The Itch by A.C. Arquin. Copyright 2022 by Words on the Wind, LLC
Tak was unprepared for the bustle of the market. The cries of vendors hawking their wares rang out over the narrow cobblestone streets, already packed with early shoppers determined to get the best produce. A coffee cart trundled by releasing steam, an urn as big as a barrel balanced atop a tri-wheeled frame. The smell of fresh fish weighed upon the humid air, so heavy he could taste it. He was jostled and shoved by a savage horde of shawl-wrapped grandmothers, their little wire carts stuffed with brightly colored sacks full of plundered spinach and herbs.
"Where do they all come from?" he wondered aloud, dodging a white-haired bullet with what looked like at least a hundred pounds of green beans tied to the legs of her walker.
"I thought you were a morning person. Don't old people get up early in the compound?"
"Well, yeah, sure, of course they do. But they don't do this..." He waved his hands around in an attempt to capture with gestures what he was failing to get out of his mouth. He accidentally elbowed a stout bogwife in the curlers, and she cracked him across the shins with her wooden staff in return.
"Ow! Scam it! Why do they carry those things?"
"They use them to test the depth of the bog in front of them while they're harvesting cintaweed and palanfruit."
"I know, I'm not an idiot. It was a rhetorical question," Tak sulked, rubbing his shin.
"How am I supposed to know what you do and don't know about the world? You seem to have been pretty well insulated in your little Strata bubble. OK, come this way."
She gripped him by the elbow with her claw and steered him into a narrow alley cluttered with dim little stalls. Although the contact made his skin crawl, he was surprised at how gentle the rubber pads on her claw were.
"What's the story with that, anyway?" he asked, indicating her bronze limb.
"Another time. We're here."
"Here" was a tight cluster of stalls piled high with brightly patterned fabrics. Blankets and skirts hung from sagging awnings, obscuring the proprietors.
Ridi ducked her head beneath a curtain of gauzy shawls and leaned into one of the stalls.
"Ka' dos ta malonezis?"
"Maltous. Sa'lampid ta faltez." The voice that answered her was dry and raspy, the gravely consonants rumbling out of an inhuman throat.
Tak caught a glimpse of a beady black eye and a russet ridge of shell across the proprietor's forehead. He stepped back in surprise.
"Sa'crabitons," Ridi corrected, glaring at him. "Don't be insulting."
"You speak their language?" Tak goggled at her. Her bronze arm almost seemed normal compared to this.
"Badly. Just enough to sketch out an understanding when I need to."
"This is too weird." Tak swiveled his head, examining the stalls around them. He noticed that he couldn't see any of the proprietors' faces. Goosebumps prickled his skin as all the stories he'd heard about the sand crabs came back to him. They were a secretive people, hostile to outsiders. More importantly, they controlled most of the illegal activities in the Undercity, and were known for brutally stamping out their competitors. He lowered his voice to a hiss. "Are all of these Sand—I mean, Sa'crabiton stands? I didn't even know there were many Sa'crabs in the city."
"Which just proves your ignorance."
"Should we even be here?"
Ridi sighed and took him by the shoulders, forcing him to look at her.
"Calm down. We'll be fine as long as you stay cool. If you freak out, they will freak out. Understand?" She held him pinned until he took a deep breath and gathered himself.
He nodded. "OK."
She released him, and Tak rubbed his shoulder. The claw fingers had been considerably less gentle that time around.
"How do you know about this place? How do you speak... whatever you call their language?"
"Unlike you, I've lived in the Undercity my whole life. This is my home. I know a lot of things you don't."
"Fair enough." Tak shook his head ruefully. "I guess I should have known better than to bet against you. Lesson learned. You were right. Can we get out of here now?"
"All right, all right, come on," Ridi laughed. "You're worse than my grandmother."
As they made their way out of the alley, Tak caught a clear glimpse of one of the Sa'crabs. It was rolling a bolt of green patterned silk around the bulge of its claw, the hard ridgeline of the thing's shell overshadowing its liquid black eyes as it watched them go. Tak shuddered, remembering the stories of men being torn apart by those claws. He ducked his head and walked faster.
