Babylon Steel

Hellraiser

Gaie Sebold was born in the US to an American father and English mother, and has lived in the UK most of her life. She now resides in leafy suburbia with her partner, writer David Gullen, a daft cat, and a lot of plants and books.

She began writing shortly after learning to read, and has produced a large number of words, many of them different. Her debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012); the sequel, Dangerous Gifts, is out in February 2013. She has won a few awards for poetry (her first collection, Urban Fox, is published by Tall Lighthouse) and has sold a number of short stories; three have received honourable mentions in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and one was recently published in The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women.  She is a member of London-based critique group T Party Writers. She has worked as a cleaner, secretary, till-monkey, stage-tour-manager, editor, and charity administrator; she now writes full time and runs occasional writing workshops. She reads obsessively, gardens amateurishly, and sometimes runs around in woods hitting people with latex weapons.

She blogs with writer David Gullen (in the guise of Lord and Lady Plott) at Weeding and Writing and occasionally tweets – so does Babylon.

Find out more at her website.

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Paul having very kindly invited me to put some work on the site, I thought I would start with the opening of Babylon Steel, published last year by Solaris and the first in the Babylon Steel series.

 

Chapter One
Day 1
 6 days to Twomoon

 

When I heard the shriek, I bolted up the stairs. That’s one thing about being my height, I can take stairs three at a time.

The sound had come from Laney’s room. I slammed the door open, and there was Laney, curled like a kitten at one end of the bed, and her client, flat on his back with his eyes shut. “What happened?” I said.

Laney just giggled.

I looked at the client lying in the crumpled pile of rose-pink sheets. He was one of those padded, flushed men who always remind me that people are basically made of meat. He had a glazed look, and although he had a sheet over him I was fairly certain that I could see either steam or smoke rising from the general area of his groin.

“Are you all right?”

He squeaked, swallowed, and said, “Oh, yes.”

“Laney…”

“Sorry, Babylon. We were just having a little fun.”

“Yes, well, I’d leave that sort of fun to the Twins, if I were you. I thought someone was being murdered up here.”

“Oh, really, Babylon, as if I would.”She patted the client on his balding head, bounced up, flung on a wisp of pink silk that served her as a dressing gown and danced past me. Grabbing my hand she dived into my office, pulling me after her. She snatched up a red, leather-bound book I recognised all too well. “Babyloooon....” she wavedit at me. A few scraps of paper fell out.

“Not now, Laney,” I said.

“If someone doesn’t do these soon, we’re in trouble.”

Laney’s tiny: all big green eyes and masses of blonde curls, but she can glare like a hawk. Plus, she’s a Fey. You don’t mess with Fey. Not if you’ve more brains than the average plant. Like every being of power, she can’t use most of it here on Scalentine – but she’s not helpless, not by a long way.

“I know,” I said.

“We need to order new bed linens, and curtains, and replace that lamp, and we haven’t paid the glazier yet. We might even have enough money, but no-one actually knows. Because no-one’s done the accounts.

“You do them, then.”

“You know I don’t do numbers. That’s a completely different sort of magic from mine. But somebody has to do them.”

“What brought this on?”

She jerked her head towards her room. “Him. He’s an accountant.”

“Can’t we get him to do them?”

“Well, not right now,”she said, her mouth twitching. “And once he’s recovered he won’t be back for at least two weeks, he’s broke.”

Frankly, a broke accountant didn’t sound like someone I wanted doing my paperwork. I had enough problems. “All right, all right, I’ll do them tonight.”

Laney made a face in which hope, exasperation and disbelief were nicely mingled. “Well you need to sign this, anyway,” she said, waving more paper at me. “Clothier’s bill.”

I looked at it. “How much for that silk?”

She pouted. “One must dress, Babylon.”

