by Tony Peak
Tagen opened his eyes. His body tingled with agony, fitted into a metal exoskeleton. Only the steam pump implanted in his back kept his heart beating. He had to find his wife Alexis, she being the whole reason he’d sliced his wrists in the first place. She had killed herself before him, and he wanted to know why.
He stood from the curb. Two Clowns sidled down the street, seeking converts, grease paint running down their faces. Three Mechos passed, the streetlights reflecting off their sculpted metal bodies. Rain filled the air, reeking of mildew and rot. He was still in Meridian then, city of the dead; surrounded by the Styx’s dark waters and lit by steamlamps. A place in thrall of the Clown Tarot, which promised meaning and happiness.
Something tugged Tagen’s finger. At his feet, a girl painted in ribald Clown colors smiled. She clutched a sheet metal placard. It advertised Tarot readings at the Circus pitched in town.
“No thanks, little one. Run along before you become someone’s dinner.” Despite his short stay in Meridian, Tagen already knew about the city’s cannibalistic practices. It mattered little all here had died. Hunger, sex, greed—one’s urges remained, stronger and more forceful than before.
He left the girl on the curb, still displaying her sign. He loathed the Clowns and their Tarot religion’s vague optimism. Tagen just wanted to find Alexis. If he knew his wife, she’d have arrived in Meridian. Crude Tarot graffiti on the walls reminded him of her fascination with the mystical cards.
Tagen glanced at the street sign: Vagrant’s Row. He couldn’t tell how long he’d slept on the curb. Only strange steam clocks kept time here, and few cared anyway. In Meridian, they had all the time they wanted. Yet, desperation nagged him in finding Alexis.
“You’re lost, aren’t you? New to Meridian?” a female voice asked behind him.
He turned and stared at a woman smeared in white, blue, and orange grease paint. It covered her nudity, though not her curves. A green and purple Clown wig sat atop her head. Eyes darker than Meridian’s sky gazed at him from a white half-mask. Rain drops left multicolored waterfalls in her body paint, revealing the skin underneath.
Tagen tried not to gawk. “I’m looking for someone.” The steam vent in his left side hissed.
Laughter tinged her voice. “So yes to both questions. Did the Mechos give you a name with all that hardware? Most newbies either go Mecho, or smear on Clown paint. Everybody needs to belong, you know? I’m Circe.”
“Tagen. I think I had a first name once…” His words drifted away like refuse floating in the gutters. For a city neither producing nor importing anything, Meridian still possessed heaps of garbage.
“Who’re you looking for? If it’s someone you knew from before, you may not recognize them. That’s even if they made it here. I can help. You hungry?” She glanced at the Mechos exiting the street with nervous eyes.
Tagen hesitated. No one else had offered aid; just bombarded him with offers to join the Mechos, Clowns, or even the Gutter Knights. All wanted his allegiance, without offering anything he wanted in return.
“Yeah...but I don’t eat flesh,” Tagen said.
“Me either.” Circe’s mirth contrasted the filth and decay around them. She seemed more relaxed with the Mechos gone, but she led him away in a hurry.
They stood beside a Bone Guild kiosk near the corner of Vagrant’s Row and Doll House. The latter wasn’t a house at all, but a massive pile of doll bodies, heads, and limbs. Some new, some charred, others laden with filth. Some tossed a doll onto the pile in passing.
“Even the dead need a shrine in this city,” Circe said. “Quick, eat up. You’ll need strength.” The Bone Guild vendor, pallid and emaciated, handed them each a kelp-filled tray.
Tagen chewed the fried kelp and slurped gutter wine. It had a sweet/sour taste, distilled from rainwater. Residents harvested kelp from beneath the city, the only alternative to human meat.
“Your wife, are you sure she’s dead? Some that come here think that, even though their friends and relatives haven’t traveled the waters yet.” Circe ate the kelp with her fingers, her teeth whiter than pearls. She seemed above the city’s oppressive decay, somehow.
“I’m sure.” Tagen recalled Alexis’s sightless stare when he’d found her lying beside three empty pill bottles. He’d doubted any afterlife until he discovered Alexis’s Tarot deck: the map to Meridian.
“What you want her for? She may not remember you. May have found someone else.” Circe watched him as a grease paint goddess contemplating his salvation.
Tagen finished his wine. “Just to see her.” He sensed Circe saw through his lie.
“You sound sure. Name?” Circe asked.
“Alexis Tagen. She followed the map in the cards, just as I did.”
Circe ceased eating and stared. “Not many are capable of that. She must have been searching for a way out. You too.” She glanced around and gulped the rest of her food.
Tagen vented steam from his side and frowned. “Can you help or not?”
