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Smoke’n

In the distance, Brenzel saw columns of smoke rise from perhaps a hundred different smoke stacks, sticking up between the ugly buildings like spikes driven into the sky. The rumbler came to it’s swishing stop, driver pulling leavers, flipping switches, and shutting valves. Brenzel, loved watching him, like a maestro, sure practiced motions of economy. She’d almost memorized the pattern. Following him down the latter to the hold, everyone else had already left.

Inside, she felt anticipation, excitement as she moved quick, down the stairs to the outside. This big city reminded her of, curiously, England. She’d heard stories about London, but had never seen it yet. It was dirty, yet glorious, soot everywhere, but lavish buildings full of royalty and opulence. For some reason, what she’d seen of Steam City as they rolled in reminded her of home. Even the smell, which accosted her nostrils and made her eyes water, didn’t dampen Brenzel’s spirit of adventure.

By the time she’d caught up to the group, Damian stood in his desert gear, waiting. Brenzel joined the others with a quick, “sorry.”

In a clear, matter-of-fact voice, Damian instructed, “It is important that you all listen to what I am about to say.”

Fallon reached over, taking Brenzel’s hand.

“We are now in the Steam Clan.” Damian handed each of them a piece of metal with a number stamped on it. “Those are arrival chits,” he continued, “do not lose them. You have seventy-two hours from arrival to be fitted. After that, they will activate and you can be arrested for offending attire. The type of clothes we wear in each clan territory is very important. After your seventy-two hours, if not dressed properly, the local constables will detain you.” He paused, “Aside from being unpleasant, this will delay our mission.

“Outside of temple services, the clans practice strict purity. Therefore, no hand holding, kissing, or any other form of public affection is permitted. Also, after the second sunset, there is no law, so don’t be caught out in the streets after dark.” Damian looked directly at Brenzel, “This shouldn’t be a problem because we are all going to stick together and do exactly as I say.”

Brenzel let go of Fallon’s hand.

***

Following Damian’s lead, they left the staging area full of transports, and entered into the outskirts of the city, craning their necks to see the strange sight. The street was paved with cut stone, joined together almost seamlessly. Machines, similar in style, but much smaller in size to the rumbler, made slow progress up and down the wide street, threading through horse-drawn carriages. The air felt moist, warm, as everywhere that same hissing sounded off at intervals from the piping that lined all the buildings.

Progressively taller and grander structures lined each side of the street, sporting bottoms entirely comprised of clothing shops. Live models stood in the windows, displaying women’s fashions on left side, while men stood, demonstrating male attire on the right.

Brenzel could smell wood burning everywhere. As she walked together with her friends, following Damian’s lead, she saw women looking at the female models on display in the windows of the dark green shops on the left hand side of the street, sometimes going in, sometimes coming out. The dresses they wore were deliberate, powerful statements, every head topped with flamboyant hats. The men, on the other side, strutted in what Brenzel thought were very dapper suits with large squared hats, somewhat like a capotian.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the like before, Brenzel,” Fallon said, as she caught up to her, admiring a passing lady in bright red about twenty feet away. The woman’s dress was down to her ankles with a cossetted bodice and frilly sleeves. Her beautiful hair was crowned with a big, wide-brimmed bonnet and a large feather, which extended well beyond the back and falling downward from the rim.

Right and left

Damian stopped, turned and gestured toward the yellow line which began to run down the center of the street before them. “Women on the left, men on the right. Any time you see this, know that the law of purity is in effect.”

He pointed to a shop across from them, “Brenzel, please escort the ladies to ‘The Jolly Trollop,’ and inquire for Mistress Servenise. She’s expecting you and has instructions for the clothes everyone needs. I’ve already paid. After Derek, Micron, and I are fitted, we’ll pick you by carriage before first sunset. We’ll have dinner where we’re staying for the evening.”

Damian looked at the group, seeming to wait a response from someone, but no one said anything. “Alright, then. See you later.” Motioning to Derek and Micron, who shuffled slowly toward him, they made their way toward their tailor.

Brenzel looked at Fallon, Meha, and Komae. None of them looked excited to be here. “Come on,” she said, “it can’t be that bad.” The tall Halan had a very sour expression. Fallon looked conflicted, but intrigued, and Meha, as usual, simply stood near her friend, alert.

