Anglet Sutonga is more realistic than most teenagers, but still dreams of rising above the impoverished streets of Bar-Selehm. When an opportunity comes along, will she take it? And what does she risk in order not to throw away her shot? A novelette set before the events of A.J. Hartley’s STEEPLEJACK.
It was a long way down to the turbid waters of the river Kalihm.
I buckled myself into my harness and hooked its lanyard to the cable which ran alongside the great chain links. The chains formed a long, slow swag several hundred yards long between the towers of what will be—if it ever gets finished—Bar-Selehm’s first suspension bridge. The saddles on the tower tops where I was working featured a series of great pulley wheels which allowed the massive chains a little movement, and while that would mostly stop once the carriageway was hung, without it—and in this foul weather—the chains were constantly straining and relaxing so that the entire skeletal frame of the bridge groaned unnervingly. Occasionally, an entire link would shift over the pulley and the chain would suddenly drop a couple of feet all along its length. If you were caught under it, the weight might tear you out of your harness and send you hurtling down, so you got used to listening for the humming creak of the iron vibrating from link to link.
Though I had not admitted it even to Tanish, my eleven-year-old apprentice, I was afraid of the river, and not just because of the creatures that lived in it. Though I had grown up close to water, I had learned early to be wary of it, and I had never learned to swim.
Not that I’d get the chance here. A fall from the tower tops would be as good as hitting cobbles, so I’d be dead before the crocs got to me which was, I supposed, a kind of blessing. I knew that because I’d seen it only a week before. One of the boys from the Sidings gang—a shy, nervous kid who I had shown how to clean the paint from his brushes so he wouldn’t get shouted at by the foreman—had lost his footing in the last hour of the shift. He fell right past me and vanished noiselessly under the surging brown water. I thought I saw him resurface downstream, but he was quite still. If the crocodiles didn’t take him he was probably carried all the way into the bay and out to sea.
I never knew his name, and after the day of the accident, I didn’t hear anybody talk about it. It was, they assumed, just how things were. That they were probably right left a cold hollow in my gut.
I took hold of the guide cable in one gloved hand and drew myself along, inching out away from the tower. We had already worked the metal with scrapers and steel wool, so the surface was coated by a fine orange powder that smelled uncannily of blood. About sixty feet out, and about the same height above the temporary catwalk, I wiped away the surface rust, dipped my brush, and began to daub the bare metal with the oily paint. Black as tar and almost as thick, it dripped on everything. By the end of my first day on the job my brown arms and face, my clothes and hair had all been hard and sticky with the stuff no matter how much I washed at the pipe on the dockside. The next morning I went down to the river itself to bathe, but it was moving too fast and I couldn’t see if there were crocodiles lurking near the bank, so I gave up. Instead, and though I knew the boys would mock me, I cut my hair short with a mortar knife, returning to my tent conscious of the way the black Mahweni laborers watched me, their faces curious at what the Lani girl was doing, as if I was a strange and solitary bird, rarely seen in the city.
In a sense they were right, but I was, in fact, quite comfortable in the city—far more than I would have been out in the weancat-haunted wilds of the bush—and was just as comfortable in my strangeness and solitude. It was only being on the ground among people that unsettled me. The only benefit of working on this bridge was seeing firsthand all the details that went into its construction. The newspapers had been breathlessly telling the world that the bridge would be “the architectural jewel of Bar-Selehm.” Who wouldn’t be caught up in the excitement? The answer, apparently, was all the boys in the gang. Though I was still three months shy of my seventeenth birthday, I had been a steeplejack for more than five years and had learned a good deal about architecture and construction. Apart from Tanish, who treated everything I said as profound, my crewmates found my curiosity about such things comical. Another indicator, if any were needed, that I did not belong among them.
To me, each stage of the bridge was a step toward a glittering new order.
But after the great caissons had been opened up in the riverbed and the main pilings had been erected three years ago, the work had slowed to a trickle. Now the two main towers were in place—though they had yet to receive their stone cladding—and the great chains from which the bridge itself would hang had been rigged and stretched to their desired tension, dragged into place by great steam-driven engines built into the anchorages at each end. Great mechanical cranes, floated in on barges and moored in place, loomed over the river like vast, ponderous herons, dipping and rising, rising and dipping. At that moment, where the bridge would be, only a rickety catwalk of planks and cables connected the towers, dangling precariously from the great chains overhead. It was hard to believe that the thing would ever be the primary railway route between the city to the northwest and the docks to the southeast.
Right now the problem was the chains. The original architect had wanted steel cable, but Malden and Company—headed by Sir William Defarge—had decided that massive chain links would bear more weight and were cheaper to produce.
They also rusted.
As the project dragged on, the incomplete bridge—standing skeletal and forlorn a mile from where the Kalihm met the sea, a monument to various kinds of mismanagement and yet to bear so much as a single wagon of coal—was starting to fall apart. With each passing week the great chains corroded and flaked till it seemed impossible that the great towers would ever be more than the perches for fish eagles.
That was where I came in. Not just me, of course, but Tanish and the whole Seventh Street gang as well as the Sidings boys and the East Spires crew. Half of the steeplejacks in the city had been conscripted to sand and paint every colossal link before lasting damage was done.
To me it was more than a wage. I was proud to be a part of so noble a project, which was perhaps why I got on with my painting with a dedication unknown among my workmates. When I felt the wind pick up I doubled my efforts, determined to finish my section of the chain, because that was my job, and I always did my job. Every day I was the first in position and the last to leave when the rain got too heavy. There were days when I painted twice as much as some of the boys. Morlak, our gang leader who usually presided over my work on the chimneys and tall buildings of the city, always claimed not to notice the speed and quality of my efforts, but this was not Morlak’s project. He had merely hired me and the rest of the gang out, and other people were watching. Closely, as it turned out.
I clambered down to refill my can. I was paint streaked, my arms and shoulders trembling from the exertion of the work. In my exhaustion, I almost collided with the white foreman standing beside a man in a heavy coat whose face was shaded by a massive black umbrella. Under the foreman’s appraising gaze, I felt myself shrinking, muscles tightening in case he was going to strike me. The umbrella shuddered, collapsed, and folded. Sir William Defarge emerged from under it, scowling at the raindrops which spattered his highly polished shoes.
