Port Segunda, Midderon Island, at the edge of the Empyrean Empire
The hustle and bustle of the busy streets in the Merchant District was almost deafening, and after the weeks spent at his family’s estate in the Lake District, Lieutenant Commander Alec Hart felt slightly dizzy weaving in and out of the crowd. The air was saturated with the smell of melted sugar, fried duck and grilled fish, red and green pepper, cinnamon and hundred other scents that mingled together, creating a smoky, mouthwatering perfume that tickled his nose. His stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten anything since he stepped off the monorail that had taken him from the Lake District south of Port Segunda.
Alec checked his pocket-watch and slowed down the brisk pace. He had almost an hour before he had to report for duty. Cutting a striking figure in his bottle green uniform jacket and trousers, with the white cravat and golden buttons revealing his rank as Lieutenant Commander, Alec turned right to make his way to the market.
Alec took a quick step back to avoid being run over by a haggard-looking woman on a roller loaded with bundles of cloth, woven mats and furniture. She was heading in the direction of the docks, most likely to board an airship going to one of the outposts in the Expanse. To ‘see new horizons and build a bright future’ as the Colonial Affair’s’ advertisements so gaily described it. They said nothing about the dangers and hardships that awaited them. Outlaws, elven raiders, poisonous plants and vicious wildlife were just a few of the threats settlers faced while helping to expand the Empire’s borders.
The market was even more crowded and chaotic than the Merchant District. Vendors were loudly announcing their wares and it seemed as if every citizen in Port Segunda was there. Rolls of colourful fabrics and mats, spices, fruits, vegetables, both fresh and pickled fish, cured meats. Everywhere Alec looked, his eyes were met with a feast of colours.
“You looking for something to eat, sailor?” A voice said behind him. “Or is it another hunger you want to sate perhaps? I could give you directions to a brothel with clean and healthy boys and girls.”
Alec turned to a stall squeezed in between a vendor selling mats and baskets and a potter. The stall sported a red marquee with a golden wyvern painted on it that glittered in the sunlight. “Just something to eat, thanks. What do you have?”
The man smiling at him had a round face and declining hairline that he tried to hide with a colourful headband. His lively eyes, beneath heavy eyebrows had been accentuated with eye-shadow in colours red and gold. Maybe to match the wyvern? Alec thought to himself as the man kept smiled at him.
“You’ve seen battle, huh?” The man asked, eyeing the scars that marred the young face.
Alec ducked his head a little, still self-conscious about the healed injury that had landed him a six week furlough, and a medal for bravery. “Some”, he said, hoping a short answer would deter the man from asking more questions.
“You’ve done a tour on one of the ships patrolling the Expanse, huh?” the man said, nodding to himself. “Riddled with long eared bandits and rebels, it is. And we would no doubt be overrun too if it weren’t for you. Thank the Creators for the Empyrean Fleet, I say.” He lifted the lid of one of the pots standing on burners behind the small counter. “I make the best Spicy Chicken in Port Segunda. Only 5 silvers for a bona fide war hero.”
The tantalising smell made Alec reach for his pocketbook despite the fact that he knew he was getting robbed. A local would have paid no more than 3 silvers, but right now he didn’t care. He pushed the coins across the counter.
“Extra lentils?” the man asked, stirring the pot, sending another tendril of the delicious smell Alec’s way.
The man scooped up a generous amount of the food, then nodded towards the samovar as he pushed the bowl towards Alec. “Tea’s on the house.”
“Gratitude.” Alec grabbed a wooden spoon from a gaudily painted jar then took a seat by one of tiny tables that had been placed beneath the marquee and dug into the food. Like the man had promised it was good. Hot as a wyvern’s gullet, but good. He ate his fill then put the empty bowl on the counter, grabbed a clay cup and filled it from the samovar and took his leave.
He was about to take a sip of the tea when he caught a strange whiff coming off it. He frowned, the scar-tissue that stretched from his forehead down the cheek tugged at the unmarked skin. No doubt the tea was spiked, and if he drank of it he would end up in a dingy flophouse with nothing but the clothes on his back, or maybe not even that. Or if he was really unlucky, he’d find himself shipped off and sold to one of the mines in the icy north.