Ridi led him east, toward the sun, the streets shining like burnished copper beneath their feet. A trickle of sweat ran down his temple, the humidity making it hot despite the early hour. Tak grimaced and wiped it away. He didn't think he'd ever get used to the oppressive thickness of the lowland air, so unlike the dry altitude of Newcape.
The streets grew narrow and became clogged with litter. He could see what she meant about the neighborhood. The buildings shrank and started to lose little things like paint, doors, windows, and sometimes even walls. After ten minutes of walking, about the only difference between the neighborhood and a shantytown was that most of the buildings here were permanent. Though some of them had deteriorated so far, even that looked liable to change at a moment's notice.
"Stay close, there are a lot of shady characters here."
"And what, you're going to protect me?" Tak scoffed. "I'm not very big, but I still outweigh you."
"This arm does a lot more than just look pretty." Ridi popped a wicked-looking six-inch blade from a sheath built into her wrist. "You've got a lot to learn, strat-boy. Remember to breathe so you don't drown in the stream of ignorance flowing out of your mouth, OK?"
She led him into the doorless shell of a two-story apartment building. The front entranceway reeked of piss, and none of the windows facing the street had glass to go with their tattered curtains. Heaps of crumbled cement and bent nails landscaped the cracked floor with rust and treachery.
"People actually live here?" Tak inspected a jagged, head-sized hole in the wall that had been roughly patched by stuffing it full of rags and scraps of wood.
"Yes, lots of people. Families. This"—Ridi pointed to the doorless entrance—"is normal in the Undercity. The people who live here own a permanent residence in a building; they're practically considered upper class."
"Come on, now you're just messing with me."
"No, I'm not. This is why I get mad when you talk about Mastrat not being responsible. Things could be—no, should be—so much better than this tox." She raised her hand, forestalling his reply. "Save it, we can debate politics later. We've got other business here."
Tak raised his eyebrows as she hinged a flashlight up out of her forearm and led him down a dark, narrow staircase.
"Is there anything that arm can't do? Who designed it, some survivalist fanatic?"
"I designed it," she said icily. "Unlike what you may have learned growing up in your tidy little compound, children in the Undercity learn that being prepared can save your life."
Tak bit down on a sarcastic retort. The truth was, external body mods made him uncomfortable. In the compounds, external mods were considered vulgar, and the rare deviants who did get them kept their mods tastefully hidden beneath their clothes. In the Undercity, it seemed like the gearjoiners and chameleons went out of their way to rub your nose in it. Even though he could see the use of something as outlandish as Ridi's arm, it still felt deeply wrong to him. It was all he could do not to flinch away every time she used it.
He wrinkled his nose at the increasing mildew smell as they descended into a low-ceilinged basement. Ducking behind Ridi's thin beam of light, he followed her down a puddled hallway of mud and slime. She stopped, facing a small red door.
The paint was shiny and smooth and, although it only came up to his chest, the door itself was well constructed and sturdy. A polished brass knocker shaped like a large raindrop striking a cloud adorned its center. It was by far the nicest thing Tak had seen in the entire building, yet despite the squalor and filth around it, it looked like it belonged there. He felt a charge in the air, a black storm wall rolling up beyond the horizon.
"Go ahead. Knock."
"Me?" Sweat ran down his neck as he looked from Ridi to the brass raindrop and back again. He licked his lips. "Why me?"
"You're the supplicant, you have to knock."
Abruptly the door seemed squat, red, and ominous. Sinister. The hair prickled on the backs of his hands. The last thing he wanted to do was touch that door.
"Why can't you do it?"
"Because I'm not the one with a question." Ridi enunciated her words carefully, as if he were an idiot. "Look, this is the best way I know to find your satchel. If you want it back, knock. If you don't, then let's go. I've got other things to do today."
Tak's mind churned. The door felt like a threshold, leading to things he'd rather not know about, like an attic full of cobwebby things best forgotten. If he crossed it, there would be no turning back.