A tide of panic flowed through me. He was a big man in his sixties with a pouchy pink face and side whiskers so wild and full that they were almost a mane.
“You are Anglet Sutonga,” said the foreman, a blunt, hard-faced man. I had never heard him speak below a shout before. He made my name sound like an accusation, and there was a contemptuous curl to his lip as he gazed down upon his notebook.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“From Seventh Street?”
“Yes, sir,” I responded, my unease driving the next words out of me. “Is there a problem with my work?”
“Seventh Street is Mr. Morlak’s gang, is it not?”
This was Sir William.
Unable to say more, I just nodded, eyes lowered.
“There’s no need to be afraid, child,” said Sir William.
He spoke so gently, with such apparent warmth and kindness, that I looked up in astonishment to find him smiling at me.
“Morlak,” he mused, glancing at the bull-headed foreman. “What do you think?”
The foreman leaned over the catwalk and spat expressively into the river. “He’ll try to chisel you,” he said. “Especially if he thinks she’s worth keeping.”
He sounded doubtful that anyone might, and Sir William read the confusion in my face.
“Do you always work as hard as you have done here?” he asked. “I see you up there scampering about like a red-tailed civet: quite fearless! And you never miss a bit, do you? Mr. Harkson here has to send your fellows back up time after time to repaint the parts they miss as soon as the chain turns, but not you, eh, Miss Sutonga? Never you.”
“I try to give satisfaction, sir,” I said.
“I see that indeed,” he answered, opening his umbrella as the rain intensified and using it to shade us both. He stepped so close I almost touched his great round belly. Harkson scowled at being left out in the weather and spat again.
“How would you feel about coming to work for me?” said Sir William.
Again, I looked up into his pink, bewhiskered face with the kind of confusion that was almost alarm.
“I thought that I was,” I said.
“Subcontracted to me through Mr. Morlak, yes,” said Sir William, starting to walk the creaking catwalk toward the city side so that I was obliged to move with him. “But I have workers of my own who are paid as individuals, men and women who receive a weekly wage in their own right. They work regular hours. They get sick time, even holidays. They can live where they like, but they have first refusal of the rather excellent houses my own company has built beside the Dock Street fish market. Perhaps you know them?”
I stared at him.
Yes, I knew them. They were real brick houses with painted wooden trim and slate roofs and little squares of garden by the front doors where flowering bushes grew. They had fireplaces, and running water, and the streets outside were plumbed for gaslight. More pointedly, they were not the squalid tents of the riverside camp or the derelict weavers’ shed on Seventh Street where I normally lived with the gang.
I generally tried not to speculate on impossible things. My hopes for the future rarely went beyond food for my belly, my own fierce privacy, and a roof over my head. Longer term health, wealth, and happiness were the stuff of novels and of my most secret of fantasies. In those idle dreams I might have allowed myself to imagine a day when, as a result of skill earned from exacting repetition day after long, dangerous day, I came to live in one of those neat brick houses . . .
Sir William waited for my answer. I only nodded.
He seemed pleased by this. “Well then, follow me.”
The steady drumming of the rain on the umbrella was hypnotic. As we walked, I risked a glance up at him and found him gazing at the work site which had, by this time, become a little town in its own right. Tents, shelters, cabins, and sheds had sprouted along the south bank of the river at the other end of the bridge, the whole impromptu settlement thick with noise and smoke and a steady, sour stink at all hours. The work crew had to be fed and clothed, their tools maintained, their boots and aprons mended. Every morning new pieces of equipment were rolled into place, and every night the place flared with drunken squabbling and the occasional bellow that you had to consider for a moment to figure out if you’d caught the end of a joke, or the end of a life. The dragoons kept to the edges of the camp, their rifles loaded and bayonetted, but it was clear that they were there to keep us from straying and didn’t much care what happened inside.
The camp was segregated, of course: the Mahweni were on what had been waste ground on the dock side, sleeping in prefabricated sheds they had raised themselves in the first days of the job, while the whites—the smallest group—had spacious, individual cabins on the opposite bank, closer—as it were—to civilization.
The Lani camp (which would, at this time of day, be growing fragrant with the nostril-tingling aromas of curried dahl cooking on a makeshift stove) was under the southernmost bridge tower, squeezed in between the river and the higher, drier ground claimed by the Mahweni. The Lani kept to themselves. The blacks kept to themselves. The white men—the site foremen, the architects, and the bankers—watched over us, gave us our daily orders, paid us our wages, and drank tea out of the rain. And here I was, walking with the most important of all of them . . .
The sound of hammers on steel rang out and I was startled from my thoughts to see we had come all the way to the city-side tower. A dozen shirtless black men were pounding rivets while others used a great steam-driven device to drill the holes for retainer screws tall as a man and fashioned from wrought iron.
“This way, Miss Sutonga,” said Sir William, showing me into one of the only truly completed parts of the bridge: a stone turret connected to one of the suspension chain anchors. It was a fortified structure designed to hold several soldiers, and its windows were wedge-shaped notches into the thick masonry through which they could shoot. Conflict was, after all, never far from Bar-Selehm.
We entered an inner office where he took his place behind a broad and unadorned desk piled with papers. Behind him, set into the wall and guarded by a dragoon in his scarlet tunic and white belt, was a safe with a heavy iron door, a series of key holes, and a dial with numbers on it. In other circumstances its construction might have intrigued me, but I had other things on my mind.
“I’m sorry, Sir William, sir, but I don’t think I am allowed to leave Morlak.”
“Because you are an indentured servant,” said Sir William. “Little better than a slave.”
“A junior steeplejack, sir,” I said.
He rolled his eyes as if I was splitting hairs.
“You have no future in that gang,” he said. “It’s barbarous. They should be outlawed. I know where the company’s money goes when I pay Morlak, and I know how little of it goes to those who do the actual work.”
The mention of money seemed to remind him of something, and he patted his belly pockets till he found the watch he kept on a long gold chain and flipped its cover open. I saw the yellow glow from within and caught my breath. The dial was set with a grain of luxorite.
Satisfied, he nodded to the foreman at my back, whereupon Harkson stamped the rain from his boots and slipped past me. Wordlessly, Sir William took a bunch of keys from his waistcoat, nodded to the dragoon, and handed them to Harkson. As the foreman squatted at the safe and began turning the heavy locks, Sir William returned his gaze to me, watching the play of emotions in my face.
