The Microscope, part 1
The beginning of a short fiction work set in my unique world. I have a thing where my fiction just has to be read in Times, so sorry if the font bothers you. Enjoy!
Felix rubbed the rosin bag between his hands vigorously, making sure to get plenty on his forearms and the back of his hands. He tossed the bag to Marta and proceeded to grip each hand to the opposite wrist, pulling hard and feeling for the familiar friction that meant safety during the show. He had only ever dropped a partner once, and though it was a frightening experience, the girl had landed and tumbled gracefully, avoiding both injury and embarrassment. Indeed, the girl had recovered so well that the even the ring leader thought it was merely a new part of the act. Felix was careful since then to both maintain his grip strength through his daily exercises and be diligent about the rosin.
Marta dropped the bag a moment to adjust her skin-tight costume: a robust weave of silk and cotton in wide vertical stripes of black and gold that stretched from above her bare ankles to two straps on her shoulders. Felix looked up a moment to see one of her bare breasts as she fussed with the tight garment. He neither looked away out of politeness nor stared; it was a type of immodesty that became typical after a long stretch on the road with the same familiar faces. Immodesty had, quite surprisingly, been a draw for the little circus, though of an unexpected sort, for in the mountain principalities bare ankles and shoulders were a great curiosity for men both young and old.
Felix smiled to himself as he stood up to stretch. He thought about how flustered one of the members of the nobility would get sitting in the little tent with them. The revealing costumes (even aside from the nudity between the opposite sexes), the strange body positions as they stretched, and the colorful makeup, would to the unfamiliar, make them seem more like exotic prostitutes than acrobats. He could feel his large back muscles begin to relax as he got further into the stretch, leaning off to the left with his left elbow being pulled even farther behind his head. He could feel the excitement of the show begin to fade to a cool calmness and self-awareness of his body as his breathing slowed. He opened his to see Marta mirroring his body with a slight half smile.
Marta was lean and compact woman, shapely because of her ample muscle and short stature, which made both her hips and bust appear larger. The striped costume further accentuated these assets. Her black hair, which during the day was long and curly, was tied back in a ponytail, showing a stronger neck than what was fashionable for polite ladies. Felix thought for that moment that she did indeed seem quite beautiful, with her white face paint and bright red lips, and wondered why they had always kept their relationship professional. As she gazed back at him, her smirk drawing on him, he wondered if she returned the sentiment.
No time for such feelings,Felix thought to himself. Business is business and that’s that. Best not to get involved. Soon enough she won’t be more than a memory anyway.
The show that night was both quieter and louder than the previous night’s peformance. During each attempt at a feat the crowd would hush, waiting anxiously for Marta to land or be caught by Felix , then erupt in cheers when their tricks were pulled off flawlessly. This was, of course, part of the art of performance that all the members of the troupe had mastered during their years of travel and from the feedback of countless audiences. Each action was designed to look hard, even if it was quite easy, and the body language they employed reinforced this illusion. Marta would stand on the platform with her arms held out, looking nervous, and Felix would stand below, breathing deeply and wiping the sweat from his brow. They had done each motion many times before, and could easily run through their whole routine in twenty minutes, but that night they took their time to heighten the drama toward the end of the show, giving the crowd as much as they wanted. Each tumble or catch drew forth applause like at the end of a great concerto.
Occasionally, during the prestige, Felix would take a moment to look out past the bright spotlights, which were often a wonder in and of themselves to outsiders, to see a crowd that was noticeably more highbrow than the night before. The fact that the little motley troupe could have a fully lit circus indoors at night made more than a few people in each town wonder about the legality of the technology they employed to generate such illumination. Familiar faces in the crowd, all set above rich cloth revealed that the nobility would turn out for plebian entertainment, to the point of attending more than a single night, as long as there was a technical fascination to catch their eye. To the peasants and merchants that were standard at a circus, the strangeness of unfamiliar technical capacity was soon displaced in their minds by the requirements of their own work. Only to those who had power did the draw of the unfamiliar mean something substantial.
One time, as Felix came out of a bow, he looked out and saw an auspicious couple in the third row and thought, “Ha! I bet that’s my mark.” The pair was made of a very fat man, easily identified as wealthy if not truly noble, who had a jovial look, and a very young and beautiful blonde girl who any streetwise person would recognize as a highly paid prostitute, or at least an escort hired to provide someone with pleasant company and a good view. As he rose out of the final bow at the end of the show he detected a faint smile on her lineless face and laughed to himself, “Looks like she’s been given the same mark.”
Felix hurried down the narrow alley, pausing to pull on his hooded black shirt, then refastening his bag to the small of his back. He wondered if he looked more suspicious garbed from head to toe in black, as opposed to the colorful acrobat’s uniform beneath, but he knew that he was well away from eyes that would notice him as such. He picked up the pace, moving into a full run once he felt far enough away from the central square which held the troupe’s tent. The circus would continue for another two hours while he was doing his real job; if he was particularly efficient he could be back for the final bow, but Felix understood that it was not wise to expect both effectiveness and timeliness, even out of himself.
