The morning sunlight caught in the curtains. It burned a deep orange that flickered as if the city beyond was aflame. Where the curtains parted a single ribbon of light escaped to stretch itself from the bedroom ceiling down along the wall, catching finally aslant along the surface of a painting. A city, quite different than the one beyond the curtains, lay rendered there in the old cracking oil. A strong, undivided Mayfaire that Petra Vireo Aurel had never known.
She gazed at the painting as she lay in bed, a blanket drawn to her chin. A cold autumn breeze billowed the curtains and sent the orange light dancing. She pulled the covers tighter. Trees shifting just beyond the window, their leaves turning golden. Trees in the painting, forever green and lush. And in the painting the heights of the Colosseum were regal and unbroken. The great majesty of the Tower Scholam stood sentinel above the city. In truth, both stood in ruins. One infested, the other a charred tomb. The thought pulled Petra from the bed without hesitation. She no longer felt the chill in the air.
She dressed and called for the twins. There was no reply. She walked the atrium balcony and paused in the hallway between their bedrooms. Emine’s a barely contained chaos, all piles of clothes and open drawers and the trash overflowing and dishes on the floor. Elias’s the perfect opposite. The very picture of order. It never ceased to astound her, her children who had shared a womb, and nothing else.
She walked to the kitchen and began filling a large clay pitcher with water from the tap. She touched her fingers briefly to test the temperature and found it colder than the morning air. How the summer passed so quickly. And now the coming of the fall. The dying months ahead and the grim work that would accompany them. All the blood she did not want to see. The death. She thought of a stone table, the gutters carved along the edges to control the spilling. The smell of smoke and rust.
The pitcher overflowed in the basin. Petra leaned down and filled her hands with the water and splashed it on her face then turned the tap. She dried herself with a kitchen towel.
The atrium garden was half cast in sunshine and she stopped to inspect each plant as they were watered. The lacy leaves of hemlock. The tuberous mandrake. All the delicate flowers of the nightshade and wolfsbane. She tapped the terrariums of spiders, shaking them dreamily in their webs.
In the entryway she found a note placed carefully along the edge of her orchid shelves, weighted there with a small egg-shaped stone which she returned it to its rightful place on the kitchen windowsill, just above the basin. The note was written in Elias’s perfect flowing script.
Out to the markets and perhaps the docks. We’ll see where the day takes us. Back before the sunset. —E&E
Petra tucked the note into her pocket. She grabbed the now empty pitcher and carried it through the house and up to the ladder at the far end of the atrium balcony where the trap door leading to the roof was already open. A square of dusty sunlight fell through it and slanted its way down the wall.
She hoisted the pitcher ahead of her and braced herself to move her free hand further up the rungs and once at the top she peered out over the roof to find Cosmin asleep in a chair beside her vegetable tomato garden. He was dressed in his officer’s robes, though they were unbuttoned. His hands lay folded in his lap and his head tilted back with the mouth slightly open. His graying hair just slightly off its part. Petra resisted the urge to straighten it. She walked to her husband and as her shadow passed over him he started and turned to her.
“Morning,” he sad.
Petra looked around at the sun rising into the sky. “Just barely,” she replied.
Cosmin straightened himself. He ran a hand through is hair and scratched at his beard. Petra walked past him to a barrel that sat upright with a tap fixed to its base and began to fill the pitcher with rainwater. “No need,” Cosmin said. “I’ve watered it.”
Petra turned the tap and set the pitcher down. “Have you?”
Cosmin nodded. “Earlier,” he said.
Petra sat on the bench beside him. “How much earlier?”
Cosmin shrugged. “I decided to head to the Barracks and supervise the morning assembly.”
“Of course,” Petra said. “What better use of the Commander’s time than to make sure everyone gets their breakfast.”
Petra smiled back, but it faded quickly to concern. “Talk to me,” she said.
“I couldn’t sleep… I woke up from this dream and couldn’t fall back asleep.”
“What was the dream?”
