A festival of madness are the docks of Brighton.
Buildings, both ancient stonework and new, ramshackle warehouses, teeter and lean over the edges of stony bluffs, their windows aglow with spongeoil corpselight and the warmer gleam of cook fires both. The windows loom out of the darkness like unblinking eyes, regarding all that transpires before them with uniform disinterest.
The noise. My god, the noise. Brighton is the industrial heart of the Deep, and it beats with the sounds of mills and canneries. Steel is made here, I am told, and steel of the finest quality – they say the ores which are mined from the walls of the cavern are rich, rich as anywhere, and the steel they smelt in the stinking furnaces is made into the strongest steel in the world. I do not know if this is true (and, I suspect, were it so I would have heard some tell of it before now).
Some long-dead people used this particular place for trade of their own, for ancient, stone wharfs are much in evidence, jutting out into the water in all directions. Moored to these are the ships of the Deep, and of a hundred nations. Some of these iron-hulled mammoths are powered, I am told, by Saintly engines, and I could tell these from the rest from the absence of smokestacks. The rest had come from the world above, and I saw the flags of Britain and Malta and the queer ensigns of North Africa.
They come for the spongeoil, I am assured, and for gems and fine metals mined in the Deep. The oil, apparently, is much prized in certain places, and newly so – perhaps ten years ago the docks at Brighton might have been a much tamer than they are now, for it is only recently that trade from this place has gained any great momentum. As John Allison told it, this is on account of Saintly assurances of safe passage into the Deep, and I am in no position to disagree with him. Pirates, I am told, are still a great trouble here, where they may vanish into the endless darkness, and the secret places they keep there.
The ancient wharves are abustle with activity. I saw longshoremen loading and unloading, boesens swaggering and cursing, bow-legged beggars and more of the strange children with cut ears. Many of these people travel all places with lanterns and spongeoil lamps in hand, and there is scarce a spot of dockside which is not occupied at all times by the tramping boots of the assembled: the result is a flickering assemblage of moving shapes, a single, seething tide of humanity from which might, from time to time, be spotted a face, or a head, or an arm – but these vanish back into the horde almost as soon as they present themselves.
I saw a gaggle of folk who I at first took to be dwarves, until I saw that they merely had terrible cases of rickets and walked bent double, swathed head to foot in colorless, ragged shawls.
“Straussmenner,” John Allison said.
“Who?” I said.
The boat was idling a way out to sea, and the collection of what Allison had called the Straussmenner were trooping down a little whard toward a boat made of what – and I here I rubbed at my eyes and looked again – appeared to be made of something like white bone!
“Two hundred years ago,” John Allison said. “They came here from Germany. The Deep…”
Here he trailed off, as if lost momentarily in thought. Together we watched the strange little men load up their boat with bundles and sacks.
“The Deep has a way of changing people,” Allison said. “It has been unkind to them. They call themselves Christians,” John Allison said. “But I am not certain it is so.”
I do not know what he meant by that. I still do not. The Saints do not speak of the Straussmenner.
“Their boat,” I said. “What is it made of?”
“Piltsz,” John Allison said.
“It is a fungus which grows here. The Straussmenner cultivate it. It is almost as hard as wood, and very light. They make their boats of it.”
I squinted at the boat. It was, perhaps, fifteen feet long. I tried to imagine a mushroom so large that a boat could be made of it, and failed.
“They must be very large. The fungus, I mean.”
Allison inclined his head slowly.
“Large indeed,” he said.
We put in at a small wharf down on the end of the Brighton sprawl. A sharp bluff loomed above us, capped by a ramshackle warehouse of some description. No sooner had we dropped anchor than I heard a shrill whistle from the docks near at hand, and then: “Saints! Saints!”
The call went up from some unseen member of the throng, and heads turned to look at us. I believe that I saw some of the people there turn and duck away, as if afraid.
“Some greeting,” I said to me host. He curled his lip in a half-smile.
“Some greeting, indeed.”
The gangplank, once laid, bore me to the slick stone of the wharf, a step behind Allison. Once our feet were upon solid ground, two of the young Saints disembarked with us. The third, William, stayed behind. Together, John Allison, myself, James and Charles began to advance toward the edge of the crowd.
Just once, I glanced back at the boat, to where young William had stood. I saw him there, at the prow, bent at the waist and rummaging. Just for a moment, in the instant before I turned away, I believe that I saw him come up with something out of the box he was examining. I believe that it was a rifle.
