There is much adventure to be had in the hearts of people, but this is not a world built for hearts, so we must make the world.
An Introduction: In Which We Meet the Floating City and Its Poppet Queens
There is a city that hovers above the Lost Continent, and it is called the Floating City. It rests high enough that travel between the two requires the use of airships. The buildings are constructed of an unidentifiable stone, which some speculate was brought there during the rather ambiguous Age of Queens. The roads are cobbled and peppered with whimsically formed steel street lamps. What lights the lamps could be magic. It could be alchemy. Only the residents are sure.
The inhabitants of the city are friendly, if somewhat discreet, and bring an array of goods to trade in the markets on the Lost Continent. They will not accept currency for their goods but insist upon barter.
It is unknown to those on the Lost Continent who the people of the City are, or how long the City has even been there. Across the kingdoms of the Continent, there is tell of a Queen who rules the City. It is said that she is fierce and mighty. It is said that she is as tall as a brandoni tree and ominous as the returning dead. It is also said that she is more beautiful than the five moons and cold as the Thousand Year Ice Lands to the north of the Continent. Some say her voice is like thunder. Some say she is mute.
Whatever is said, for as long as anyone alive can recall, the rulers of the Lost Continent have left the Floating City alone. Its mystery immediately squashes ambitions to annex the city. It seems small, and not worthwhile. The Queen seems formidable.
But those who live inside the City’s walls have no queen.
There is a woman who lives in the Furnace District, who appears at the Spectacle of Bells — the only time, annually, that travelers from the Continent are welcomed into the City. There, in the plaza just beyond the port, is a grand bazaar full of curios, cures, and mysteries. Travelers may stay for the duration of the festivities but are not encouraged to explore beyond the steel and stone bridges that border the Bazaar. The revelry lasts from sunrise to next morning’s sunrise, and there, surrounded by clockwork creatures, the Queen is wildly conspicuous, dressed in white and silver embroidery, draped from next to wrist in finely woven textiles, the entirety of her face obscured by lace. On her head, she wears a diadem decorated with antlers and the bones of small birds. For the duration of the day, she is silent. She is the Queen.
There is a woman who lives in the Menagerie District, who is carried by four clockwork creatures into the Spectacle of Bells on a litter made of lightweight hardware and wood. She appears in crimson, her almond-shaped eyes ferocious behind a beaded mask that covers her nose and chin. On her wrists are gauntlets of oxidized copper. Although her face is obscured, her arms and breasts are exposed, and her skin is a deep mahogany. Around her neck are strings of teeth from unnamed beasts. She sings. Clear, and haunting, she sings welcomes and farewells. She sings songs of death and invention and hope. Her voice is like clay bells, and also the hum of clockwork cicadas, and also the sizzle of water on hot iron. She is the Queen.
There is a person who is bound head-to-toe in black organza that ripples as though it is always in motion. The fabric shifts and rustles on their body, appearing alive. They descend in the evening out of the sky; their body strapped meticulously to a set of opaline wings built of wood and brass. It is not clear how the wings operate, how they are able to carry the weight of their passenger. The person’s movements are like water. They tumble and spin and leap as though there was no gravity — as though they were made entirely of nuance. When they are finished, they lift up back into the sky, surrounded by a swarm of clockwork birds until they are no longer visible, and the sky is filled with the hum of mechanical wings. They are the Queen.
In Which We Explore the Districts & Speak of Specters
The city has a population of roughly 9 million and is divided into five districts, each of them unique, each of them haunted by their own Specters.
The Specters appear at random, in daylight and in the dark, like human-shaped watermarks, blurred at the edges, slightly transparent. They make no noise when they move and carry about their business, walking, dancing, holding small lanterns or armloads of books or envelopes or nothing at all. Sometimes, they will sing, as if to nobody, but they do not speak, or otherwise respond to conversation attempts. It is not certain whether the Specters are aware of the people who live in the city; they seem not to notice the bustle of flesh and blood and mechanical beings moving through streets and houses and gardens. In turn, the city folk are accustomed to the Specters, and have long since stopped being startled by their intermittent appearance and disappearance.
It is unknown from where the Specters came. Are they ghosts of long-deceased ancestors? Are they prophets from other places? Are they future-beings, revolting against linear time? Are they the City itself, pieces of the soul of the place? Will they ever speak? What is in the envelopes? Do they read the books?
The Menagerie District is sprawling, flush with beasts mechanical and organic. The makers of the mechanical beasts prefer to live near to them and, in recent ages, the clockwork creatures have begun to gain sentience. The machinists are their protectors, repairing damages and learning the precision of their communication.
