Port Jericho, 10, 000 ft above the Aeryth Ocean, Year of the Zarcon Eagle, 2364 CE
It was spring when I first arrived on Port Jericho, fresh from having served five years in the Ne Rameridean army. I had joined when I was scarce 15 summers old. My family had perished in a plague that had near wiped out our entire village. For an orphan, the army seemed a logical place to go. Needless to say, I was no stranger to fighting.
The Jerachi mercenary guilds were always hiring and there was never a shortage of work. For the right price, the Hunter and mercenary guilds would take all manner of jobs, so long as it did not bring them in conflict with other contracted Jerachi or Port Jericho itself. Despite this, I was unable to find a place with one of the guilds, though not for lack of trying.
‘We’re all full,’ the recruiting sergeant would say. ‘Try back later.’
Failing to find work with the mercenary guilds, I turned my attention to the other types of work to be found on Port Jericho. I ended up in the notorious Firefly Alley, working for one of the House Dames. The thing you should know about Jericho. . . you can find whatever you’re looking for here. The Alley is the district to go to to slake your sexual cravings. No matter how depraved or odd your desires are, there is almost certainly a place within Firefly that catered to it. Now. . . some things certainly aren’t, but most desires can be fulfilled. ‘Alley’ is a misnomer, really. Firefly Alley comprises almost the entire South Ward district, with the tamer establishments located nearest the Rim Wall, where newcomers first disembark.
At night, the Alley can be a truly beautiful place. Each establishment has an Artifice lamp hanging beneath its sign, accompanied by two or three smaller ones. If you know how to read them, the softly glowing lights that give the Alley its name can tell you exactly what the establishment offers. Pale yellow means you just get scantily clad dancers. A deeper yellow means the dancers are in the buff. Muted magenta will lead you to places whose courtesans offer straight sex. Orbs of sapphire, amethyst or emerald herald more exotic play. Smaller orbs tinted gold or silver will tell you if the courtesans or dancers are female or male.
These are oft encased in larger lamps tinted gold or silver that will tell you the pairings offered. Silver inside gold tells you that men will entertain women. Gold inside silver means that women will entertain men. Gold/gold and silver/silver pairings also exist, as do outer orbs of gold or silver with multiple gold or silver orbs inside.
Each Firefly House employs several guards, often mercenaries, who live on-site and who may find extra work as Fireflys themselves, either as dancers or courtesans. Such it was that I ended up as a simple guard, hired by Dame Eliza of the Cinder Vault, an establishment that offers many delights.
Such a lifestyle as that the Alley workers lived was so foreign to me, but. . . if you are going to live such a life, Jericho is the very best place to do so. All of the Alley workers, be they male or female, are well taken care of. Rape is an offense punishable by death, at the hands of Jericho’s magisters. Any other abuse to the Fireflys results in equally swift, often violent, retribution and that’s where I come in.
Dame Eliza had hired me as a guard, to protect her coterie of dancers and courtesans, most of whom were young females. Over the course of my time at the Cinder Vault, I would learn to earn my keep as a dancer as well, ‘flaunting that fine ass’ as Eliza put it. You’d be surprised at how much men and women alike would pay to see scantily clad men and women dance on a stage. Or perhaps you wouldn’t. . .
I had come to Jericho hoping to find a home with one of the mercenary companies. By the time I finally found a job at the Vault, my funds were desperately low. Dame Eliza took pity on me. Though all the living quarters within the Cinder Vault were occupied, the Dame did have a house nearby. She said it never stayed occupied very long, that guards and courtesans alike had fled the quarters, complaining of spooky goings-on. They had reported feelings of being watched, of having items moved or rearranged and of phantom voices and touches.
Eliza said she had stayed there alone many times and never had anything unusual happen. Now. . . I’m not a fan of the supernatural, but I was almost out of the coin to continue paying for a room at an inn. Besides, it was a place all my own, near to my new job.
