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1: The Pueblo
"Psst! Selena. I see something."
The words filtered down to the murky waters between wakefulness and sleep where Selena had been floating for some time. She surfaced reluctantly, unsealing the sticky film that coated her eyelids. Wan, midmorning sunlight slanted across a haze-heavy sky, cutting through the wagon's slats and casting a grid of dim shadows over her legs. She rose from the flatbed and worked the kinks from her shoulders.
Simon gnawed his lower lip. His fair skin looked especially pale in the hazy light, which seemed to leach color from the landscape even as it illuminated it. He pointed in the direction the wagon was headed. Selena followed his finger to the horizon, where a strip of crenelated reddish-brown rose from the parched yellow-grey of the surrounding earth.
"Your brother has keen eyes," said Marcus from his place on the wagon's perch. They'd had a coachman at one point, but he grew wary of traveling so far south, and it soon became more economical to purchase their own wagon and horses. "The pueblo lays a few miles distant yet. We will reach it soon."
Selena rubbed her face, preparing a reply and discarding it as irrelevant. Her brother's eyes were anything but keen. She vividly recalled putting on his glasses in a moment of curiosity, only to see the world dissolve into whorls of borderless color. But she came from Jericho, capital of New Canaan and one of the last true megalopolises of a continent raised by famine and war. And while much technology was lost in the Last War some hundred years before, the New Canaanites still retained machines — and the knowledge to use them — long since vanished from the continent's crumbling middle, and lenses on the coast far surpassed the crude twists of scavenged glass and bent wire known in the heartland. Thinking on this brought along the unpleasant realization that there were things about her life in Jericho she actually missed — a fact she usually managed to club into submission before it could fully rear its unwelcome head. Better to remember the angel ears and trustless glances, the Templars with their truncheons and carbine smiles, the constant flicker of fear that killed with the special cruelty of slow heat, under which hope boiled away like water in a cook pot until the dry metal blackened from the flames. Memories like these made it easier to accept that the home she'd always known was gone forever, that her future, if she had one, lay on the west coast, in the Republic of California, where the final defiant flames of democracy guttered like a windblown candle but had not yet been extinguished.
"Let me guess," said Selena. "Another half-hour barter stop before we move south again?"
"Perhaps quick as that, though it may take longer. I must find my fiador and pay my debt. Once this is absolved, we make for the west."
Selena sat up at the news. Heading south had been the only way around the mountains, but as their bulky crenelations receded, the westward paths had begun to tug at her chest, insisting — rightly — that every mile's detour cost her precious time. "And your, whatever you call it —"
"Fiador. How you say, bondsman."
"Right. He lives here? I thought you were from Juarez."
"Just so. But Juarez lies many days south, and I have no wish to return. Thorin has men to collect his debts outside the city. It is more efficient this way."
Selena nodded at this fortunate bit of news. Her fingers circled the stub of ragged tissue that had once been her right ear. Scabs clung to the tender flesh, and the whole right side of her head retained an angry reddish glow, but the wound was healing cleanly and the howl of torn skin had been replaced by a maddening but promising itchiness, which tempted her to scratch and scolded her with a stab of pain whenever she gave in. Simon spotted her fidgeting and she pulled her hand away. His expression stung her with its naked sympathy.
"Is it still bad?" he asked.
"Getting better, it's been a lot worse." She shrugged off his concern like a rain-soaked jacket, ignoring the wounded look he gave her.
The pueblo crouched to the right of the southward road, a huddle of adobe and salvaged timber. Flecks of sand and grit barbed the wind, lending even gentle breezes a sharp, desiccating quality. Selena squinted against the midday sun and watched for signs of trouble. Things grew wilder in the south. The yellow locust, for all its faults, at least served to hem its dwindling communities together. Bandits who took to its endless swaths of sickly fronds would find no travelers to pillage and few villages to raid. Here, the earth's very barrenness lent it a perverse sort of fecundity, as the locust never came to ravage its meager bounty.
Horses and cattle grazed by the roadside, their haunches thin from anemic forage. Women in serapes of rough-spun fibers rustled through rows of sparse corn, gathering ears in wicker baskets hung around their necks. The rows were wide-set and marred by gaps where the weaker plants had withered. Each living stalk rose from a hillock of soil darker than the surrounding earth, bulwarked by a mound of whatever fertilizer the farmers could scrape together. Fallowfield's farmers had struggled to produce a truly healthy yield, besieged as they were by legions of yellow locust, but their fields seemed a veritable Eden compared to the scraggly acres on display here.
