City of Glass
A Halloween special in which blood is spilled…
The smoke of a thousand pipes rises in the Grand Hall, obscuring the enchanted braziers and casting the rapt audience in a haze. A shambling bard approaches the rostrum, wrapped in a tattered cloak and dragging a heavy black case behind him. It seems to twitch and thrash as it bumps up the stairs.
He surveys the audience, then speaks with raspy voice steadily gaining strength: “My name is Rand Tellus, and I come to you with a tale of woe, told to me by a strange traveler one night while I sat, deep in my own sadness and cups, in the corner of a rude tavern at the edge of the great desert. These are the words he told me….”
PART I: Bloodletting
The City of Glass lies on the edge of the great western Sand Wastes — whence our ancestors wandered those many generations ago. There, life claws its way forward every day, struggling to find a grip in the constantly shifting ground of the city. Despite its translucent domes and dark arcades, its many minarets and hidden corners, its painted cliffs and painted ladies, its towering mansions and sunken slums, the City of Glass is but a place of fragile beauty. Many are those who venture there seeking their fortunes, only to crack when they finally find it.
I was one such wanderer. I grew up in Amalcross, to a family once rich but fallen on hard times. Though I attended the best schools and was welcomed into the haunts of my peers, I was always greeted with suspicion about my threadbare cuffs and whispers about our family’s lack of servants. To say it was a hard upbringing would not be true: There were many less fortunate than I. Yet few indignities sting more than to be the scion of a house once wealthy, once respected, once something, but now in danger of being nothing.
The misfortune that falls to heirs such as I is the necessity of work. And not good, hearty, handsome, wholesome work, the kind that builds or cultivates or helps or heals. Not the work of the laborer or even the tradesman or the artist. Indeed, even the doctor and the lawyer, though highly educated, are far too implicated in the affairs of the masses for one born to a family of status. Such noble pursuits are ill-suited for the noble born. No, the only acceptable work for one such as I was money and the greater acquisition thereof. We call it finance. A fanciful word to conceal the soullessness of banking and the grubbiness of moneylending. Finance. Usury. A way to return my family to greatness.
I took to it with a vengeance when first I began as an apprentice in Bank Opal the day after my eighteenth birthday. My long-widowed mother had secured the position through some favor I understood deep down but about which did not dare to ask. As I walked out the door that first day, she placed her hand on my heart and said: “We count on you to restore the blood and pride of this house.”
Bank Opal is a generally honorable firm, fair in its dealings and lenient — to a degree — with those who fall upon hard times through no fault of their own. I rose quickly through the ranks and soon ran a respectable desk making bridge loans to spice merchants, farmers, and Boern River bargemen. It was simple, safe business. We would extend credit for trade goods or seed or mules, then recover the principle and a modest fee upon the farmers’ harvests or the merchants’ return from abroad.
For many, such a position would have been sufficient. I set about restoring our family mansion on the Orbit with the money I earned among the spicers and landed houses. The servants returned. A team of sleek horses replaced our old nag. The stacks of goldmash were even enough to launder my mother’s soiled reputation. Slowly but surely, as the interest compounded, so too did the fortunes of my house. Soon enough, I was welcomed into the clubs that had previously shunned me. I smoked, drank, and caroused.
Yet with every new deposit into my accounts, I found more ways in which my life was flawed, more places where I was falling behind my newfound peers. I found myself in rooms feeling more like a lackey than a true equal. At first this did not weigh on me, for I trusted in my ability to rise within Bank Opal. I comported myself honorably and felt sure I would one day be recognized as an honorable and worthy member of society.
She was the light that reflects from the summer sea, the beauty that lurks in the depths of a blood-red ruby. Her soul was tender as the petals of a spring flower, her spirit as carefree and changeable as the wind blowing across the limpid waters of the Hurron Ocean. Her wants could shift in an instance; her desires cut me to the core. When first I saw her enter the room at the Borealis Club in the company of her brothers and father, her beauty pierced my eyes and my heart was cauterized by lust.
The Contessa Lydia ‘ja Givny was also incredibly rich. Her family’s wealth was such that, for many years on the exchange, a good return on a transaction was called earning a Givny. It would be a lie to say I did not want her riches as much as her being. From that first glimpse, I set myself a new goal and promised I would not stop until I had earned her love and the approval of her family.