The house, like all Jerachi homes, nested wall to wall with its neighbors. It was a two story cream-coloured building with blue trim. Tucked in amidst the taller buildings to left and right, my smaller house had a shadowed look, lonely and forgotten. Further evidence of its neglect could be found on the roof, where the gardens had been left to fend for themselves and failed. Eliza said I could stay here for a nominal rent, provided I got the gardens back in order.
Now. . . if you’ve never visited a skycity, especially one with so little open space, you might not know that a good portion of the city’s food comes from the rooftop gardens. Every occupied building in Jericho was required to maintain a garden. If you couldn’t tend it yourself, there were people who could be hired to tend it for you. Thankfully, I had a green thumb, courtesy of my mother. Tending the gardens should have been easy.
My new home had come with its own furnishings, sheet-shrouded ghosts covered in dusty layers of time. My first task was to air the place out. I took it one room at a time, starting with the bedroom on the first floor. In addition to the bedroom I had claimed as my own, there was on the first floor a kitchen, a small dining area, a study and a bathroom. On the upper floor were another two bedrooms and a second bathroom, as well as the stairs leading to the roof.
The first floor study and the rooms upstairs alike had accumulated all manner of junk. Given that people tended not to stay here long, I wondered how long it had actually been since these rooms had been thoroughly cleaned out. From the looks of it, things seemed to have been added with each consecutive stay, rather than being removed. The second bedroom on the upper storey was the worst and, in the end, it would take me almost as long to clean out this one room as it had the rest of the house.
There was also a small basement. Accessed from the kitchen area via a slightly winding staircase, it was more root cellar than true basement. The temperature was noticeably cooler and it was the only place in the entire house not filled with clutter. A few bins lined the shelves, once used to hold fruits, vegetables and other goods. At the far end was a small door about two feet off the ground. My light didn’t penetrate far into the inky blackness, but it appeared to be a crawlspace. I had no burning desire to explore it. The basement itself felt claustrophobic, the air stale with neglect and the passing of years. There was also the feeling of being watched, but I chalked this up to my imagination. I had more than enough room without bothering with the root cellar, so I locked the door to it, and left both cellar and crawlspace alone.
I started the cleaning, but quickly lost interest and turned my attention instead to the rooftop garden. For the longest time, when began to clear the cluttered upstairs room, I would find myself side-tracked by something else needing my attention, usually the garden, which thrived under my care.
I had cleared out the weeds and overgrowth in the gardens, tamed the pygmy trees that remained alive (two olive, three apple) and repaired the glasshouses. From Dame Eliza I learned which crops were most needed at the time and tailored my glasshouses accordingly. I even set up an apiary. My father had been a beekeeper and I had learned a lot from him about tending hives.
Dame Eliza, impressed with my success at getting the stubborn garden to grow, put me in charge of the Cinder Vault’s gardens as well, much to the relief of the current tenders. Usually the Fireflys and the guards of a House would all take turns. Most were happy to turn their time over to me and I became the primary gardner for the Vault. I couldn’t complain. The work was immensely enjoyable and I had a steady income and a roof over my head.
Work on the interior of my new home progressed in a slow manner. One by one, I got my house in order, til all that was left was the upstairs bedroom. As I began to work on it in earnest, the feeling of being watched returned, and I would get a tingling sensation between my shoulder blades. As a soldier, it was a feeling I knew well, a signal of danger. The phantom watcher was a predator. This feeling occurred randomly, night or day, usually lasting only a few minutes.
Being that I now lived in Port Jericho, and I worked in one of the Alley Houses, I decided to learn to become a dancer. Even Fireflys who just danced could bring in a hefty sum. Dame Eliza paired me with Terren, one of the more experienced dancers. Terren had grown up within the Vault. Eliza had chosen him from one of the Alley’s wardhouses for apprenticeship at the age of eight.
