Fiction Excerpt: “Red Hell” by Renee Stern
By Renee Stern
Art by Jim & Ruth Keegan
From Black Gate 14, copyright © 2010 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved
Still damp from the bathhouse, Kellen hurried along bustling Kitchen Street to Soiberon’s office. Even with what he’d spent on the rare luxury of a warm soak and a hot meal, his coin pouch made a comforting weight against his chest.
The dizziness hadn’t returned. Perhaps Soiberon would offer more work. It couldn’t compare to Angolen’s brewery, but clearing drains, despite the smell, suited him better than some hires he’d been forced into — and realms away from slaving under Joff’s thumb.
He turned at the wineseller’s and strode halfway down the quiet street to Soiberon’s office. The labor contractor’s door was shut, and Kellen faltered an instant until he argued himself into the conclusion that Soiberon was conferring in private with someone. Sunset was a good hour away and Soiberon might not expect any of his day hires so early.
Kellen knocked at the door but heard no noise within. No light showed at the keyhole or below the kick plate. Called away on business then. He’d wait for Soiberon’s return.
He paced before the door, marking time without the leaning on walls or squatting on the step that might be mistaken for loitering and vagrancy. He had a ready defense for any Council Guards who might question him, but he knew from hard experience that it was better to avoid the attention in the first place.
A woman leaned out a second-story window in the building across the street to pull in her airing featherbed and frowned down at him. Two joiner’s apprentices, sawdust still clinging to their clothes, looked carefully away from Kellen and whispered together as they passed.
Kellen paced in tighter turns, his hands fidgeting, and kept a sharp watch for Soiberon. The woman with the featherbed emerged from her door and stalked toward Kitchen Street, skirts snapping behind her. She didn’t carry a basket, and the absence niggled at Kellen. As he watched, frozen, she entered the wineseller’s and emerged with a man in tow. They stood beside the shop looking toward him, then dropping their gazes to consult a paper the man held, and back again at Kellen.
Alarm bells rang in his head. He hooked his hands in his pockets and strolled in the opposite direction. He’d done nothing to warrant this attention, but he knew all too well that such distinctions often didn’t matter for the powerless — and day laborers who bore an indenture bar were the lowest of the low in Red Hill.
“Stop!” the man shouted behind him, but Kellen pretended he hadn’t heard.
Ignoring the prickle of unfriendly eyes on him, he walked a little faster to turn right at the first intersection. An alley angled off almost immediately, a shortcut past the close that housed an extended family of tinsmiths. Kellen darted across Kitchen Street and took the familiar alley that curved around the base of the hill and led to the abandoned close of fire-ravaged houses he’d made his doss six months ago. Too-Tall and Preacher had moved in after him; they were too decent to chase him out, and their authority among the homeless day laborers ensured their privacy. He could hole up there until his closest mates helped him understand what had gone wrong today.
Halfway down the alley he heard booted feet snap against the rough cobbles, and ducked into a joiner’s roofed porch packed with tall stacks of lumber. The ward to prevent pilfering lit a faint red glow from Kellen’s indenture bar, but the fragrant stack he crouched behind blocked it from the alley.
It was a man, walking back toward Kitchen Street. Kellen recognized the white linen shirt and carefully trimmed honey-blond hair, and stepped out from the porch.
“Master Soiberon,” he called softly.
The labor contractor whirled, his face creasing in a bright-toothed grin when he recognized Kellen.
“I’ve been looking for you, lad.” A stern look shoved away his initial smile. “You’ve brought a storm of trouble down on us both, and for what? I trusted you.”
Kellen stared at him, shaking his head. Words had deserted him.
“I couldn’t believe the charges when Master Tandery came to me,” Soiberon said. “I went hunting you to hear your side of the story. Imagine my horror when I found Tully trying to fence Tandery’s candlesticks and wine service for you.”
“What? Tandery’s cried thief against me? I’ve stolen nothing, not today or any day since I came to Red Hill!” Even as the protest poured out of his mouth, the consequences bounced around his head. Years in the mines for thieving. Years under Joff’s thumb.
His mind conjured up the bread he’d snatched that very morning. Preacher’s rebuke thundered in his ears: You’re rolling straight downhill to damnation. The last word seemed to echo, and his stomach tumbled, swamping the back of his throat with bile.
“The evidence is against you,” Soiberon said, grimly sympathetic. “You worked a hire there today and knew the house was empty. You were seen leaving early. And Tully says you gave him the stolen goods. He might be a troublemaker, but he knows you too well to mistake you for another.” He paused. “You’re not unknown to the Council Court either, are you, lad? That won’t help you plead innocence.”
“Three months for brawling is a far cry from theft.” Kellen’s guttering hopes dimmed even further. Master Tandery sat on the Council. His friends would show a thief no mercy.
Now Kellen understood that business back at Soiberon’s office. He slanted a wary look at the contractor. “Looking for me, you say? To bring me before your friends on the Council Court?”
Soiberon held up a wide-spread hand. “It’s the best you can hope for, lad. I retrieved Master Tandery’s silver from Tully. Let me plead your case for you.”
Kellen took a half-step back, ready to run. “You call that my best hope? Will you walk me to the mines as well, persuading me that the years locked away from the sun will race by and make me a better man?”
A thin smile flashed across Soiberon’s face. “It’s not nearly so dire, lad. Turning yourself in will count in your favor. I’ll reunite Master Tandery with his property and testify to your character; that should incline the Council Court to some mercy. You might escape with only eight years.”