The crowd saw us coming and parted, like the sea before Moses. I did not know what to make of that, and half expected John Allison to turn and address me over his shoulder, to offer some placating explanation for the phenomenon. Perhaps this was a gesture of respect for the Saintly protectors who stood against the pirates, and whose light shone so brightly in the dark.
But I looked on the faces we passed, and do not think this is so. John Allison, for his part, kept his peace.
The ground beneath us rose. The wharf merged seamlessly into a broad avenue, paved with hexagonal soapstone cobbles of unknown, but presumably ancient, provenance. Buildings rose to either side, their cupolas and the peaks of their roofs all but lost in shadow. If I may take a moment to indulge myself, let me say this: I am a tall man, and blessed be, for it was only by standing on the tips of my toes that I was able to see the street at all – the crowd here seemed, impossibly, thicker than that which had populated the wharves.
The Rue Oraculum, this. The street of the oracles.
I heard song, in that palce, percolating up through the press of people to my ears. I heard guitar and calliope, an ill-tuned piano, and flutes. I heard the raucous singing of sea-shanties and the plucking of strange and unfamiliar strings. The music all seemed somehow… wrong. Like stilted speech or the walk of a one-legged man, the music was almost, but not quite, right. It unsettled me.
I know not what all we passed – soon enough the whole of my attention was wrapt up in keeping track of John Allison as he shouldered his way through the crowd. When we were seen, and recognized for what we were, people habitually stood aside, but mostly no one stopped to look at us as they shouldered by, and so we were much jostled and pressed by the crowd. I believe that many of the buildings we passed (which ranged in design, some being almost cathedrals, others lowly huts, still others new, timber-built things) were taverns, for much drunkenness was in evidence there.
All around me the crowd seethed, waves passing through it like the sea. Above us, the vault of heaven was the onyx of the darkest, moonless night, and between the un-sky and my eyes hung a haze of stinging smoke, which caught the lights of a hundred lanterns and glowed darkly with it. The hubbub was intoxicating, overwhelming – my head swam with it as if with drink, and presently my heart began to pound against my ribs. THis place was wrong, unnatural – how could it be, that such an impossible city could exist on God’s earth? How could it be that all of these people, all of these traders and merchantmen and soldiers-of-fortune and all the rest be so unknown to me? That which was around me was easily the rival of the docks at Red Hook or Hong Kong, I am sure, and yet-
John Allison was gone. I stopped where I was and tried to see over the crowd. I could not find him. Around me the crowd jostled and shoved me. I called out Allison’s name, but my voice was lost in the din. I swore and tried again to stand on the tips of my toes and find him, but could not.
Gradually, I began to panic.
Rudely, most rudely, I am sorry to say, I began to shove folk here and there. I set my course for the edges of the road, toward the yawning, dark maw of an alleyway. A panic had taken hold of me, and I felt that I could not breath. I made for the comparative openness of the alleyway with the determination of a drowning man, making for the surface.
I very nearly made it.
But there was, all of a sudden, a hand, bunched in the fabric of my jacket. A hand which was pulling me to the side, in, in through a doorway. I stumbled, regained my footing, and stumbled again, looking down at the ground to discover I had tripped over the legs of some drunken sailor, fast asleep and propped against a wall. I was inside, within one of the great cathedrals which lined this road – up ancient steps and along decaying catwalks, my guide a vague shadow in my vision, until the hand released me –
And slammed into my chest, palm open, pushing my back into a wall.
I was breathing very hard, and it took several seconds for my savior to resolve himself in my vision. Water dripped, elsewhere, and I heard things move in the shadows.
“Hello there,” the man said, his voice a high-lilting, jovial tone, totally at odds with the gothic pile in which we found ourselves. Ruddy light filtered in from somewhere, and illuminated the face of a man who I would judge to be in his early thirties. His face was long and thin, dark-complected, and his hair bound up in a bun behind his head. He wore oiled wool and leather, and I caught the glint of steel about his waist.
“My name is Samuel Broadbent, and I believe that you find yourself in my debt,” my savior said, and he bared milkwhite teeth at me in what I suppose must have been a grin.
“I-” I began. I gasped, gulped for breath, my heart still hammering at my ribs. I bent, resting my hands on my knees, and turned my head to address the man called Samuel Broadbent.
Too late. He was squatting down to look me in the eye, still smiling. He had a gun in his hand.