For the occasion of his sixth birthday, by a combination of outright begging and making several promises he had no intention of keeping, Keynish Helg convinced his parents to commission for him a dissecting microscope from the finest lens maker in Oridos.
Lord and Lady Helg had taken some convincing. Not, as one might expect, due to the outrageous price of such equipment, nor to the idea of a six year old boy engaging in activities inappropriate for his age. Money was not in short supply for House Helg in those days, and Key was an unusually bright child whose value, to his father in particular, lay primarily in his potential to join the family business.
Valkin Helg was a dour man, of good breeding but from an old house long into its decline, who had made the decidedly non-aristocratic decision to take what little inheritance he’d received and invest it in industry. It wasn’t that his wealthier peers kept all of their money in vaults; quite the contrary. But unlike most of the boys he’d gone to school with, Valkin had only two real options: live off of the income from a dwindling estate and slide inevitably into genteel poverty, or take the principal and build a business with it.
He didn’t have enough capital, nor the right instincts, to gamble with his money on the trading floor of the stock house the way his friends did. What he did have was exactly the kind of stolid, unswerving mind to succeed in manufacturing.
Valkin bought into an idea being pushed at the time by a small group of merchants and tradesmen, some of whom had trained at the University, that many every day objects, rather than being produced by the hands of a single, highly trained craftsman, could more easily and efficiently be constructed en masse by many, less competent workers arranged in such a way that raw materials went in one end of the “line” and a finished product came out the other. All it took was a keen mind able to deconstruct a product into easily understood components to design the process, and in two days a factory owner could turn a street urchin into a maker of cabinets.
A chair or a candlestick built and assembled in this manner might lack the fine quality of a comparable item created by a master craftsman, but, as Valkin saw immediately, the target marketplace for this new industrial enterprise was not the ivied manors of the aristocracy. It was the shop-owner, the baker, and the lesser merchant that would appreciate cheaply made items cheaply sold: men who could never afford to set their wife’s table with handmade silver, but who just might afford to set it with the new stamped pewter being rolled out by the pallet in the Forge.
Part of Valkin’s fitness for this business came from his own complete lack of interest in the opinions of the other members of his class. He ignored the chiding of his parents’ contemporaries, turned a deaf ear to the disapproving looks cast his way by his old tutors and retainers, and embraced it when his friends started calling him “the Foreman,” despite the epithet’s obviously disdainful intention.
He bought a textile mill, first, a crumbling red brick monstrosity that he set up to weave lightweight wool from sheep grazed south of the Inner Sea. After purchasing two more, he started building his own, knocking down older structures to make room for new construction.
The Revolution in the Forge, as it came to be called, had no shortage of enemies, and not only on grounds of caste: the craftsmen’s guilds saw it, rightly so, as a threat. The old ways were being made irrelevant, or at least that was the feeling: who would buy a hand-turned wooden bowl it took a master carver a day to make when a manufactory could make three hundred in the same amount of time? What use was the knowledge and experience of a lifetime of apprenticeship and training when the lowest ditch digger could now call himself woodworker, tinsmith, or tailor? Tensions rose until violence seemed inevitable, and it was only after hours and days of backroom negotiations involving the exchange of stock, cash, and no small amount of vigorously consumed tobacco smoke, as well as a number of lawyers, that a tentative peace was worked out.
This was later, of course, and never of much concern to Valkin, who always concerned himself with his own bottom line and the growth of his business. Let the established titans war it out with the guilds. Not to mention the fact that he was generous with the “consulting fees” he made to guildsmen to evaluate and design the processes used in his factories. In the mean time he would quietly expand and fill his coffers.
Suffice it to say that Valkin, soon the richest man in his family in generations, perhaps ever, became of the opinion that his son Keynish had a duty to build upon the foundation his father had laid, to inflate the name of Helg and the bank accounts upon which it rested to greater and greater size.
So it was with trepidation and increasing scorn that he observed his son’s growing interest in the sciences, giving in to Key’s desires only after having extracted certain promises that he must always put the good of the family before himself, and that he understand that his future lay in the brick bowels of the Forge district, not amongst the cloistered academics at the University.
