Chapter 1

Established Order. The way things are and always will be. This is something that tends to rankle in the hearts of those who seek a different state of things, a better way perhaps, but most importantly the way they prefer things to be.

"You're tightening it sir, not opening it," the waitress said as the customer at her table began to turn purple with the effort of removing the bottle top so he could pour himself a drink. The girl claimed the slippery thing from him and with a grunt, released the cap. "There you go," she said with a satisfied smile upon her freckly face that hinted she thought him a ridiculous old fool. "Turn anti-clockwise to open. Threads are always spiralled that way," and she winked.

He watched her depart to deal with another customer in the dingy little food hall before allowing himself the satisfaction of pouring the now released beverage into his glass. The foamy beer frothed over the lip of the glass and settled upon the wood of the grimy table.

"Why?" he muttered to himself, watching the bubbles burst and then sipping the rich liquid. "Why always anti-clockwise?"

Serenity orbits Winkel World thus, his old teacher would have said. The very world itself rotates thus, bringing the sun up from the east and letting it settle for the night in the west. It has always been that way, and always will be. As permanent as the storm barriers that surrounded the land.

This thought made the man smile inwardly. The storm barriers. A curse upon every Winkel. Choking trade, trapping people, separating lives. Why must it be so? Since time out of mind the infuriating electrical storms rumbled and thundered a thousand miles each side of the great squares that shaped nations. Instant death awaited those without the means of crossing them. A simple trader, cruising down river on a barge laden with the wealth of his land, seeking an outlet for his goods beyond would find this waterway to wealth barred by lightnings that ensured instant incineration. Flitters gliding high and proud into cloudless blue skies packed with travellers intent on the exploration of lands far from home would find stormy tentacles dragging their craft out of the rarefied air to plunge doomwards.

"Not any longer if I can help it," the man said, banging his fist upon the table.

"Sorry?"

While he had been musing on the immutability of things another customer had sat at the public board opposite him with a plate of greasy potatoes and a hint of green stuff. He had been about to plunge a forkful of food in his mouth when the other made the inexplicable outburst.

"Uh, I can't hang around. Not any longer," the man said, finishing his beer, tossing a coin on the table for the waitress and grabbing a great gnarled stick at his side. "Got to be going," he added, nodding at his table companion and adjusting the dark mauve robe he wore as he barrelled towards the exit.

"That's good to know," came a sarcastic reply. "Your hat."

The man halted in his headlong rush, returned somewhat sullenly for the aforesaid headgear, which he plonked upon greying locks before nodding again. Without further word he stalked out of the food hall at a more dignified pace, a dark figure intent on some arcane mission, or so he decided those who watched him should presume.

The waitress returned to claim her coin just as the last flutter of fabric disappeared out the door.

"Got a right one there," she said, eyes upon the exit.

"Aye," the still seated man replied, mouth drooling potato grease as he spoke. "Must be a crazies convention in the Flats," and he snorted at his own joke before wiping a beefy forearm across his mouth.

The waitress wasn't listening. Her attention was on the coin left by the strange bearded man. She turned it over and over in brown fingers thoughtfully, letting the light flash across its metallic surface. It was a small denomination, truth be told, but the largest tip she had ever received.

"This is Tinker's gold," she said in a barely audible whisper, palming the priceless thing suddenly, smiling at the man and his potato face, before she too rushed off. Just as she disappeared behind the bar her apron went fluttering to the floor, a shawl was grabbed and a door could be heard slamming at the back of the establishment. Floy Merritt, waitress, bar girl and sandwich maker of the Platterfull Palace did not return to work that afternoon, or ever again.

"A plague on these sea breezes," said the man whose tip had changed a girl's life, for the wind had whipped his floppy felt hat off his head and sent it rolling down some steps as if it had been a wheel in its former life. With ungainly gait he stumbled forward and lunged with the great stick he always carried, beating the errant thing to the ground in a cloud of dust. "Ha, thought to evade me did you? Would that world mastering were so quick and easy."

"Sorry?"

As he clutched at the soft thing to retrieve it, muttering words of victory, he found himself at eye level with a plump lad whittling on a piece of pine wood garnered from a nearby stretch of wasteland. The boy sat on a ledge that overlooked the steps and his wide eyes stared at the robed figure. He continued to whittle as he stared and wood chips rained down on the man.

"Uh, mastering these tricky steps is so easy," he corrected himself carefully.

"Ain't that so," the boy smiled, flicking a curl of wood to one side with his blade. "Some go up and some go down, nan always says. She likes the ones that go down best, being all decrepit and the like. Guess you're the same."

The man placed his hat more firmly upon the thinning grey mat of hair, drew himself up to his full height so he could look down upon the boy, and rapped the stick meaningfully against the lower step.

"If your nan keeps descending steps she'll eventually end up in the pits of fire," he advised, rubbing his long nose with a bony finger and revealing yellowed teeth in a knowing smile. "I however intend to ascend. Which way, my young wood carver, is the path to Mount Syzywyg?"

The boy pointed to his right with the stick he was whittling, giving the man a sight of that which he was endeavouring to carve. He could not help admiring the way the lad had skilfully shaped the pine stick into a remarkably accurate representation of a slightly smaller pine stick.

"Follow the signs with Mount Syzywyg written upon them," the boy said as additional advice. "They's generally right."

"Here's something for your trouble my lad," and the man produced a shiny coin from his fluttering robe. The boy took it without so much as a glance. He watched the strange figure bustle about a bit, settle his robes, and then march off with long, purposeful strides up the lane and through a thick stand of baby spruce and pink rhododendron till he was out of sight. Only then did he look at the metal token given to him.

"Nan said not to trust the crazies when they were in town," he mumbled, examining the coin. "Just a single," he shrugged, unimpressed with the way it flashed like gold in the warm Frangea sun. Thus he tossed it over his shoulder into the waste ground at the back of the block of wooden houses where he lived and resumed whittling away with his blunt knife upon the soft wood.

Floy Merritt, meanwhile, had watched this exchange from a position of concealment with one eager eye and gasped audibly when she saw the coin so carelessly discarded by the boy.

"Finder's keepers," she sniffed. "Always the way of things," and waiting with eager impatience for the plump lad to shift himself, she sighed with relief when his nan finally called him to tea.

Her worn leather boots crunched on the sandy soil as Floy peered at the stone strewn ground around her, picking up a twig to prod here and there until a flash of gold rewarded her for her efforts. A brief glance at her immediate surroundings and like an eagle upon a lamb she swooped down to claw up the abandoned treasure, adding it to the other in a small cloth bag, doubling her wealth in an instant.

"Now, where did he say he was headed? Mount Syzywyg? Nothing up there but some fancy school. Rate I'm going, I'll be able to afford to study there meself," said she laughing. With an adjustment of her pretty flowered bonnet, wrapping the worn shawl tight around thin shoulders, she sought the rising path behind Cherryball Flats that led through darksome woods to the heights above. A shortcut it was, to keep ahead of the game.