“I’m afraid I must ask you to avert your eyes,” he said. “You too, corporal,” he added, including the dragoon before bending over and whispering, “We have rather a lot of money in the safe. The keys only unlock part of it. There is also a combination. Devilishly tricky and really rather ingenious.
“Now,” he went on, “I realize that it is unusual to enter into such an arrangement with one so young, but I believe in investing in talent. I am prepared to buy out your contract with Mr. Morlak—which is to say, to buy your freedom. There are many projects to which my company has ties, enough to keep good workers employed for several years. I’d pay you six shillings a day with seasonal bonuses based on performance each quarter. After a year, if you do not like the work, you give a week’s notice and walk away whenever you wish. Does this sound like an offer which might appeal to you, Miss Sutonga?”
It seemed impossible, a scene from a book, and I blinked, horrified to find my eyes swimming. I managed only a single “Yes, sir,” and a nod which was so emphatic that it set the tears spilling down my face.
In that moment there was clunk of metal disengaging and Harkson, still squatting, said, “All set, Sir William.”
We turned to where Harkson was drawing three plain cloth bags of coins from the safe: it was payday. As if to allow me time to compose myself, Sir William looked away, gave the bags a thoughtful heft, then transferred them into a single leather duffel, more like a backpack than the briefcase I would have expected. He slipped his arms through the straps, hoisting the bag onto his back, and offered me a surprisingly boyish grin as the foreman got to his feet, closed the safe, and led the way back out and onto the catwalk.
“Would you care to join me in my end-of-day inspection?” Sir William said lightly. “I like to know what I’m paying everyone for, even after a day as confounding as this one.”
His voice was cheerful enough, as if resigned to the way the weather was hampering our progress, and his eyes positively twinkled as I returned his smile.
“Yes, sir. I’d be pleased to.”
That began my weekly routine with him, walking the length of the catwalk as he discussed how much had been done and how much was yet to be done with the foreman and the crew managers, finally climbing right up to the very tops of both towers to look down on the bridge. For all his frustrations with the pace of the work, he clearly took a delight in it, insisting on scaling the ladder all the way to the scaffold and surveying the scene. This unexpected activity—and his need for both hands—explained the choice of a backpack in place of a briefcase. I was always too respectful, however, to give in to my mirth at the slightly absurd image of a man of his girth and formal bearing shinning purposefully up the ladder like a steeplejack; I actually liked him all the better for it. And all the while, he talked to me, like one confiding secrets to a friend. He pointed out not just what was there but what would be there, painting the air with his index finger, using terms like eyebar, cantilever, derrick, and parabola as if they were magic words charged with possibility, with progress.
“It will be magnificent,” he breathed.
If we ever finished, it would be. But the rainy season had come in earnest and we were only half done. Every day the great blue sweep of the Feldesland sky would turn purple gray, bringing torrents of warm, blinding rain that turned the streets to streams and raised the river Kalihm eight feet or more. The land was awash in snakes of types we only saw at this time of year, and upriver, the Lani shanties where Tanish and I had been born were half submerged. Up on the bridge’s towers and gantries, the air was thick with mosquitoes and kuval flies which got into your hair and burrowed into your scalp so that we spent our evenings burning them off each other. The crocodiles claimed whatever ground the engorged river gave them, and the city huddled in a little closer, waiting for it all to stop.
During one particularly bad morning drench, Sir William blustered, “Damned inconvenient, this rain,” from under the silk brim of a top hat that gleamed like the flank of a wet buffalo. “Wouldn’t you say, little Anglet?”
I blinked and looked down, studying my hands.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Though . . .”
I faltered as he turned his gaze upon me. Once more it felt like being eyed by an aging lion.
“Yes?” he prompted.
“Nothing, sir,” I whispered.
“Out with it, girl!” he said, nudging my chin up with the crook of a pink finger.
I didn’t know what to say. Everyone stayed inside this time of year, of course, except us, the Lani steeplejacks and the black Mahweni laborers who were the masons and brick layers. We were out in it at all hours, a hundred feet up in the air as the lightning flickered around us and the wind threatened to blow us right off and into the churning waters a hundred feet below. I tried not to think of that nameless Lani boy who had fallen weeks ago and focused on Sir William; he was the one I needed to impress, after all.
Or at very least, the one I should not offend.
I shook my head, but I could not avoid his shrewd blue eyes, and suddenly he was smiling, though without much humor.
“You were about to say,” he continued, “that the rainy season comes at the same time every year and we should have anticipated as much. Correct?”
“It would be impertinent to say such a thing, sir,” I said.
“It would at that,” said Sir William, considering the bridge’s massive brick towers and the chain that looped between them. “Though that wouldn’t make it any less true. We’re behind and over budget into the bargain. If we’d had the backing of the dashed city from the outset we’d be watching coal and granite trains rolling across Bar-Selehm’s first suspension bridge right now.”
That might have been overly optimistic.
“Two more hours of daylight,” Sir William mused aloud. “Let’s get the next section dried off and see if we can get a lick of paint on her before we knock off for the day. Think you can manage that for me, little Anglet?”
I wasn’t, in fact, little. I was tall and slim and strong, as strong as any of the boys my age, but next to Sir William, whose round, well-fed belly was draped with a frock coat big as a tent, I felt little, inside as well as out.
“We can try, sir,” I said, eyes down.
“That’s the spirit, Miss Sutonga,” he remarked, walking out onto the suspended catwalk. “That’s the spirit.”
I watched him stroll away, unaware of the boy at my back until he spoke.
“He needs to get you a leash,” said Vernal, one of the white boys whose masters supplied the paint. “That’s what they do with pet monkeys, ain’t it?”
“I’m not his pet,” I shot back, my face suddenly hot.
“No?” said Vernal, leaning into my face. “Didn’t know his lordship’s tastes ran to little Lani scrubbers,” he added, pouting his lips and making kissy noises.
I reached back to punch him, but he ducked away and skipped off whistling, pleased he had annoyed me. He made for the lead paint wagon, absently patting the striped orlek that drew it, and it was clear that he had forgotten me already. I should have been used to that kind of thing, but I wasn’t.
I took my paint, my brush stuffed into my tool belt, and climbed the ladder temporarily fixed to the side of the southern tower, moving fluidly, hand over hand.
