Issue IX: "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.”
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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.
It started innocently enough.
I interviewed with the same man who had given me the card the day before. His name was Vincent Gol, and he told me Sangus Capital was always on the lookout for the right sort of people. People like me: smart, and hungry to make a killing. If I protected the firm, the firm would protect me.
He told me what I could expect to make in fees and bonuses, just in my first year, long before I could dream of making partner. It was as much as I would have made in ten at Bank Opal.
And the partners? No, I could not meet them, not yet. But if I proved myself, proved my killer instinct, brought them what they needed, then perhaps one day I would find myself among them. Gol himself had not yet made partner, though it was surely coming soon.
I pretended to do my due diligence, of course, asking about the blood and why Sangus Capital was so secretive. I think Gol knew I had already made up my mind, even though I hadn’t admitted it to myself yet.
“We are secretive because that is how you win in this business,” he said lazily. “If the competition knows what we are into, when, and why, then that means we’re already too late. We’re wasting our time. We must be there and be invisible.”
“And the blood?” I pressed.
“We use many unique strategies here at Sangus,” Gol said. “Our interest is in always retaining clients — for generations if possible. When they fall behind, rather than destroy their businesses or drive them into the arms of competitors, we offer alternative modes of payment. The blood is just blood, but having that option gives them a way to remain in our good graces.”
“How can you make a profit this way? Surely what that man paid yesterday was just a fraction of what he owed—”
“We have a monopoly on boraxis.” He brushed his hair back, as if reciting an elementary lesson to a child who should already know. “It is mined in one place, the Valley of Fire, and we own that lode. The miners work for us, the distribution network is owned by us. Every dry-cleaner and laundry in Amalcross buys from us. They have no other choice. Regardless, our margins are considerable. Even with taking blood, we still turn a profit.”
“Those miners are…?”
“Those in arrears to us can work off their debt or appoint someone to do so on their behalf. A child, relative, and so on.”
“Debt peonage,” I said.
“They can always pay with hard currency or blood. No one ends up in Kobolfeld, or the northern timberlands, or processing dyfwrych spice because we forced them.”
“It’s like a benefit,” I said. I admired the economy of it. “Sangus allows people to expunge their debts without embracing loan sharks or other kinds of predatory lenders. Or losing their family businesses, their livelihoods.”
Gol smiled. “Exactly.”
I nodded, pleased at this feint of morality. How different was it, really, from offering bridge loans to spicers and bargemen? One could even argue it was a better system. More equitable. Fairer. If a farmer fell too far behind, Bank Opal foreclosed, took the farm, and turned the former owners into a renter — or, worse still, kicked them off their land entirely. Had they been in business with Sangus, they could have always paid in blood or labor and kept the farm for their children.
I resigned from Bank Opal that afternoon.
I was introduced to the Sangus way slowly, as if they were testing me. At first, I handled simple transactions and always reported back to Vincent Gol. I spent many days in the shadowy confines of the Sangus building, processing payments and evaluating potential new investments in everything from sugar to messenger services. Already my fees were huge. My wardrobe leapt in quality. I did away with our horses and upgraded to an enchanted coach. I began to make my own small investments alongside Sangus, building my own portfolio and my own name.
The Borealis Club grew quaint, and as word got around of my greater fortune, I found myself receiving invitations to more exclusive locales. I soon found myself in a choice box at the opera — with no less than Clarice Notten as mezzo soprano — and was unctuously introduced to Dortmund ‘ja Givny, the family patriarch, by my host, a former Bank Opal client who had previously always ignored me. Lydia was not in attendance, but Dortmund’s ears perked when he heard mention of Sangus. He invited me to come to his office to review some potential investments. Of course, I accepted.
My desk at Sangus was an enormous, black marble slab in a private chamber off the main hall. A few months after I started, Gol paid me a visit, entering unannounced and perching his stork-like frame on the edge of the desk.