Key, for his part, was too young to care about anything greater than the tangible buzz of excitement he got when he opened a rat from throat to tail and looked at its vital organs under the lamp-fed light of his microscope.
What he forgot was that all promises, eventually, come due.
* * *
It was in his twelfth year, when the creeping itch of manhood had begun to make his life difficult, that he first saw her.
The Helg mansion, seated as it was in the center of Kammerend, was an old house built on even older foundations, and its cellars connected to the Undercity by way of a purpose-built hatch. The body of the house was post-Rehabitation, which meant that there were records of the building plans. Key had found them and searched them for any reference to existing structures in the foundation, and had found what he was looking for in footnoted reference to a quantity of cement that had been poured to seal something off.
The location was marked clearly on the schematic: a perfect square of gray cement, fresher looking than the rest of the ancient stone basement, set in one corner beneath an arched alcove.
A few hours work with hammer and chisel opened up a new world for him, a needed escape from the strictures of life under the watchful eyes of Valkin Helg.
Far from sating his interest in the sciences, which had been his father’s hope, the grudgingly bestowed microscope had only awakened a passion that began to consume his young mind. It wasn’t long before Valkin called an end to it, prohibiting further experimentation outside of work assigned at school or by tutors. In addition to the basic curriculum he received at his academy, his father had hired private tutors to supplement his education. Which would in no way have bothered Key, had they wanted to teach him anything of interest. But their lessons focused almost entirely on economics and the mercantile trade, a field that, in addition to being what his father wanted him to study and therefore not an acceptable option, was the polar opposite of what actually brought his mind to life.
They taught him economics and maths, finance and statistical interpretation, but to Key it was all just dead numbers on a page. It was in the living, breathing mechanisms of life that he found his passion: the creation that lay all around them, beautifully formed and constantly evolving, interdependent and miraculously complex.
Defying his father openly was not yet an option. Even at twelve, Key was mature enough to realize that. And when he was at home, Valkin concerned himself with his only son’s business education, often sitting in a nearby chair reading the newspapers while Key finished his homework.
But the nature of the business he was in, the one in which Valkin wanted his son to follow after him, was all-consuming. The factories ran day and night, three shifts working around the clock, and despite having the privilege, as the boss, to set his own hours, Valkin often worked well into the night, only trusting his managers to take the reins of his nascent empire when exhaustion threatened to overcome him. There was thus a period of several hours each day, between coming home from school and his father’s nightly return, when Key was expected to be hard at work or already abed, that he could devote to his own investigations.
His mother was kind-hearted but not vigilant, and in any case not up to the challenge of defending anyone against the irrepressible personality of someone like Valkin Helg. But what she lacked in aggression she made up for in passive resistance. Key had often felt that Marika Helg’s unmindful permissiveness was a direct rebellion against her husband’s obsessions, and the only way she had to show her love for her son. He loved her for it, and had privately vowed not to waste what was undeniably a sacrifice. For if Valkin Helg was not an evil man, neither was he an attentive husband, and his interest in his wife stretched only as far as her utility to his own goals.
At the back of a wide stone basin, long dry but once most likely used as a large overflow chamber with smaller pipes leading to the drains on the Wall, Key built his first lab. The limitations placed upon him by his father’s oversight forced him to construct it slowly, piece by piece. He spent no small number of dull afternoons lugging abandoned furniture from the basement of his house and others into his new sanctum, moving his scientific equipment only when there was a suitable place to put it.
By that time he’d acquired, in addition to his microscope, a decent dissection kit, a set of magnifying goggles with interchangeable lenses, two full cases of discarded glassware, and a couple of grimy oil burners that he’d pilfered from the workers’ kitchens at one of his father’s factories. His main project table was a massive oaken dining table that he’d found in a neighbor’s cellar beneath a dusty drop-cloth. Key had spent an absurd amount of hours removing its legs, sneaking it out of a convenient bulkhead, and dragging it foot by arduous foot through a wider sewer line that connected, eventually, to his lab. It was grueling work, but the importance of a flat, level workspace could not be overemphasized.