Like a pet monkey.
I pushed the thought aside irritably. At the top, right below the burnished saddle over which the great chains ran, I climbed onto a scaffolding platform, listening to the whistle of the wind through the temporary timber frame. I took one of the harnesses from the hook on the wall, moving a little faster than usual. I was sure of the ladders because it was my team that had rigged them, but the scaffolding had been trucked in and hoisted into place by a crew I had never seen before, and I didn’t trust their work. They were Lani, like me, but they had come down from Tsuvada, a mountain town two hundred miles north of Bar-Selehm, and they were a strange bunch, their Feldish so heavily accented that the white foreman complained of not being able to understand them.
I kept Sir William’s offer to myself, worried that the other painters would observe the way he talked to me, the way he took me aside at the end of each day to compliment me on my work. I didn’t even tell Tanish, though I caught him looking at me once as Sir William walked beside me, chatting amiably. The boy’s eyes were wide with surprise and, I thought, anxiety on my behalf, but when he asked me about it later, I dodged, shrugging it off as unimportant. I don’t think he believed me. That evening I watched Sir William take his seat next to Harkson between a pair of armed dragoons as each of the work crew filed forward to receive their wages, the foreman checking off their names in the great ledger. That somebody who handled so much of the company’s money on a daily basis, someone on whom the very city depended to make its trade and traffic run, would take the likes of me seriously seemed preposterous. I grinned to myself and Tanish, watching sidelong at my elbow, frowned.
“What?” I asked.
He shook his head but he looked confused and hurt, even resentful, so that I felt guilty. Whether it was my keeping a secret from him or the possibility of my leaving him that kept me awake that night, I wasn’t sure.
Two weeks after our initial conversation, Sir William and I were crossing the bridge with his backpack of wages and the laborers were beginning to line up at the dockside table set up by the foreman. He was pleased, and not just because it had not rained all day and we had almost caught up to where we were supposed to be so that one more week would finish this stage of the job. He had, he informed me, spoken to Morlak and terms had been offered. If the gang leader agreed and I was so inclined I would, on completion of my part in this project, be free of the gang. I would be a skilled worker in my own right with a wage of my own and, one day, all other things being equal, a house—a real house—in Bar-Selehm, my ties to Morlak severed in ways that did not mean I would spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder. It felt like one of those rare moments up high on one of the city’s great smokestacks when the wind clears the smog and you can see the beauty of the land and breathe the cool, bright air so that, for a second, you become a bird, alone and untethered, radiant, and giddy with joy and possibility.
And now it was clear that I could no longer ignore the anxiety which had been swelling in my mind like the billowing purple clouds amassing over the river.
I did not want to leave the boy to Morlak. Tanish needed me, and if there was any way I could take him with me, I would. If I could not, if Sir William thought the boy too young or too undisciplined, I did not know what I would do. I would have to raise the matter, but how to do so needed thinking about.
That night, under a sliver of moon thin as the blade of a Mahweni scythe, I took Tanish aside, away from the dinner-camp fires. He, along with the rest of the Seventh Street gang, had taken to making fun of our Tsuvada cousins, who sang folk songs as they worked and laughed too much. They marveled at the skyline of Bar-Selehm as it swelled through the smog across the river as if they had never seen a real city before.
“Goodness gracious!” Tanish sang out in a shrewd parody of the Tsuvada Lani lilt, “Did you ever see such a thing? You call this a chimney? We do not have such things in Tsuvada. And this amazing construction is called a bridge? Never have I seen its like before! But certainly I will help you build it. How hard can it be? What is this? Metal? Never have I seen such remarkable stuff . . .”
The Tsuvada boys seemed cheerfully unaware of the way they were so relentlessly teased. Nor did they seem concerned that the rest of us clearly had questions about the standards of their workmanship. But then why should they? They did not claim to be skilled craftsmen.
“They work cheap,” I said. “And the heights don’t seem to bother them. I suppose that’s all they really need. It’s only painting, after all.”
Quite unlike steeplejacking, I added to myself. I was proud of the work I did, work that took experience and expertise. It rankled to be working alongside boys who had never so much as rigged a ladder.
“Morlak made fifty pounds out of us for this, you know,” said Tanish when we were a safe distance from the camp. “Commission, he called it. Fifty pounds! And he won’t do any of the work!”
We would see half of that between the ten of us, if we were lucky. Tanish was new to the gang and hadn’t quite figured out the economic realities of life on Seventh Street. I shushed him even though there was no one around. Criticizing the gang leader, even in private, was a dangerous habit to get into.
“Can you see Morlak up there, risking his neck a hundred feet above a river full of crocodiles and hippos?” I demanded in a low voice. “Of course he won’t be doing the work himself. Grow up.”
“Sorry, Ang,” he said, crestfallen, so that I took pity on him and ruffled his hair.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I just don’t want you drawing attention to yourself. Not with remarks like that. You hear me?”
Tanish nodded, eyes wide and mouth closed. He hadn’t seen much of Morlak’s wrath yet, but he had heard the stories, seen the scars. We did not work for Morlak by choice. We worked for him because we had no other prospects and because, once committed, we were, as Sir William had observed, chained to him forever. If we ran away he would find us and make us an example to the others. The Bar-Selehm police paid little attention to the goings-on in the loose conglomeration of castes and families that the papers called the Lani community.
“What did you want to tell me?” he asked.
I blinked. Faced with the boy’s open, expectant gaze, and with the prospect of revealing that I might be leaving the gang, I found the words would not come.
“Oh,” I said. “Nothing really. Just . . . I heard that when we’re done with the bridge, we’re supposed to re-point the brickwork on the Courtcastle chimneys at Evensteps. They say that from the top, on a clear day, you can see elephants moving along the riverbank.”
“I know,” he said, giving me an odd look. “I was there when Sarn was talking about it.”
“Right,” I said, feeling worse than ever. “I forgot.”
After Tanish wandered back to his friends, I made my way down to the river as the laborers in the camp spent their earnings on drink and women. I just sat there, gazing across to where the Beacon glowed over the city, listening to the water boiling around the bank, thinking about Tanish and about what my life outside the gang might be. Even in my reverie, I kept my wits about me. It was said that packs of hyenas sometimes strayed into the docklands, though it was men I was really on my guard for. Sure enough, after only a few minutes alone, I spied two figures moving purposefully down the shore toward me. Unlike the others whose shadows I could make out in the flickering of a dust-bin fire who were slovenly with drink, these two seemed quite sober.