He watched the closed doors in the alley wiz past his head, counting carefully the number of doors before he slipped into the next alleyway. Minalay was an ancient city, and because of its location, high up along a sloping mountain, real estate was at a premium. The people of the city built new housing wherever space could be found: against the city wall or even underneath or within its ancient foundations, outside of it on (or into) a cliff, or most often, between older existing buildings. This gave each street of the city the look of having one gigantic house, with changes of color and a variance of architecture to show where one house ended and the next began. HeFelix had even noticed a few houses barely a dozen feet wide during his planning of his route the day before, and thought that most visitors from other cities (where land itself was not so rare and expensive) would detest such living arrangements, thinking that sealing up a narrow corridorwith two walls and a ceiling into a narrow house would be unfit for all but the most desparate. Felix, who spent most of his timing living out of a cramped wagonwith strange fellows, thought otherwise.
Another quirk of the city was its lack of underground sewers, which to some might suggest that the city was old enough to predate their use, though speaking of such might earn more than a glace or two from the devout. To the people that lived in Minalay, underground sewers were simply considered unnecessary, as the whole city sloped downward with the mountainside. Gravity was usually enough to keep the sewers clear, and in an instance where it wasn’t, the frequent rains that pelted the citynearly year-round would wash the waste away. There were, however, a few inevitable stretches where the slope wasn’t quite true, and the sewers would pool up. Felix turned a corner and found himself running down one such alley, pulling his hood against his mouth and nose to deal with the stench. I’d expect this to be some cheap property, he thought while biting back a surge of bile behind his tongue. ButI suppose what you don’t pay in rent you are likely to pay in misery. Almighty!
After another quick turn he saw his destination: a large manor perched at the top of a steep hill. By the time he reached it he was nearly out of breath. He looked down the hill as he waited for his breath to slow, and took comfort in knowing that the road back would be almost entirely downhill. The house looked much more ominous in the moonlight than it had the sunlight, and the paler light made it look taller, the wall around it older and more robust. No lights were shining in the visible windows. Felix concluded that the owner might have used the prime tickets for the exotic circus his contact had supposedly sent. He smiled, thinking his mark might have already watched him that night. Around the top of the wall was a tight line of iron spikes, glistening slightlywith polished edges in the white light, curved toward the street to repel anyone foolhardy enough to attempt climbing over. The brightness of the moon was not something Felix had considered when setting off, as on the jog there the tall and tightly stacked buildings had obscured the light and made everything darker than it would be. Staring out from the edge of the alleyway he knew that we would be very exposed on his approach to the wall. He thought back to the previous day, very glad he had taken the time to case out the immense mansion and plot out his actions. He relaxed, remembering that despite the exposure of the street, the buildings between which he was standing had no windows facing toward the mansion.
His breath finally slowed and the pulse in head lessened. He checked the tightness of his shoes, belt, and bag, looked out the long and wide street for any passers-by, and bolted. His soft-soled shoes made only very slight footfalls on the stone street, and if anyone were near and keen enough to listen, all they would have hearddistinctly was the faint sound of breathing. He sprinted at the wall and leapt up at it, pushing hard against its ragged edifice with one foot, and exploding away and up. He reached up as he did this and grabbed two of the iron prongs that stuck out from the top of the wall, suddenly relaxing and letting his feet dangle far above the street. He then began to swing back and forth. Once he got close to the wall he began pushing off from it with his toes. Finally in one great burst he swung himself over the sharp ends of the spikes, his momentum pausing for but a fleeting second as his plank-stiff body stood feet-up above the iron spikes before he fell to the other side. He hit the wall hard with his toes, which absorbed enough of the impact that his body and face did not slam into the stone, then he relaxed an hung again, this time on the inside of the wall, his face nearly against the wall.
He looked around him to take in what was not visible from the street: A large yard (which seemed a dreadful luxury in Minalay) with a very well kept garden, a fountain, and under a bough of a small tree, a dog house. Shit! Felix thought to himselfwith the understanding that dogs were often more perceptive (and noisier) guardians than people. At the same he smiled, knowing that things worth taking were often well guarded. He wasn’t officially permitted to steal beyond that for which he had been contracted, but he often did anyway as time allowed, knowing that even if it was not condoned, it was at least partly expected. The jewelry and odd trinkets he stole were easily sold at the circus’s next stop, and he always put the “earnings” (as he called them) into his “retirement fund,” which for him was a heavy chest half of the way filled with gold.
Hanging over the wall he weighed his options with the dog. The edge of the house was too far away to jump, as he hung at a wide stretch between the wall and the mansion. If he dropped, his landing would be in darkness and on unknown terrain. He chose to drop, pushing off from the wall and falling into darkness. A soft moisture met his feet and he tumbled on the soft, well–mowed lawn. He looked quickly back toward the dog house to see nothing stirring, and began to relax. He took one extra step and heard something crack loudly. Craning his head toward the noise, he saw a crow flying away from branch as it fell from one of the small oaks in the garden. Nasty coincidence. His heart leapt into his throat as he turned toward the dog house, his muscles tensing for a quick escape.