“We’ll start with the Sky Gypsies. They don’t fly anymore, but they know much. Often more than the Clown High Priestess, and that’s saying a lot.” She gave two copper shards to the gaunt vendor.
“You don’t have a doll part on you, do you Tagen? I always like to contribute. For luck.”
“No. The Mechos must have taken my clothing when they put me in this shell.” He realized how he must look for the first time. He may have been in Meridian for a day, or a year; maybe even slept on the curb in Vagrant’s Row a millennium.
As they passed Doll House, Circe kissed a cracked doll head, smearing grease paint on its lips. An impulse made Tagen want her lips on him, too. It seemed an eternity since he’d touched a woman; touched Alexis. He wondered why she’d killed herself, leaving him all alone.
“Come on. We don’t have much time.” Circe took his hand and led him away.
Misshapen shanties dotted Gypsy Way, cut from coarse white cloth now brown with filth. No Clowns or Mechos roamed the streets. Yellow, red, and green lamps illuminated the curbs and causeways. The district jutted from the main city, almost its own domain.
“Let me do the talking. Mechos aren’t well liked here. They still allow a few Clowns in, as many Gypsies are faithful to the Tarot,” Circe said.
Tattooed faces stared at Tagen from behind tent flaps. The Sky Gypsies kept their streets cleaner than other parts of Meridian, as if proud of their homes and heritage.
Circe entered a large tent fitted with broken wind chimes. No wind blew in Meridian; Tagen wondered why they had them. A blue-vested, gray-bearded Gypsy man sat inside. Tattoos of crescent moons, stars, fiery suns, and wind-blowing faces covered his skin. He regarded Tagen with revulsion, noting the steam hissing from his side vent.
“Why bring him here? We don’t interpret cards for Mechos. Your Clown priestess can take care of him, Circe,” the Gypsy said, shooing them away. He stood and leaned over a counter where charts lay sprawled out, wrinkled and tattered.
“Easy, Georgio. He’s new. Looking for a woman called Alexis; his wife. One who followed the map in the cards, he claims,” Circe said.
Georgio gazed at Tagen. “Then she would have had a purpose here, a reason to come. Does he know, Circe? Or is he just another client you dazzle before turning him over to the Gutter Knights?”
She shook her head, green and purple hair flying. “No, he’s different. He followed the map here, too.”
Tagen sensed her tension. She didn’t look at him. Gutter Knights dismembered people, sold them for spare parts or to Bone Guild kiosks. He vented steam carefully, avoiding a blown gasket.
Georgio glanced at the charts and sighed. “Once, the Sky Gypsies could sail to other cities, such as this one. Cities of light. Now our airships are lost, our sails cut to make our homes. The High Priestess forbids anyone to leave. The Mechos stole our steamtech knowledge. But Meridian isn’t the only city in the Styx.”
“If your wife saw the path in the Tarot, then she is certainly here in Meridian. No one comes here because they want to. What possessed you and your wife to do such a thing? Did you think you could live forever here, in happiness?” Georgio asked.
Tagen leaned over the counter, ignoring Georgio’s irritance at his disregard for the charts. “I can’t remember it all, but she killed herself to get here. I followed to find out why.” He tried remembering more, yet his memories seemed a cracked mirror with missing reflections.
Circe stepped closer. Tagen focused on her semi-nude body, glistening with grease paint. Desires in Meridian pulled one as a bit in a horse’s jaw.
“The High Priestess may be able to awaken his memories. If there’s a path, Georgio, he might find it,” Circe said. A rain drop smudged paint down her neck, past her breasts. Steam vapors burnt his mouth, but something besides lust tugged his emotions. Tagen missed Alexis more by the moment, as well as something else.
“The Mechos inserted biofluid in you, so Georgio left the steam pump in your back. The biofluid augments your muscles, maybe more if you concentrate. Other than that, though, you’re a man again,” Circe said without mockery.
Tagen examined his chest, arms, and legs. No metal exoskeleton, no form-fitting brass shell. However, his skin appeared gray, with veins showing in black arcs.
Circe looked him up and down, smiling under the half-mask. No doubt she’d peddle his shell to the Gutter Knights.
Georgio put away his scalpel and steam torch. “Now he’ll be able to see the High Priestess herself. You risk much, though, Circe.”
Tagen wore leather pants and boots. His muscles bulged with biofluid, twitching as the steam pump kept it flowing. He rather liked it.
Circe waved Georgio away. “With me, he’ll get in the Circus. But you must keep this secret. If word gets out that a path from the Meridian has been found…”
Georgio sniffed. “Don’t give me that. There’s many people here looking for a path in the Tarot, leading them from Meridian. I believe there is one, but the Styx is treacherous, endless. Focus on where you want to go, and there you’ll appear. Be careful.”