The pueblo was little more than a horseshoe of sun-bleached adobe lining a single wend of clay-capped road pockmarked by the hooves of passing cattle. A few merchants hocked bits of scavenge — ragged tarps, tools chipped and rusted to virtual uselessness, hole-riddled linens, dolls with warped and melted faces — from kiosks of salvaged plywood.
Despite these pre-War trappings, the town itself was clearly a new build. The bones of the cities from before the Last War were nowhere in evidence. The merchants' wares likely came from some nearby ruin, an eschar of twisted steel and crumbling concrete too rotten to foster life. They'd passed a number of these on the way south, cities felled by some mighty conflagration that continued to haunt the soil, spitting sickness upon travelers foolish enough to venture inside. The destruction set upon these places was uglier and more absolute than in the Middle Wastes, where cities merely choked as the yellow locust tightened its noose around their necks inch by merciless inch.
Superstition held that the blight that felled the cities clung to the smallest hunks of its debris, and any who carried its plunder would soon succumb to a shivering, anemic death. Selena doubted this was strictly true — the merchants were still alive, after all — but she'd learned that large-scale salvage from the cities was uncommon, and many passers-by eyed the merchants' wares as if they were strange and sickly creatures prone to bite.
Marcus drove the wagon to a dusty plaza, where a wind-powered pump drew gasps of watery air from an exhausted aquifer and into a tarnished stone basin, where it condensed into sparse but drinkable liquid. He unhitched their horse and led it to a dry trough, which he filled with a few splashes of water from their depleted canteen. The horse lowered its head to the splintery basin and lapped at the water. Marcus stroked its mane until it finished drinking and led it to a patch of fenced-in earth functioning as an open-air stable.
Selena chewed the corner of her thumbnail. Below her, Simon squatted in the corner of the wagon, sketching quick portraits of passersby in the dust with his index finger. The pictures were as minimalist as the medium demanded, little more than two or three squiggling lines, but their suggestion of depth and texture was impressive. She nudged him with her foot.
"I'm gonna go with Marcus when he pays off his debt. I want you to stay in the wagon and keep an eye on our stuff."
Simon glanced skeptically to the front of the wagon, where their dwindling supplies formed a meager pile. "What stuff?"
Selena frowned. "Food and water aren't nothing, Simon. You'd think a month in the Wastes'd teach you that much."
Her fingers drifted to their familiar spot against her thigh and traced the comforting ridges of the data stick in her pocket. She thought of the look on her father's face when he'd given it to her, the calm façade plastered ineffectually over a chasm of fear. It contained key information on a terrible new weapon devised by New Canaan's Diocese of Plague, and Selena's job was to get it to the Republic of California. War between the two states was imminent, and without the sliver of plastic in Selena's pocket, the Republic would fall, and New Canaan would be free to spread its tyranny all the way to the shores of the Far Sea. But even worse, in a strange way, was that her parents' deaths, public and horrible, would be for nothing. They had sacrificed everything they had to ensure the Republic survived. If Selena failed in her quest, she would be failing them as well.
These thoughts churned through her mind, tightening her grip on the data stick. The weight of a continent teetered on its tiny plastic fulcrum, and she felt a flutter of nausea at the thought of how easily it could tip to one side or another. With a twinge of unease, she removed it and slipped it into Simon's palm. Parting with it caused another pang in her belly, but she might get patted down, and such an object would raise uncomfortable questions.
"Keep this on you at all times. Not in the bag. Somewhere a pickpocket couldn't nab it."
"What do you expect me to do if someone tries to take it?"
In answer, Selena reached in her bag and pulled out a pistol. Its slim chrome barrel flashed in the sun like a shark's incisor. She set the gun at Simon's feet. Simon made no move to touch it. It was the same gun Simon had used to save Selena's life, and mortally wound Fallowfield's power-mad Mayor. Ex-mayor, thought Selena, schadenfreude glinting like a piece of gaudy costume jewelery.
"There's no bullets left," Simon said, his voice a near-whisper.