What emerged from the darkened opening of the dog house, which looked much like a miniature of the mansion, was not what Felix would have considered a dog. It was tiny, with a fluffy tail and a mane around its squashed face. It came running up to him and began to wag its tail happily. It was a toy dog: the fancy of many nobleman, which were valued not for their usefulness, but their beauty. He thanked his luck that this was not a variety that liked to bark. He bent down and began to pet the dog.
“Good boy,” he whispered, “Do you know where the bedroom is?” The dog continued to wag its tail and began licking Felix’s hand. “No matter, any gentleman would pick the room facing south for his bedroom, eh pup?” He casually walked toward the southernmost corner of the house. The house was made of large cut stone, as old as the wall outside, which is to say very old indeed, and was covered in ivy. There were lots of little cracks and footholds among the stones and the foliage was strong, which made climbing up very easy. Though other men might have seen such a feat as impossible, Felix found it trivial, and within a matter of seconds he had reached the top floor.
On the third story he was able to stand on a piece of wood trim, judged by its strength and hardness to be added a long time after the house proper was built, that jutted out from the stone about three inches and hold himself up to the window. What he saw inside was a very large bedroom which included an entire library and sitting area on one side. On a table by one of the windows sat the oddment for which he had come. He was happy to see that the windows were unlocked and unbarred, and rotated in their middle, letting him avoid the awkwardness of pulling open a window which only swung outwardwhilst standing on a toe-length ledge. He slipped in face first, landing on the soft carpet inside on his hands before pulling his feet in from the window. Once inside he noticed that the room displayed a level of wealth that he had not expected, even from a rich man with a garden in a city like Minalay. The bed frame and the frames on the paintings were enriched with gold leaf, the bed and sitting furniture were upholstered in shiny silk, and all the ornaments of the room, from the lanterns to the inkwell, were cast in silver. He wondered if might not be robbing a merchant, but the child of some very well-off duke, or even the bastard son of a king. I’m not paid to respect birth and title yousir, whoever you might be, have something someone else wants very badly, he thought as he stood up.
The object he was contracted to acquire, which he now examined with curiosity, was apparently called a “microscope.” Felix had no real idea how it was used, but knew enough from the brief he was given what it should looklike, and even if he had been given nothing in the way of information he would have chosen this as the correct article based entirely on its strange appearance. He had never seriously studied any of the scriptures, but had lived enough in the world to know that this was technology not found in the canon of any deity. It was made of brass and glass and steel, but he was sure neither Ferrul nor Silus had provided any direction to the church for its construction. It was, however, bigger than expected considering the prefix “micro” and barely fit into his bag. The top barrel of brass still stuck out of the opening as he gave up on stuffing it inside and drew the strings around the opening taught.
“Now what was the second thing?” Felix thought to himself. He remembered the missive he had been handed back in Haroux:
Besides acquiring the instrument itself, we have reason to believe that the subject in question also has possession of a bound set of notes, detailing the dimensions etc., radii etc., materials etc., and construction methods etc.of the device, not penned in the subject’s hand, and it is imperative we recover this as well.
The table was free of any paper, bound or unbound, and Felix turned to the large bookcase at the end of the room feeling a strange mix of humor and despair. Fitting that I should think of getting back for the final bow only to be forced to find a needle in a haystack. He tried to think of how he might narrow the search without checking each book. First he looked for anything that was bound without a spine, but each book had a spine. Next he looked for any hand-written labels, but every book that had a label was printed. He decided his best chance was to check all the books without anything printed on their spine at all, hoping that he could find the text before the owner returned home from the circus. The search quickly as he opened each book, evaluated its contents, then cast it down upon the ground. Cooking. No. Casting. No. That’s a novella. He chuckled at a roughly bound book. This is a sex guide. He flipped through deeper pages. And a bad one. No.Within minutes he had reached the end of the books.
Well, either it’s disguised as a different book or he’s got it somewhere else, he thought. He started opening up drawers and tossing the articles aside.After the books, he no longer cared about leaving an unsuspicious scene. He pried open a jewelry box on the bedside table, which contained a fine set of rings and necklaces (which he put in his pockets; he might have been in a slight state of panic but he was still practical). It was while he was shoving the last gold ring down his pants pockets that he noticed something touch his leg. Wheeling about, he saw nothing, but looking down, he saw a familiar pair of brown eyes set in a puffy mane looking up at him.
Before he could ask the dog how he got in, his question was answered by a crash at the upper stair landing and a flurry of laughing.
“Not to worry, not to worry! It’s only a few hundred years old, I’ve dozens more!” A brash voice said just outside the bedroom door. Felix had no time to think. His heart was pounding and he shook with adrenaline. He couldn’t think straight about what to do, and so he did what many scared and desperate people havedone before: he hid under the bed.
More to come soon. Thanks for reading!