Cosmin thought for a moment. “I was in the house. We were all in the house. All gathered in the kitchen. And there was this dog sitting in the atrium watching us… just sitting there watching. Big as a wolf, but I could see it’s ribs through the skin. It just sat there staring at us and I got up and shouted at it to leave, waved my hands and clapped and shouted, but it didn’t move. It just sat there watching. So I picked up a chair and smashed it against the floor to scare it. I kept breaking more and more things and screaming for it to leave and you and the twins were screaming, but that dog wouldn’t move. It just watched and watched.”
“How did it end?”
“I don’t remember. I woke up and just couldn’t stop thinking about it. That starving dog. Even if I scared it off, where would it go? It was already in the house.”
Petra thought for a moment. “You’ve been having bad dreams for months,” she said. “Ever since that night with Adrian.”
“Was he at the Barracks this morning?”
“And how is he?”
“Alive,” Cosmin said. “Healthy and strong.”
Petra watched the wind blow through her garden. The gentle bouncing of the vines. The swollen tomatoes, one of which was pitted and rotting. “I’ve seen a lot of sickness,” she said as she stood. “And a lot of injury. But I’ve never known someone as far gone as Adrian Redwyn.” She plucked the rotted tomato from its stem and dropped it to the earth, noticing for the first time the yellowing, spotted leaves near the roots of several plants. “I just don’t understand it. I don’t know how anyone survives that.”
“No one knows.”
Petra crushed one of the blighted leaves between her fingers, felt the cracking of it. “Is Halliwell still checking him?” she asked. “Is she still testing his blood?”
“If there was any issue you would certainly know about it,” Cosin said. “You’re the first one she would come to.”
Petra nodded. She stood and wiped her hands then came back to sit next to Cosmin. She leaned close and rested her head on his shoulder. “I’m glad he’s back,” she said. “For your sake. I know what he means to you.”
Cosmin kissed the top of her head. “It really is a miracle,” he said.
“That’s a dangerous word. I’d be careful using it.”
“Everyone is using it. The Guard have started calling him ‘Adrian the Miraculous.’”
“That doesn’t trouble you?”
“When I first heard it, but not anymore. Why should the Faith get all the miracles? Why can’t we have one?”
“It’s just a word. And besides, it’s good for morale. You should see how the Guard look up to him. The man who fought death and won. It’s inspiring.”
“And Halliwell hasn’t seen anything unusual?”
“Nothing. No trace of the Angel’s blood.”
“And you don’t see it in his eyes?”
“They’re clear, Petra. If Adrian had been tainted by the Faith we would know. The change is not subtle.”
Petra considered this. “No it isn’t,” she said at last.
A small cup was seated on the ground near Cosmin’s feet and he bent down to pick it up then handed it to Petra. She looked inside and saw a handful of thumb-sized tomatoes, all colored a perfect sunny red. She took one and ate it.
“They’ve been good this year,” Cosmin said. “So sweet.”
Petra nodded and grabbed another then handed the cup back to Cosmin. “Enjoy them while you can,” she said. “The nights are getting cold.”
“Yes they are.”
Petra stood and grabbed her water pitcher and started back toward the trap door. She stopped at its edge then turned back to Cosmin. “You’ve already been to the Barracks today,” she said. “You’ve made an appearance.”
“Good. Then you can accompany your wife on her errands through the city.”
Cosmin grinned. “Oh, can I?” he asked.
Petra smiled back. “Yes, but only if you change out of that uniform. I’d like to walk with my husband today, not the Commander of the Guard.”
“They’re one and the same,” Cosmin said.
“No,” Petra said. “They absolutely are not.”
By midday the city was summer warm. Petra stopped to remove her overcoat and handed it to Cosmin who carried it in the crook of his arm. They reached the crowded stretch of the South Market but Petra led them through it without stopping. She carried a small wicker basket and it remained empty.
Cosmin watched the produce stalls vanish behind them. “What are you shopping for?” he asked.
“Not the kind you’d find in the market, I take it?”
