guise of invisibility crumbling off as he closed the distance. Tig sighed.
“Every year, Nister Trimbly. You do this every year.” Lipped the man now gesturing at Tig’s foot. “I’ve placed a binding spell on your ankle. A bit of lesser invisibility on myself.”
Tig knew him well. He rolled his eyes at Mr. Marici, “Must you always explain it?”
“As your instructor, yes. The very fact you cannot detect me or think to place a detection spell proves you are unsuited to leave, Nr. Trimbly. Besides, I promised your brother I’d watch over you.”
“I’m terrible at written magic.”
“It is your first line of defence. “
“I’ve a plan!” insisted Tig, clawing at the invisible bind. “Once I’m at sea I’ll find a job and I’ll afford a pistol. Then I won’t need any magic.”
Marici shook his head. Unlike Wilma, his entire face was a patchwork of iron plates and his eyes were as black as ebony. He was a full turn.
“Listen, the sea is dangerous. I told you so everyday haven’t I? Pirates, monsters, unstable lines not to mention how you’ve yet to turn. Still you insist upon it and it worries me. Why is it you lack the same level of persistence when it comes to your studies?”
“There are things I need to do Mr. Marici, things I don’t want to, but must. The sea! The sea will be my studies!”
“I’d rather it not be, Nr. Trimbly.” He snapped his silver fingers and the bind at Tig’s ankle vanished. “Wilma will have us supper in a few hours and I want you to be there. You’ll feel better after some chowder.”
Tig lowered his head. This happened every year and every year he let himself get caught. He realised how little had changed, how little would change. And he thought for a moment why he tried little to change.
Tig nodded slowly. He hushed the words, a whisper then a breath, “I suppose you’re right. They are my family after all. And this … this is my home.”
The bearings connecting in Tig’s neck clicked up until he could see the main water road behind Mr. Marici. Unnumbered bridges spanned the river all the way to the city’s midst until no amount of lights could illuminate the distance.
Except for the wizard’s tower of course. That was visible for hours away. The light of fireworks splotched it with color. It was a great spire overlooking it all, with little porches dotting its ascent. A pointed black hat rested at its top and it remained slightly crooked. He knew the academy and the dorms lay at the foot of that giant. That was where Marici would take him.
More fireworks crackled, deafening the steps and voices of those in the distance.
Mr. Marici practised a smile, “Listen, Nister— no, Tig. Do you remember the promise I--” Marici’s eyes went wide then batted lethargically one after the other. He stuttered the words, “I… I…”
Marici stumbled from side to side. His eyes rolled. His legs buckled.
“Mr. Marici!” cried Tig to the resounding thud. He ran to his instructor, kneeled low and gave the man a jostle. Nothing. Tig’s brow tightened.
“Mr. Marici, are you ok?”
A wobbling shadow passed, and Tig snapped to where it came. A man with rum in his hands had swaggered steps ahead. He had a blue hat, the mark of a soldier.
Tig’s hands shook rabidly. He had to ask, “Did you…? Is he?”
The man sluggishly pivoted on his heel. He pointed at himself. Tig nodded.
“You think I killed him? Heavens!” harked the dizzying man with yet another swig. “I’m no shavage. I put him to sleep.”
“You used a spell?”
The man glanced at his bottle then back at Tig. He smiled lazily, revealing his gold and silver dentures, “Uh, spell? Yes a spell, exactly that! Can’t have him seeing me.”
“Seeing you do what?” cried Tig.
“Stealing a ship of course.”
“Stealing? You can’t do that.”
“Not stealing, mate. Repossessing. Did I say stealing? It was the other drunk I swear.” The man swaggered to the caravel then wandered back to the clipper and back again, “I’m not drunk by the way, just … hic… can’t decide.”
“P-police. I shall notify the police.”
“Oh? On me. Bet you won’t… hic.” He stopped before the caravel and nodded. “Gold. I like gold. This one it is.”
Tig swat his eyes from the ship back to Marici. His voice became scarce and troubled, “You were supposed to stop me, Mr. Marici. Like you did every year. Stop me before I… I…” He balled his hands and punched the deck.
Tig raised his head to the drunken man who had paused mid-way across the plank.
“Ain’t you coming?”
Tig blinked and pointed at himself, “Me?”
“Eh? Yea you daff imp. I heard you talking to the pretty one back on the docks, says you wanted to leave didn’t you? Then do it, mate.”
He was drunk, a stranger, and one dangerous enough to defeat Mr. Marici. If Wilma was there, she would have told him what he already knew. He glanced at Marici. Anyone would have. Five years. He had spent five years trying to leave and now he had the chance, however stupid it was.
The buzz of the caravel’s engine brought him back to reality. Billowing steam balanced in his sight.
“Not guarded.” Chimed the drunkard. “Hours blessed it must be my day.”
“Stop!” echoed a man.
Tig whirled and counted a dozen red cheeked sailors rushing towards him.
He heard a splash. He spun. The plank to the caravel had been knocked off. The drunk man was by the edge of the ship and shrugging. “Every man for himself, eh?”
Tig stood up. The horde of angry sailor were seconds away. The ship creaked. He made his choice.
Running, Tig shouted at the man, “This is madness!”
“Oh you’re coming now? Make up your mind, mate. Time’s ticking.”
Only steps parted him from the end of the pier.
Tig took a breath and leapt. Time seemed to freeze. The flicker of lamps brushed his cheek. It was in moments like these, Tig thought of how short his life really was. Of how little he experienced. He would miss it all if he failed that jump. Was he doomed? Probably. The edge of the ship passed him by. Definitely.
His body tugged before the expected splash. The black water rushed beneath him. He glanced up, a metal arm hand had grabbed his own, a blue hat tipped roughly above. Tig gagged. His savior stunk of a well-aged bourbon.
Shouts of angry sailors echoed behind him.
“Pirate?” repeated Tig as the man hoisted him up.
“No. Professor.” Corrected the man. “Though I did… just steal a ship… hic, so I suppose the term is quite, um, fitting.”
Waves crashed around him. The sails fluttered above him. Steam plumed out the back and Tig realised what he had done.
He ran up the stairs to the top deck and leaned off the prow, “I did it.” He hushed. “I- I escaped.”
“Not that you were trapped.” Hummed the man.
Tig lowered his head, “No, you’re right. I never was.” He smiled, spinning back to the man now at the end of his bottle. “Where to then?”
“Where else in the world mate?” hicc’ed the stranger. “To the ends of it.”