There was no doubt about it. Brech was the greatest city in the world. Not best—but the greatest. It was the capital of the United Kingdom of Greater Brechalon and had been the center of Brech culture for almost two thousand years. Fifteen centuries ago it had been the largest city in the world and it still was. With a population of more than four million, it dwarfed Natine, Bangdorf, Szague, Perfico and the other capital cities on the continent of Sumir. The Great City, as most Brechs called their home, was filled with majestic buildings and monuments, magnificent parks, and spacious plazas. But beyond these were seemingly endless reaches of tenement apartment buildings, slapped up with none of the forethought and planning of the ancient structures of which the citizens were so proud. Though the vast system of horse-drawn trolleys and hansom cabs reminded one of the past, the oily black telegraph poles and the chugging, honking steam-powered carriages gave voice to a future bearing down at record speed.
Nothing about the Great City was lost on Captain Terrence Dechantagne. He had been back in the city for exactly one hour and fifteen minutes, but it seemed as if he had never left. As he strode down Avenue Phoenix, he looked at the shops on either side of the street, occupying the ground floor of buildings that had been old when his great-grandfather had been born. The cobblestone streets were filled with vehicles. Shiny new steam carriages swerved to avoid running over an old man pulling a donkey heavily laden with crates of produce. The trolley’s bell reminding everyone else on the street that, by law, it had the right of way, even though the massive horse pulling it was far slower than the newest marvels of technology. Turning sharply to his left, Terrence crossed the road dodging neatly between a horse-drawn carriage and one of the steam-powered variety, and entered one of the storefronts—Breeding Booksellers.
The interior of the bookseller’s shop was dark and crowded and it smelled of old leather, old paper, and old glue. Terrence took a slow, deep breath, enjoying the fragrance the way some people might enjoy the scent of a rose. An old bespectacled man lifted his head from behind a massive volume of Dodson. He raised his eyebrows when he saw Terrence’s blue and khaki cavalry uniform. Terrence removed his slouch hat and fished his wallet from an interior vest pocket of his tunic.
“What can I do for you, sir?” asked the bookseller.
“Revenge,” said Terrence without smiling.
A momentary look of panic crossed the older man’s face, but then his eyes widened.
“Yes, I have several copies behind the counter. Not the type of thing I’d expect an army officer to be reading.”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” said Terrence. “One would think that a bookseller would know that.”
“Indeed.” The man paused and then pulled out several different editions of the infamous work of Kazia Garstone. He looked up to study his customer’s face. “So many people are interested in this one, either for its politics or its, um… indecencies.”
“You don’t have a first edition?” asked Terrence, his face giving nothing away.
“Oh, I do. But I’m afraid it’s not inexpensive.” Opening a small cupboard behind him, the bookseller pulled out a book wrapped in linen and placed it on the counter. With great care he unwrapped the cloth exposing a green leather-bound book with gold leaf edging. “Two hundred fifty marks.”
“I wonder what Garstone would say about such profiteering,” said Terrence opening his wallet and pulling out five crisp banknotes that together equaled the stated amount.
“I don’t think she would mind. You know, if you’re interested, I might have a lead on a signed first edition of Steam.”
“Really? How much?”
“Four thousand marks.”
“Kafira’s tit!” said Terrence, chuckling as the other man winced at his blasphemy. “I’m afraid that’s beyond my allowance.”
The man nodded knowingly. “Would you like me to wrap it up for you?”
“Nope.” Terrence took the book and tucked it under his arm. “Is there still a fish and chips cart by the park?”
Terrence exited the store and turned left, heading for Hexagon Park. He had to jog across Prince Tybalt Boulevard, which was at least twice as crowded as Avenue Phoenix. He was almost hit twice, but arrived at the park’s edge unscathed. Hexagon Park as the name implied, was an expansive park built in the six-sided shape of a hexagon. It was filled with fountains, ponds, walkways, flower gardens, orchards, and at its center, a plaza with a steam-powered calliope. Terrence could hear the music playing even at this distance. Along the sidewalk at the edge of the park, several vendors were selling food from carts. He purchased a newsprint cone filled with fried fish and golden chips and made his way down the cobblestone path to the center of the park, taking a seat about fifty feet from the bright red music machine.
The calliope made as much music as an entire band playing. People clearly enjoyed it, though only a few were gathered to watch it. Most followed along by bobbing their heads or humming as they smelled the flowers, looked into the fountains, or strolled among the fruit trees. Terrence ate his fish and chips and propped open his new book on his knee. His attention was pulled away from the pages though by the other people and their various activities.
Directly in front of him an older man in a brown bowler was throwing bits of bread to the flying reptiles that could be found all over the old city. Disgusting things. To Terrence’s mind, they should be shot rather than fed. Several small children played Doggie Doggie on the open expanse of grass. Their simple homespun clothing and the fact that they were unsupervised indicated they were from poorer, working class families. Beyond them were several large groups of people wandering past the fruit trees, among them, a man in a dark brown overcoat that looked far too warm for this time of year. As Terrence watched, several people approached the man and exchanged money for small packages pulled from the expansive coat. The man was a drug dealer.
The young officer felt his eyes itch and begin to water and when he stood up to drop his garbage in the dust bin, he could feel his hands starting to twitch. He took two steps in the direction of the drug dealer. Then the man in the overcoat looked in his direction and just seemed to melt away into a crowd. Terrence was just thinking about following when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He turned to find a very large police constable holding onto him.
“Now, where are you off to?”
“All these people and you stop me?” Terrence wondered.
“Just keeping the peace. Someone from out of town might not recognize the fellow you were eyeing as trouble. Then again, he might. Either way, there’s no reason that a fine young officer in His Majesty’s service should be getting mixed up with the likes of him.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Do you have a place to stay in the city?” asked the PC, taking a small notebook and a short pencil from his pocket.
“My family has a house here.”
“And where would that be?”
“Number one, Avenue Dragon.”
The police constable’s eyes shot from his notebook back to Terrence’s face.
“That would be Miss… um, then she would be…?”
“My baby sister.”
Putting his notebook away with as much nonchalance as he could muster, the PC smiled and then bowed slightly at the waist.
“If I can be of any further service.” It wasn’t a question, and in any case, the constable left before Terrence could reply.
Terrence studied his own hand and noted that it was no longer shaking. Might as well go home. Get it over with. Then maybe he could find a quiet corner to sit and read Garstone.