“Amazes me that so little material can cost so much,” I said. I dipped a pen in the inkstand, signed the bill, and sealed it with my ring. Laney blew me a kiss and sashayed out. I just hoped there was enough in the kitty; but I doubted it. There are usually six or seven of us working, but what with Laney’s taste in clothes, Flower’s taste in ingredients, and the Twins asking for new equipment every five minutes, considerably more had been going out than coming in. For a while, in fact. 

I went back down. A few of the crew had gathered in the hall in case there was trouble; even the Twins had emerged from the basement.

“Everything smooth?” asked Cruel. She’s got cropped hair the colour of frost, and skin like midnight.

“As silk.”

Her brother, Unusual, glanced up the stairs. He’s the other way around, great mane of pitchy hair and silver-white skin. Well, they claim to be twins. Don’t ask me, I only work here. “Is that the culprit?” he asked.

Laney’s client was peeking over the banisters.

“Culprits should be punished,” said Cruel, smiling at him. Her smiles are…interesting. I saw him blanch and back towards the comparative safety of Laney’s room. It probably wasn’t just the smile; it might have been the leather, the spikes and the whip.

“Behave, you two, or you can help Flower in the kitchen.”

“Yes, Babylon.” They rolled their eyes, and withdrew to the Basement.

I looked around. The floor of the hall is honey-coloured wood, and the long windows let in the western light and have red velvet curtains, unfortunately now fading rather drastically to a sort of stripy maroon. I sighed. Laney was right, we really did need some new things. I started, reluctantly, to head back upstairs, but I’d barely got halfway before I heard the front door and Flower’s rock-crushing tones booming, “Babylon?”

I went back down to the hall to see Flower, and, in the doorway, the Chief of the City Militia. Flower made a worried face at me behind his back. Well, over his head, really. The Chief is tall, but Flower looms.

“Right, come on, you know the drill,” the Chief said.

“Yes, Chief.” I led the way into the small parlour, sighing. He was going to make my life a misery, I knew it.

He stood in the middle of the small, blue-and-white room, with its big wing-chairs with their blue-velvet upholstery, its crackling fireplace, and its brass lamps with their pearly glass shades. He looked tough and tired and about to snarl. “Money,” he said.

“Money?”

“Money. Babylon... come on. How many times? I don’t want to have to arrest you, you know that.”

***

 

And an extract from the sequel, Dangerous Gifts, which is now available:

 

Chapter 1 (extract)

 

I headed home through the smart part of town; by the good hotels and the Exchange hall. There’s a little park there where, in summer, people walk about and lie on the grass, and listen to musicians or strolling players, or get themselves a little loving. Too cold for much of that, now; one draggled lutist stamping and blowing on his fingers, and a meaty chunk of a man standing on an upturned crate. He had two chins and thick black hair, and had a little symbol sewn onto his coat: it looked like a square with a triangle on top. Standing with their hands clasped behind them, either side, were a skinny big-eyed boy no older than sixteen, who, in contrast to the speaker, lacked any chin at all, giving him a chickenish look, and an older, more solid lad who seemed faintly familiar.

They’d already drawn a bit of a crowd: the lute-player, obviously hopeful that he’d get a bit of attention when the speaker was done; a handful of delivery-boys taking time off their bosses wouldn’t approve; a couple of the freelance whores, underdressed for the weather. A mostly human crowd, for a wonder. The good people of Scalentine, eager for a moment’s amusement.

“Fellow Citizens! Look around you!” The chunky man invited, gesturing in case they hadn’t understood his instructions. “What do you see?” he said. “The best hotels, the best eating-houses, shops full of finery and gold. But for ordinary citizens, the price of grain is rising by the day. The bread is being torn from the mouths of children. Can you afford these places? No.” I wondered if he meant the tall, human exquisite about two feet in front of him, who was wearing a year’s worth of a dockworker’s earnings, and a hairstyle so fantastically elaborate it looked as though it were designed by a clockmaker.  “And why are these things beyond your reach? Because other forces are pushing you aside. Forces that do not belong here, and the people who encourage them, and befriend them, and ride side-by-side with them over the rights of those who built this city.” I wondered whose rights were being violated, exactly. As far as I was aware, no one knew who had built Scalentine. I should have left; this was doing nothing for my mood. But the speaker had an oddly hypnotic quality.