Something furtive in their movements made me wary. I slipped into the deeper shadow beneath the great pilings of the south-side tower and, because I feel safer in the air, began to climb the framework of girders silently. As I was doing so, they turned back to face their carousing fellows. In the amber light of the fire I saw something strange.
I had assumed they’d be the black laborers from the hut camp, but I was surprised to see that one was Lani and one was white. Indeed, I recognized them both. The Lani was Sarn, a lean-faced boy from the Seventh Street gang who had used the tar-like paint with which we were coating the chains to clump his hair into little spikes. It looked both ridiculous and a touch frightening which was, I guessed, what he wanted. He was quieter than most of the others, thoughtful, but it was a devious kind of thought and there was an unblinking, animal watchfulness in his eyes that unnerved me. Of all the boys in the gang, I thought Sarn would eventually replace Morlak, and anything he lacked in real intelligence he made up for with a straightforward and ruthless talent for cruelty. He—sometimes assisted by Fevel—was Morlak’s enforcer, and I had long since learned to keep away from him. What he was doing apart from the rest of the gang, I had no idea.
The other man, and this was stranger still, was Harkson.
He was wearing a jacket with its collar turned up and a hat in spite of the humid night, but there could be no doubt. Why was Sir William’s white foreman, a man of status and responsibility at the company, meeting secretly—for that was surely what was happening—with a Lani steeplejack?
I reminded myself that the strangeness of such an alliance was no more than my own with Sir William, but this felt different. They were more than cautious, moving into the deep shade below the bridge and speaking in whispers. Suddenly I was sure that climbing the piling had been a mistake, that they would look up and see me, and then would assume I had heard things I was not supposed to hear, and then . . . I didn’t know what would happen, but it wouldn’t be good. I felt it in the air like the aroma of the river, like the carrion stench that drew the jackals and vultures into the city markets.
I was no more than twenty feet above them, perching on the slick, painted girders, my chest against the brick piling itself, arms splayed to grip the bolted steel above me. I wanted to be higher, but my only safety lay in stillness.
Harkson struck a match and lit his pipe, hands and face flaring briefly in the amber glow, and then shook the match out and threw it into the river. I listened for its hiss but the noise of the waters drowned the sound. Try as I might, I could hear nothing beyond the faintest rumble of voices below. And I did try. For reasons I couldn’t entirely identify, I wanted to hear what they had to say that demanded such curious privacy. They were standing unusually close together, their heads bowed so that the brims of their caps almost touched. They would not see me if I risked a careful movement down toward them . . .
I lowered my hands and dropped into a crouch, then gripped the edge of the girder I was standing on in perfect silence. I unfolded my long body until the toes of my boots found the girder below, and nestled in place, six or seven feet closer to them than I had been. It made a difference, and when the foreman raised his voice in something like menace, I heard every word.
“Don’t you worry about my part,” he said, raising a warning finger. “You just make sure you’re there and ready and that you don’t bottle out on me. And remember. They have to see the bags go down with him or they’ll hang us for sure, got it?”
Sarn gave a defiant grunt, but as Harkson’s loaded finger became part of a fist, he winced away.
“I’m not a kid, you know,” Sarn shot back. “I know a good score when I see one.”
“You’d better,” said Harkson as the Lani boy turned back for the camp and moved up the bank.
Harkson stood smoking in the dark, watching him go. I waited for what seemed like an hour before the foreman knocked out his pipe in a shower of sparks and moved.
In fact, he moved up the bank a few paces and found the ladder up to the catwalk. Too late I remembered that he did not live in the camp but in the city. He was going to cross the river to go home, and that meant passing no more than a few yards from where I hung like one of the fishing bats which sometimes roosted up here. I would have to move after all. I was suddenly very sure that I did not want the white man to see me.
So I climbed, a quick, silent vertical sprint, all hands and toe caps, trusting to the darkness of the tower itself and the foreman’s caution on the ladder to keep me unnoticed. I was used to climbing in the low light of morning and evening and in the thick smear of the almost constant Bar-Selehm smog, but this was a different order of darkness which demanded caution. Even so, I nearly made it. But I was still climbing as he reached the catwalk, trying to get as far from him as I could. That was a mistake. As he got off the ladder, his gaze wandered up and spotted me in what minimal moonlight remained.
Or found something. I felt his uncertainty in the way his body shifted and leaned, trying to get a better view. I huddled small as I could, my face mashed into the edge of a steel beam so I could feel its bolts digging into my forehead, hot and cold at the same time. He took a couple of steps, then waved and shouted wordlessly, like he was trying to shoo away an animal.
A pet monkey . . .
I kept still and quiet. For a moment I thought he was looking at the catwalk, searching for something to throw, perhaps, but finding nothing he did one last adjustment, one last probing gaze up to where I sat, an irregularity in the darkness, and then he turned and walked away. I watched him as far as I could, till I lost him in the dark and smoky pall that billowed across the docklands factories, and still I waited, unmoving.
I silently counted to two hundred before I decided to leave my roost, and I did so first cautiously, then with all the speed I could risk. Back at the camp I found a ragged blanket, stained, burned, and discarded long before the rains, snatched it up, trying not to inhale its mildewed foulness, and rushed back to the riverbank. Moments later I had scaled my way back to where I had perched and draped the ragged blanket in exactly the spot I had been. If Harkson came back in daylight he might just be persuaded that the thing he had seen the night before, the thing he had taken for a person, an eavesdropper, might have been no more than an old blanket whipped up in the storm and caught fluttering on the frame of the bridge.
I never saw whether Harkness did notice the blanket. In fact I avoided him for the next two days. Sarn too. Whatever it was, it was none of my business, and I was safer paying less attention.
But then Tanish intercepted me on the catwalk as I came down for more paint and warned me not to go near the camp on Sarn’s orders.
“He’s making a deal,” said Tanish. “Wants us out of the way.”
“What kind of deal?”
Tanish shrugged. “Said we should keep our noses out unless we want them broken.”
I just nodded but I looked back down toward the camp. I couldn’t see anything from here.
“Where are you going?” asked Tanish. “Ang?”