The tales children told of what lurked in the Undercity made the place sound like a bustling underground metropolis, but the simple truth of the matter was that the majority of it was usually uninhabited, particularly the parts lying beneath the nicer neighborhoods, which had been mostly sealed off where they were accessible from the rest of the city. He saw a few transients from time to time, usually when he ventured outside the perimeter of Kammerend, but for the most part he stayed to his little laboratory, content in his seclusion.
So it was with some surprise that Key discovered, one lazy afternoon, that he was not alone in his hideout.
The wetter parts of the Undercity were crawling with all manner of reptiles and freshwater crustaceans, most of which were small and quick. On this afternoon in particular, however, he’d managed to trap a type of large red lizard known as an adeks. To celebrate his first large subject, Key had decided to forego his usual practice of putting a pin through the animal’s skull and had merely dosed it with a cloth soaked in chloroform. It was to be his first vivisection, and the prospect of examining a beating heart made his fingers tingle with anticipation.
He had placed the limp form on his dissection tray, having marked his first incision, and was about to press the blade of his scalpel to the adeks’ red flesh when he heard a muffled squeak followed almost immediately by the sound of breaking glass.
Key was a perceptive boy in a very narrow sense: he could focus his attention very powerfully and and very specifically when a subject interested him, such as in the case of exploring and understanding the anatomy of a small vertebrate. But outside of this specialized talent, he was somewhat absent-minded—a trait which, were his father, in turn, more observant of his son’s strengths and weaknesses, should have made it obvious that Keynish’s abilities did not lie in business. Which is a drawn out way of saying that it took him a moment to pull his focus, keen and razor-edged, from the lizard in front of him and apply it dully to whatever fracas had come to disturb his work.
When he was finally able to cogitate at a more general level, he realized that a large glass flask had fallen off of his work table and smashed on the stone floor of the basin. The sound of incoming footsteps and a low, feminine growl then caused him to reconsider that hypothesis, particularly in combination with the round stone he had now noticed in the pile of shattered glass. Not fallen, then, but knocked off.
The young woman—the girl, really—who was approaching him from the direction of the eastern culvert was short, beautiful, and angry. She wore a simple, dun dress and ankle boots that clicked on the stone. Key had a moment to swallow before she drew up to his work table and glared at him.
“What are you doing to that lizard?” she demanded. Key, confounded, responded literally.
“Opening its abdominal cavity to examine its internal organs.”
“Is it dead?” she asked, looking down at the adeks.
“Not yet,” said Key.
“Well, stop it,” she said.
“Why?” Key asked.
She rolled her eyes. “Because it’s not nice, you idiot!”
* * *
As far as Key could tell, Seffa had neither surname nor a home address. At least, none that she had chosen to reveal, through either word or deed. His powers of observation were strangely limited when it came to assessing other people, but even to Key she seemed oddly out of place. She had a strange affect: quiet, almost preternaturally still. Key would often forget she was there until her small voice would pipe up out of the shadows nearby, usually to make a perceptive comment about something she was reading or he was studying.
It became a habit. Each day, in the middle of the afternoon, when Key had been ensconced in his studies for a good hour, she would appear in his makeshift lab as if by magic. Aside from the fact that she entered by the western tunnel he had no idea where she came from. Just as he had not asked where she was from or what her last name was, Key had not asked what led her into the Undercity each day. Was she a wayward schoolchild, escaping the drudgery of going home after class, like him? Did she even attend school? Such questions occasionally broke the surface of his deep mind, causing no small amount of perturbation. But Key was nothing if not tenacious, and his desire to put all distractions out of his mind was strong.
Over a month of this strange routine passed by before they had their first proper conversation. Key had gotten comfortable enough around Seffa to endure her constant presence, if only as a vaguely identified node of thinking, talking body heat that liked to flit about his space. Hours often went by where he forgot her existence entirely, only to discover that she’d been talking to him the whole time. Such was the nature of their relationship, and the nature of Seffa, that she took this in stride. It would only be much later that Key began to realize the reason for this, and the surprisingly favorable impression his self-absorption made upon her.