“You’ve got aptitude for the investments,” he said, “but it’s time for you to flex some new muscles.”
He slid a piece of paper across to me. It had a name and an address on it.
“A laundry,” he said. “It is an appropriate place for you to start.”
The hard part was the needle.
I took to the negotiation with alacrity, laying out how deeply the man with the tufted eyebrows was in arrears for his supply of boraxis powder. We talked about his payment plan, his slowing business, his prospects. He proffered a lesser sum than what was owed, and I laid out his options.
“See here, it’s still not enough,” I said. Gently, as a friend would. “So, there’s the blood payment or the indenture, whichever you prefer. Or we can seize your establishment in lieu of payment. But honestly, these other options are better for everyone. Your father started this business, right? And the boraxis mines — such a brutal place to spend your retirement.”
His lip quivered, at first I thought with gratitude. Then I realized it was confusion. He had always kept up with his payments — for decades — and had only fallen behind because his wife, who helped run the business, had recently died. He’d been forced to hire help, since his only son had — through scrimping and saving and studying — passed the bar recently. Point is, he didn’t know the full terms of his contract, since he had inherited it.
So, I explained patiently what the blood payment was, using the same language Gol used.
“Just a vial of blood, in addition to the sum already discussed,” I said, “and you’ll be in good standing. Future payments will still need to be made on time and according to the terms, but you won’t be in arrears. I’ll just extract the essence right here and now.”
And I produced the dagger — my own, given to me that morning. It had been waiting in a lacquered case on my desk when I arrived. Its pommel was the Sangus Capital crest, and the blade had been engraved with my initials. Like Gol’s, the blade was long and needle-like, with a groove to direct the flow of excess blood down the length of the blade, after which it could likewise be channeled into the waiting vial with a deft flick of the wrist.
I could see the man struggling to understand. But he nodded and reluctantly held out his arm. I grasped his wrist firmly, feeling him pull away a bit, and wrestled it into position. His vein bulged and I felt I could almost see it pulsing with the blood pumping within. I removed a vial from the leather case I carried over my shoulder and uncapped it in a businesslike way. Then I took the dagger, placed its point at the throbbing middle of vein, and pushed. It felt like nothing, requiring less force than it would take to push a pin through silk. The blood ran out, red and sticky, first down the blade. Then it dribbled into the vial, each drop plinking on the glass. I watched in fascination as the blood from the initial perforation permeated my initials engraved on the blade, as if they were drinking it in. It flowed and flowed and flowed. Three vials — that’s how much it took to bring the man out of arrears that day.
I left him parchment-white and quaking from the blood loss. When I strode into the street, the light felt a little too bright, the noises of the city a little too much. Yet I also felt invigorated, energized, like I knew what to do. I delivered the vials to Gol, and he whisked them away without any explanation for where they went. Then I set out into the city. I went directly to Dortmund ‘ja Givny’s palatial offices. When I saw Dortmund, that huge man behind his huge desk, I felt I understood him intuitively. Bon mots and smart investment ideas flowed from me, and he drank them up.
As summer turned to fall, I became a specialist in bloodletting. The Sangus policy was to avoid seizures or foreclosures at all costs. My clients always paid in blood or labor. I enjoyed the discussion of options, the prick of the skin, the drip of blood down the knife, the filling of the vial, the strange energy it gave me. I also found the side effects I noticed that first day grew more intense each time I conducted a bloodletting, and I soon draped my own carriage in black curtains and thanked the gods every time I entered the quiet, dark sanctuary of Sangus.
I further ingratiated myself with Dortmund ‘ja Givny, advising him first in his offices, then securing a significant sum of his capital to invest through Sangus. That led to dinners in the ‘ja Givny home, more nights at the opera, and a recommendation for a new social club, the Monkey’s Tongue — wherein Dortmund was a member. I rented a palace at Lake Kine beside the ‘ja Givny compound. As the months passed, Dortmund came to rely on me, and Lydia grew not just accustomed to my presence, but even, I told myself, fond of me.