Cosmin nodded. “I see why you didn’t want me to wear my uniform.”
“No, that was for me. The young man I’m seeing knows who I am and he knows who you are. Uniforms don’t scare him.”
Cosmin grunted. “They should,” he said.
“I think the City Guard have bigger problems than mushrooms to worry about.”
“I thought you grew your own.”
“Not anymore. They’re quite toxic.”
“Everything you grow is toxic.”
“Yes but these have a toxin of a different nature. They’re hallucinogens. Easy to abuse. I’d rather not have them in the house with teenagers.”
“You think the twins would take them?”
“Not both of them,” Petra said. “Just Emine.”
“She knows better.”
“Yes she does. But that wouldn’t stop her.”
Cosmin laughed. “No,” he said. “I suppose it wouldn’t.”
Petra was not smiling.
“You worry too much about Emine,” Cosmin said.
“She doesn’t have a direction. Not like Elias.”
“There are very few kids who have direction like Elias,” Cosmin said. “He’s had his nose in books since he was a baby. Emine is taking a different path.”
“She isn’t on any path,” Petra said. “She just does what she wants.”
“She’s still a kid,” Cosmin said.
“No she isn’t. This is her last year of school. It’s time for her to decide who she wants to be.”
“She’s been asking me a lot about the Guard recently.”
“She has. I don’t know what will come of it, but she’s been very curious. She’s a natural leader. Too willful maybe, but she knows how to lead.”
“All too well,” Petra said. “How many times has she dragged her brother into trouble?”
“A little trouble is good for Elias.”
Petra only shook her head.
“A very high-minded opinion for someone on her way to buy drugs,” Cosmin said.
“I’m not using them to hallucinate. You know that. They have a paralytic property very similar to belladonna or larkspur, but without causing respiratory failure. I’m attempting to distill it and combine it with a sedative.”
“You think that will work?”
“I hope so,” Petra said. “If not, I’ll need something a little harder to find. I may ask you to speak with Dace…”
“You want me to buy drugs from your sister.”
“If it comes to that, yes. Though I’d prefer you to stop calling her my sister. She hasn’t been that for a very long time. She’s a snake and nothing more, but she knows how to find just about anything in this city. Anything dirty, that is.”
“You’re probably right.”
“I know I am.”
“Her prices are high.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“No,” Cosmin said. “It doesn’t.”
They walked the southern side of the perimeter road, looking from time to time over the barrier wall to the river coursing far below. Merchant barges, each emblazoned with the icons of their houses, navigated the river at regular intervals. They held low in the water, weighed down by the goods of their respective houses: casks of oil and reams of undyed linen from the nenseed fields of House Delris, salted meat and stacked bags of grain from the farms of House Oswulf, crates of spice from the windlands of House Finse. There were dozens more that Cosmin could not quite pick out and each navigated the river with their small crews. The booming orders of the captains echoed from the cliff walls. They climbed the depths of the ravine and faded as the barges drifted beyond sight. Cosmin watched them with cold detachment. Bribes sent to monsters.
When Cosmin and Petra reached the edge of the Salt Bridge the City Guard on duty bowed low at their approach. Cosmin stopped to talk with them while Petra walked along the edges of the bridge to a young nobleman who stood beside a regal palomino, both staring out across the ravine. The folds of the man’s dark robes dancing in the wind. The blonde mane of the horse moving to match. Petra approached them and the man turned to her and smiled and made a little bow.
“Good day, my lady,” he said.
“You know I say that as instinct, but this truly is a lovely day. A crisp breeze, smell of the turning season… quite a day.”
“I don’t care for the chill,” Petra said.
“Well I welcome it. This summer was too much for the southern farms. Too many hot days, too much rain. ” He reached to a small satchel at his side and produced a small canvas bag which he tossed into the air then caught. “Fine weather for mushrooms though. You’ll not find weather bad enough to shift the air in a cave.” He handed the bag to Petra who untied the lacing at the neck, the musty smell of dirt and manure rising as she did so. “Fresh from the Selvid caves,” the man said. “Or as fresh as a handful of wrinkly mushrooms can be.”