He shook his head. He was being ridiculous. He was already trapped in the Undercity; things couldn't get any worse. If he wanted to get back to where he belonged, he had to go forward.
Taking a deep breath, he reached out, the raindrop smooth and icy cold beneath his fingertips. The light from the flashlight refracted within the metal, giving it strange, crystalline depths. He pulled it back and knocked.
The raindrop splashed against the brass cloud and the sound rang up and down the hall, echoing through the basement like water falling from a great height. Reverberations twisted in Tak's ears as though his head were submerged in water. His pulse raced, his skin alive with electricity, every hair on his body standing on end. When the echoes at last died away, a latch snapped back in the frame, and the door silently swung inward.
A plump old woman stood beyond the door, puffy grey curls haloing a round face with pink cheeks and merry blue eyes. Fuzzy black slippers peeked out from under the hem of her sky-blue house dress.
"Um, hello, I—"
She cut him off with a raised finger, pursing her lips and peering up at him through wide, brown-framed spectacles. Tak squirmed before her scrutiny. Finally, she nodded to herself and waved her hand.
"Come in." She spoke sharply to Ridi, "Not you. You wait outside."
Ridi inclined her head, looking unsurprised.
"Go ahead, I'll be out front when you're done." When Tak hesitated, she rolled her eyes. "She's not going to hurt you. Stop being such a baby."
She was right; he was being a baby. The woman was probably just a kindly old grandmother who would look at the lines on his hand and make a bunch of sweeping, general statements about his future. A waste of time, but surely nothing to be worried about.
He ducked through the doorway. Inside was a surprisingly cozy sitting room, with soft armchairs and thick, patterned rugs gathered around a crackling fireplace. A small table and chairs sat off to one side of the room, and it was to these that the old woman directed him.
"Have a seat and I'll get us some tea. Won't be a moment." Before he could reply, she scampered through a short hall, presumably into the kitchen.
Tak did as directed, lowering himself onto one of the ladder-back wooden chairs. The chairs and table were dark, polished fine-grained wood, and as far as Tak could tell the rugs and furniture were good quality as well. He looked around at the cozy little room with bemusement. It was nothing like what he'd expected. It felt more like a cabin in the woods than an apartment in the basement of a falling-down building. He wondered how in the world the old woman managed to live like this amid so much squalor.
"Never you mind, dear," she said, bustling back into the room bearing a pair of teacups and a steaming kettle on a silver tray. "Some things in life you just have to accept the way that they are."
"Um, OK." Had she just answered his thought? Surely not.
He watched as she set out the milk, sugar, and two small plates of gingersnaps, her plump, veiny hands moving with calm purpose. "I'm Tak. Ridi didn't tell me your name."
"Mmmhmm." She lifted the kettle and poured the tea, a rich, dark brew that teased Tak's nose with traces of cardamom and cinnamon. "I don't put much stock in names, myself. You can call me what you will. Sugar?"
"No, thank you. Just cream. But... what do other people call you?"
"Oh, lots of things. If you like, you can call me Blossom. I always did like that name." She plopped down in the chair opposite him and sipped her tea.
"Mmmm, that's good tea. It's getting harder and harder to find good tea these days. The stuff they grow in the greenhouses just doesn't taste the same." She sighed heavily. "Oh well, the world turns, and the only thing you can be certain of is that things change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but never the same, that's for sure." She gazed into the fire, the flames dancing within her pupils.
Tak followed her eyes across the room and noticed a well-thumbed copy of the Book of Gears on the small table beside the sofa. He groaned softly. A Gear Cultist. No wonder Ridi had brought him here.
Blossom continued, seeming unaware of his distraction.
"I used to like it, to tell you the truth. Change was exciting; I couldn't wait to see what would happen next. But nowadays, I don't know. I find I prefer my little house where nothing ever changes more and more with each year that passes. Maybe I'm just getting old." She sipped her tea, blinking moisture out of her eyes. "But enough about me. You've lost something, is that right?"