“Friends, I – Angrifon Filchis, a son of the city through ten generations – am here to tell you that our time is coming.” He leaned forward, encompassing the crowd with his pale brown, slightly bulbous eyes. “Rightful citizens are weary. They see other people getting the biggest slice of a loaf their forefathers ground the grain for. We know what is due to us. We are the Builders.”

“Who’s us?” Someone said.

“Why, humans, friend. People like you and me.”

Oh, great, one of those. I thought they’d gone back under their rock, but maybe it was getting crowded under there.

“Why is the price of grain so high? Why is it so hard for decent people to find work? Because there are too many people who have come here to leach off what our fathers built. People who only help their own, always giving each other a hand up, selling to each other at a discount, creating their own cabals and secret gatherings within our city. And our rulers, what are they doing? They’re ignoring the problem. They’re saying it isn’t a problem. Now why is that, friends? Why do you suppose that’s happening?

“I’ll tell you why. Because in the very midst of our rulers these people have friends and supporters. Some of them even have high positions of their own; and you can’t always tell, can you? Because not all of them are obvious, oh, no. You can spot dra-ay or monishi or arracklé. But can you spot weres? Not unless it’s a full moon, you can’t. And I say it’s time we fought back. It’s time we rooted out these weeds–” he made a yanking gesture with one pudgy hand “–before they can grow and spread. Root them out, I say, before they strangle all our futures! Root them out and let the good crops grow!”

“Root them out!” The chicken-necked boy yelled, with squawky enthusiasm, jerking his fist. “Root them out!”

“Root them out!” someone in the crowd yelled. “Root them out!”

Failing to be picked up by the crowd, this rousing cry whimpered out. “What do you mean, exactly?” someone else said. “Are you saying, you know, that people should, like, attack people? Because the millies’d have something to say about that.”

“No, of course I’m not saying any such thing!” Filchis said. “Why, that would be incitement, and I wouldn’t dream of it. All I’m saying is that maybe those who don’t belong here should be encouraged to leave. Although I will say to you: ask yourselves what happens when someone breaks the law. Someone who, perhaps, is supported by those very forces I speak of. Is justice done?”

He leaned forward. “Let me tell you about something that happened recently. A friend of mine was walking home, minding his own business, and he was set upon, because he was in some part of the city the Dra-ay consider theirs! In our own city! He was beaten bloody! And when he went to the militia, what did they do? Why, they gave him a warning.And you know why?Because the militia itself, the militia that’s supposed to protect our interests, has been infiltrated. So ask yourselves how you feel about a law that is biased against you.”

“This friend of yours,” I said, “where was he?”

“A district that is being overwhelmed by the Dra-ay,” Filchis said.  “The point is, it was in Scalentine. Our own city!”

“Only I’ve been in a Dra-ay district, and I didn’t get beaten up.”

He looked me over, then smiled with a sort of greasy gallantry. “But you, madam, carry a sword, and look as though you could use it. Perhaps they felt it was easier to set on a man walking alone and unarmed.”

“Your friend was walking around unarmed?” someone else said. “Daft, is he?”

There were a few snickers, and Filchis shot the speaker a flat, ugly look. “And shouldn’t the militia be doing something about that?” he said. “What sort of city is it where everyone needs to carry weapons? Besides, what right have the Dra-ay to tell us where we can’t go in our own city?”

“Well, I can’t walk into your house any time I please,” I said. “That’s called the law, I believe.”

Another voice rose, if that was the word for a bass rumble like someone rattling gravel in a drum. “You know what I heard? I heard some human tried to get into one of the sacred spaces, where they keeps their gods. ’Cos that, that really annoys ’em. They tend to be real specific about it, too. They have signs up in like eighteen languages telling people to piss off out of it, and if you can’t read, they’ll tell you, in yer own language. Smart bastards, the Dra-ay. So either this friend of yours is a bit soft in the head, or he was looking to cause trouble. That’s what it sounds like to me.”