Petra rolled the neck of the bag to look at the mushrooms. They were thumb-sized with long fluted caps, each finely spotted with flecks of pink and red. “They’re lovely,” she said.
“An odd word for such ugly things, but I’m glad you like them. And my lord will be glad as well.”
“How much do I owe you?”
“Not a bit. Lord Nabor owes many debts to you and to your husband. He’s happy to provide you with whatever you need. In fact, he felt these little mushrooms far too trivial a thing to give a woman such as yourself. He found something far more precious…” He rummages again in his the satchel and removed a delicately carved wooden box, aged nearly black. He bowed his head slightly and handed it to Petra. She saw immediately the name worked along the top and ran her fingers to feel the depth of the letters.
“House Vireo,” she said. “Where did you get this?”
“My lord does not discard things of importance. Even those that exist only to evoke memories.”
“I haven’t seen one in so long.”
“Ah, but the box is a trifle compared the contents. Be very careful now. There are things far more deadly than mushrooms in the southern lands.”
Petra flipped the brass lock and slowly opened the box. Inside was a glimmering purple spider tucked into the far corner amidst a scattering of orange flower petals. “An amathyne spider,” Petra whispered. “It’s beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
“It is,” the man said. “And quite a treasure, but look closer and you’ll find it is not alone.”
Petra tilted the box to allow the sunlight to shimmer against the spider’s carapace. Its legs an oily black beneath it. She let the light fall into the other corners and saw a much smaller spider, white with a single dot of the same iridescent purple, hiding halfway beneath a petal. She could hardly speak. “It can’t be…”
“Ah but it is,” the man said with a little bow. “A mated pair. Quite an oddity in the realm of spiders, or so I’m told.”
“Not just rare,” Petra said quietly, unable to take her eyes from the spiders. “Unheard of… ”
“I don’t mind saying that I’ve been rather nervous carrying them.”
“You needn’t be,” Petra said. “They’re not as delicate as they look.”
“Not for their sake,” the man laughed. “For mine. I’ve heard they pack quite a bite. Especially that larger one there. He’s a nasty looking thing.”
“The larger one is the female. And you’re right to be frightened of her. Though I doubt they can bite through wood and brass.”
“Lucky for me,” the man said. His attention shifted to just over Petra’s shoulder and he bowed in salutation. “Commander Aurel,” he said. “A pleasure.”
Petra turned to see Cosmin approaching and showed him the open box as he stood beside her. He leaned toward it, then immediately looked away. “Oh good,” he said.
“A gift from Lord Nabor,” Petra said as she closed the lid and snapped the latch into place.
“A gift of spiders?” Cosmin said. “And here I thought we were on good terms with your lord.”
“Good terms indeed,” the man laughed. “The very best. This pair of spiders is worth a small fortune, I can assure you. To the right party, of course.”
“Wherever did you find them?” Petra asked.
“The same place those little mushrooms came from, my lady, though much deeper. They tend to gather near the salt mines. All sorts of interesting things come out of those mines, wouldn’t you agree?”
Cosmin looked at the man for a long moment. “Your lord took quite a risk in smuggling these,” he said at last. “He is certainly vying for my wife’s favor.”
“And yours as well, I can assure you. Things have been out of sorts in the southern lands. The mines have been growing more foul, if you can imagine such a thing. The beasts there seem to be… restless. My lord fears something on the horizon. Some stirring in the Faith.”
“I’ve felt it too,” Cosmin said. “How many of the other merchant houses would agree with him?”
“Precious few. Oswulf and Bern are well aligned, but most of the others are occupied only with filling their pockets.” The man turned at Petra. “We count the remnants of House Vireo among our allies as well. Though they may be few in number.”
Petra said nothing. She turned her eyes back to the name carved along the box.
“Tell your lord I’ll send for him. There is much we can discuss.”
The man bowed low. “Of course, Commander Aurel,” he said. “He will be quite pleased.”