***

The door, exquisitely made with stained glass windows, pushed open easily. Brenzel looked in first, intimidated by the finery of the establishment. The display area, a rather large space, featured a vaulted ceiling, a floor full of lovely dresses, with hats lining one of the walls, and shelves of shoes over to one side. Glowing orbs floated near the ceiling, casting a warm, pleasant light on everything. A long countertop lay in front of their small group. Brenzel walked forward, as the other women looked around.

Now this is more like it…Brenzel thought, seeing the shoes.

Nothing disturbed the smooth counter in front of her, except a single four-inch metal triangle suspended from a stand, with a small striker laying flat by its side. She approached, picked up the small metal implement and struck the metal. A clear, ringing pitch filled the room, the purity of which Brenzel had never heard in her entire life. That’s sounds amazing, she thought, not knowing a tone could be that pleasing. It almost tasted pure, making her want another bite. She rang it again, this time a little louder, bending down, putting her ear close to it. So crisp, so clear, so …

A sharp crack from a crop whip smacked the wood beside her head. Brenzel jumped back, hands up.

“Enough! A stern voiced woman said from behind the counter. Coming around to the end of the counter, she removed the the small striker from Brenzel’s raised hand as if she were removing a knife from a child’s grasp. Laying it down, precisely at a right angle to the edge, just as Brenzel found it, she turned, “My name is Mistress Servenise, grand seamstress of “The Jolly Trollop,” emporium of extraordinary fashion and accessories, how may I service you?”

Brenzel put her hands down, stood up straighter, mustering some composure, eyeing the whip still in the woman’s right hand. “Um…I’m Brenzel, Damian says you’re expecting us.”

Too much fat!

Taller than Brenzel with a thin, slightly wrinkled face, the seamstress looked at her through dark, almond eyes of disapproval. Her dark hair, tinged with grey, piled high in a very elaborate weave, added to her height. Her cheeks were covered in a pink rouge and dark lines had been drawn around her eyes, which were highlighted by bright red lipstick covered thinning lips. She wore a dark blue working dress that enveloped her thin frame entirely, down to her wrists and up to her neck. Brenzel suddenly felt she was looking at a strict school teacher, not a dressmaker.

Looking Brenzel over, Mistress Servenise prodded one of her breasts with her crop, shaking her head, “Too much fat!” Brenzel pulled away and frowned.

Turning to the others, the woman demanded, “Come here, stand in a line,” she pointed at the floor with her whip.

Looking each woman over, inspecting them thoroughly, she instructed Fallon to turn, lifting up her hair with her whip. Then she moved on to Komae, frowning in disapproval as she inspected the turban on her head. “Remove it,” she demanded.

Komae, did so, slowly, revealing her ears.

“Hmmm…those are a challenge,” she muttered inspecting one side then the other. “Do they hurt?”

Komae, raising her eyebrows and folding her arms said, “No, they don’t.”

“From wearing the turban,” the lady explained succinctly.

Realizing what she meant, Komae softened and replied again, “No, wearing the cloth does not hurt.”

Turning to Brenzel, Mistress Servenise said, “Can’t be done in a day. Inform your commander. What he asks is impossible. We’ll do as much as we can this afternoon. After Purity Day, your garments will be ready on the second day of the week.”

The woman struck the triangle chime again, and this time eight women appeared from behind the counter door and filed into the room. She assigned two workers to each of them.

“Go with your attendants,” she instructed, “take off all your clothes for measurement. We’ll fit your corsets after.”

Looking back at Komae, the woman shook her head saying, “By Her Majesty’s Beauty, imagine fitting a Halan.”

***

“I can hardly breathe!” Fallon said that afternoon as the attendant tightened the strings behind her.

The woman lacing her black corset replied, “You’ll get used to it, we all do.”

Brenzel knew about these torture instruments of fashion from stories, but had never worn one before. As hers was tightened she felt squeezed in places that shouldn’t be squeezed.

Komae’s voice carried loudly from the other room, protesting, “You’re mad! Why would anyone wear that? I’d sooner wear nothing at all!”

All afternoon the fitting went on. The seamstress selected clothes, first for the Steam Clan, then for the Butcher Clan, then the Water Clan, and finally the Tech Clan. Brenzel looked at herself in the mirror as she was fitted for the last clan, remembering her friend Vic in Sturgis. “Is this real leather?” she asked.

“Of course,” the seamstress replied, “The Jolly Trollop only uses the finest horse leather.”

Steampunk Music Instrumental

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