The Passenger, an unpublished excerpt

The following text is a chapter deleted from my novel Necessary Monsters during the editing process. For those who have read the book, it describes an incident upon Irridis’s arrival in the City of Steps. During the revision it was apparent that it wasn’t essential to the story, but I thought readers might enjoy it in the spirit of an outtake. If you haven’t read the book, and this sliver has made you curious, you can find it here.

Irridis_sketch_web_crop

THE PASSENGER

The evening was cool and clear when the City of Steps became visible from the deck of the Narwhal. It was a welcome change. For days, the vessel’s wake had been the only clear evidence of movement, a ruled line of phosphorescence on a calm sea. Atmospheric murk had hidden the stars and left the sun a bleary, inconsistent eye. At the rail, the passenger watched lights moving on the coast. Irridis wasn’t expecting to find comfort in their warmth. Hardened by months of cold seas and wind, his stomach carved by hunger, he didn’t dare to expect better from the city.

He stood with his hands behind his back, watching the famous limestone staircase come into view. He felt no awe, or nostalgia for that matter. He closed his eyes, preferring to observe the approaching city through the ocelli, five luminous stones that floated about his head like a crown. Through them, he experienced a view far sharper and brighter than the one his eyes could provide. He saw people moving along the steps and across the market square in front of the Cloth Hall. Beyond the market, the city became visually impenetrable, a puzzle of sagging rooftops, street openings and ancient gardens. Hidden in this maze was Moss, the man Irridis had promised to visit. His only friend. Irridis prized solitude above all else. He’d already decided that this visit to the City of Steps would be his last. He’d come to say a final goodbye.

“You will have to slip away quietly,” said the captain, his voice still hoarse from a month of influenza. “I can’t have you seen or I’ll have the harbor police crawling all over me.” The captain’s face was as grey and pitted as a chunk of dead coral. His salt-stiffened oilskin rode on his body like a half shed carapace. The captain was a man of compromised principles, which had thus far played to Irridis’s advantage. They’d met on New Year’s morning, after gales had forced the Narwhal to take shelter in the lee of a wooded island. When the clouds broke, the crew was astonished to see a stranger emerge from the birch forest and walk toward their encampment on the stony shore. Or at least this was what Irridis guessed from their vacant expressions. Irridis had offered no explanation for his presence on the island, and would have been left to his fate if he hadn’t produced a fist sized ball of ambergris. Despite the ship’s dwindling stores, the captain had unquestioningly accepted the stinking, tumorous mass as payment for a berth.

The chief officer and the ship’s doctor stood beside their leader, watching their illegal passenger, heads tilted like inquisitive crows. Irridis had made no effort to learn their names. The crew of the Narwhal were a collection of uncouth, ill-provisioned thugs. The doctor was a sinispore addict, and the chief officer a sycophant that treated those beneath his rank with open contempt. For Irridis, the voyage had been one made among ghosts.

“Did you hear me?” the captain said, raising his voice. “A dory has been signaled to intercept us in a few minutes. You’ll leave as soon as it arrives. If it ever comes up that you were here I’ll flatly deny it. I expect you to do the same.” Irridis assented with a nod.

“Look at that,” said the doctor. “Am I hallucinating?” The men followed his crooked finger seaward. A large canine appeared to be standing on the water.

“A wolf,” said the chief officer.

The doctor shook his head. “What’s it doing out here?”

“It must have drifted out on some wooden debris.” The chief officer leaned over the rail.

“It’s no wolf,” said the Captain. “It’s a city mongrel, probably rabid. Get my rifle and tell them to cut the engines. We’ll save the brute a slow death. Hurry, before it drifts out of range.” The chief officer hurried away. Irridis stood back, detached, an audience of one observing a play. He didn’t like the look in the captain’s eyes. A few seconds later, the chief officer returned with the rifle and flashlight. He thrust it into the captain’s hands.

*

The captain took aim and fired the rifle. The dog’s haunches dropped. The men shouted and pressed their chests to the rail, their ranks momentarily forgotten, unified in violent pursuit. Their voices trailed away as it became clear that the bullet had struck wood and only startled the animal. It watched them, eyes luminous in the torchlight, panting. Its fur was jeweled with seawater. The crate it stood on tilted in the waves that spread from the hull of the ship. The sound of the dog’s claws scrambling for purchase could be heard over the throb of the now idling engine. The captain lifted his rifle again, training it along the beam of the chief officer’s flashlight.