Tagen didn’t understand. He frowned, flexing his newly freed arms. “So? If we’re here, we’re already dead. What’s this got to do with finding Alexis?”
Circe’s eyes stabbed at Georgio from inside her mask. “Nothing. We’d better go if you want to see the High Priestess.” She nudged him from the tent into the street. Tagen grew flustered. He didn’t like being forced into anything. With the Mecho shell gone, he felt more assertive, independent. However, he still needed her help, and kept silent.
They left Gypsy Way for the city’s epicenter. Vendors peddled junk and trinkets along the streets. Gypsy charms, Tarot codices, and Clown cosmetics packed most stalls. Mechos sold spare parts and refitted steam organs. One vendor even sold doll parts. Circe steered him from the merchants and towards the ragged, gaudy Circus tents ahead.
Tagen eyed the designs rain made in her body paint. “Why doesn’t the High Priestess want anyone to leave?”
She shrugged, bypassing children playing with a stick and a skull. “She’s almost a goddess to her followers. Says there’s nothing out there in the Styx, while she claims to offer everything they could want in her Circus. No one will help us leave.”
He sidestepped the children as they smacked the skull back and forth across the street. “Us?”
“I meant you,” she said, quickening her pace. Tagen recalled Georgio’s remark about Gutter Knights. Desire and mistrust fueled his growing frustration. He forced her to stop and look at him. The paint on her arm felt smooth, giving. Warm.
“What’ll you gain from this? Why do you care about a map in the Tarot? Isn’t that your religion, as a Clown? The Path of the Fool, leading to the World?”
As he spoke, Tagen recalled other things. The trumps in the deck, known as the Major Arcana, showing a path. An empty swing set on the front lawn. Alexis weeping in a graveyard. Her fascination with the cards, while ignoring Tagen and his own pain.
Circe pulled back. His grip remained despite her grease paint.
“Let go! I’m trying to help you. I even had Georgio remove that Mecho crap. We don’t have time for this.”
He pulled her closer. Naked, painted breasts rubbed against his bare chest.
“I don’t need you to get in the Circus. You’re gaining something from this, I know it. What is it?” He wrapped his burly arms around her. Rain sprinkled from the dark sky, and people took shelter. The children ceased playing. Tagen remained, holding her close. He’d held Alexis the same way.
“You’re still new here, you can’t control yourself--” Circe’s words cut off in a grunt as he squeezed her.
“I’m sure you tell them all that when the Gutter Knights call. How do I know you won’t betray me? All I want is Alexis. This city can sink into the Styx for all I care.” His eyes lingered on her body.
“Why do you seek your wife? So you can fuck her? Hurt her?” Circe whispered. Her eyes filled with resistance and anguish. The rain increased, soaking them. Grease paint ran down her body in long furrows as she trembled in his grasp. Tagen fought his urgings, his pain. Death hadn’t robbed him of morals. He wouldn’t let his anger with Alexis hurt Circe.
He released her, then rubbed smeared paint off his skin. “No. I’m…I’m sorry. But I won’t be used.”
Rain pelted them for long moments. Circe stared at him as people rushed past. Filth churned in the gutters. Grease paint pooled at her feet, runoff from her moist body.
“Then trust me. Only Clowns are allowed to see her. We’ll need to fix you up. Disguise those muscles the Mechos gave you,” Circe said.
The Circus sprawled in Meridian’s center, a collection of tents and covered wagons bustling with people. On the surface it seemed a carnival from his world, but upon entering Tagen recognized its purpose: a massive temple. Sheet metal posters praising the High Priestess clung to tents and stone walls. Streets polluted with grease paint puddles and skull-shaped confetti greeted them.
Circe smeared on fresh red and black paint. She applied white and red on Tagen, covering his torso, arms, and face. Red lipstick and a mottled red nose completed his disguise. She spiked his hair with Mecho lubricant. The disguise suffocated his identity, even if he’d forgotten it.
Inside, other Clowns greeted Circe and Tagen with laughter and groping hands. Clown guards smoldered with restrained violence, clasping swords or staves. Others sold Tarot readings, decks, and promised a purpose in the aimless existence permeating Meridian. Several copulated in pools of filth. Non-Clowns lined up at a booth, kissing an icon of the High Priestess in exchange for a copper shard.
“The High Priestess only gives three readings a day. She’s the greatest cartomancer in Meridian. Not even the Sky Gypsies have a seer among them as wise, and the Mechos envy her power.” Circe’s words held more regret than pride.