Foundry Alley is so named because of the large amount of bell foundries and bell casters, and also for the masters who guide apprentices in the study of campanology. Additionally, there are artisans of all kinds — smithies, carpenters, potters, and marquetarians. It is said that whatever one is looking for, it can be made in the Foundry District. The bells, kettles, musical instruments, and trinkets made in the Foundry District are widely sought-after on the Continent.
In the Alchemists Quarter, there are apothecaries, oracles, soothsayers, and medics. At the Temple of Condition, the Stewards assist visitors in placing requests at the Altar of Instruments of Creation and Instruments of Destruction. There is no faith-based tradition, but rather, rituals meant to pay homage to the idea of possibility and intention. Some craft gods from these concepts, others do not.
Bordering the Alchemists Quarter is the Lyceum, where sages facilitate environments of conversation, learning, and experimentation for novices. There is no tuition to attend; all are welcome. The district includes housing and a small market. Anyone is welcome to study at the Lyceum. A curious assemblage of things are studied at the Lyceum, where tutors instruct students and apprentices in the Naming and Unnaming of Things, Clockwork Building & Disassembly, Construction and Deconstruction of Poems and Maladies and Illusions, Small Significant Things (Discovery & Uses), Airship Building and Unbuilding, Summoning and Banishing, Cloud Gathering, Agriculture, Histories of Beasts, Mythologies, Dance and Stillness, Confusion for Fun & Benefit, and Cartography of Anomaly.* It is the method of instructors to teach both the subject, and the dismantling of the subject, as it is widely believed that one cannot truly understand a thing without knowing how to take it apart. To intimately know anything, one must become just as thoroughly acquainted with its antithesis. Tutors and students are housed and fed at the Lyceum, which is sprawling with cottages and dormitories.
In the center of the City, South of the Menagerie District, wherein most cities lay a palace, is The Oasis: a spread of greenhouses and gardens, housing botanists, apprentices, vegetation, and flora.
In Which We Speak of Economy and Cautionary Tales
In the Floating City, there is no precise currency. Rather, dwellers subsist on a gift economy. Merchants consistently bring wares made in the city to markets on the Lost Continent, and will only accept goods trade, which the citizens of Lost Continent find strange, but are happy to comply. Artisans of the Floating City produce treasures such as clockwork curiosities, music boxes that provide cures for things such as insomnia and fear, apothecary remedies, oracle services, decorative wearables, amulets, curses, functional pottery, dysfunctional pottery, tools, and bells. The City is famous for the production of what is said are the most beautiful-sounding bells ever to grace the ears of humans and beasts.
Much of the City’s food is produced in The Oasis. What is lacking can be traded for at the markets on the Lost Continent. In The Oasis is The Fountain, which is the only source of water for the City. Water is piped to each district through a simple irrigation system. It is said that ages ago, settlers came to the City and stayed because of The Fountain during a time when there were great droughts across the Lost Continent. Where the water comes from is a mystery. The lines between science and magic are foggy, and what can be explained is often overshadowed by the unfathomable.
The City’s residents employ gift economy to meet their needs. Goods and services are not traded or sold, but given freely without reward agreement. The idea of accounting and debt is playfully utilized as almost an aesthetic. Debts are accrued, then immediately forgiven. There is an elaborate formal economy, almost a “show economy,” that is based on trade and barter, but it is a thing to which inhabitants merely give lip service. The gift economy is mediated through the game of debt and trade.
Floating City inhabitants are usually ambivalent about the idea of ownership as it pertains to things like food and land. In cases such as foundries, greenhouses, and other places where many people might labor, the workers all take equal share in being the custodians of the environment. People more or less consider themselves to own their homes and personal articles, but rent is not paid to landlords, and there are not property taxes. Districts are unofficially divided into smaller boroughs, where neighbors assist one another in maintaining their streets, plazas, and common areas. Often, this is done using a rotating worker schedule, agreed upon democratically by the community.
There are two guilds — the Bulls Guild, and the Thieves Guild. To be a member of either guild is wildly humiliating, however, useful. Thieves remind city dwellers of the transient nature of material goods. Bulls play the role of identifying and giving people the opportunity to voice grievances. If a person resents someone for not reciprocating a favor, they become a Bull, whose job it is to police the trade interactions and take action against those who are stingy. The consequence of becoming a thief (outright stealing or repeatedly trading in a stingy manner when one has the ability to be more equitably generous) is to become a known member of the Thieves Guild. Both are embarrassing stations to hold, and most people learn to dissolve their greed and resentment after a time in these roles, apologizing to their communities, and being forgiven.