When her father suggested I chaperone her in his stead to a night of the Conclave, I read the signals. I flattered her with gifts and blandishments, which she politely accepted. After a few more months of private trips into the countryside and exclusive dinners around the city, I proposed to her. She accepted. The announcement was published in the Amalcross Times.
We were married to great fanfare in the Temple of Fen the Fertile and Bountiful, with the finest families of Amalcross in attendance. The Emperor himself deigned to ride past, concealed within his litter, and his blessing was read at the reception. Lydia’s dress that day became the next season’s style. My mother looked upon me with pride. I was happy, unbelievably happy, in that moment. I believed I had finally made it — had not just restored our family’s station, but elevated it.
Yet as soon as our honeymoon in Bytbay ended and we returned to the city, I realized my work had just begun.
I was now an in-law of the ‘ja Givny family. Their expectations had no bounds, and appearances had to be maintained. Almost immediately it became apparent that we needed a larger home on a more fashionable block. Clothes and finery I would have seen fit to wear for a season could scarcely be worn twice. Lydia’s tastes were extravagant. Our relations were extravagant as well, of course, and I likewise threw myself into this new world. I worked all the harder at Sangus.
My hours soon began to run late into the nights, and I found myself facing daylight with greater and greater antipathy. To Lydia and her family, it simply appeared I was doing what I should: devoting myself to her advancement and the advancement of my name, and, by extension, their standing as well. Those long hours were spent in extracting money and blood. Always money and blood. From launderers and merchants and all the other myriad folk who did business with Sangus. As time went on, the blade of my dagger slowly took on the hue of blood, darkening from a bright red to something deep, dense, nearly black. Only my initials shown through on the blade.
I don’t know whether it was night or day when Vincent Gol oozed up to my desk.
“You have impressed some very powerful people,” he said. “The Partners have summoned you to the City of Glass. You will meet them there to discuss partnership.”
Gol’s words broke me out of my fugue. I leapt up from my desk, ecstatic.
“Thank you, sir,” I gasped, “thank you so much. This is a true honor.”
Gol nodded and smiled as I shook his hand. “Know this is not something to be entered into lightly,” he said. “Know that once you have met them, you may never leave the firm while your blood still flows.”
“Of course,” I said. “I understand.”
“Bring that lovely wife of yours with you,” he said.
The next day Lydia and I set forth for the City of Glass.
PART II: Sanctuary of Sangus
My relationship with Lydia had grown deeper over the months. The passion was white hot and sudden when it occurred. When I had worked and returned home late, stealing through the hallways of our home by candlelight, my very presence was an aphrodisiac to her. We would shake our home to its very foundations on those nights the blood had run hot on my blade. In the morning, she would bring me the paper, tea or coffee, perhaps whisper something sweet to me, and then go about her day.
Otherwise, we lived almost parallel lives. No children were forthcoming. She addressed this with me once, suggesting that we see one of the priestesses of Fen. She wanted a child. I brushed her off, knowing that whatever prevented her from conceiving likely now lurked within me.
Such was the state of our relationship when we set out for the City of Glass. At first, she was reluctant to leave her family and the safety of Amalcross for that lurid city in the desert. I wheedled and cajoled, promising to work less so we could have a child once I had been made partner. With the riches Sangus would bring, we could be the primogenitors of a thousand-year dynasty. She finally acquiesced to support me in my meeting with the mysterious masters of the firm, and in deference to Vincent Gol’s instructions.
We traveled for two weeks to the west before reaching the true frontier of the Sand Wastes.
The air sighs with death as you approach the City of Glass. The only road plunges from the high, arid plains down through a deep, wide valley — the Valley of Fire — which belches poison fumes from boiling pits. Scrubby plants and a few lizards are all that survive there naturally. Wind howls as travelers descend into the valley on that snaking road. Horses refuse to advance beyond Last Gasp ridge; magical conveyance, such as our carriage, or mule teams are the only way forward. Daytime temperatures bake the earth, and, without water or shade, human life is snuffed out in the matter of an hour. At night, temperatures plunge and water freezes.