Clowns smoked hookahs, sung toneless rhapsodies, and devoured sugar-coated human giblets. Most wore body paint instead of clothing. Sensuality tinged their body language, stares, and words. Lines of customers waited outside brothel wagons for Clown sex. Others underwent conversion in grease paint baptismals. A hedonistic religion of short-lived release, Tagen thought. He wondered if any saw the Tarot’s true paths, as he and Alexis had.
They halted before the largest tent, striped red, purple, and orange. Clowns writhed around its base, eyes fluttering in ecstasy. They reeked of gutter wine and Gypsy spice, mumbling mindless prophecies.
“How will we get in to see her?” Tagen asked.
Circe took his hand, her grip trembling. Her mouth cemented into a tight smile.
“We will. Just follow me. The Circus isn’t for the faint hearted,” she said.
Tagen snorted. He’d slit his wrists to get here, to find Alexis. Meridian’s horrors meant nothing. His confidence went flat the further they went, though. Inside the High Priestess’ tent, Tagen gagged on rot and decay.
“What the hell--?” His voice croaked.
“Clown or not, I risk as much as you do by coming here.” She gripped his hand harder, nails biting into his palm. Inside the tent, hundreds of heads line the aisle, impaled on spikes. Men, women, children. None had decayed. No maggots or flies crawled over them, as if all still lived.
“Cartomancers, executed by the High Priestess,” Circe whispered.
Past the heads sat a large ring. Clowns with rusted swords or blood-stained clubs surrounded it. They watched the pair with zealous eyes. In the ring’s center, a lantern hung from a trapeze. It swung back and forth, casting off faint light. The lantern’s movement lit up the Clowns one moment, leaving them in darkness the next.
Circe tugged him along. Inside the ring a nude woman, painted in purest white, sat in a high-backed chair at a small table. Her body looked young, supple, and clean. A topknot of red hair flowed over her shoulders. In one hand she held a golden Tarot deck.
“Ah, Circe. I see you still lead men to me, as you once led them to your bed before turning them to animals. Do we have another Odysseus, searching for a way home?” The High Priestess’ eyes shone brighter than polished rubies, her speech lyrical and sarcastic.
Circe bowed as three Clowns stepped aside, allowing them entrance. Tagen wondered how many had stepped into the ring, but never stepped back out. He bowed after Circe elbowed him.
“I have already performed two readings this day. My last is saved for a question of great import. What is it you seek?” The High Priestess shuffled the cards with both hands, long red fingernails flicking and brushing them in rapid rearrangement.
“This man, Tagen, is new to Meridian. He took his own life to get here. He searches for his wife, whom he believes arrived just before him,” Circe replied.
The High Priestess grimacing at Tagen’s bulging biofluid muscles. “There is no life before Meridian. You try to trick me, Circe?” She smacked the deck on the table, a thunderclap within the huge tent.
“I rescued him from the Mechos. He found a map in the Tarot. A map he said his wife also followed to reach Meridian.”
The High Priestess smiled, showing teeth too white, too perfect, as if culled from thousands of sets.
“Then come closer, and I shall humor your charade.” She picked up the deck, ready to draw the top card.
Circe glanced sideways at Tagen, and he stepped forward. The High Priestess, despite her blatant, luscious sexuality, revolted him. She resembled a pale maggot in Meridian’s bowels.
“Is my wife, Alexis Tagen, here in Meridian?” His words came out softer than he’d wanted. The painted seer drew the top card and laid it face up on the table. It showed a nude Clown riding a unicycle, holding up a goblet dripping with red liquid. In the background an airship lay wrecked on Meridian’s docks.
“Knight of Cups. A messenger? Hmm. Maybe you have something to teach us, yes?” Her ruby eyes sparkled.
“I’m here to find Alexis.” Tagen’s anger rose. A pervasive, burning anger, not directed at those standing around him. He wanted to know why she’d killed herself and left him in pain.
“Why?” the High Priestess asked, her words an iron wall. “Has she wronged you? Do you seek her for love? Reassurance? Or is it revenge I smell on your breath?” She placed another card on the table. Tagen shivered. On it a lightning bolt struck a tower, shearing off its top as two Clowns plummeted from its windows into the Styx.
“The Tower. You lost something, didn’t you? More than just your wife, I think. Your life was crushed, cast down into the dirt. By what, I wonder?” The High Priestess smiled and sat up straighter, breasts heaving with excited breaths. Tagen realized the cartomancer satisfied herself this way. It didn’t turn him on, as it must have many other wide-eyed believers.
“What was it, Tagen? What made you and your wife kill yourselves so that you’d arrive here?” Her words writhed in his ears. Sweat rolled off his brow as he closed his eyes. Alexis in the graveyard, the empty swing blowing in the wind. Finding Tarot cards and empty pill bottles alongside her cold body. Slicing his wrists with a razor, so he could find her and ask why.