“And tell him no more gifts of spiders.”
The man smiled. “As you wish,” he said. “What about mushrooms?”
“How many legs do mushrooms have?” Cosmin asked.
The man thought for a moment then shrugged. “None, I suppose.”
“Then mushrooms will be just fine.”
“As you wish,” the man said as he mounted his horse. He grabbed the knotted reins, bowed once more from his seat, then set off down the lengths of the Salt Bridge. Cosmin saw the crossed scythes of House Nabor emblazoned on the back of his cloak.
Petra gently shook the box of spiders in front of Cosmin’s face and smiled. “These really are quite a treasure. So little is known about the venom… its supposedly necrotoxic.”
“Doesn’t it? It will certainly destroy tissue, but most necrotoxins have interesting effects on the bloodstream… These little spiders could prove very, very valuable for my work.”
Cosmin looked at Petra for a long moment. He saw the firmness in her eyes. “So you’re starting again.” he said at last.
“You’re ready for that?”
Cosmin nodded. He took a breath. “Good,” he said. “Brinn from Halliwell’s clinic can assist you if you need it, though I would start him out slow. I can speak with Baltar about getting you a new… test subject.”
“I already have one. It’s why I needed the mushrooms… he’s a little bigger than the others.”
Cosmin was silent. When he spoke again his voice was quiet but there was no trace of anger in it. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked. “I could have helped.”
“I didn’t want to talk about it,” Petra said. “It’s hard for me to start again. You know that.. And it’s always the worst in the beginning. The first few days… I think if I talked about it I wouldn’t have done it.”
“And everything is ok?”
“Yes, so far. Baltar helped get him to the lab and for the initial treatment. I may ask Brinn for help with the next round.”
“I asked Baltar to stay quiet about it,” Petra said. “You can imagine how he reacted to that. I think I insulted his honor.”
“Everything insults Baltar’s honor.”
“True. But this was particularly grievous. Asking him to keep a secret from you was like asking for his right arm. He’ll be happy to know that secret is out.”
“I’m sure he will,” Cosmin said. “But I’m not concerned with hurting Baltar’s honor. I’m concerned about you.”
“Oh I keep all sorts of secrets from you.”
“And I from you,” Cosmin grinned. “But that’s not what I meant. Are you ok with starting again?”
Petra didn’t respond. She looked instead to her family name carved along the wooden box. “Did you notice this?” she asked.
“I haven’t seen one of these in so long,” Petra said. “I burned the ones I had. I couldn’t stand to look at them. To know that they were once in every kitchen in Mayfaire, each full of salt from my family’s mines… and now…”
“You don’t have to keep the box,” Cosmin said. “Transfer out those damn spiders and I’ll burn it like the others.”
“No. I think I’ll keep this one. I like what’s inside of it… what it means. I’d rather cling to venom than salt.”
Cosmin nodded. “As would I,” he said. “It’s the stronger of the two.”
They started back towards the city but stopped as a commotion stirred from some distance along the bridge behind them. They turned just as a team-driven cart swerved to nearly collide with an overburdened haywain, causing the horse to rear and spill a quarter of its burden. The driver shouted curses at the passing cart then stopped to gather the lost bails before another carriage was forced to pass so close to the driver they nearly ran him over. Both lanes then locked to a shouting standstill. At the center of everything knelt a filthy group of men and women. Shoulders hunched with their heads bobbing to some unheard rhythm. They clamored at the road like carrion birds messing over a kill.
Cosmin shouted down to the mouth of the bridge, his voice booming suddenly and carrying far down the road to the City Guard stationed there and they all turned and sprinted to him, their spears glinting in the sun.
“Stay here,” Cosmin said to Petra.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
The guards came to him and then followed at his sides.
“Bastards won’t learn,” one of the guards said to Cosmin.
“They’ve been here before?”
“Sure have. This is third time in as many months.”
“I wasn’t aware of it.”
“I reported it to Lieutenant Redwyn. He must have thought it beneath your station sir.”
“He must have.”