"Yes. How did you know?" He took a sip of tea, enjoying the way the sweet, spicy brew coated his tongue.
"Never mind that, I've got my ways. What is it you're looking for?"
"A leather satchel. A guttersnipe stole it from me yesterday. I chased her down, but she got away."
"Ah, that's where your black eyes came from." Tak looked down into his cup, embarrassed. "Never mind, we all get made fools of from time to time. Tell me about this satchel. What's so important about it?"
"It was the last thing my father gave to me before he died. Also, it's got my research notes in it. They're irreplaceable. Without them, I—"
"That's fine, I don't need the entire story. I just have to make sure it's valuable to you. Things can't be traced unless you have a strong emotional connection to them. You do. That's enough." She dipped a gingersnap in her tea and took a bite, waving the other half as she spoke. "Now, what is it worth to you? What will you give to get it back?"
"Anything you want. I don't have much money, but I'll give you what I have. Without those notes, I'll never get my name back."
"That's what you want, is it? Your name back?"
"Yes. More than anything."
Blossom cackled and popped the rest of the cookie into her mouth.
"What? Why is that funny?" he asked.
"Oh, calm down, boy. The things that people think they want amuses me, that's all. We're all so busy lying to ourselves, it's a wonder we ever accomplish anything at all."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I only mean that the heart is a mysterious place, and it likes to keep its own counsel. Let's just leave it at that. But we were discussing payment." She dunked another gingersnap, eyeing him speculatively. "I think... Yes. A favor."
"A favor? What kind of favor?"
"Whatever kind I have need of."
Tak's limbs had gotten heavy as the warmth of the tea spread through his body. His thoughts drifted, hazy and slow. He tried to focus through a widening yawn.
"You're not going to ask me to jump off a bridge or something, are you?"
Blossom cackled again and smiled, her lips peeling back from her teeth to reveal brown incisors streaked with black lines of decay.
"A wise question. No, I won't ask you to jump off a bridge or something."
He looked at her. The old woman seemed nice enough. A favor seemed a small thing, and he supposed it was better than asking for money he didn't have.
"OK. It's a deal."
"Wonderful. Let's get down to business then, shall we?" She uncovered a ceramic bowl full of small copper gears and pushed it into the center of the table. "Give me your hand."
So it was just going to be a Gear Cult reading after all. And here Tak had been half convinced that she was actually going to help him. Oh, well. He obediently extended his hand, palm up.
Blossom wrapped her dry, leathery fingers around his wrist. Then, before Tak even had time to register what she was doing, she produced a small blade and drew it swiftly across his palm, parting his flesh like pudding crust. Tak cursed and tried to yank his hand back, but the old woman had an iron grip. She let blood pool for a few seconds before tilting his palm to the side. He watched in horror as bright red blood dripped down over the bowl of tiny gears, the red darkening to purple on the polished metal.
She released him and bent her face over the bowl, absently pushing a dish towel in his direction. Tak scowled and wrapped it around his palm.
"You could have warned me."
"Shush." Blossom didn't even look at him. He leaned back in his chair, sulking.
The old woman dipped a gnarled finger in the bowl, gears tinkling as she stirred them about. She muttered to herself, looking for all the world as if she were trying to decide what to add to a soup. Minutes passed. Occasionally she touched the tiny gear-teeth with a fingertip, but mostly she just stared.
"I see some intriguing connections here. Upheavals and aqueducts. What is it you do?"
"I'm a biologist. Or at least I was."
"Hmmmmm. Yes, that makes sense." She looked up at him, cold calculation in her blue eyes. "You have an important part to play in the struggle ahead. This arrangement might turn out to be very beneficial to both of us."
"Struggle? I just want my satchel back."
"And you shall get it, never fear." She turned her attention back to the gears.
Time dragged, and the lethargy came upon him again. Tak's eyes slowly sagged closed. Floating in warm darkness, he felt something prick the side of his neck. Then there were velvet cushions beneath his fingertips, and he was drifting through soft, warm fog. Somewhere in the distance, a cluster of blue-green lights called his name.