“What was it?” Her voice rose. Tagen flinched. Another card hit the table, slapping the wooden surface louder than a gunshot. He opened his eyes.
The card showed a skull-faced Clown in a red wig, bearing a scythe. Death.
“Kyla.” The name crept from Tagen’s lips. He remembered her pretty smile when he pushed her in the swing. Alexis watched and laughed, calling them to lunch. Kyla, his daughter, had died in an auto accident with Alexis behind the wheel. His wife had never forgiven herself. She’d turned to the Tarot for answers; discovered Meridian within the mysterious images.
The High Priestess stood. “So your wife thought your daughter would be here in Meridian. She took her life to be reunited with Kyla. And you followed.”
Tagen knew she spoke truth. His memories flooded back, no longer held at bay by his recent suicide or the constricting Mecho shell.
“Circe, you have done well to bring him to me.” The remaining cards disappeared from her hand as she sauntered over to Tagen. She crushed her nakedness against his chest, caressed his cheek. “You are a remarkable man, Tagen. Just like all cartomancers, you resist my charms, my magic. Even the Mechos can’t withstand it. But I can’t allow you to steal my followers. Meridian belongs to me, along with everyone in it. They can’t know there is anything else—only me.”
She shoved Tagen aside as three Clowns restrained him. A nicked blade touched his throat. His muscles tensed. Two more Clowns rushed over to help contain him.
“Curse those Mechos! Always contaminating new arrivals, trying to undermine my authority. Yet your true strength lies within, Tagen. That’s why you must join my advisors.” The High Priestess gestured at the severed heads lining the aisle.
“You painted bitch! I don’t want your followers! I want my wife, my daughter!” He glanced at Circe. She breathed hard, fists clenched.
The High Priestess sneered. “You can see the paths in the Tarot, just as I can. Over the centuries I have hunted and slain those sharing my power, making Meridian my fortress, its denizens my slaves. I won’t let you show them a path from Meridian.”
“Is already here. She’s been watching us the whole time.” She pointed at a disfigured female head, eyes gouged out and lower jaw missing. Pink paint and dried blood covered the face. Wavy black hair hung from the scalp. Alexis’s hair.
Biofluid surged through Tagen’s veins. He flung off two Clowns and snapped another’s arm. The blade at his throat sunk in. He gurgled and choked. Seven Clowns bore him down. Biofluid congealed around his neck wound, though his limbs buzzed with murderous vitality.
The High Priestess kneaded one of her breasts in arrogant nonchalance. “I’d add your head to my collection, but you’re a Mecho. You’d just curse and yell at me, and I can’t have that during my Tarot readings.” She flashed a cruel smile and waved him off.
“Circe, take him to the Gutter Knights. See that you get a good price.”
Tagen tried moving, but the Clowns had driven spikes in his arms, legs, and stomach. The wounds, though terrible, ached only a little. He wondered why the Mechos had gifted him such a body, then abandoned him in Vagrant’s Row.
The Clowns had left him near the docks behind Gypsy Way. Fewer steamlamps shone, casting dim yellow light in sparse circles. Trash littered the empty street, clogged the gutters. Circe stood over him, hands on hips, awaiting the Knights.
“I shouldn’t have trusted you,” Tagen said through clenched teeth. Steam rushed from the vent in his side, drying any tears he might have shed. Alexis was truly gone from him now, his suicide and journey in vain. He dared not ponder Kyla’s fate.
Circe didn’t look at him. “Just lie still.”
“Or what? You traitorous--”
She whirled and knelt, her face inches from his.
“If you want my help, lay still and keep quiet. The Mechos are still looking for you. Think the High Priestess is the only one who seeks cartomancers? Now shut up.” She placed a gentle hand over his mouth. “Please.”
Tagen exhaled. The biofluid eased in his veins. Something in her tone, her touch, calmed him. Perhaps he could still trust her. He wanted to.
Circe stood as a motley group approached them. They wore helmets and breastplates fashioned from bones, Mecho parts, and rotted leather. Despite the dock’s scent, Tagen’s nose wrinkled at their stench. Gutter Knights. He’d seen a few since arriving in Meridian. Scavengers and thieves with nothing knightly about them.
“Much sexier than last time we bartered, Circe. Still the High Priestess’s favorite?” The short speaker’s voice vibrated the metal and bone helm hiding his face. Tagen spotted five Knights altogether, armed with spiked clubs and bone daggers.
“I have a Mecho here without his shell, Radomir. Steam organs and pump still work, as you can see. Large, thick muscles. I want him repaired.”
Radomir lifted his helm’s visor, showing a patchwork face of other people’s skin, sewn together with copper thread. His eyes lingered on Circe. Tagen didn’t appreciate the knight’s ogling, for some reason.
