Tomai walked home from the lampblack mines. His skin was dark as the night sky seen through closed eyes. Pre-morning mist began to rise from the River Ars, settling Lacuna’s preternatural dust.
Bugspit district dominated the skyline: a construct of wood pulp and secretions. Termites the size of prams scuttled over the facade of the rough structure. They didn’t notice or didn’t care that they were moving on a vertical surface a hundred feet above the cobbled streets. Tomai envied their heart.
Between Tomai and his home, his wife, and a cold bowl of lamb stew was a gang of urchins beating up a dwarf. Tomai wasn’t much of one to step into these situations, but this route did happen to be the quickest to his home and breakfast.
“Go away,” Tomai said, hoisting his pick to his shoulder. The kids took one look at the dusty ax and scurried into the night. All fled except one.
“Toss off, old man,” the kid said, stepping up to Tomai. “This is between me and that onion-skin loving dwarf.” Tomai wasn’t a small man, but this kid was a good head taller. He couldn’t afford to let this get out of hand.
“Nah,” Tomai said. “Can’t do that.” He let the pick fall, burying it into the cobbles. The kid screamed and tried to yank the tip of the pick out of his foot, but Tomai had his weight on it.
“You gonna leave if I let you up?” Tomai asked, wiggling the pick back and forth. The kid nodded, tears coloring his dirty face.
Tomai pried back on the handle. The kid screamed again as the point came loose. Tomai took a somewhat clean bandana from his pocket and cinched it tight around the hole in the kid’s foot.
“That’ll heal up in a week if you keep off of it,” Tomai said, but the kid had already hobbled into the morning fog.
He shook his head and went to look on the dwarf. A small trickle of blood led away from the little man.
“You okay?” Tomai asked, knees popping as he squatted near the dwarf.
“Yeah,” the dwarf said, unrolling himself. A cut seeped above his eye, and he held a hand over his lower ribs. “Broke a couple of my soup bones though.”
“Here,” Tomai said, lifting the dwarf to his feet. The dwarf let out a string of curses as his broken ribs twisted. He held one hand to his breast.
“Something with your heart?” Tomai asked, brushing dust off the man’s shoulders.
“Nah. And the name’s Kork, by way of asking.”
“Tomai. Why were they kicking you?”
Kork’s eyes were small and black, like obsidian beads. “Protecting my little ‘onion-skinned’ buddy here,” he said, showing Tomai what he cradled: a squirrel no bigger than an acorn, made of paper. The squirrel’s tail smoldered from where it had caught fire. It licked the burnt stump, leaving trails of glistening ink through the soot.
“That’s a paper-thing,” Tomai said standing up. Something in his tone made Kork’s eyes narrow.
“It is. You got an issue with that, brother?”
Tomai shook his head. “I don’t, but you might want to let your little friend go before you meet anyone else in Bugspit.”
Kork wheezed through his smashed nose. “I gathered that.”
Tomai left the dwarf and made his way to one of the hundred entrances to Bugspit. He felt like it would be one of those sorts of mornings.
Bugspit was just like another mine, and Tomai navigated it as such. Corridors wound around, up, and down, rearranging themselves by the day. It smelled of old newspaper and mildew.
Tomai found the narrow tunnel that led to his floor and belly-crawled up it. The dried pulp drank the mixture of sweat and coal dust from his skin. Tomai thought it felt like crawling across a cat’s tongue.
When he got to his apartment, he found the door unlocked and open.
Shite, he thought, hefting the pick and pushing in. His wife sat snoring in front of the oilpaper window: a skeletal woman draped in a long robe.
“Ah, there’s my rifle,” he said in a too-loud and too-deep voice, while searching the three-room apartment. He didn’t find anyone, but he noticed that their block of knives was missing.
“Meeranda?” he said after locking the door. “Are you okay?”
His wife stirred and stretched, yawning. A dry, rattling sound escape her throat, and she coughed once before nodding.
“You fell asleep with the door unlocked again, dear. Someone took our knives,” Tomai said, taking his wife’s fragile hand in his own. He felt like if he held it even as if it were a child’s, the bones would snap like pine dowels.
She began to shake, and Tomai put an arm around her shoulders.
“I can get new knives. I just don’t want anyone to hurt you, Meera.”
She nodded and ran a sleeve across her eyes. It came away black.
“I’m going to wash up now,” Tomai said. Meera nodded again and went to the bedroom. She came back with a rough, gray towel and a change of his clothes. Tomai kissed her lightly on the forehead and went to the bath.
The bath was the smallest room of the house. Bugspit didn’t have any plumbing to speak of. The bathroom held three basins and a looking glass: the smallest basin sat under the cracked mirror and was used as a sink; the medium basin – and it was imperative this never became confused – was a chamber pot, emptied and scrubbed nightly; and the largest basin was used as a tub.
The tub was already half-filled with tepid water. Tomai threw two ever-glowing feurglas stones in the tub and watched as steam began rising into the air. He stripped down and lowered himself into the scalding water.
Tomai had lost most of his cartilage during his years in the mine; his nose was a formless lump, his shoulders wouldn’t rise above his head, his wrists were stiff planks, and his knees clicked with each step. His nightly bath was better than any lump of opium.
Tomai grabbed a hard sponge from the floor beside the tub and began to scrub the lampblack from his skin. Within moments, the water began bubbling tar-black. Tomai let his hand dangle from the tub, writing his name on the paper floor in thin ink; more like watercolor calligraphy than his proper signature: a night-black “X.”
Meera walked into the room – they had no doors – and let her cowl drop to the floor. Tomai heard the rustling and stepped out of the tub. Black rivulets became black rivers as the water flowed down his body and was absorbed by the floor.
“Here,” Tomai said, offering Meera his hand. She took it, and Tomai ran his thumb over her sandpaper fingers as she dipped a long, thin leg into the tub.
Meera disappeared under the surface. In moments the water level began to drop. Inch by inch, the ink left horizontal bands on the enameled basin. Bits of Meera became visible: the crown of her skull topped with thick lampblack hair; high forehead, upturned nose, full cheeks; swan’s neck, narrow shoulders, sharp collar bones; round stomach. Where once seemed a marionette creature now stood a woman folded out of Tomai’s dreams.
Tomai reached into the tub and pulled out a cool shard of feurglas. It still glowed with an orange inner light. Smiling, he laced his fingers through hers and held the shard to her smooth, round stomach. Barely visible, a tiny ink-stained hand pressed against the layers of parchment and vellum.