“Get to work, Tanish,” I said over my shoulder.
I made my way back to the southern tower and scaled the ladder. The stained and soaking blanket stirred in the stiff breeze that came off the river. I got halfway up and decided that my view of the camp was as good as it was going to get. I could see the Seventh Street gang’s squalid tarpaulin flapping in the wind, and then I saw Sarn with his paint-spiked hair, emerging from the tent flap. He hesitated, gazing around, looking young and uneasy, and for a moment I almost pitied him. He had gotten involved in something too big for him, something dangerous. I remembered the way he had flinched away from Harkson’s cocked fist, and I could almost taste his desperation, his fear. I knew those things, knew the way they dragged after us, coiled by circumstances like so much chain.
But Sarn and I were not alike. If he ever did take over from Morlak he would rule Seventh Street with the same scorn for whatever did not put money in his pocket, the same unfeeling hardness, the same bland cruelty. You could see it in him now. All he lacked was the power to let it out.
His nervous energy stilled as he stepped out to greet a black man in shirt-sleeves carrying a bucket in each hand. The man spoke to him, a wary greeting as between people who did not know each other, and then they were going into the tent, Sarn still moving his spiky head to and fro like a nervous animal.
I frowned. The Seventh Street tent was a little bastion of the gang, and its privacy was fiercely protected, particularly by Sarn. That he would allow an outsider in, particularly one of the Mahweni, was mystifying.
The voice came from below, and it was charged with anger. Startled, my hands momentarily stiffened and I had to force myself to get a grip on the wet metal before I lost my balance. Then I looked down into the bullish face of Harkson, the foreman.
“Is that supposed to be work?” he bellowed. “Get down here!”
I came down slowly, carefully, feeling my anxiety making me unsteady in ways I was not used to.
“Sorry, sir,” I said, fumbling in my tool belt. “I left my wire brush up there earlier.”
Harkson’s eyes narrowed.
“Did you get it?”
“Then get on with your job,” he said, “or I’ll be suggesting Sir William rethink some of his plans.”
I walked quickly away, eyes down so that he wouldn’t see the fear in my face, silently cursing that I did not know if the black man had left the Seventh Street tent or not.
An hour later, however, I looked down from my painting to see Sarn making his way up the ladder to work on the adjacent chain. I stopped what I was doing and made my way back to the scaffolding platform and down.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Sarn demanded, his black eyes hostile.
“Call of nature,” I said.
“Girls shouldn’t be up here,” he snapped, pulling a face. “Need to be able to hold it. All right. Go, but hurry up. I mean it, Sutonga. I’m watching you.”
Likewise, I thought as I clambered down and scampered along the catwalk to the tent camp. In the interests of what the white bosses called decency, boys and girls had to be kept apart, but only nominally. A single sheet was hung across the Seventh Street tent for the sake of privacy. Some of the smaller boys would occasionally try to peer through the pinned seam, giggling, and I would warn them what I would do to them if they did it again. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if it was one of the older boys, but I slept with a mortar knife under my pillow. I was the only one on the girls’ side.
The boys’ side of the tent smelled, but I had expected that. It wasn’t like the sheet hung around my corner kept it out. Sarn’s bedroll was not packed away like the others, but bunched up, so it was the first place I looked. It concealed the two metal pails I had seen the Mahweni carrying. Inside was the dull rust of distorted steel washers—factory-casted rejects. Probably they were meant for the smelter.
But why had Sarn acquired them? I picked a handful out, feeling their weight, listening to the sound as they chinked together.
We finished painting the next day. The great suspension chains and all the girder work were now a slick, gleaming black. According to Sir William, it wouldn’t need repainting for three years or more. Though the links which got the most friction as they edged back and forth over the saddles would need retouching before then, the carriageway would soon be in place and there would be less movement, or so the engineers promised. Sir William was less certain on this point, but he did not object.
“My job is to get it safely up and running,” he observed. “The city and the railway companies will be responsible for long-term maintenance. I’m just thankful we didn’t lose any more men in the process. Or girls,” he added, giving me an expansive smile.
We hadn’t talked as much this past week, but when we did, he had shown me the same encouragement as before. There was nothing to suggest he had changed his mind, and that meant that once the gang was paid, I would be free of them—and of Morlak—forever.
But I had still not voiced my request that Tanish come with me, and it was suddenly clear that I could put the matter off no longer, however difficult it would be. I looked back to the southern tower and watched a figure at the top climbing down from the Tsuvada’s rickety platform.
A thin, brown figure with spiked hair.
He was hooking a claw hammer into his belt as he climbed down the tower, not by the ladder at the front but via the girders at the back: a much more difficult and dangerous descent. I frowned, watching him.
“You had something on your mind?” said Sir William.
I turned hurriedly, trying to compose myself.
“Sir William,” I ventured.
“Yes, child,” he said.
“There is something I wanted to discuss with you,” I said, my eyes lowered.
“Certainly, Anglet, what is it? But quickly, mind. I have to pay your coworkers one last time. Walk with me.”
“Yes, sir.” I faltered, following awkwardly in his wake as he led me back toward the office on the city side of the bridge. “The kind offer you made to me before . . . ?” I began.
“Still stands,” he answered. “Mr. Morlak has responded to my terms.”
My heartbeat quickened. I risked an anxious look at him and saw that his face was clouded with distaste.
“A figure has been agreed upon,” he said, “but I don’t mind telling you that I would understand why anyone would seek to get out of that fellow’s clutches.”
“Exactly, sir,” I said, seizing the moment in a rush of relief, “which is why I wanted to raise the question of Tanish’s situation.”
He scowled at that, though more with confusion than anger.
“Tanish? Which one is Tanish?”
“The boy . . .”
“They’re all boys to me, my dear,” he said as we reached the fortified office and stepped inside. He nodded at the guard beside the safe. “Which one?”
“The little one who works with me sometimes.”
“Oh, your young apprentice!” he remarked, pleased by the realization. “You want to take him with you. That does you credit. I value loyalty. I’m not sure what we will find for him to do, young as he is, but . . .” he hesitated and made a decision, “I have no doubt that we can find a use for the boy. I will finalize the details with the loathsome Mr. Morlak.”
I gazed at him in astonished gratitude.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “Your kindness is . . . You can’t imagine how . . .”