It was raining hard on the surface, far above Key and Seffa’s shared hideout, which they could tell from the outflow draining into the sewer mains en route to the lab. Key had just finished a difficult dissection, in this case of a large amphibious arachnid he’d caught on a day trip to the shores of the Inner Sea. He and Seffa had reached a mostly unspoken agreement about his experiments, wherein she remained silent about most of them if he agreed to euthanize them humanely. She also seemed generally less likely to complain if he kept to creatures she found personally frightening; the water spider had produced only a shudder and no comment. Vivisection was off the table entirely, literally and figuratively, after their first encounter. She took the matter quite seriously, and Key found that despite the setback to his own experimental progress he was disinclined to argue with her about it.
Had he spent any time analyzing the nature of this disinclination he might have come to certain conclusions far earlier than he did, but such is life, and such is adolescence, and such was the nature of Key, who analyzed himself least of all.
He was cleaning his instruments with alcohol—the cheap moonshine brewed in the Warrens, available at most potheks, even in Kammerend, for its purity and numerous uses, proved most effective for this task—when she jumped up from her seat on the warm elbow of a massive steam pipe and made a hooting noise. It shocked him so badly that he dropped the scalpel he’d been disinfecting and, for the moment, forgot all about it.
“What?” he called, the desperation apparent in his voice. A number of paranoid hypotheticals had sprung to mind as the likely cause of this outburst, none of which bore any relation to logic. His father hand found them, had come in with a gang of factory workers to smash his equipment and drag him out by his ear. His tutors had sent a spy who’d infiltrated them, and had alerted Seffa to his presence. One of his prize specimens had gotten out its cage and skittered to freedom, never to be found again.
“Yoo-hoo!” called Seffa again, raising a small fist in the air and doing a little jig on the pipe. Her cheap hide shoes tapped an echoing beat into the sonorous pipe that only set off Key’s anxiety. “He did it!”
“Who did what?” he asked, scowling when he realized that nothing at all had happened—that she was referring to the dingy pulp she’d been reading from the comfort of her heated perch. Some girlish frippery, no doubt, full of fainting maidens and noble, boring princelings of impeccable breeding.
“Black Hunter, of course!” she said. Key paused. This caught his attention.
“Well of course he did,” he said. “He’s Black Hunter. He always does it.”
“Oh, Key—do you love Black Hunter? Tell me you love him like I do!”
Key, feeling for some reason rather defensive, allowed that he did indeed harbor a fondness for the legendary vigilante, and found himself creeping around his workbench and toward Seffa.
“Is that last month’s?”
“No, silly! This month’s, just out today!”
And in that moment whatever structures held his normally restrained, strictly controlled psyche at bay collapsed like a house of cards.
“What day is it?”
“Thirdday,” she said, smiling.
“Damn it, I’d forgotten.” As obsessed as he was with natural philosophy, not a week went by that Key failed to buy a copy of Strange Fiction from the pothek on the corner of Eb Way and Kammerend Boulevard, on his way home from school. Unlike the other Kammerender families, his father saw no reason his son shouldn’t walk to and from school, as he had. Just because Valkin had improved the family’s fortunes did not mean that he had forgotten what it was like to live lean, or so he put it. Which had been embarrassing, at first—the jeers from passing carriages cracked even Key’s stony façade—until he realized that it gave him a degree of freedom the others might be jealous of, had they given it any thought.
The long walks home from the University district, where his academy was located, proved a fecund source of a moiety of illicit pleasures. Most potheks were unscrupulous about their clientele, and would happily sell tobacco and liquor to a twelve year old boy as anyone else. Had Key been interested in such things, that is. What did interest him, however, was the ability to veer off course into the sewers and catch specimens, or to explore the ruins of the Prosekhal, searching for caches of phirotic equipment (which he never found), or patronizing certain specialized potheks that dealt in the type of tools a young anatomist might require, but lack the credentials to acquire over the counter.
But perhaps the most important discovery of these travels was the pulp rack at Benteel’s Drugs & Sundry. It was Strange Fiction that drew him first and kept him longest, that treasure trove of weird tales and fantastic adventures that included, among many others, the Exploits of Black Hunter, Oridos’s legendary vigilante.
It was in the dim light of a hastily lit lantern that they read together, he for the first time and she, just as delightedly, looking up from time to time to watch his reaction as the story unfolded, for the second. And through what gaps there were in the tightly wound interstices of Keynish Helg, a light was kindled that would never go out.