From Fata Morgana: The Valley of Steel

A new excerpt, this time from my novel in progress, The Valley of Steel. It’s set in a world that takes the map and landmarks of the United States and adds generous helpings of legend and wild magic. The arcing plot of the series concerns Lauren Orson, who gathers a crew to explore the treacherous interstate–the chaotic spaces between settled cities–on a van named Fata Morgana, a wind-powered land vehicle. In this first book, though, she has yet to meet the full crew, and has entered the Statue of Liberty, a haven for lawlessness, on a quest to find a van she’s heard could be free salvage. Joining her are John Glade, a diplomat in the service of the Empire of Washington, and Lucas Fenway, who recently escaped from a brutal interrogation by the sinister Spectist Order.

There were no docks. Lauren and Lucas jumped into the shallows and waded ashore while John paid the ferryman, a statue regular endlessly amused at the way they kept touching their pockets. Drunks draped themselves over the path to the plinth, while those still moving pulled each other behind shrubs apparently planted for privacy. Uphill, light streamed out of an irregular hole, two stories high.

“How much do you know about this place again?” Lauren asked John.

“Bit about the peace, bit about what’s up there.” John pointed at the crown with its fringe of metal thorns. “Hope that’s enough to get us through.”

Lauren cursed herself for never having picked up a book on the Statue. It was so close—she could see it from her parents’ bedroom on clear days—but she’d never been interested, preferring to reread the few Easterners writing on the West.

Lucas prodded a drunk with his toe. “Is this the peace? Booze-enforced?”

“It’s based on blood.” Each of them carried a baseball bat strapped to their back, scrounged by John during a quick stop at Empire State. Lucas had his in hand, swinging by his side. “Spilling blood breaks the peace. Anything else is fine. Lots of leeway for people with imaginations.”

“I have too much of one right now.” Lauren shuddered. “Let’s get what we came for.”

The grassy ring of island around the statue was an unassuming place, patchily lit. It had few features other than drunks, hedgerows, and garbage, though the last could be anything from candy wrappers to an entire abandoned canoe. Lauren picked a clean path, and headed for the entrance with John and Lucas following.

A passel of men and women poured out of the gap in the plinth, driving a small, bespectacled man before them. Lauren flinched toward a shrub, not caring what was happening on the other side.

“Might be prepared to be gentle, if you weren’t such a crap alchemist,” said the woman in the lead. “But my dog pisses out better potions. And you sold ‘em on the wrong turf.”

“Please,” the alchemist struggled to his feet, “I don’t see why this has to be—“

The woman struck him with the back of her hand. “We sell where we want to. You poach business, you know what happens next.” She stepped back and allowed the crowd forward. “Do what you want, boys and girls. But keep away from his head. And no broken bones. We don’t need to lose the peace tonight.”

Lucas’s knuckles were white around the handle of his bat. “Looky,” he said. “An open gate.”

“Wait.” Lauren held him back. “I don’t think they can see us. We could save him.”

“I did not come to start fights,” John said.

A thud. The alchemist cried out. “I’d expect this from you, John. Urge caution, fine,” Lauren said, wheeling on Lucas. “But you started a revolution.”

Thud. “And that went less than great for me,” Lucas replied. “So now I get in fights I can win. ‘Scuse me.”

John went after him into the Statue of Liberty. Lauren squared her shoulders like she belonged and strode past the beaten alchemist. John says people don’t die here.

The interior of the Statue took her mind off it, somewhat. But only because it made it difficult to pay attention to anything.

She had pictured a warren. Tunnels of vice dens, each with tapestries covering entrances to the next. But it was one great room, towering so high that the openings into the statue’s arms could have had clouds drifting in and out of them. There was no building in the city so tall, in the present or in any time.

Between the ground floor and the crown lay platform after platform raised on scaffolds, which, though they had no regular pattern or shape, held up. Lauren, John, and Lucas found themselves making their way through a forest of support pillars, open to the sky in clearings that revealed the layers of stages soaring up the steel cliffs of the statue’s body. Noise assaulted them from everywhere. Someone above them was singing a hymn with the tempo and volume of a ribald, and several heavy machines ground just out of sight. Vagrants with potions and contraband silks stalked the paths. Hastening to a better-lit trail, they passed a stall bedecked with crowns and idols of solid gold.

“Florida,” John shouted over the din. “New York and Washington both have them embargoed. They don’t trust the stuff they dig out of shipwrecks.”

One of the gold statues had five arms and no eyes. Lauren wondered exactly who could afford to purchase and resell these. Nobody, she thought, would want to own one for show.

They pushed ahead onto a wider avenue, where new smells and sounds overwhelmed them. A man stomped endlessly on a bellows to fan the flames under a stove, where disks of meat Lauren couldn’t identify sizzled. Fruit she’d never seen, star-shaped or studded with barbs, poured out of the very crates that had been used to smuggle it in. A hawker bellowed that nothing was softer or stronger than Arkansas leather. A priestess in a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke begged in an untraceable accent to tell their fortunes.

And that was just Lauren’s immediate line of sight. Giant gaslights and Detroit lamps shone on the same scene repeated time after time: dancers, solicitors, cutpurses, adventurers, crawling from scaffold to scaffold up and down the walls. There must have been thousands of misfits in here, not one of them subject to any law.

Had it not been for the beatings—and the dark alleys she preferred not to look down—Lauren could have gotten used to it here. State boundaries dissolved more than they did anywhere in the Empire of Washington. The Supreme Court liked its borders well-defined.

A hunched man of indeterminate age sidled up to Lucas’s back. John whirled around. “Don’t.”

Lucas spun as well and chopped the air with his bat, but the pickpocket had already melted away. Lauren touched her front pockets for reassurance: aside from her clothes and coins for the ride, she’d brought nothing.

“The peace is holding,” she said as they walked down the main path in the open.

“Good,” said Lucas. “Unless he comes back with six friends. Where are we going?”

“To the crown.” John searched around the area, a kind of square amid the scaffolds. “It’s a little plusher up there. Can’t see anyone down here forking over the cash for a van.”

“And the pirates are likely to sell up there?”

“That, or they’ll have sold already, and we can talk to someone who saw it go down.”

Lauren hoped this wasn’t true, but was not blind to the possibility. She’d wasted a lot of time being grounded. Besides, a clue would be better than nothing, maybe even worth the trip. “What does that kind of sale look like?”

“An auction.” John forged ahead. “There’s this stage in the Right Eye. Bidding is unfixable, enforced by the mistress of ceremonies. Only money that rules is money on the table.”

“Organized crime is turning out to be real democratic,” Lucas said. “Some friends back home would like it. What the hell are you looking for?”

“Elevator,” John told him. Lauren had seen some platforms hanging apart from the scaffolding, suspended on steel cables—but none near the ground. “There are stairs. Sort of. But we’re on a clock. Fata Morgana could go up in the Right Eye any minute.”

They tripped over one. Lauren was in the lead when a wooden square the size of her bedroom sped down a set of cables and hit the ground. She misstepped and sprawled over it. Fortunately, it was empty, and her companions were too busy scanning for cutpurses to laugh.

“Nobody runs these,” John explained as they stepped on. “The crank’s attached to the lift itself because…”

“…who would you trust at either end?” Lauren clambered to her knees. Crouching helped her take hold of the winch, a stout mechanism mounted on the side of the platform, with its handle at foot level. “Hold tight, gentlemen. Next stop, the exotic opium dens of the crown.”

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