At the turning in the road on Last Gasp ridge, one rude tavern called the Crossed Man — little more than graying slats of wood torn day and night by howling winds and grit — is the final respite before the crossing. Many travelers turn back when they get that first view of the Valley of Fire. Many linger for days in the Crossed Man, whiling away the searing heat and biting cold with the decaying miners and drovers who are the only residents of the valley below.
We stopped for water and a meal, hard biscuits and thin soup, before our push through the valley to the City of Glass on the far side. Lydia shuddered when she saw the gathered miners swilling in alcohol, their sunken eyes and leathery faces pulled into a permanent rictus of suffering.
“Who are they?” she gasped.
“The boraxis miners,” I said. “Those who chose to pay their debts with labor rather than blood or money.”
I licked my chapped lips. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps the choice they had been offered was not just. Then, upon seeing a face I recognized, a launderer from Hightown whom I had sent here, I banished that feeling of guilt from my mind. I could not reconcile that husk of a man with my own good fortune. His slow mummification in the boraxis mines of the Valley of Fire had nothing to do with me: He had made his choice.
The journey across the valley took us three days and nights of hard travel. The enchanted carriage kept us moving. The stores of water and food we took on at the Crossed Man kept us alive. Of our four attendants, three chose to cross with us. The fourth, refusing to accompany us, I ordered to wait in the Crossed Man for our return. During the crossing, two attendants survived. The third collapsed, and we left him near one of the chemical pools. Before his limp shape was out of sight, the vultures were already circling. I could already smell decaying flesh on the dry air.
At last, we began to climb again through a series of switchbacks on the far side of the valley. As night fell, we reached the summit. The stars, hard and white, were scattered across the heavens like diamonds spilled upon an infinite slab of black marble. The moon hung low and sickly yellow. And there, before us shining and flashing like a beacon of sin, sprang the City of Glass from the desert floor and cliffs.
We thundered towards it across the desert. The palaces built into the shelves of the cliffs loomed and twinkled above; the terraced city rose high into the air and plunged deep into a series of canyons. Glass domes and arcades reflected and refracted tens of thousands of lights, casting the hidden corners and overhangs of the city with deep shadows. I already knew evil, greed, and profit lurked within this brilliant palimpsest. I daresay the thought thrilled me. Lydia trembled beside me as we made the final approach down the broad boulevard, teaming with beggars, gamblers, profiteers, criminals, and prostitutes. Booze-crazed, drug-addled, money-hungry.
Little separated the lowliest vagrant from the richest man but for a stroke of luck, the blast of a gun, or the hidden point of a knife. As we wound through the traffic on that choked boulevard, I saw the dark shapes of men fighting in the alleyway. With a crack, one fell back upon the curb, his skull smashed and brains splattered. A rain of kicks and blows fell on his exposed stomach.
Beyond, a curl of green smoke issued from the nostrils of a clown high on his winnings. A call girl with the words “high class” tattooed on the backs of her bare thighs in serif text, undulating with magic, mounted the steps to a heavily guarded mansion. Leering merchants flogged gold and jewels and fine garments and bags.
We arrived at the base of one of the cliffs, then climbed a series of dizzying stairs on foot — up, up, up to a magnificent palace cut into the wall of the cliff. Lydia broke out in a cold sweat, moaning and whimpering that she felt someone was peering into her mind, groping for her soul. I felt an odd swelling of power within. A wrought iron gate in the shape of the Sangus crest opened as we approached. Silent, cloaked figures ushered us in and showed us to our chambers. They locked the door behind us.
