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Chapt. 3: City in the Sky
By Michael Jesse
It was a city — a metropolis carved into the steep canyon walls, rising up on both sides of the river, like castle towers taller than skyscrapers — windows, balconies and stairways chiseled into the stone and winding all the way up as far as Laura could see. It was just like the building she'd glimpsed through the French doors of the playroom, only so much taller than she could have imagined.
"What . . . what did you say this place is called?" she asked in a whisper.
"The City of Margaid!" Liam repeated, incredulous.
"Don't be rude, boy," his father admonished. "Ye know they've come from another land."
"Moost be pretty far away if they've never heard of Margaid is all I can say," Liam muttered.
"Greatest city in the world," Mr. Bundles repeated. "Oldest too, they say, as ye can see all the way up. The higher the older is how it works."
"People live way up there?" Jack asked, squinting to see the highest caves.
"Not 'nymore — air's too thin they say — but in olden times they did. About halfway up is where the official residences start nowadays, but only your oldest, wealthiest families have homes that high. Most of 'em don't actually live there, o' course; they just keep the place active for what they call prestige reasons. You've heard the expression 'having a high address'?"
Laura shook her head and Mr. Bundles shrugged.
"They say it's hard to keep up the old homes," he went on, "not that I'd know, meself, but the families that own them are naturally proud of their history and so on." He pointed to a level farther down but still probably 50 stories high. "That's about where your well-to-do families actually live day-to-day."
As the cart creaked down the road towards the mountain, the countryside gave way to a ramshackle town of sagging, gray buildings that seemed long neglected though many were surrounded by lush flower gardens. At one of these houses, workers were busy cutting flowers and loading them into stoneware jugs on a cart.
Most of the people of the town were dressed in plain, worn clothing like Liam and his father, but some wore surprisingly colorful outfits. Laura pointed to two men walking together wearing matching orange and green suits with exaggerated lapels and tails, like the outfits she'd seen on circus clowns or perhaps in old disco movies. "Why are they so … um … dressed up?"
"They're off to their jobs in the city," Liam explained. "Wha' you s'pose they do, Da?"
"Coostomer service o' one kind or another — in the shops maybe. Now these other folk you see work be'ind the scenes an' can dress as they like." The people lined up to go through the city gate — a stone archway built across the space where the river and road passed into the canyon. Mr. Bundles' cart came to a stop behind a row of others, including two laden with fresh flowers, and each driver paid a toll to enter.
Laura felt the temperature drop as they passed through the gates of Margaid. The walls of the deep canyon were perhaps two city blocks apart but so tall that the sky was reduced to a ribbon of blue and everything was in shade except the highest levels on one side. Though it was midmorning, every door of the lower levels had next to it a yellow glass chimney with a flame inside, pushing away the shade from the busiest parts of the city. People were everywhere — on the plaza and up on the balconies. The citizens of Margaid were easy to spot as they hurried along the balconies because they favored such bright colors. The men wore stovepipe hats taller than Abe Lincoln's but in startling shades of red, blue, yellow and every variation Laura could imagine in between — yet the women outshone them. Their gowns sparkled with jewels while their rainbow-streaked hair coiled up from their heads around and around, competing for height with the men's hats.
"Up there's where I'm gonna be someday!" Liam announced confidently.
"That's my boy," his father declared, slapping Liam on the back. "We just need to get you started with a good junior position."
"What kind of job would that be?" Jack asked. The only jobs he knew that were done by 13-year-olds were pet-sitting and yard work.
"Messages and Deliveries!" Liam announced.
"That's a good starting job," Mr. Bundles added. "Though food service would be a fine start as well, and perhaps easier to get into. And there's always sanitation."
Liam shook his head. "Messages and Deliveries is what I want. See that fellow in the blue hat?" Liam pointed to a boy about his age trotting along a balcony about ten stories up. "He's delivering an important message or package right now, 'e is, right up there amongst the 'igher addresses, conducting official business wi' them."
"He's just running errands," said Jack, unimpressed.
"Sure, today 'e's a messenger. But someday who knows where he'll be? If a fella's got ambition and presents himself well, all's it takes is a bit o' luck, making a good impression. In a year or so he might be properly indentured to a good firm with a grand future ahead of him. In't that what you said, Da?"
"That's what I've heard," Mr. Bundles muttered, though not seeming quite as certain as his son.
Laura was not paying much attention. She was looking at all the shops lining the lowest levels. There were restaurants, shoe stores, ice cream and candy shops and beauty parlors – lots and lots of beauty parlors, all of them busy. It would seem that the demands of tall hair maintenance did not prevent the women of Margaid from investing in their makeup as well. They wore blue and green eyeshadow that migrated up over their apparently shaven eyebrows and across their foreheads all the way into their hairlines.
In the narrow space between the busy shops and the road, lesser vendors operated from kiosks, handcarts and suitcases that unfolded into small tables. One of the flower-laden carts they'd seen outside the gate was parked in front of a florist's shop, but was selling much of its inventory right off of the cart to a continuous line of men in impeccably garish suits. The choice of a flower lapel seemed to be quite important by the way each man studied the choices, frowning and fretting before buying just the right one.