He hushed me genially. “Not at all, not at all. As I said, this is not charity beyond a certain noblesse oblige. It is investment. I have no doubt that you will repay what you choose to call my kindness a thousandfold. Now, to my last inspection of the towers. I want to see how you have protected this particular investment against all the Bar-Selehm rains can throw at it.”
A shadow fell across my back, and I turned to see the foreman, Harkson, considering me.
“Ah!” said Sir William, plucking out his pocket watch and checking it. “It seems to be that time. Mr. Harkson,” he said, offering the foreman the bunch of keys, “if you would do the honors.”
“Certainly, Sir William,” said Harkson, entering the office and setting down his satchel of tools. “Avert your eyes, please, everyone.”
I turned to face the door as the foreman unfastened the locks and rotated the dial of the safe.
“You will need to take some time to say goodbye to all your friends,” said Sir William. “There is a private dormitory for women and children attached to the Vine Street workhouse. It is not ideal, but will prove adequate until we have found you some more permanent quarters.”
I had never been inside the workhouse but knew that it would be a sight better than the weavers’ shed on Seventh Street. As to long farewells with my steeplejack friends, that was almost a joke. I would shed no tears over leaving Morlak and his gang.
“Ready, sir,” said Harkson.
We turned back to the foreman, who handed the three cloth bags of coins to Sir William, who, hefting them briefly, dropped them into his backpack and shouldered it. The dense clink of the coins set my mind racing.
I looked back at the safe, but Harkson had already closed and locked it. His eyes met mine and held them.
“Time for my final inspection of the chains,” said Sir William. “This time next week, little Anglet, you may be helping us thread the leader cables for the causeway itself.”
He beamed at me and moved out into the hot afternoon, leaving me momentarily alone with Harkson, who was still watching me, his head cocked slightly on one side. I looked down and followed Sir William out before the foreman could say anything, and the dragoon came with us, shouldering his rifle.
The workers had already cleared off the catwalk, gathering at the dock-side end to rinse the oil, grease, and paint off their hands and faces before assembling in their lines to be paid.
“Run along, little Anglet,” said Sir William. “I will meet you on the other side after the inspection and we will set about the next phase of your life.”
I blinked, thinking fast.
“Maybe I should come with you,” I said.
“This is about engineering and business,” Harkson cut in. “I think we can manage without the expertise of a Lani painter.”
He said it smilingly, but when I turned to him there was a pointed steadiness to his gaze which I did not like.
“I can point out what we’ve done,” I said. “These last two days we finished that whole southeast quadrant but I’m not sure you will be able to see . . .”
“I think we can manage, thank you, Anglet,” said Sir William.
“But sir, I really think it would be helpful if I . . .”
He turned to me then, and his easy, open face was suddenly stern, and though his lip shaped a kind of smile there was no mirth in his eyes.
“Miss Sutonga,” he said. “While I value your work ethic, Mr. Harkson speaks with my authority. If you are to work for me you will need not to question the wisdom of your betters. Do I make myself clear?”
The change in his manner was so unexpected that I did not know what to say. I flushed, speechless in my humiliation, and looked down.
“I asked you a question, Miss Sutonga,” he repeated, his voice quite cool.
I did not look up.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He frowned, as if my reaction didn’t satisfy him enough. “If you are to rise above the rest of your kind, you should give some thought to the natural hierarchy of the world. As flowers are superior to weeds and the eagle has more native majesty than the crow or the vulture, so the peoples of the world are links in a greater chain of command. I don’t make much of this normally, but I expect to see this basic reality mirrored in the behavior of all my employees.” Then, as suddenly as it came, his sternness passed and his genteel voice returned. “Now, be a good girl and wait here with the others.”
For a moment I stood humbled, baffled by what he had said about the natural hierarchy. He strode off to the main tower, the briefcase swinging slightly in one hand. Harkson and the dragoon followed, the former shooting me a blank, hard-eyed look over his shoulder. For a second I was alone on the catwalk, the air blowing hot and thick about me, muffling me like a dank blanket. I watched them, the soldier standing guard at the foot of the ladder as first Sir William, then—several rungs below—Harkson climbed hand over hand up the southern tower. Sir William was agile for a big man, scaling the ladder, the pack on his back as before.
My gaze followed the line of the ladder up to the scaffolding platform from which I had seen Sarn making his hurried and furtive descent only a few minutes before.
The memory of the handful of rusty steel washers slipping between my fingers hit me. Suddenly, caught by certainty as if by a storm wind whipping up off the brown currents of the Kalihm, I began to run.
I shouted as I did so, but Sir William was already too high. Only the dragoon sentry saw me pounding toward him along the quavering planks of the makeshift bridge. His face tightened with confusion. Then alarm. He unslung the rifle on his shoulder and brought it cautiously round across his chest, bracing himself for what I was going to do next.
“Stop him!” I called. “Tell them to come down!”
But Sir William still edged his way up the ladder, though he seemed to have slowed a little, and Harkson was gaining on him.
“Stop them! The platform isn’t safe!”
The dragoon squinted, caught between skepticism and alarm and not knowing what to do about it. “What are you talking about? Stay back!”
“Get out of the way!” I demanded, trying to elbow past him onto the ladder.
“I’ll do no such thing,” said the soldier. He looked pale and young. His eyes were full of fear and a stupidity that he thought was decision. “Shut your mouth and go away.”
He wasn’t to be reasoned with. I had no doubt that he would fire if he felt threatened. I cut hard to the left, sidestepping him as he set to protect the foot of the ladder, and in his momentary hesitation, I flung myself at the girders which framed the side of the tower and began to climb.
I was above his head before he realized what I was doing. I scrambled up the girder, quickly overtaking the speed of the men on the ladder.
“You get down here right now!” roared the dragoon. I went higher, working my way around the side and then the back of the tower as I climbed, fingers snatching the bolted steel edges, boots kicking precisely onto each ledge. Glancing backward, I saw him prime his rifle as he scuttled around the catwalk, calling for help and craning his neck up to see where I had gone. I was thirty feet, forty feet up and rising. I was halfway up when the first shot rang out.
A spark like lightning as the bullet careened off the steel frame of the tower, a foot from my right hand. In that flash I saw my own madness and the stupidity of the world as if it were written across the sky in fiery letters. I shouted, but I did not stop climbing. Now I spotted Harkson above me, looking down, lips pursed and eyes bright and hard as the sparking steel.