I do not know exactly how long we resided within those chambers. Hours? Days? I watched light and shadow swoop over the city beyond. Meals were brought to us on ornate dishes made of porcelain with services of pure gold. Lydia felt nauseous the whole time and was unable to eat. I did not feel the need. Restless, I paced the chambers. I tried speaking to the attendants, yet they only hissed, long and low, “Wait.”
I stood upon the balcony, looking out at the city swirling in the night, when Lydia came to me, pressing herself against me. She looked unwell.
“I am pregnant,” she said.
Startled, I turned and took her into my arms. Genuine warmth filled me.
“How can you know?”
She averted her gaze. “I simply do,” she said. “Let us go. Let us go while we still can. Back to the city. Back to Amalcross. You can work for my father, he will understand. We must leave this place. I feel it, deep within, just as I feel this life beginning to grow.”
I gazed deeply into her eyes. Here, in this city redolent of violence and depravity, some good grew within her. I kissed her deeply, with love in that moment.
Then she blanched. The color ran from her cheeks. Her eyes went wide and dim.
“What is it?” I asked, holding her as she stumbled.
She doubled over and vomited. As I supported her, I saw a dark shape on the corner of the balcony.
It was Vincent Gol. I knew not how he had come into our chambers, how he had alighted on that balcony a thousand feet above the city below, when he had even managed to arrive in the City of Glass. Yet all warmth of feeling I felt towards Lydia was sucked away on the cold desert wind as he smiled.
“Come, Tyrus,” he said. “The Partners will see you now.”
I left Lydia there, curled upon the hard marble of the balcony, heaving with sickness.
Gol led me into the magnificent, ribbed belly of the House of Sangus. The walls seemed to pulse and throb with magnificent, invisible power. I felt that same power bursting at the walls of my heart, flowing with my blood into my extremities. Felt my brain buzzing with it, like an opiate inhaled from the surface of a mirror in the back room of the Borealis Club.
Vincent Gol guided me to a small black door with a gold handle in its center. The throbbing feeling, the pounding in my head and my heart, seemed to emanate from beyond that door. My temples felt as if injected with fire. My hand, the very hand which had brandished my dagger in bloodletting time and time again, pricked and tingled.
Vincent Gol looked at me, his eyes glittering black.
“The door is unlocked,” he said. “Will you face the choice with which you are familiar?”
I opened the door and stepped through.
It was a gallery with a view of the City of Glass glittering far below. Ten hooded figures in fine raiment, dripping in jewels and gold, stood about a shallow vat in the shape of a human being, which was elevated at about head level. At equal points around it were dry spouts. Gol joined the others, and then the tallest lowered her hood.
She was unbearably beautiful and palest white; youthful, yet undeniably ancient, like a perfectly preserved person. She spoke the common tongue, but with an accent I had never heard. The ür-speech.
“I am Roxana ‘ja Tollio, managing director,” she said. “The Partners of the House of Sangus greet you.”
I bowed. I didn’t know what else to do.
“You have shown yourself adept in the ways of business,” she continued. “Money and blood flow from your desk to our enrichment. Vincent says your ambitions know no bounds.”
“He speaks the truth,” I said without a thought.
“Would you be a Partner, uphold the House of Sangus, seek the dividends of the millennia and cultivate the bloodstock as an equal?”
The pounding in my temples grew louder and louder still.
“I would profit the House of Sangus,” I replied.
She stepped closer to me. I felt a magnetic resonance pulling at my very being, like sex appeal run rampant, a pheromone more powerful than any in the natural world.
“Admission to the partnership requires a contribution,” she said. “In the early centuries, it was possible to pay the price with capital. Indeed, per our by-laws, it is still possible. Yet the price is likely beyond your reach.”
Gol revealed a single sheet of parchment to me with a number written upon it. It only took a glance for me to know I could not afford admission to the partnership on those terms. I shook my head.
“Blood or labor?” She spoke, her voice dripping.
“Blood,” I said. A sigh filled the room.