Jack nudged Laura. "Do you hear something like a TV?" She had been peripherally aware of festive music and a salesman's voice, both amplified as if by a microphone. It was such a common sound in her own world that it took a while for her mind to register how out of place it should be here.
"Ah, that's another marvel of Margaid," Mr. Bundles said reverently. "The Speaker's Stand — where citizens 'ave the right to speak to all the city if they 'ave a mind. Ye see it?"
He pointed farther down the road and a few stories high where Jack and Laura saw an oddly familiar object projecting from the southern side of the mountain gorge. "That's like the horn from one of those old record players!" Jack exclaimed. "The ones they cranked."
That is exactly what it was — a megaphone shaped very much like the horn of an antique phonograph, and painted just as decoratively. This one was, however, the size of a bus and held in place – rather precariously Laura thought — by a system of wooden braces and pulleys tied by thick ropes to brackets bolted to the stone. From the megaphone came a cheerful song about hats, which the children could now see was being performed by three plump women standing on a platform at the speaking end of the megaphone. Their voices echoed in the urban canyon as they sang, "Look your best, wear your spats, get in style, with Hipplebee's Fine Hats!"
Mr. Bundles, humming along to the jingle, pulled his cart out of the traffic. "This 'ere is where Liam and meself 'ave our first stop," he said. "But is there someplace in particular I can take you young adventurers first? Should we check the finer hotels to see where the Prince of Indiana might be lodging?"
"You've been very kind to us, Mr. Bundles," Laura said. "We should have been more honest with you, but I don't know how to explain things. We came here alone and not with our parents, who are back home in Indiana — but I don't know if that is south or north or some other direction."
"Well at least there's only so many directions one could travel," Liam offered.
Jack leaned closer to the other boy and whispered, "Dude, you'd be surprised."
"I can't have you two running around with no money," Mr. Bundles said, furrowing his brow. "Margaid is a place of great opportunity and no mistake, but ye can hardly walk down the street without paying for the privilege. And the price of a meal around here is–"
He stopped in mid-sentence and stared at Laura's fingers, which were nervously twisting the plastic charm bracelet she'd taken off earlier and put in her nightgown pocket. She didn't remember taking it back out, but there it was in her hand, its hot pink elastic band and plastic charms gaudy in the sunlight.
"I've never seen such a thing," Mr. Bundles said. "Might I have a closer look at it?"
She put the bracelet in his large palm and he held it like a treasure, gently stroking with his meaty fingers the silky white mane of a lavender unicorn. It was one of Laura's favorites, but had only cost a few dollars at the mall.
"Would you like to have that one?" Laura offered.
"Ye'd sell it?" he asked eagerly, opening his cloth bag. "Would two kevlers be enough, do ye think?" He held out several coins.
"Goodness, I'm sure that is way too much," Laura said. "I meant you could have it as a gift."
Mr. Bundles waved his rough hand dismissively. "Don't talk nonsense, lass. Ye both will be needing money and I can't take it without payin' wa's fair. What price should we start at?"
"Well, we don't really understand your money. Ours is different back … in Indiana."
"Oh, well you need to know that to survive in this town." He dug into the bag and produced a small handful of different coins. "Here's how it works. Your kevler is worth the most. You could buy a night's lodging plus meals for one of these. Not at one of these fancy hotels in the city of course, but outside the gate we passed some modest inns where ordinary folks like meself might spend the night — and a kevler's the going rate. Next you've got your groats; that's these silver ones. Bigger than kevlers, but only worth about a third. Not exactly a third, o' course, because a groat is worth twenty-four dingles while a kevler is sixty dingles so three groats are worth a little more than a kevler, ye follow?"
"Um sort of. What's that big, black one?"
This made Liam whoop with laughter until his father gave him a shove and told him to be more polite.
"This here's just me button, lass. Come off me coat a while ago and I keep forgetting to ask the missus to sew it back on for me."
Mr. Bundles gave Laura two kevlers and a handful of other coins for the little purple unicorn. "And when that runs out you will find no lack of buyers for those other jewels on your bracelet. But take no less than two kevlers and don't let them see you've more than one."
Jack and Laura stood in their bare feet on the brick plaza, watching Liam Bundles stride eagerly away to seek his fortune as the nearly-forgotten sun suddenly came out, shining over the top edge of the canyon and bathing the city in direct sunlight. The background hubub of the city quieted as all around Margaideans paused in their errands to bask in the warm rays that came to them only briefly each day. Even as Laura watched, the sun slipped across the narrow band of blue and began to disappear on the other side, and in the relentless, indifferent shadows Willem Bundles trudged stoop-shouldered behind his son.
A woman's voice came on the megaphone — a rich, beautiful voice that made Laura feel as if the most popular girl in school wanted to be her best friend. "Dearest friends, we have exciting news," she said, excitedly. "The great explorer Capt. Olaf MacWilde has just returned to our city from a long voyage across the sea. Many of you saw his ship arrive, and perhaps you noticed when a mysterious crate was unloaded and carried here to the Arena. Now, you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see for yourself what was in that crate. Capt. MacWilde will tell you the amazing story personally. The Arena doors are opening, and ticket prices start as low as ten dingles. See you inside!"
Go to Chapt. 4