“This is wrong.” The doctor stepped forward and put his hand on the barrel of the rifle pulling it downward. His actions froze the group. The captain’s features were unreadable in the stark shadows, but Irridis could see the fear in the doctor’s smile. The breath of the three men filled the air, lit by the flashlight that the chief officer had swung around in surprise. The captain tried to lift the rifle against the pressure of doctor’s grip. A distant thrum was audible on the water. It was the promised launch arriving from the city. The sound broke the doctor’s concentration, and he glanced away. The butt of the rifle flew up and broke his nose. He folded large hands over his face and stumbled out of the light.

The second rifle shot went wide of the mark as the captain roared at the chief officer to get the torch back on the dog. The man tried to comply but he was unnerved and the beam moved crazily over the water.

“Enough of this,” said Irridis. The words were out before he had time to consider the consequences. The captain, already provoked by the doctor’s interruption, turned on his heel and leveled the gun at Irridis’s head. His eyes darted in the direction of the water. The tip of his index finger whitened against the trigger. There was more behind the captain’s heavy lidded expression than annoyance. The floating ocelli reflected in the febrile glassiness of his eyes.

“I’ll do as I please.” The captain’s tone was calm. He stepped forward until the barrel was inches from Irridis’s forehead. “You should back off and mind your own business.”

“You will never kill it,” said Irridis. “You’ll merely injure it and prolong it’s suffering.”

The captain shook his head. “It’ll starve to death if I leave it. Would you want that for it? Would it ease your conscience?”

“Bring it aboard,” said Irridis. An outboard motor sputtered on the other side of the ship.

“That’s your ticket. You need to go.”

“Lunatic,” yelled the doctor from the dark, though to whom this was directed at was unclear.

The captain smirked. “Don’t worry about him. A little sinispore and he’ll be fine.”

“Put the gun down,” said Irridis.

“I’ll not be given directives on my own ship. Now, I’m not telling you again, grab your duffle and get on that boat.”

“Would you shoot me?” said Irridis.

The captain sighed. “Give me half a reason.” He rattled the rifle. “You’ve been frightening my men for weeks. I don’t know what you are, but nobody of consequence knows you’re here, so I’d tread lightly if I were you.” Leaving this threat in the air, the captain turned back to the dog, which had drifted closer to the ship. Without warning, he pulled the trigger. The dog stumbled backward into the water. Irridis reached for the rifle, but the captain anticipated him and feinted to the left. He fired a shot at short range. The sound deafened Irridis, but the bullet missed his head. Behind him the doctor’s cursing abruptly stopped. The chief officer ran toward the stern shouting for help. Irridis closed his eyes.

The first ocellus struck the captain to the left of his sternum. He fell to one knee, letting the rifle clatter to the deck. In an effort to maintain equilibrium, his shoe skewed in a spreading oval of blood. The second ocellus struck him in the back of the head, snapping it forward. Shaking hands rose to hold together the skull already breaking apart beneath the skin. Half way to the task, they fell into the man’s lap as he crumpled forward. Irridis walked across the deck and shoved the rifle into the sea with tow of his travel worn boot.

***

Irridis helped the dog from the water to the boat. Although it was leaner under the thick fur than he had imagined, its limbs were strong. As it scrabbled over the side, Irridis was aware of the shifting group watching from the ship’s rail. He ignored them. They were too frightened to interfere, but that surely wouldn’t last. The dog stood in the middle of the boat, shivering on spindly legs. It alternated its attention between Irridis and the cowed man clutching the tiller.

“Take us to the city,” said Irridis. The rusty outboard roared and spewed exhaust. The boat slewed away from the ship and headed in the direction of the city. The dog lurched sideways and then sat down in the water sloshing at its feet. Its long snout followed the five ocelli that now darted around the boat.

On the dark water, midway between the ship and the city, the man piloting the boat yelled over the engine. “I can’t believe someone would kill a man over a dog.”

Irridis didn’t answer. Looking at the dog’s reflecting eyes, he had the unsettling thought that it had been sent to meet him.

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