Wooing Lydia was no easy task. It was mere chance I even encountered her that night. Women of her station typically eschew the Borealis, and she had only appeared in its smoke-choked interior as part of a brief stop on the way to the opera with her father, the Count Dortmund ‘ja Givny. I knew I would never see her in the environs of the Club again. Worse still, when I examined my social circles, I found our mutual friends wanting. A quick introduction was out of my grasp. I would have to work to achieve my goal.
The Borealis Club was exclusive, but not exclusive enough for my membership to be meaningful to the likes of Dortmund ‘ja Givny. And, making matters worse, the ‘ja Givnys did not bank with Opal. As for me — I was less than nothing to them, a mere striver. For Lydia to ever even know who I was, I would need to raise my station and the profile of my house once again. As with all things in Amalcross, the most efficient way to do this was to become all the richer.
At first, I sought to elevate myself at Bank Opal. I ingratiated myself with the other trading desks and lending businesses and made myself visible to the bank’s partners. They understood, intuitively, that I sought more for myself, and a frank conversation soon followed in which the institution’s most senior partner— a hard-eyed, hoary-haired bastard named Cormorant — told me in no uncertain terms the only way to advance higher upon their ladder was to step into the shoes of a dead man, and neither he nor any of the other partners intended to shuffle off their mortals coils anytime soon. I was welcome to continue in my yeoman’s work, keeping my head down and my nose clean making bridge loans.
I was at a loss. My dreams were haunted by visions of Lydia. My waking moments by fantasies of a life beyond my grasp. Fantasies of wealth and power, influence, and a wife and children that would extend my reach for generations. All my efforts at Bank Opal now seemed paltry: insufficient to cause the ‘ja Givny family to take notice, and thus insufficient to make me happy as it once had.
My mother made overtures to other families of means, families of our station with eligible daughters. To me they seemed bloodless and flat, like paper dolls with no substance.
And then I struck upon it by chance, the answer to all my desires.
Every day I would dress to go to the bank. Fine wool suits, cloaks, shined leather boots and belts, silk shirts, gold cufflinks and bracelets. I was a man of style. Those garments, naturally, need laundering. Ordinarily, I paid that no attention as our newly rehired servants took care of such parochial matters. One day, however, my butler fell ill. Rather than bother my mother’s servants, I took my cloak — mud-spattered after several days of heavy fall rains — to the cleaners myself. I simply felt like a stroll.
Fulsome Cleaners was a small shop midway down one of the less-fashionable blocks on the southern edge of The Orbit. The small brass bell above the door announced my arrival, yet I stood at the counter for some time waiting for an attendant. I cleared my throat loudly and listened. All was silent.
Then I heard a scuffling from the back of the shop.
Instead of leaving, I leapt over the dark wood counter and pushed my way through the hanging garments into the dusky back of the dry cleaner. There, in the middle of the floor, in a shaft of light from the single window, stood the proprietor, rubbing his hands meekly. He was blubbering at a tall, distinguished man standing near him, toying with an unusual dagger.
I concealed myself amongst the hanging cloaks and shirts and watched. The man with the dagger pursed his lips then spoke to the sniveling laundryman.
“You owe five thousand drams for the boraxis,” he said. “Will you pay in money or blood? As always, it is your choice.”
“I don’t have the money,” the laundryman blubbered. “But I’ll get it—”
“You purchased the boraxis from us, on our firm’s generous credit, and signed a contract. Yet now you cannot pay it?”
“How are we to launder wools without boraxis? The cost is too dear, your financing unfair, it’s impossible to—”
“Perhaps you’d prefer to work the debt off in bondage?” the man said lightly, as if he was bored. I noticed he did not hold the dagger — long and needle-like as it was — menacingly. Rather, it seemed little more than a tool. “The boraxis mines always need additional labor, and—”
“The mud!” the laundryman cried. “The fall rains and the mud! Business will pick up, and we’ll make the amount in full. I promise.”
“I am sure you will, but boraxis is not free,” the man smirked. “We require payment to operate our business and keep you in good standing, just as you require boraxis powder to clean your garments.”
The laundryman swallowed. “I can give you five hundred drams now.”
“That is not enough.”
“The rest in blood,” the laundryman moaned.
Blood? I felt my throat tighten as the man with the dagger nodded his ascent.
He took the proffered money — as much as I cleared in a month on fees — from the laundryman. Then he produced a glass vial from inside his coat. The laundryman held out his arm, as if he had done this time and again, and the man pierced his proffered vein with the dagger. Blood flowed like milk from a cow’s udder into the glass vial; I felt a cold sweat on my brow at the sight of it, but I steeled myself so as not to give away my presence.