“You are prepared to provide the full commitment? The blood of a body drained dry?”
“How could I do such a thing?”
Gol spoke: “You brought the vessel.” He looked at the group. “And she is with child.”
Glittering eyes locked on me from beneath hoods.
I looked from figure to figure, and the room whirled around me.
Lydia struggled as the hooded figures dragged her into the chamber. She screamed my name. I heard her but did not understand. My mind was clouded. I watched, frozen, thinking of the greatness that would come for us with this one sacrifice made. They chained her upon the vat.
Then Gol approached me. “It must be your hand and dagger.”
I drew my blade and stepped up the narrow stone stairs. She thrashed and begged, professed her love, confessed her hate, revealed her disgust and her fear. I hesitated. I looked back at the Partners.
“You still have a choice,” Roxana said. “You may labor.”
I pondered this. “How many years?”
“More than a mortal life.”
“Then such a fee is not possible.”
“Your unborn child could, perhaps, see it through before the end of its days.”
Lydia shrieked. “No, no, don’t you dare — Tyrus, I give myself as the price,” she wept. “I give myself as the price.”
With a steady hand, I pierced her vein as I had the veins of others a thousand times before. Her blood trickled into the vat, then flowed drop by drop into the spouts. The Partners approached, lowered their hoods, and drank the blood, hot and fresh. Sickness overwhelmed me as I listened to Lydia’s cries, but I moved as if under some sort of spell. Roxana guided me to one of the dribbling spouts.
Gol held my mouth open, and the steaming blood spattered upon my tongue and down my throat.
The next weeks were a kaleidoscope of waking dreams and dark passageways of sleep. The taste of blood did not leave my mouth. Yet over those many days I spent wandering the House of Sangus, I felt a new strength growing within me. Lydia died slowly, over a matter of weeks, kept alive by some profane binding magic long-ago perfected by the Partners. Before she passed, totally exsanguinated, she gave premature birth to a grotesque offspring that crawled upon the walls, its forked tongue licking at the seams in the stones. I followed it, thinking perhaps to end its misery and assuage what remained of my conscience. Yet it skittered away and down a deep, howling shaft that plunged far below the House of Sangus.
I became a new being, inducted in the ways of the firm. The full extent of its holdings were revealed to me, the vast catalogue of investments and treasures the Partners had assembled over the course of impossible generations. I ceased to care about Lydia. Thought even less of my mother and friends back home. The accumulation of lucre became ever more my purpose, and the hedonic consumption of it after it was acquired the only salve to my soul.
Vincent Gol returned to Amalcross, yet I did not go with him. Roxana ‘ja Tolio had taken a liking to me, and I, the junior Partner, became a sort of bauble or plaything for her. By night we haunted the parties and lascivious dens of the City of Glass, spending freely and carousing with abandon. Every week, three carriages would arrive from Amalcross. One was piloted by Gol, who came baring vials of blood. We slurped these down greedily. The second was loaded with money until it sagged low from the weight.
The third carried those souls who had chosen to pay their debts in labor. They were my charges.
No longer could I go out during the daylight. What had previously been unpleasant now became unbearable. While my nights were spent debauched with Roxana in the city, my days — such as they were — were spent beneath the Valley of Fire, in the depths of the boraxis mines. The shaft down which my infernal child had escaped led directly into these mines. Once I had fully supped on Lydia’s blood, I found that I could float down the shaft and alight on the stone floor below without the slightest injury.
Once there, I drove the laborers to the breaking point by any means necessary, using my dagger to feed upon them when the mood struck. They were labor and food both, for myself and the Partners. While the fumes and inhaled boraxis dust rendered their blood bitter, it would hold us over until a fresh shipment arrived from the city. I took pride in the living hell I made for those who labored in the dark, close tunnels, choked with noxious air.
And I lived this way for years.
