Three ornate cages stood near the open window. Two of the cages were empty, their occupants out working in the City Above. The third cage contained a large grey bird that slept with its head tucked beneath one wing.
A fluttering of wings at the window announced the return of one of the birds. Midway between a vulture and an owl, it squeezed through the narrow opening and landed on Hopgood’s vast work surface. Its ruby talons gripped a net of woven cobweb and silk thread. Clouds of coloured mist clung to the net, sparkling in the gloom of the workshop.
“Ah, Medusa, you have been busy!”
Hopgood petted the bird, and she raised one leg to allow him to remove the net. He picked up his tweezers and teased each of the clouds free, depositing them into small glass bottles. He counted six in total. He shook out the net and hung it from a peg on the wall to dry.
Hopgood examined the bottles. Two of them contained pale green clouds studded with floating blue particles. Hopgood smiled – he’d need to write more Eternium labels, and dreams of immortality always sold well.
The bird fluttered up to one of the empty cages and clambered inside, far less graceful on foot than she was in the air. Her ruby talons gripped the bar of the cage and she settled down to sleep, tucking her head beneath her wing to mirror the pose of her avian neighbour. Hopgood marvelled at those talons; right now, they kept the bird upright through sleep, but those same talons could also prise free the dreams of slumbering Citizens.
Hopgood settled down in the chair to write more labels for the bottles. He counted two dreams of immortality, one of love, one of success, and two of enduring friendship. Ettamora would be pleased; her dreams emporium was the favoured destination of slum-dwellers hoping to share the dreams of the rich Citizens in the City Above.
The third bird clattered through the window, landing on the desk in a heap. Its talons were tangled in the silken net, and Hopgood spent ten minutes working the bird free. The net held a single cloud, heavy and black, studded with red beads that glowered like baleful eyes.
“Sandor, how often must I tell you? You must harvest only good dreams, not bad ones!” Hopgood admonished the bird as it flew up to the cage, hiding in its shadows.
Hopgood wrung out the net, squeezing the black cloud into a larger jar, its glass thicker than that of the other bottles. He forced in the stopper before the cloud could escape, but the particles hammered against the cork for several moments.
“You see, Sandor? That’s why bad dreams are dangerous. They’re always trying to get out and affect everything they touch. I’ll have to send it down to the forge so they can melt it down for nightmare parts.”
A loud knock echoed around the workshop. Hopgood shuffled across the room, squeezing between desks and display cases. He opened the door to a thin girl carrying a basket. She wore a threadbare shawl around her narrow shoulders, and her pinched features bore an expression of wearied resignation.
“Good evening, Pola. I have some new product for you.”
“Why do you ‘ave to live right up ‘ere? Takes me ages to climb them stairs,” said Pola, stepping into the workshop.
“The birds need to be above the smog to find their way out.”
Hopgood’s stomach roiled to think of the smog that clung to the Underground City. What he wouldn’t give to escape, to find a small attic in the City Above where he could enjoy fresh air and open skies. Not once had his birds brought home that dream. That was his own dream – definitely not for sale.
Pola grimaced, and moved no further into the workshop. Hopgood rolled his eyes and returned to his desk to fetch the finished bottles from their shelf. He wrapped them into a large handkerchief so he could carry them back to Pola. She tucked them into her basket, and handed him fourteen small copper pieces, one for each bottle. Ettamora would sell them on for three coppers each.
“Be seein’ you, Theo.”
Pola turned and left, her wheezing filling the stairwell as she descended into darkness. Hopgood closed the door and returned to his desk. Sandor still didn’t sleep, instead peering out of his cage at his master. Hopgood held out his arm and Sandor clambered free, fluttering down to rest on Hopgood’s forearm.
“I want fresh air, Sandor, and I’m sure you do too. But I can’t afford a workshop Above.”
Sandor pecked at Hopgood’s chest and stared up at him, an idea burning in his grey eyes. Hopgood smiled.
“Sandor, you’re a genius. Why don’t I just sell the dreams myself?”
The bird nuzzled against his master, and Hopgood moved across the workshop to the grate to enjoy its meagre warmth. He settled in his old chair, Sandor roosting on his shoulder. Soon Hopgood’s eyes closed and his mind drifted, skipping through the open boulevards of a city whose sky stretched for eternity.
* * *
This story is set in the Underground City, part of the universe for my dark fantasy/horror novella, The Necromancer's Apprentice. Three of the other stories so far are The Supplicant, The Vault of Lost Voices, and The Fishwives.