"You know that," Selena said, sliding the gun closer to his feet. "They don't."
Sighing, Simon picked up the gun as if handling a large and potentially poisonous insect. He tucked it gingerly in the pocket of his sweater and rumpled the fabric to hide its conspicuous bulge.
Returning to her bag, Selena weighed her own options. They had three guns to their name: Simon's pistol, a sleek automatic given to her by Fallowfield's farmers for her assault on Manor Hill, and a wide-bore revolver she'd plucked from the dead hands of Bernard Templeton, The Mayor's chief enforcer. Ex-chief enforcer, smirked that petty, irrepressible voice.
Her pistol had three bullets left in its clip, the revolver two. None of the calibers matched, which made for an agonizing bit of arithmetic. Should she leave them all with Simon? Take the empty one? She was the better shot, and would be wading into unknown waters during the exchange — but she'd also have Marcus with her, who experience showed was better than any gun. She hefted the automatic and chewed her lips with indecision. Frankly, the thought of Simon with a loaded gun worried her more than the thought of him being attacked without one. He might have taken out The Mayor with a pistol, but he was the first to admit that had been more luck than anything, and his obvious anxiety around guns compounded their danger.
In the end, she tucked the automatic into the back of her pants, draped her rough-spun serape overtop of it, and tossed the bag to Simon.
"The one in your pocket's for show. Only go for the revolver if you really have to. Use both hands and aim for the belly. It'll kick like hell, so hold on tight."
"What if I miss?"
Selena considered the question.
"Don't," she suggested and leapt from the wagon.CHAPTER 2
Not So Wise to Trust Small Men
Selena found Marcus in the paddock, dickering in Mejise with a bent-backed hostler over the price of feed and tending. The hostler spat in the dirt and smiled at Marcus's entreaty, revealing a half-set of crooked brown teeth. A grey beard, matted with dirt and some kind of topical oil, hung in ropey strands from his chin. He stroked it lazily. Marcus held up a ten Standard note and tore it neatly in half. He handed one of the pieces to the hostler, who spat again through his crumbling teeth, this time with derision, balled the paper in one palm and stuffed it into the pocket of his overalls. Marcus tucked the other half into a pouch beneath his serape and walked away.
"What was that about?"
Marcus threw his hand up in dismissal. "Feh. Just business. He would like to swindle us, this hostler. We shall see if he gets his other half."
"You're about to hand over ten thousand Standard to some crony in a pueblo," said Selena, dropping her voice as she named the astronomical figure. "Are you that worried about spending a ten note?"
Marcus sucked his teeth. He treated her to a paternal smile she found particularly infuriating. "We are far from your New Canaan, 'Lena. It is not so wise to trust small men when the bigger men do not stand so close."
Selena rolled her eyes. "Fine. Let's just get you paid up and get out of here."
Her pace quickened, Marcus's languid stroll dragging like a weight on her heels. Winter seemed to advance every instant, the air chilling by imperceptible degrees as the coming snows marched south. If the weather fell hard enough to hold the passes in the foothills, they'd be stuck until spring, their only option to venture farther south and swing round the coast — a lengthy venture she doubted they'd have time for.
They passed the storefront facades of the pueblo's lone street, where the road narrowed to a tangle of alleys and covered pathways. Shadows stood shoulder high, segmented by bursts of sunlight. Selena followed Marcus until the path widened into a hidden courtyard where a few men with hollow cheeks and bruised circles under their eyes tossed dice at a clay wall, and a gaunt woman in a dress of moth-chewed lace plied her trade by a broken fountain.
Marcus approached a doorway flanked by burly men in austere black attire. One had a rifle slung over his shoulder, its barrel serrated with rust; the other held a length of pipe loosely between thumb and forefinger. Its sleek length distended at the tip, where a large bolt had been worked into the bore to form a makeshift cudgel. They stood with arms crossed, biceps bulging with swirls of tattoo ink. The gun in Selena's waistband chafed the small of her back. She wondered if bringing it had been a mistake — it certainly wouldn't make for a good impression if she were patted down. But the men at the door merely nodded to Marcus and seemed to pay her no mind at all.
"That was easy," Selena said when the men were out of earshot. "I thought those guys'd be trouble."
"They are not so worried about who comes in," replied Marcus. "More so who comes out."