Kellen shuddered, remembering stooped, wheezing workers at the end of their five-year contract, coal dust tattooing their skin and choking their lungs.
“If you want to help, kill me now and drag my body to the Council Court,” he said. “That would be a true mercy. At least I’d be free of Red Hill.”
Soiberon licked his lips, eyes wide. “You’re young, lad. It’s surely not so bad as that.” He shook himself and stretched out a hand; Kellen retreated. “I’m trying to help you, fool. Is this how you’d repay me? Think how it would look — I hire a man who turns out to be a thief, then kill him before he can speak to the Council Court? I’ll be implicated! Ruined.”
Kellen stilled, eyes narrowed. “Then help yourself by finding me a way to escape! If I go to the mines, you’ll go with me.” He hated himself in that moment, but desperation drove him hard. “What are a few lies to a thief?”
“Are you mad? You know there’s no escape, not while you still carry that bar.” Soiberon frowned down at muddy cart tracks drying on the cobbles. “Not unless… no. It’s too risky.”
Hands curled into fists, Kellen edged forward. “What? Tell me, whatever it is, or I’ll say you put me up to robbing Tandery. I know what a careful line a Niscalese like you has to walk in this town these days.” He hated himself even more for falling so low, but he needed every lever now to guard against Soiberon’s betrayal and win his escape.
“Funny you should put it in those terms.” Soiberon’s lips twitched as he brushed his thumb and two fingers over his shirt, just below the first button. “It’s my own bolt-hole.” Bitterness edged his words. “Just in case a Niscalese like me ever needed one.”
Rolling straight downhill to damnation. Kellen pushed Preacher’s words aside. “I’ll buy the secret from you,” he said, urgency deepening his voice. “Everything I have is yours, little though it might be to you. Help me disappear. You can return the silver, I’ll be gone and no one can prove anything against you.”
The contractor tipped his head to the side, lips pressed tight, while Kellen’s heart raced and his muscles jittered. “You’re a bold lad,” Soiberon said at last, pulling a gold ring on a chain from around his neck. He removed the ring and held it up. “Niscalese magic.”
“That’s your bolt-hole?” Kellen winced at how sharp he sounded. “I mean —”
Soiberon waved away his words. “I know what you meant. Why would I give this up? I’m not ready to abandon all I’ve built here. Perhaps I may never need this ring, but if I don’t give it to you, you’ll destroy me. Pay me what you’ve saved and I’ll at least have some profit.”
“What makes you think it will work against this?” Kellen traced the indenture bar on his forehead. He wanted to believe, but all magic lit up his bar with a betraying red glow. All magic, from the weakest ward against vermin to the demonfire that infused every plank of the airships.
“Try it and see.” The contractor tossed the ring at Kellen, who caught it instinctively. The metal was smooth and heavy with the lure of wealth. His skin itched where the ring touched it, and he rolled it between his thumb and forefinger.
“Put it on and look at yourself.” Soiberon pointed to the rain barrel at the edge of the joiner’s porch, storing water against a fire.
Kellen choked the words, “I’ve seen my face before,” in his throat and shoved the ring on his forefinger. It fit snugly, more right than gold had call to on his cracked and calloused skin. The lingering itch where it pressed he attributed to doubts and perhaps the bite of a conscience.
He strode over to the barrel, tilting his head to catch his reflection in the waning light. A stranger stared back at him: pale and white-blond, with a neat mustache and beard, and most shocking of all, a broad forehead unmarred by an indenture bar or any marks at all.
His flinch rocked the barrel and the reflection shimmered and disappeared. He steadied the barrel, watched the stranger’s face form again, and reached a trembling hand up to trace the bar he knew had to still be there. Nothing. Even when the ring rubbed against the mark his forehead felt cool. Next he touched his upper lip; in the mirror, he brushed the mustache, but his finger felt only bare skin beneath it.
His eyes grew even wider — pale blue, he saw in the water — and tugged the ring free. One instant he was blond, bearded, blue-eyed, and the next he was himself again, indenture bar and all. He blinked, unable to pull his eyes away, and slid the ring back on his finger, watching his eyes change from brown to blue without a single flicker of red above them.
Kellen sucked in a deep breath tinged with the ever-present coal smoke. I’m wearing freedom on my finger! He forced himself to face Soiberon and fumbled for his store of coins, snapping the cord from his neck in his haste. “I can’t thank you enough for this chance, Master Soiberon,” he stammered. “Shall we clap the deal sealed?”
The contractor grinned and held up his palm. “Don’t get caught and you’ll help me as well, lad.”
As they pressed palms, the itch on the skin under the ring flared, then died back. Kellen supposed he’d grow used to the feel of gold eventually. “I hadn’t expected the day’s hire to end this way, but I’m glad it did. And if you’ll excuse my saying so, I hope our paths never cross again.”
Soiberon’s eyes glittered. “I wish the same myself. I’ll go now, but don’t dawdle, lad.”
Kellen hugged himself as he watched the contractor stride toward Kitchen Street. He could almost smell the lowlands: the salt air of the coast, bitter hops on the vine at harvest, incense and perfume mingling with sweat and dark potent wine in the dancehalls. His head swam with the promise, and he wrenched himself back to the coal dust and demonfire that pressed down on him with even greater force.
Not for much longer. He clasped the thought tight and shuffled his feet when they itched to dance.
He rubbed the ring with his thumb and strode after Soiberon, to Kitchen Street and the warehouse yards where the airships — and blessed, impossible freedom — moored.
The complete version of “Red Hell” appears in Black Gate 14.
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