“Then go to the Mecho District. You contacted me to sell his parts. Could use arms like his,” Radomir said.
“Fix him, and I’ll give you a brass Mecho shell,” Circe said.
Radomir’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t see any shell. Maybe I’m blinded by your new paint job, Circe. Very nice. Clown of the Underworld, right? Thought your favorite was Clown of Cups.” His smile gleamed gold, silver, copper, bronze—no doubt cobbled from countless skulls with capped teeth.
“It’s in Gypsy Way. Send one of your Knights, ask for Georgio. Mention me and the shell; he’ll bring it. You can fix my friend here while we wait.” She sounded confident, but her hands twitched behind her back.
“Deal.” Radomir talked with his companions in a rapid cant known only to Gutter Knights. Two left for Gypsy Way. Radomir and the others pulled tools from inside their armored rags and approached Tagen.
“This will hurt, so still yourself,” Circe told him. Tagen snorted. After seeing Alexis’s decapitated head, nothing could harm him now. Yet, he still might find Kyla. He’d endure the pain for her. He took a deep breath as Radomir activated a small saw. Another Knight ignited a handheld steam torch.
Tagen stood near the dock’s edge and flexed his limbs. The Gutter Knights, for all their reek and macabre tinkerer’s sense, had repaired him as if nothing happened. When the two Knights arrived with the shell, they muttered quick words. Radomir’s eyes widened and he slammed down his visor.
“Didn’t say the Mechos would be coming! Don’t know what you’ve got into, but a deal is a deal,” Radomir said. The Gutter Knights lifted the shell and rushed into darkened streets.
Tagen grabbed Circe’s arm. “What’d he mean by that? Your Gypsy friend betray us?”
She yanked her limb back. “Georgio wouldn’t do that. Radomir probably sold us out. Hurry, the Mechos don’t fool around.”
“Where can we go? I’d still like to find my daughter. I have to know,” Tagen said.
Circe met his eyes. “You loved your family a great deal, didn’t you?”
“Enough to kill myself and follow them here. But why help me? You’re a Clown, loyal to that card-shuffling slut.”
“I want out of Meridian. When you said those things about finding a path, I hoped you might find one to lead us from this place. Maybe to another city in the Styx. Together we could do it, Justin,” Circe said.
He backed away. “Why’d you call me that?”
“That’s your first name. Most people in Meridian forget who they are. Some gradually recall their past life; many don’t or don’t care to.” She looked away.
“How do you know my name?”
Circe sighed. “I’m a cartomancer, too. I know things, okay? You can’t stay in Meridian. Neither can I, now that I’ve helped you. The Clowns and Mechos both want you. We must escape.”
“Not without Kyla,” Tagen said.
Circe nodded. “I know where she is.”
“What? All this time and you didn’t--?”
Heavy footsteps clanked down the street. Beyond Gypsy Way, seven pairs of green eyes shone in the dark.
“Shit, the Mechos. I’ll explain later,” Circe said. She grabbed his hand and started running.
Vagrant’s Row lay thick with Mechos. The green-eyed, metallic figures glanced at all who passed and asked questions of shop owners. Tagen glowered at Circe.
“You led us right to them. This is too close to the Mecho District. They left me here originally, remember?”
She shushed him with a grease-painted hand. “There she is.” Circe pointed up the street. Tagen gazed down the curb as his flesh turned cold.
She still held the Tarot placard. He’d spurned her earlier, not remembering her face: Kyla Tagen. White and pink paint covered her features, but her dark eyes and hair remained undeniable. The idea of his child working for the High Priestess enraged him. Muscles quivered as he started down the street.
Circe tried holding him back. “Wait until Mechos leave the street. Please, Justin. She’s okay.”
He slowed his step. “How long did you know?” he whispered.
“Only the High Priestess could bring your memory back. I’m not as powerful as she, or I would have. Do you know how long you’ve wandered Meridian, ignorant of your past?” She glanced over his shoulder. “Duck into this alley. They’re coming this way.”
Tagen stepped into the alley and lay prone against the wall. Trash and bones rattled at his feet. She leaned her head on his chest, as if seeking comfort. Though she’d kept much from him, Tagen held her close all the same.
He waited until the Mechos passed the alley, then released Circe. Tagen peeked around the corner. No Mechos. Kyla still stood on the curb. He ran down the street and scooped Kyla in his bulging arms.
She smiled, then frowned and shook her head. The placard fell from her grasp.
“What’s wrong, honey? It’s me. It’s Daddy!” Tagen kissed her cheek. Tears ran down his face.
Kyla swallowed. “But where’s Mommy?”