Madness and stupidity, I thought. And greed.
I knew what the washers meant now. I realized why Sarn had been working with a claw hammer on the Tsuvada Lanis’ irregular scaffolding. It was the very platform Sir William would reach in a matter of moments if I could not stop him.
Harkson was looking for handholds on the girder frame now, trying to get off the ladder and intercept me before I reached the top. From a deep thigh pocket he slid out a length of metal pipe. I faltered for only a second and then increased my speed, swinging wildly to the left away from the tower. For a second I hung over the turgid depths of the river far below.
His outstretched arm reached for me in an equally wild and murderous swing.
The pipe clanged against a steel beam as I sped past. For a second I thought the range of his attack had made him lose his grip. Checking behind me, I saw him clinging unsteadily to the tower.
Ten more feet before I reached Sir William’s ankles just as he was about to step out onto the scaffolding platform.
“Stop! It’s not safe!”
He twisted around and glanced down at me, apparently realizing I was there for the first time, and I saw the outrage in his face as the world beneath him swam into view.
“What are you doing up here, blast you?” he roared into the wind. “I told you to stay where you were!”
“I’m saving your life!” I shouted back. “The platform has been tampered with. Climb onto it and you’ll fall.”
“Nonsense, girl,” he retorted. “You don’t know what you are talking about.”
He went up two more rungs and put his hands on the platform, swinging the backpack up.
“Please, Sir William, you have to listen to me. Sarn rigged the platform.”
“Preposterous!” he replied. “I’ve never heard such outrageous accusations. Why would anyone do such a thing?”
“So you’ll fall into the river.”
“With a week’s wages for a hundred men which no one would ever be able to recover?” he sneered. “You should stick to painting and climbing. Leave the thinking to those better suited to it.”
“The wages are still in the safe!” I screamed at him. Beneath us, Harkson had recovered his nerve and was climbing the ladder once more.
“So what do you call this?” said Sir William, nodding at the backpack, his face purple as he started to haul himself up onto the platform. It creaked ominously.
“Nothing!” I said. “Bits of metal trash. Harkson switched it when we had our backs turned. You’re supposed to fall. Everyone will see you take the backpack with you. They’ll see Harkson come down empty-handed. The company will think the money’s lost. But it’s not. Harkson’ll go back to the safe and take it all. No one will even know the theft took place.”
“You are delusional. I trust my people. Go down at once!”
“Look in the bag!” I shouted. “Use your eyes if not your brain.”
Furious, he kicked at me and made to clamber onto the platform. I dodged his fine leather shoe and seized his ankle. I held on one-handed as he shook it, his hands releasing the platform edge to cling desperately to the ladder.
“Let go of me, you Lani bitch!”
Even there, high above the river with the wind howling about us, with the killer foreman only feet away and a rifleman trying to get me in his sights down below, the phrase shocked me into stillness. Our eyes met. He saw the hurt in my face, and I think some small part of him was ashamed. Not of the words, but of what they showed him to be. My hurt turned to anger, and, without thinking, I raised a hand to slap him.
He winced, but the look in his face was more shock than fear.
“Don’t you dare touch me,” he said.
I held his gaze, but slowly lowered my hand.
“Come down,” I said, quieter now, “and I won’t.”
He gave me a long, defiant look, then nodded once.
It took longer to come down than it had to go up. Harkson watched me, hawkish all the way, keeping his distance. At the bottom, a crowd had gathered, black, white, and Lani mingled for the first time since the work had begun. Sarn was among them, his face hard, his eyes fixed on mine, but I could not tell if he was relieved or angry, and for the first time I wondered if his murderous pact with Harkson had been on Morlak’s orders. When the dragoon gave Sir William his shoulder to lean on when all of us returned to the ground, the foreman offered to return the wage pack to the safe.
Another dragoon had joined them. Before I could react, he grabbed hold of me and pinned my hands behind my back. I cried out and saw the flicker of doubt in Sir William’s eyes as they flashed from Harkson to the rickety tower platform and back to me. For a second he seemed to think, then he said:
“Yes, Harkson. Take it and see that it’s locked up secure.”
He did not check inside the backpack. Deliberately.
A chain of command . . .
Instead, Sir William turned away from me as the foreman relieved him of the backpack, which I knew bore its weight in discarded washers, and he said—for whose benefit I was not sure: “I think you should rejoin your gang, Miss Sutonga. I’m afraid I must cancel our previous arrangement, and you must go back to Mr. Morlak with your friends.”
Moments before, surprise would have frozen me. Instead, my lack of it fell like a coal, feeding the furnace of anger boiling inside.
“You know I was right,” I snapped.
He looked away for a moment.
“Remember my advice, Miss Sutonga,” he replied, and I thought that beneath the hardness there was something else which I did not understand. Something like disappointment. “You need to learn your natural place if you are to function in society. That is all I have to say on the subject.”
“I saved your life.” I held his gaze.
“You are a Lani steeplejack—and a bit of a girl—who was insultingly insubordinate to my foreman, disobeyed my express wishes in spite of my kindnesses to you, and laid violent hands upon a peer of the realm. You are fortunate that I am returning you to Mr. Morlak rather than handing you over to the police.”
Tears welled in my eyes, but my grief was less about losing out on the life he had promised, and more that the world had shown itself to be what I had always suspected. Anger burned across my cheeks for my being so foolish.
“Go,” he concluded. “Your gang leader must be paid.”
“That,” I said, “is between you and him. I’ll have none of your money.”
I caught the look on Sarn’s face and knew I had not heard the last of this, but I would endure whatever he and Morlak had in store for me. I had done so before. The dragoon had relaxed his grip and I shrugged out of it, beginning the long, slow walk across the catwalk, with the city skyline in my sights. I would never escape Morlak’s gang, and there were hard days ahead, but with each step I took I left the architectural jewel of Bar-Selehm in my wake as if shaking it off link by link. Their weight shed, I walked a little faster, lighter, resigned to what lay before me. My place was dead ahead among the chimneys, climbing high and alone. Not here over the treacherous water, fixing bridges I’d never be able to cross.
“Chains” copyright © 2016 by A.J. Hartley
Art copyright © 2016 by Goñi Montes