When the vial was filled, the man pulled it away and capped it. The laundryman’s vein continued to pump, splattering blood upon the flagstone floor, until he affixed a hastily made tourniquet.
The man held the blood up into the light, examining it. It was then I noticed his left eye glinting. Instead of a human eyeball, it was a glass orb. Within it swirled a blue darkness, which snaked and twisted about. It darted towards me, and I could swear in that moment he saw me despite my concealment.
“It is pure enough,” he spat. “And it is plentiful. Too bad you haven’t a buxom daughter, or my employers would provide a year’s supply of boraxis for one vial of her blood.”
The man carefully stowed the vial in his case, and I saw four other similar glass vessels, each filled with blood, already inside. He turned and stomped up the rear stairs, out into the street behind.
In an instant I rushed forward and charged out after the man with the dagger, ignoring the whimpering laundryman. I burst into the street in time to see him entering a coach draped in black velvet, its windows entirely blacked out, and the sigil of a banking house — a ring of keys surrounding a diamond and three stacks of coin — blazoned on its side in gold.
The coach, powered by some enchantment, trundled away. I ran after it as if possessed. I caught up to it and leapt onto its carriage strap, banging upon its window. The coach screeched to a halt. Out of breath, I panted that I had witnessed what had occurred in the laundry and I admired greatly the profits they had made. I was in a similar business making bridge loans yet had never realized such fees. What firm did they represent?
There was no answer. Instead, one of the velvet curtains pulled back ever so slightly, and the man from before reached out and handed me a simple business card, printed on luscious stock.
“Your interview shall be tomorrow and ten o’clock, sharp,” he drawled. “Do not be late.”
Then the curtain snapped shut and the coach tore away.
The card said simply, “Sangus Capital. 442 Upswan Street, The Orbit.”
I can see it in your eyes as I tell this story: The blood, you think. What about the blood? Did that not strike you as macabre, a warning, a sign of something amiss, something vile if not outright profane?
In truth, there was a moment, as I walked up that fine street in The Orbit the following crisp fall day, when I thought perhaps I was chasing after something I did not quite understand. Yet I felt sure in that moment an explanation — a reasonable one — would be forthcoming shortly.
The night before, I had drinks as I often did at the Borealis Club. In the hurly-burly, as the liquor flowed and my compatriots played at billiards and sex, I asked Marcus Haverman, an associate somewhat more senior than me at Bank Opal, what he knew of Sangus Capital.
He sat up with a start when he heard the name. Why did I want to know? I told him I had been invited to interview. He drank deeply for a moment and pinched his brow as if contemplating difficult financing terms.
“Sangus Capital is one of the oldest banking houses in the empire,” he said in a low tone. “I know this comes as a surprise since few have ever heard of it, but it is nonetheless true. I know of no one who has ever seen one of the firm’s managing partners in the flesh. Its ownership and management are shrouded in secrecy. Still, Sangus is the lender of last resort for our own institution. It’s said they are the only firm the Horst Concern owes money to.”
He drank another slug of whiskey and glanced over his shoulder, as if to confirm no one was eavesdropping.
“When the markets are up and business is booming,” he continued, “Sangus always makes a Givny. By the same token, when the world loses money, Sangus still turns a profit. When the Great Quake struck, they happened to have made a series of bets against the biggest insurers of the warehouse districts that crumbled into the sea. So too, they claimed timber and brick contracts before the dust had settled. The boards that rebuilt the city, and that brought with them the mosquitos and the Blue Plague, were cut, hewn, and imported with money from Sangus. When Belisaria Horne first distilled the belyn serum to treat the city’s water and drive out the Blue, it was Sangus that owned the controlling share in the manufacturer of the gereen fiber needed to make it. They made money on both the cause and the cure. A great deal of money.”
He gripped my shoulder tightly then.
“Tyrus,” he said, “I understand you want to make a name for yourself. I understand you desire wealth and station. So do I. Sangus can provide you these things. But you must enter into their house with clear eyes. And you must know who you really are before you take their offer.”
Was it a warning? I took it as an endorsement. With the money I could earn at Sangus, anything — even the hand of Lydia ‘ja Givny — would be within my grasp.
It was with Haverman’s words and thoughts of the Contessa that I mounted the marble steps in front of the house of Sangus. I made myself known with three slams of the knocker, a great fist of iron. The portal opened, and I entered a candlelit foyer. The interior of the building was dark, despite the brightness of the day outside. I stepped across that threshold without a second thought.
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