Friday, November 7, 2008

The Steel Dragon: Chapter 1 Excerpt

Chapter One Excerpt

It was a beautiful day—though Senta didn’t know it, it was the first day of spring. Senta made her way along, dodging between the many other pedestrians. It was warm enough that she felt quite comfortable in her brown linen dress, worn over her full length bloomers, and her brown wool sweater. The weather was very predictable here in the Brech. The early spring was always like this. Late in the afternoon, the sky would become overcast, and light showers would sprinkle here and there around the city. Most days, they were so light that a person would scarcely realize that he had been made wet before he was dried off by the kindly rays of the sun. Still, the ladies would raise their parasols to protect their carefully crafted coiffures from the rain, just as they now used them to protect their ivory complexions from the sun.
Summers here were warm and dry, but not so hot that people wouldn’t still want to eat in the outdoor portion of Café Carlo. Not so in the fall or winter, however. The fall was the rainy season. It would become overcast, and stay that way for months, and it would rain buckets every day. The streets would stay slick and shiny. Then winter would come and dump several feet of snow across the city. The River Thiss would freeze over and they would hold the winter carnival on the ice. And the smoke from all of the coal-fired and gas-fired stoves, and the smoke from all of the wood-filled fireplaces would hang low to the ground, and it would seem like some smoky, frozen hell. The steam carriages would be scarcer, as the price of coal became dearer, but the horse-drawn trolley would still make its way through the grey snow and make its stops every three minutes.
Senta skipped and walked and skipped again east from the plaza down the Avenue Phoenix, which was just as busy as the plaza itself. Travelers hurried up and down the street, making their way on foot, or reaching to grab hold of the trolley and hoist themselves into the standing-room-only cab. Quite a number of couples could be seen strolling along together, arm in arm; the man usually walking on the side closest to the street, in case a steam carriage should splash up some sooty water. Senta didn’t know it, but the custom a generation before had been for the men to walk furthest from the street, in case a careless apartment dweller should splash down an emptying chamber pot, modern conveniences having prevailed over custom. Others on the street were shopping, because both sides of the Avenue Phoenix were lined with stores. There were quite a few stores which sold women’s clothing and a few that sold men’s, a millinery shop, a haberdasher, a bookseller, a store which sold fine glassware, a clockmaker, a tobacconist, a jeweler, a store which sold lamps, a florist, and at the very end of the avenue, where it reached the Prince Tybalt Boulevard, just across the street from the edge of the park, on the right hand side, a toy store.
Stopping to press her face against the glass, right below the printed sign that said “Humboldt’s Fine Toys”, Senta stared at the wonders in the store. She had never been inside, but had stopped to look in the window many times. The centerpiece of the store display was a mechanical bird. It worked with gears and sprockets and springs and was made of metal, but it was covered in real bird feathers in a rainbow of hues, and would sit and peck and chirp and sing as though it were alive, until it finally wound down, and the toy maker would walk to the window and say the word to reactivate the bird’s magic spell. Senta knew that the bird would remain in the window for a long, long time, until some young prince or princess needed a new birthday gift, because that bird would have cost as much as the entire Café Carlo. Arranged around it were various mechanical toy vehicles—ships, trains, and steam carriages. Some were magical and some worked with a wind-up key, but they all imitated the real life conveyances from which they were patterned.
None of these wonderful toys held as much fascination for Senta though, as the doll which sat in the corner of the window. It wasn’t magical. It wasn’t even animated by a wind-up mechanism. It was a simple doll with a rag body and porcelain hands, feet, and face. It was wearing a simple black dress. Its brown hair had been cut in a short little bob, and looked like real human hair. It had a painted face with bright blue eyes and pink lips. It may well have been one of the lesser priced toys in the shop. It was definitely the least expensive item in the window, but Senta would never be able to purchase it. Had she been able to save every pfennig she earned, it still would have taken her more than thirty weeks before she had enough to purchase the doll. And she could not save every pfennig she earned. Most weeks, she could not even save one.
Pushing herself regretfully away from the glass, and leaving two hand smudges, a forehead smudge, and a nose smudge, Senta ran across Prince Tybalt Boulevard, which crossed perpendicularly, making a “T” at the end of Avenue Phoenix. She ran in a zigzag motion to avoid being run over by any of the numerous steam carriages which whizzed by. Several of them honked at her with a loud ‘ah-oogah’ but none of them ran over her. And then she stood at last on the edge of Hexagon Park. Senta had no idea that Hexagon Park was so named because of its six sided shape. She didn’t even know what a hexagon was. She did not realize that Hexagon Park was the exact same size and shape as the Great Plaza, where Café Carlo was located. To her, the park had always seemed so much larger. Nor did she know that the park, the plaza, and the rest of the “Old City” had been laid out and marked, using a stick dragged through the dirt, by Magnus the Great, the King of the Zur, when he had conquered the continent almost nineteen hundred years before.