Jerachi society was a far cry from what I was used to. Given the nature of the Alley, and of the city itself, both of a child’s parents were not usually known, and oftentimes caring for a child would be very inconvenient for a woman. Most babies were taken to one of the many warehouses scattered throughout the city. Here many children lived and grew together, taken care of by dedicated wardens. The wardhouses were supported by the city, and were well-provided for. Don’t misunderstand me. Children were as equally cherished and valued in Jerachi society. It was the children who would eventually become the next generation of miners, mercenaries, Alley workers, or any of the other myriad occupations to be found in the skycity. At the wardhouses the children (or whelps, as they were affectionately known) would learn a basic education, to read and write, and other skills essential to living in Jericho. Representatives of the various guilds would visit the wardhouses often, and would choose new apprentices from among the children aged seven and above.
Terren was a good teacher and I was soon ready to join the ranks of the Vault’s dancers. It had taken me quite a bit of time to grow comfortable dancing with so little clothing on, especially in front of a male teacher. The goal was to expose as much flesh as possible and the male dancers often only wore a garment that covered the front, while leaving the buttocks exposed. Female dancers wore the same, though some also wore an equally scant covering for the top. There were exceptions, like the fire dancers who manipulated flaming batons or whips, and the wind dancers, who used fans in complex dances. Both types of dancers wore either a short skirt made of overlapping strips of leather, or baggy, comfortable-looking black pants. If they were male, they danced shirtless. My eventual goal was to become a wind dancer.
A year passed before I knew it. Between tending both my glasshouses and the ones at the Vault, dancing, and guard duty, I was kept busy enough so that ignoring the feelings of being watched were easy. I avoided the upper bedroom, and the root cellar. But then a new sensation began. I grew afraid to be in my own home alone. Shortly after I passed my first year in Jericho, Terren and a new apprentice moved in with me. The Jerachi were almost as social as the Dashmari, and those who worked in the mercenary guilds or the Alley tended to live in large groups, with everyone having a small personal berth, and the communal areas being very large. Homes such as the one I occupied tended to be owned by families, or else several unrelated roommates shared the dwelling. Perhaps feeling that I shouldn’t live all alone, Terren has volunteered to move in and that was fine with me. I wanted the company, and Terren had become one of my closest friends since joining the Vault.
Not long after they moved in with me, Zeke, our young apprentice, came to me and told me he had heard scratchings coming from the walls of the upstairs bathroom. Terren and I attributed it to rodents. Though I’d never noticed any rodent activity in the time I had stayed here, I wanted to take no chances. The whiptails common to skycities could be devastating to the rooftop garden. Terren and I placed traps, but nothing ever came of it and we eventually decided the noises must have been Zeke’s imagination.
One evening Zeke was nested in his room, studying, and saw Terren go into his own bedroom. Zeke followed, wanting to ask Terren a question. However, when he went into Terren’s room, Terren wasn’t there, which wasn’t surprising given that he was working that night. Needless to say, Zeke was more than a little distressed over this, and I have to admit, I found it more than puzzling. I calmed the boy, and we stayed together in the study-turned-den until Terren came home. By that time, Zeke and I had both long since fallen asleep, he on the couch and me in one of the plush chairs.
A few days later, Zeke came down the stairs, and froze when he saw me come from the den. The poor boy’s face turned white, and he glanced back up the stairs before stammering out something I had to make him repeat twice before I understood. Zeke had once again been nested in his room studying. He said I had come into his room and we had spoken for several minutes before I had gone into the upstairs bathroom. When I had, he’d come downstairs for something to drink. Yet there I was, downstairs, with the only way down being the stairs he’d used. There was no way I could have gotten downstairs before Zeke, never mind that I hadn’t been upstairs at all. This left him understandably frightened and confused. Me too, but I had to keep it hidden for Zeke’s sake.
Zeke’s experiences worried me. Though I hadn’t had the intense feelings of being watched since others had moved in, I didn’t feel the presence had left. Had it merely turned its attention to the youngest and most vulnerable of the household?