Then, one day, I saw my child — if it could be called that — latched upon the back and neck of a man I recognized: Marcus Haverman, my former associate at Bank Opal. My child, with its pincers burrowed into his flesh, was feeding upon his bodily humors. He could barely even struggle. The sight disturbed something deep within me. My stomach churned. In that moment, I tried to strike myself with my dagger and let the blood of the thousands that coursed through my veins run out into the dark recesses of the mines.
The needle blade would not pierce my skin. It skittered across the surface like a diamond. I tried again and again and could not strike a blow, not with every ounce of my unnatural strength bent to the task. Instead, I ended Haverman’s misery with a slice to his jugular and gathered my blood-slaked child into my arms. I carried it back into the House of Sangus and chained it to the enormous marble bed in my chambers. It howled and shrieked, but I paid it no mind.
I turned to a new task. I read endless pages of ancient texts within Sangus’s vast library. Religious tomes, textbooks of lost magics, breviaries of the Uncannies. I sought any hint that would allow me to become human once again, or at least end the unnatural lives of my child and me.
Roxana ‘ja Tolio noticed I no longer took joy in the carnal pleasures of the city.
“The shadow of the spirit is upon you,” she purred. “It passes for all of us. Give it time. And leave those dusty tomes alone. Find joy in your immortality. Abandon your thoughts of the past.”
But I could not. I read and read, wishing for sleep to take me, or death, and finding neither, nor any answer to my burning question.
Until, in desperation, I paced the halls of the House of Sangus. I entered the room where Lydia’s life had ended and examined the platform upon which she had died. Inscribed in its bloodstained base was a text in ancient runes, runes which over the course of the twenty years within that House I had learned to read.
Its words were simple: “They who drink the blood live with the blood, so long as it flows within. They may yet die, if such blood flows freely for another, the holder of the sanguine knife.”
I could not wield the dagger against myself.
Instead, I locked my offspring in a large chest and with it slunk away through the tunnels of the boraxis mines. After my decades there, I knew every twist and turn, every snaking tunnel and hidden shaft.
For two weeks I dragged the thrashing, shrieking creature behind me in its crate, crawling slowly but surely beneath the surface of the Valley of Fire. If the Partners noticed my absence, I do not know. For years I had done little more than read or torture the workers of the mine. Roxana ‘ja Tolio had grown bored with me, and left me to my own devices.
I emerged at the base of Last Gasp ridge as night was falling. Dragging the chest behind me, I made my way up to the Crossed Man. The wind howled as I remembered it. The door of the tavern creaked open.
I dragged that chest across the grit-encrusted floor and found you here: My last servant, the one who remained behind, the one who refused to cross the Valley of Fire with me. I find you here at last and ask of you one final duty.
Rand Tellus shudders as the story draws to a close. “He tried to force the blade upon me, holding out his arm, the vein throbbing, insisting I strike him down,” the bard says. “I knew it was my sworn duty, that this was why I had waited those two decades on the edge of the Valley of Fire. Yet as I pondered his tale, I found I could not do him this final service. I could not drain the blood of thousands from him, could not release him from his suffering. He had destroyed countless lives and families, sucked the blood and life from them, all to turn a profit for a faceless house of finance. I told him as much. Perhaps you know one of his many victims.”
The bard sucks air in sharply, breathing heavily. “He advanced upon me with that needle-sharp blade. In that instant, I heard the winds begin to howl, and I knew the first rays of sun were breaking across the valley, heating the air and sending it ripping down the mountainside. I threw the tavern door open. I dashed into the light and the clean desert air. My master did not follow. He slunk back into the shadows of the tavern, shrieking in rage. I backed away slowly. Then, to my surprise, he heaved this trunk through the air, throwing it at my feet. His eyes locked with mine. And he gave me this final message:
“‘Return to Amalcross and give my mother her grandchild, for in its veins courses the last drops of blood of our house.’”
And with that, the bard draws a dagger from his belt, flings open the shrieking trunk, and drives the blade home.