The ultimate recourse for consistently violating the social norms and expectations of the Floating City is exile. By this time, the offenders have already adopted oppressive roles, therefore beginning to believe in the terrible Queen, finally being formally exiled by one of the Queen Poppets before the entire City. If the offender refuses to leave and denies the existence of the Queen and her power to exile them, they may stay; there is hope for them. They are redeemable. If the offender leaves, they leave believing in a cruel Queen and go on to spread the myth on the Lost Continent.
It is shameful to be a Thief or a Bull, but it is also shameful for the entire community to have too many of either and so the transformation, assistance and, ultimately, forgiveness of these persons, is something in which all take part.
The Application of Power Structures
Each district functions as an independent community, trading with the others, but deferring to its own members for matters of justice and care. The districts each operate utilizing direct democracy and self-governance, with quarterly assemblies at the Lyceum for the purpose of meeting and discussing the needs of the city and its people. Those who live in one district and work in others may move between districts, giving their perspective on the needs of both, but are considered under the care of the district where they live. Matters of justice are community-based.
Mythologies: The Age of Queens
Once upon a time, there had been a queen. A terrifying, cruel queen. The City reminds itself of this — of what the ancestors of the inhabitants fought to overthrow — each year at the Spectacle of Bells, but even those stories are mostly lost. No two tales of the Age of Queens are alike. We ask ourselves, can anyone know?
To the Northeast, between the Menagerie District and the Oasis, there is a plaza, and in the plaza are remnants of stories whispered at night around fires. The plaza is affectionately — almost playfully — named the Queen’s Plaza. This is where the families go to spread the ashes of their cremated dead. Nothing is built there. It is the one place in the City where whatever once stood has been sacrificed to the foliage. Now, it is cracking stone and crumbling walls. An archway being eaten by kudzu. Rusted iron. Specters. There is a marble statue, fallen, tarnished, in pieces. Half of its face is shattered. It has no hands. If anyone inspected it, perhaps they could identify the statue as an ancient artifact, something that might have once been shaped like a person.
Once upon a time, there was a Queen. She was a cruel and terrible Queen. The entire population of the city was enslaved, save for a few noble families. In the Floating City, there were no prisons because the Queen would eat anyone who broke the law.
Once upon a time, there was a Queen. She never wanted to be a Queen. She wanted to be a tapestry weaver. She wanted to make music boxes. One day, she came across a milliner who tricked her into trying on a beautiful golden circlet with opals dangling from it. When it was placed on her head, she was unable to remove it. The milliner was one of the Five Devils, and said to the woman, “Now you must be Queen; you have no choice.” The woman believed the devil and became Queen.
Once upon a time, there was a Queen who no one would marry because she was ugly.
Once upon a time, there was a Queen whose suitors went to war over her and claimed it was for her beauty, but really they wanted the vast wealth the City was said to have.
The Queen descended from one of the three moons.
The Queen had five children, one for each Devil.
The Queen was barren.
The Queen was a Satyress.
The Queen kept slaves but was kind to her family.
The Queen starved herself to death because she was sad.
The Queen was so beautiful that it was impossible to look upon her without weeping.
The Queen was dragged from her home by the people who lived in the City, taken to the Bazaar, and beheaded there. The slaves ate her body.
The Queen set fire to the palace one day and left, barefoot, naked, never to be seen again.
The Nativity of the Night Carnival, Wherein We Meet the Lost Continent
For the first time since the Floating City can remember, it is more than merchants who descend upon the Lost Continent. They do so at dusk, their hearts beating steady rhythms — Morse code. They are few enough to be carried in three small airships, a conglomeration of persons and clockwork creatures, bringing with them strange magic.
They settle in the clearing of a forest thick with dying trees and sick birds, beyond the slums that surround the sprawling city that is just called Gate. Deftly, they unpack and assemble. They undress and redress. They count and account for bottles of potions, drums, and beautiful garments. The forest will dampen the sound of the drums, and messengers have been sent to the slums bearing whispers of the arrival of The Night Carnival. Nobody had been told were coming, but word will move quickly. In a place where dancing is not allowed, the sound of drums will move through the people, like bits of chocolate passed among children who are in possession of stolen candy. Those who should know will know. Those who have remembrance of cadence in their bones, those who can recall the stories of life before the Establishment, they will come; it has been a long time since there was dancing.
The people are sick. There is an epidemic, only allowed to be treated by the Establishment’s physicians. They are keeping the people safe, they say. Safe from themselves, safe from charlatans, safe from each other. The people must wait in long lines outside the medical centers on certain days in order to obtain remedies. Somehow, the illness is never cured. There are those who describe it as a wasting sickness, attacking the constitution, relieving the person of appetite and a desire to live. Some say it is a contagion spread through the slums of the cities, as the aristocracy does not seem to be affected. Still, no one can determine how the disease spreads. This has led to superstitions and suspicions among the proletariat.