“We’ll get them up,” another guard said. “They don’t put up much of a fight.”
“They’re so far from the Reaches,” Cosmin said.
“They’ve taken to coming along the perimeter road. They dress in cloaks to blend in.”
“And they just come to this spot?”
“Not just this spot, they come up and down the bridge.”
The group stayed hunched and chanting as the approached. One had sliced her hand from the tip of the middle finger all the way to the wrist and was drawing her blood upon the stones. Her eyes rolling. Their cataract shine catching the light and reflecting it back in foul opalescence that belonged to none but the faithful of Vellah. Cosmin stood a short distance away and she looked to him and smiled and ran the bloody hand down her own face then returned it to the stones. In the moment it touched her skin Cosmin saw the wriggling shimmer among the blood before it wormed its way back through her nose and eyes.
“Get them up,” Cosmin said and the guard left his flanks with their spears held ready and surrounded the group.
“To your feet!” one of the guards called. “Now!”
The bleeding woman turned on the guard and rose. “Ye ain’t a bit worthy!” she said as she grabbed the guard by the edges of his leather armor and shook him. “Not worthy to walk her road!”
The guard brought the butt end of his spear down hard on the woman’s foot and then swept her leg with the haft to drop her back to the ground. Two more guards came beside him and pointed their spears and rounded the others. They all stared with the same wild shining eyes and backed against one another like cornered animals.
“Calm,” Cosmin commanded. “All of you.”
He walked to the group and looked to the woman on the ground who sat holding her broken foot and weeping. “Up,” he said. “All of you. And help her to stand.”
The obeyed and brought the woman from the ground and held her beneath the arms as she limped.
“Who speaks for you?” Cosmin asked.
“We all speaks for all of us,” the woman hissed.
“This bridge is beyond your borders. You have no business here.”
“Them borders is growing.”
“No,” Cosmin said. “They are not.”
“Not by your will, heretic. By hers. It’s her passage and its her road.”
“Someone holy,” another of the faithful said, his voice high and quavering. “Someone beautiful. Someone you’d weep to see.”
A howling, wild and slavering, issued from the edge of the city. It sent the faithful into a shivering panic. They clutched at their eyes and moaned and stamped their feet on the ground in response. Everyone else turned to face the sound and they watched as a cluster of dark-robed figures came bounding from the far away Reaches, racing along the perimeter road like hounds on the scent.
“Vacant!” one of the guards shouted. “The damn Vacant are coming!”
Cosmin watched them racing for the Bridge and he turned and grabbed the spear from the guard nearest to him and held it at the throat of the woman. A drop of blood ran down the blade as he pressed. “Who is she!” he growled.
The woman only smiled. “A chosen of the Angel,” she said with tears in her eyes. “And honoring her is worth my throat and all the flails of the Vacant. I welcome them as proof of my love. I will bleed for her. She, a being of brightest light and a thousand voices. A choir unto herself! We all heard her singing! And the screams of that man… now chosen himself. Glory become us!”
“And she comes for you,” another of the faithful said. “She comes for you, Commander. She knows your black heathen heart. All the Pale City knows! The Angel himself, praise his name!”
“Praise him!” the others cried as one.
“The Spire knows you,” the blood faced woman said. “God knows you. The heresy!”
Another howling, much closer, now from the mouth of the bridge.
“Turn about!” one of the others shouted. “Spears up!”
“No!” Cosmin cried. “Stand down, all of you. They’re only here for the faithful.” And no sooner did the words leave his mouth the Vacant sprinted among them, clubs held in gnarled hands and bashing against the stones. They shoved anyone from their path and set their wild eyes on the faithful and grabbed them by the napes of their necks or by their wrists or ankles and set about beating them along the lengths of their legs then dragged them limp and reeling down the bridge and back to the shadows of the Reaches.
Trails of blood were written in their wake and Cosmin followed them to the center of the road where the group had congregated. Petra stood beside him and together they looked to the ground and the words scrawled there:
COME THE FIRES OF GOD!