So much for being loyal to the Empire Alec thought a little bitterly, pouring out the tea. He looked around for a place to discard the cup when a skinny, pale arm extended from what he had taken for a pile of garbage.
“Please, messere, spare a copper so I can feed me babbies.” The creature was so dirty and emaciated that it was impossible to tell if it was a man or a woman at first glance, but the pointy ears and almond shaped eyes with blue irises that almost seemed to glow revealed that it was an elf. “Please, messere… Show kindness and the Creators will surely bless ye.”
She had the tell-tale sores of a dust eater around her mouth, and Alec doubted that the coppers she wanted would be used to buy food for her children. If she had any, she had most likely sold them to one of the many brothels in Port Segunda’s Pleasure District, or perhaps to the factories and refineries that made up the foundation of the island’s wealth. As the elf reached for him again, Alec instinctively took a step back, not wanting the soiled fingers to touch his dark green uniform. He felt a stab of guilt as the woman dropped her arm, her pretty eyes already looking past him.
Pushing away his initial disgust, he took a couple of coppers from his pocket and held them out for the woman. “Here.”
Those almost startlingly beautiful blue eyes returned to him before zeroing in on the coins. “Gratitude, messere, gratitude. May the Creators bless ye ’n keep ye in their light.”
Alec was still holding the clay cup, and not knowing what else to do with it, he put it on the windowsill of what appeared to be a hatter’s shop, pretending not to notice the shopkeeper scowl at him from inside.
“Ye don’t want yer cup no more?” The elven woman asked.
When he shook his head she grabbed it and turned it around between her skeletal-thin, dirty fingers. “Is not cracked or nothing. Is a good cup.”
“The tea in it was spiked. You should take care to clean it before you use use it.”
“Oh aye”, the woman mumbled. “Fine cup like this I feel like a lady when I drinks from it.” She smiled happily. The few teeth she had left were rotten and black. “I was a fine lady once… had a house n’ everythin’… Had a human man who paid for me and kept me…”
Alec felt that mix of guilt and disgust again. The elves had once been the masters of Aeris, their kingdoms stretching across continents. But that was in the old age, in the Before, when the world had still been whole.
It was the elves that had started the great war that had ended with the Cataclysm. They had worshipped demons and dragons, and turned their backs on the Creators, the beings that had forged the world, given life to everything in it, and blessed it with their light. And while the human race had reached for that light, the elves had clung to their darkness, to the old ways of blood magic and brutal sacrifices.
According to the scholars, the war between the two races had lasted over a hundred years. It had only ended because the elves, in a last attempt to defeat the human armies, had somehow managed to gain access to the Forge of Creation, the very power used by the Creators. They had unleashed the tremendous powers the Forge contained, setting off a cataclysmic event that had sundered and reshaped the world. But while the elves had crawled in the rubble of the ruins, man had risen. Now, the human race ruled Aeris, from the Spice Islands in the far south to the snow and ice encrusted Isfjords in the north. Far below it all, lay the bottom; leftover from the old world, cracked, wounded, barren and inhabited only by monstrosities that was sometimes glimpsed through the clouds gases that covered it.
Alec cast a glance at the elven woman who was still staring at the cup as if it was made of gold not simple clay, and perhaps to her it looked like gold. Dust didn’t just rot your teeth but your mind too. He thought of her, and of those elves long ago whom had chosen to destroy their world rather than risk losing it to the lowly humans.
Evil holds the seed to its own destruction, he thought and started walking again. It was a saying he had heard so often during his childhood that it automatically reminded him of his parents.
They had both served in the Imperial Fleet. His mother had retired five years ago, but before that she had served as the Captain of the Queen Elessa, one of the Fleet’s flagships, and his father had been a helmsman on one of the man o’ wars that escorted freighters bringing back the precious minerals from the mining islands in the Expanse that made the Empire possible.
Alec’s father had gone down with the ship when they tried to defend a caravan of freighters heading home from the outer islands in the Expanse. He had died a hero.
Growing up, Alec had always known that he too would enlist and serve on a ship. For a Hart there was no other alternative.