The first thing Selena noticed was the silence, which was as uncomfortable as it was imperfect. The room gasped with the sort of hushed somberness that snatched at every little sound, magnifying sniffs and coughs and miniscule shifts of posture. Joints cracked, fabric rasped against skin, chairs scraped the tiled floor like swords on bone.
Shadows hung thick from stone pillars. Sunlight slanted through a few narrow windows, but most of the light came from corn oil lanterns dangling from the ceiling by iron chains. Greasy flames hissed and spat from crude wicks. Stone tables bisected the room, at the far side of which sat men in chambray shirts noticeably unrumpled by labor. They were the clothes of businessmen, clean and neatly pressed. Larger men stood farther back, their vestments rougher and more noticeably worn.
Across from the well-dressed men sat peasants of far humbler stock, men and women stunted by toil, their skin cracked and leathery from years in the sun. They hunched at their seats, eyes downcast, and laid their offerings on the table. Juarezian pesos and New Canaan Standard mingled with Republic dollars from beyond the mountains and sprinkles of rarer currencies from distant enclaves and city-states. Some shored up their payments with coins from fallen empires or bits of rare metal — chips of gold or silver, pewter goblets, coils of copper wire. Others offered bushels of corn or bottles of cloudy liquor. One motioned to a live chicken tucked under one arm, his free hand stroking the creature's twitching haunches.
The moneylenders studied the proffered wares impassively, counting money into piles or biting coins or holding bits of scavenge up to the light for inspection. When they'd assessed the payment to their satisfaction, they dabbed sleek metal pens into bowls of ink and jotted down itemized lists of the offerings and a total value, checking against amounts owing in a leather-bound ledger. They wrote the final balance twice and slid the papers to the peasants for co-signature. Some scribbled their names in shaking hands, but most drew symbols or made a simple X on the page. The moneylenders tore the sheets in half, handing one back to the peasant and tucking the other into the back of the ledger. One of the burly men would clear the desk while the peasants shuffled away, writs clutched to their chests.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Iron Circle"
Copyright © 2019 Justin Joschko.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1: Gone South,
Chapter 1: The Pueblo,
Chapter 2: Not So Wise to Trust Small Men,
Chapter 3: Ugly Dreams,
Chapter 4: A Cornered and Dangerous Animal,
Chapter 5: Rock Bottom,
Chapter 6: The Uneasy Peace,
Chapter 7: Dust and Penury,
Chapter 8: A Jangling of Nails and Knives,
Chapter 9: Scavengers,
Part II: Los Marcados,
Chapter 10: Insulted Flesh,
Chapter 11: Fresher Parts,
Chapter 12: Cheap and Strong,
Chapter 13: A Tough Old World,
Chapter 14: A Touch of Intuition,
Chapter 15: Private Demons,
Chapter 16: A Grim Patchwork,
Chapter 17: Magpie Theology,
Part III: The Vault,
Chapter 18: A New Hole to Work With,
Chapter 19: Tendrils of Hope,
Chapter 20: A Tide of Blood and Bone,
Chapter 21: Fools and Kings,
Chapter 22: Otro,
Chapter 23: Entropy's Clutches,
Chapter 24: Sand in the Tank,
Chapter 25: The Sludge of Simple Murder,
Chapter 26: A Focal Point of Hope,
Part IV: Sisterhood,
Chapter 27: Only Meat,
Chapter 28: A Powerful Charm,
Chapter 29: Terrible Gravity,
Chapter 30: Candle-lickers,
Chapter 31: Two Good Hands,
Chapter 32: The Stones That Shifted Their Burden,
Chapter 33: Flickering Orange Semaphore,
Chapter 34: ¿Quien Lo Hizo?,
Part V: The Judgment of la Santa Meurte,
Chapter 35: Phantom Fireworks,
Chapter 36: ¡La Santa Viene!,
Chapter 37: Mask of Dust and Dirt,
Chapter 38: Forfeit,
Chapter 39: A Trio of Refugees,
Chapter 40: Twelve,
Chapter 41: A Razor's Edge,
Chapter 42: Heroic Acts,
Chapter 43: Death in Combat,
Chapter 44: Gracias,
Chapter 45: Someone Else's Turn,
Chapter 46: The Sisters of the Iron Circle,
Chapter 47: A Promise,
About the Author,
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