Coyote knows where the sickness comes from. Coyote knows it is a sickness of the soul. Coyote knows because she dreamed it, soon after her soul grew in. Coyote was the first of the clockwork creatures to dream. This was unexpected, as the Clockworks do not really sleep, but they have moments of stillness that resemble rest. Named for her coyote-shaped alloy skull, she, like some of the Clockworks, suggests a semblance of both human and animal. They gain sentience eventually but it has been assumed, until recently, that they do not dream. Coyote dreams, now. The dream came as a surprise. Coyote had curled her body around itself, leaned against a tree, and there came a dream. The tree was gone, and she was standing in the shantytown outside a strange city: a place she had never been. She could see the people, but they could not see her. As she watched them, she could see their souls. Maybe she was sensitive to it, as hers had been newly grown, and all souls looked extra vivid to her. But she could see them all the same. It was the souls that were wasting, not the bodies. The people were dying of decrepit souls.
“What is wrong with the Lost Continent?” Coyote asked the clockworkers and the alchemists. Coyote asked the tutors and the botanists. Finally, Coyote asked the merchants. Rumor had indeed manifested whispers of an illness in the shantytowns. But the Lost Continent was a place with strange customs, and it had been that way for many years. The elite class had fewer restrictions, but the rest lived under stringent rules. It was illegal for men to cry, or for women to orgasm. Dancing and writing poems were punishable by death. Falling in love was strictly forbidden. It was considered gravely impolite to laugh in public. The merchants came to trade in the bazaars and left, rarely spending any time among the people, especially since the malaise had come. The merchants told Coyote that the wasting seemed to not affect the elite.
Coyote knows what is wasting. Coyote knows why they are sick.
The Night Carnival has its own Gatekeeper — a shadow creature, cautious but inquisitive. She will let the people in, past her post, through the vines and barriers, but only those who are willing to meet their true selves. Further in, the Mistress of Times is waiting to trade Times for Other Times. There is a Blind Prophet, a Holy Fool, and Potions Masters. The Stewards have brought with them the Altar of Instruments of Creation and Instruments of Destruction. Messengers have already returned with word that the Hiver is coming from her catacombs, that she has been waiting for this. Coyote is there, a consumer of secrets, ready to swallow the milestones of the people. She has been waiting for this since the dream came. Since she stood at the assembly of the districts and called for the people to join her in actions of clemency. Since she asked the inhabitants of the City, “Who will come along?” Coyote has been waiting, and now they have arrived.
The Night Carnival has come to purvey remedies for the soul. To release laughter and dancing and hope into the people. To disperse resistance and fortitude. They are aware the Establishment could discover them at any time, but by then, it will have been too late. Their antidotes will have spread and taken root.
This will be a new epidemic. When a rhythm begins in the soul, it is nearly impossible to break.
*A Further Description of Courses Studied at the Lyceum
Naming and Unnaming of Things – An exploration of the boundaries between the physical and the perceived.
Clockwork Building & Disassembly – A study of practical impossibility as applied to the husbandry of clockwork beasts and other extremely unlikely biology.
Construction and Deconstruction of Poems and Maladies and Illusions – Instruction in responsible application of metaphor, the differences between challenge and query, all equations relating to the maintenance whimsy, and linguistic and literal sleight of hand.
Small Significant Things (Discovery & Uses)- A comprehensive examination of the bridges between magic and science.
Airship Building and Unbuilding- An apprenticeship in the craft of combining mechanics and conjury in the creation of flying machines, as well as the disassembly of such, and the reinventing and repurposing of thoughts and machines.
Summoning and Banishing- A precursor to Naming and Unnaming of Things, with emphasis on understanding the space between such things as hope and desire, laughter and laughing, and intent and intention.
Cloud Gathering- A discipline in the use of songs in the movement of weather patterns and hearts.
Botany and Mysticism- An intensive in the medieval literature of trees (deciduous), the rituals and rites of indigenous root vegetables, survival tips for communing with wildflowers, and building codes and incantations for turning gardens into temples. Cucumbers: Fact or Myth?
Lore & Mythos- An introduction and cross-examination of the plethora of conflicting mythologies that surround the Floating City, including the Age of Queens and the origin of the Clockwork Beasts. Also puns.
Dance and Stillness- The anatomy of breathing, a categorization of movement, and the infrastructure of sound and dreams.
Confusion for Fun & Benefit- The mathematical construction of fallacies, the technique of utterly believing impossible things, the history of performative nonsense, and cheese.
Cartography of Anomaly- Comparative genealogy and geology of the three moons and their interaction with the city, magnetically and poetically.