Hexagon Park was lovely in the spring. This eight hundred yard diameter wonderland was filled with delights. At the south end, to Senta’s right, the park was carefully cultivated, with large rose gardens, numerous small beds full of colorful annuals, ancient fountains spraying water from the mouths of mythical animals or pouring water from pitchers carried by statues of naked women, abundant fruit trees now in bloom behind their own little wrought iron fences, and still reflecting pools filled with tadpoles. At the north end, to Senta’s left, the park was kept more natural, with large expanses of beautifully green grass, large shade trees, now filled with more than enough leaves to do their duty, winding pathways, and small ponds full of colorful fish. Senta headed for the center of the park, following the flagstone path that led to the central courtyard. Here was a small amphitheater, a series of park benches arranged around a mosaic map of the kingdom inlaid in the pavement, and the wonderful, wonderful steam-powered calliope, which played joyful music from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
The calliope, which had been between songs as Senta walked through the park, began toot-toot-tooting the next tune, just as she arrived in the center courtyard. Senta had heard this tune many times, though she didn’t know its name. It was lively and bouncy and made her feel even more like skipping than she usually did. The growls of hunger from her stomach overcame the urge to skip down the paths of the park though, so she sat down on one of the benches, unwrapped her red plaid bindle, opened the wax paper, and stuffed her sandwich into her mouth. Mouth watering with each bite of the course bread, the salty ham, and the tangy brown mustard, she had finished off more than half of it before she stopped to take a breath and to look around her.
There were numerous people in the park, walking down the paths, admiring the flowers, and lying on the large swaths of green grass. Several small boys, about five or six years old, tried to catch tadpoles in the reflecting pool some forty yards away. There were relatively few people in the central courtyard though. The calliope man was there, making small adjustments to the great machine. It was a large, square, red wagon upon four white wood-spoked wheels, with a shining brass steam engine, which bristling with hundreds of large and small brass pipes, each spitting steam in turn to create the wonderful music. A young man in his twenties—nicely dressed but not obviously rich—sat reading a newspaper while he ate fish and chips from a newspaper cone, which he had no doubt purchased from a vending cart just outside the park boundaries. On the bench closest to the one on which Senta sat eating, was an older man in a shabby brown overcoat. He was tossing bits of bread to several of the foot-tall flying reptiles that could be found just about everywhere in the city. Unlike birds—tending in these parts to be smaller—which hopped along when not in flight, these fuzzy, large-headed reptiles ran from bread crumb to bread crumb, in a waddling motion, with their bat-like wings outstretched.
“Anurognathus,” said the man in the shabby brown overcoat, when he noticed that Senta was looking in his direction.
“No, thank you,” said Senta, in the loud voice she used for people who were deaf or addlepated. When she did so, a piece of her sandwich flew out of her mouth. One of the flying reptiles quickly ran over and gobbled it down.
The older man in the shabby brown overcoat paid her no more attention, and the winged reptile soon realized that no more partially-masticated ham was likely to come its way and so scampered back to the sure thing of the man throwing pieces of bread. Senta finished her sandwich and then opened the wax paper that contained her dill pickle. Dill pickles were one of her favorites, not that she had a wide experience with produce. She chomped her way through what had once been a prince among cucumbers, and then wiped the remainder of the vinegar from her hands and face upon the red plaid cloth. Gathering everything together, she walked over to the dust bin and deposited all her waste. She didn’t see a policeman around, but they were always around somewhere, in their stiff blue uniforms, with their tall blue helmets, carrying their stout black cop clubs—just waiting to use them to thump someone littering or spitting on the street or (at other times of the year) someone picking the fruit from the trees which grew behind their own little wrought iron fences.
The steam powered calliope was playing a different, though equally happy tune now. This time, Senta did not stifle her impulse to skip, and skipped her way north out of the park. The journey back home was quite a long one. One had to follow Prince Tybalt Boulevard through the Arch of Conquest, and out of the Old City. Then one turned east once again and followed the Avenue Hart until one reached Contico Boulevard. At the corner was the Great Church of the Holy Savior.

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