Filchis was peering over the crowd. “Would you trust the propaganda and rumour-mongering of dra-ay over the words of an honest human?”

The crowd was shifting back and I finally got a glimpse of the speaker. “Depends,” she said. “Show me an honest human, first.”

She was short – as in, she came up to just above my waist. Her skin was a deep green-brown, the colour of river water under trees, and she had small sharp tusks, a shortsword tucked into a battered leather scabbard, and the easy, flexed stance of a professional fighter.

“Well,” Filchis said. “I see. So you’ve been listening in. Perhaps you’ve been sent, to infiltrate our ranks, hmm? To act as a spy?”

“A spy?” She grinned a grin that looked as though it might have been a few people’s last sight. “And me so carefully disguised, eh?”

There was more laughter.

“But if you were,” Filchis said, “and you went before the authorities and accused the humans here of attacking you, of causing trouble, who would be believed?”

“If I accused you of attacking me?” She looked him up and down, and snorted. “They’d ask me how much cloud I’d smoked.”

“Shut up, greenie,” the older of Filchis’s two companions said.

I had definitely seen him before. And there was something familiar about his idiocy, too; although, let’s face it, it’s not exactly rare.

“Greenie? Greenie? That’s the best insult you can come up with? Bloody hells, mate, my son can do better’n that and he’s only just got his first sword. My name’s Gornack, if you want it. What’s yours?”

“Brendrin Klate. A proper human name.”

I caught Gornack’s eye as she briefly sought, and gave up on finding, any sort of response to that. Considering some of the human names I’ve encountered, which you had to practically knot your own vocal chords to pronounce, it made about as much sense as anything else.

“Of course, at least with her sort you can tell,” someone in the crowd said, a female voice, soft and cultured. “Not like those weres, now. They hide. They sneak.

“My sort? Now you want to explain exactly what you mean by ‘my sort’?” Gornack said. “’Cos I’d like to know. Really.”

Filchis said, “We honest citizens have nothing against people who go about their business openly. But what about those who pretend to be other than they are, who turn into uncontrollable animals every full moon? Even their laws insist they be restrained. That tells you something, doesn’t it?”

“Oh, so I’m all right because you can tell I’m a savage? That’s real forgiving of you,” Gornack said.

You said savage,” Klate said. “No one else said savage.”

“Now,” Filchis said, “we don’t want any trouble. It doesn’t take much for others to accuse us of starting things, of being the source of disturbance, so let’s keep it calm, shall we?” His voice was smoothly, eminently reasonable, his gaze moving over the crowd, pausing briefly, moving on.

Then something hit him high on one well-padded cheek. The sudden jag of red on his pallid skin was startling in the grey winter light. He yelped and clapped his hand to his face.

“Bastards! They’re throwing rocks!” The older bully-boy started forward, and I saw the glint of a dagger. I dropped my shoulder ready to shove into the crowd, to get between him and whoever he was aiming for.

A child screamed, ear-drillingly high.

Crap. People were pushing forward to see, pushing back trying to get out of the way. A figure in a blue cloak ducked out of the crowd and skittered away, a flicker of pale green about her feet; someone deciding they liked their politics less physical. Gornack roared, “Get those cubs out of here!” She grabbed the children and pushed them towards their mother, who was standing, her hands up, looking wide-eyed and helpless.

“She’s attacking the children!” Klate was aiming his blade for Gornack; I got in front of him and kicked him in the crotch. He gaped and buckled, bringing his head conveniently close to be grabbed and firmly introduced to my knee. He dropped. I glanced up at Filchis, who was wiping his face, and watching with remarkable calm. Then there was the drum of boots, and a battlefield yell: “Militia! Break it up, break it up now!

 

***

 

(C) Gaie Sebold 2012

 

 

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.