“She’s gone, honey.” He hugged her and stifled a sob. He’d mourn Alexis once he escaped with Kyla.
“She’s behind you. I waited here, just like she said.”
Tagen hesitated. Kyla stared over his shoulder. He turned. Circe stood trembling on the curb. She removed the white half-mask and wig. Dark wavy hair matched her dark eyes, glistening with tears. The mask splashed in the gutter.
“You made it, Justin. I can’t believe you followed us, but you made it.” Alexis sobbed and wiped her eyes. Tagen couldn’t breathe.
“But that head in the tent, the High Priestess’s words…”
Alexis nodded. “I know. I was to be executed for being a cartomancer. But I killed Circe and took her place, wore her mask. It was her head you saw. I found you when you arrived, waited for you to remember us. Waited years. I stole the shell, modified you so you’d survive until your memories returned. Finally I took you to the Circus, let the High Priestess jog your memory. It was the only way.”
“Why’d you take all those pills? Why’d you leave me?” Tagen asked.
“After the accident, I saw Kyla in the cards. Alone and in danger, here in Meridian. I came here to protect her. I didn’t think you would understand, I thought you blamed me for her death,” Alexis replied, sobbing.
“I never blamed you. I followed you here to tell you that,” Tagen said, his steam heart thrumming.
They embraced as shouts echoed down the street. Clanking footsteps rang off stone flagstones. Five Mechos ran towards them, eyes glowing an angry green.
Alexis took his hand. “I have a boat at the docks. We can still escape.”
The Styx yawned before Tagen in a dark, unknown swath. A small rowboat lay moored in the still waters below the dock. Nothing broke the eternal night surrounding Meridian; no other ships or cities in sight. He thought it madness attempting such a journey.
“Alexis, where do we go?” He still held Kyla close, her face buried in his shoulder. A block away, artificial footsteps reverberated off decrepit buildings.
She pointed into the darkness. “Out there. The Sky Gypsies knew of other cities besides this one. If we concentrate together, we’ll find them.” A laugh interrupted them.
“And steal from us a Mecho seer? Circe, you have outdone yourself this time. But your precious High Priestess isn’t here to save you with her cartomancy,” a cultured voice called.
Tagen turned around. A single figure stood on the dock, the faint steamlamps reflecting off his metallic skin. Unlike Tagen’s former shell, this Mecho wore sculpted copper flesh. Two eyes radiated a feverish green fire. Metal tubes shining with oil hung from his head, resembling hair. A bronze mesh toga draped his perfect, symmetrical physique. He seemed a god cast from a furnace.
“The Gutter Knights have your shell, Azibar. I’m surprised you could be roused from that steam tower you sleep in,” Alexis said, backing against Tagen. A dozen hulking Mecho soldiers appeared from the shadows. Tagen flexed his muscles, anxious and tense.
Azibar sniffed. “Come now, brother. This Clown stole our property and used it on you. You are stronger, almost invincible. We’re not dead as the superstitious claim. I have created a new beginning here. With your help, we can rule this city. All could feel the power of copper skin and biofluid. Do you know what talent you have?”
“I’m leaving with my family,” Tagen said.
“How’d you know he was a cartomancer?” Alexis asked, nearing the ladder. Tagen knew they wouldn’t make it, even if they jumped into the boat. The dozen Mechos behind Azibar produced long brass rods.
“I’m no fool, Circe. My spies told of a man new to Meridian; a seer that saw the paths in the Tarot. I’m no cartomancer. My people need one. We won’t bow to that painted bitch’s silly religion. A cartomancer can show us other cities, other converts. Now come. I’d hate to fish you from the water. He will survive, but you, Circe, no biofluid flows in your veins. You’ll just die. Again, if you like.”
A whooping cry echoed down the street. The Mechos turned. A large group of Sky Gypsies arrived; men and women wearing blue clothing and silver medallions with pride. They carried curved swords and clubs. A few wielded clockwork pistols. Georgio led them, sword in hand.
Azibar wheeled around, steam hissing from his back vents. “You have no business here, Gypsies. Go back to your sailcloth tents and dream of the clouds. This is a Mecho matter. Your weapons are useless against us.” He grinned, copper lips revealing silver teeth. Tagen thought the man nothing but a prettier version of Radomir.
Georgio grunted. “You’ll never learn the paths to other cities. I won’t let you have this family. Take them and flee, Tagen!” The Gypsies charged, shouting ancient war cries. The Mechos fired electrical arcs from their rods. Several Gypsies collapsed, blistered and burned. More still came.
Tagen set Kyla down. “Get her in the boat, Alexis!” Alexis stared with unspoken love and hope. She kissed his lips, then tossed Kyla over her shoulders.
“Piggy-back, just like we used to,” Alexis said and descended the ladder into the rowboat below.
Tagen sympathized with the Gypsies. Though fearless, the Mechos had already littered the street with their dead. Azibar watched, laughing. Georgio and his people continued fighting, buying time for him and his family to escape. The rowboat would still be in range of the Mecho weapons. Alexis and Kyla would never make it, unless he acted. At least he’d found them, held them one last time.
“See? No one can stand against Mecho power. The High Priestess will bow to us next. But never fear, Tagen. I will let your family live. You really think the other cities will be different from this one? Pah. I offer true salvation from all this decay,” Azibar said.
Tagen drew near Azibar. “And what of those who don’t want brass skin and glass eyes? Don’t want a copper god with a silver smile?” The biofluid ran mad though him.
“They’ll die like these people. Fools. They could live supreme, if only they would listen and obey,” Azibar said.
“Maybe you should listen.” Tagen twisted off Azibar’s copper ear. Steam scorched his hands. Azibar screamed as a mouse trapped in a metal can. The other Mechos turned and charged Tagen, ignoring the Gypsies. Tagen ripped open Azibar’s cheek and punched his stomach.
“Go, Alexis!” Tagen yelled.
Azibar batted him away with sledgehammer force. Tagen landed near the dock’s edge, boards splintering under him. Dark waters waited below. Alexis rowed away, while Kyla shouted for him. He tried to rise as a fist smashed his left side, rupturing the steam vent. Tagen wheezed as if his lungs had been ripped from his chest.
Azibar gloated over him. “I can destroy your body and keep your head, as the High Priestess does. Only, you’ll still be alive. My personal cartomancer, guiding me to conquest.” He stomped Tagen’s chest; it spurted biofluid and steam.
A loud popping sound escaped Azibar's back and he gasped. Steam gushed over the dock in hot clouds. Georgio screamed and fell to the dock, dropping a melted sword. He’d sliced Azibar’s steam vent cables.
“Run,” Georgio said through burnt lips. “Don’t let Azibar capture and use you. Leave Meridian and imagine your path. You’ll find it, without charts. Without the Tarot. You already know it.” His scorched form shuddered as he drew a clockwork pistol.
Alexis and Kyla beckoned from the rowboat, now many yards away. Tagen pushed himself up, gasping as his steam organs faltered. He gathered biofluid into his legs. Without breath, he ran for the water. Sparkling bolts from the Mechos ricocheted around him. One struck his left arm, incinerating flesh and bone. Still he ran.
Azibar reached for Tagen, but Georgio shot away the Mecho leader’s face. Azibar squealed and fled. Tagen leapt over the edge as a Gypsy victory cry rang over the dock. The Styx rushed to meet him as he considered the path: the one he’d used to follow Alexis into an uncertain afterlife.
After a splash, darkness engulfed him, as if dying all over again. He’d missed the rowboat by a yard. Tagen focused on the path within himself, where he wanted Alexis and Kyla to be. The Stygian void took him as the rowboat faded from view. He could almost feel the razor on his wrists again, this time severing him from his family.
Tagen opened his eyes. A gleaming city with ivory walls and silver towers towered before him. Blue and gold banners fluttered in a light breeze. Two airships floated overhead, their Sky Gypsy crews pointing at him. He breathed without the aid of steam lungs.
Dark waves lapped at his feet as he crawled further up the shore. He concentrated, summoning biofluid to help him rise, but nothing happened. The Mecho adjustments on his person didn’t function anymore.
Tagen’s voice echoed off ivory walls as he spotted the rowboat. It lay in splintered timbers, as if it had struck sharp rocks. A single broken oar stuck from its side, grease paint smeared along its length. No footprints led from it into the sand.
A terrible chill invaded his flesh. Tagen searched left and right. No trace of his wife or daughter. Hot tears struck his arm. He shouted their names, clawed at the damp shore. He’d lost them again. Memories of a swing in a front yard, or loving kisses, passed through his mind.
Alexis must have seen a different path than he. Georgio had claimed other cities lay across the Styx. Cities of light. Tagen had waited too long to jump. Together, they might have discerned the same destination. Now, his family could be anywhere.
Inside the city, sunlight ruled instead of rain. Flowers lined the streets, not garbage. Beautiful harlequins and dignified Sky Gypsies rubbed shoulders in wide thoroughfares. Wind chimes tinkled in the breeze. It all seemed a vacuum to Tagen without his family. He didn’t want life, even an afterlife, without them.
Wading back into the dark waters, Tagen left the ivory city and swam towards an unknown horizon. His weakened body protested his determined strokes. He’d find Alexis and Kyla, even if he must die a thousand times more. The path he’d learned in the cards had led him to them beyond death. It would do so again.