Magister Albed Hollis, enormous and uncomfortable, floated above the crowds as they gathered and swelled and spilled onto the East Road. He bobbed and swayed with the steps of his six throne bearers, grumbling to himself and swearing each time the faltered. “Step lively, you apes,” he grunted, and they were silent in reply.
A retinue of his Palace Guard marched with him, six in the front and six behind, stoic and proud in their gilded armor and high-crested helms. Spears were held in each of their hands and they pounded the ground with their hafts as they marched. The sound beat a fierce rhythm in the crypt silence of the morning and the crowds parted easily before them.
Magister Hollis shifted endlessly atop his throne. Every surface was cold, every angle cutting or constricting. He pondered climbing down to simply walk the streets instead, but thought better of if after a moment of studying the surrounding crowd. From his throne he saw nothing but a foul sea of bobbing heads. Dirty hair on dirty scalps. Dirty clothes on dirty bodies. The filth of the city all flowing in one direction like a reeking wash of flesh and rags. Many carried holy symbols and homemade relics. Fraying copies of the Book of Vellah held aloft in long-nailed hands. Broken shafts of wood capped with the pointed icon of the Spire. Naked backs with the blood drop sigil of Vellah flayed from the skin, some even welting and bleeding as they were lashed with flails of braided horsehair and shards of glass. Tears of rapture and the slobber of devotion slickening their faces. And those shining silver eyes.
“Fools,” Hollis said under his breath, though his face was strained. He held tighter to his throne. His gilded raft sailing above the muck.
His retinue reached the foot of East Gate, and the bearers knelt to lower the throne to the ground. Two of the Palace Guard approached and Hollis swatted away their hands as they offered to help him rise. “Back off, back off,” he groaned as he brought himself to his feet. He stretched and yawned, a giant even among the guards.
He stopped at the base of the East Gate. The immense stonewood doors rose above him and he looked to their heights then turned to see the crowds settling along the road. The first true light of dawn settled on their faces, soft pink fading to purple in the unbroken shadows. The eyes of the faithful shining silver in the early light… and damn, but there were so many of them… had there always been so many? Hollis watched them for a long moment. Those mirrored eyes all catching the dawn then reflecting it back in thousands upon thousands of pinpricks of light. As if field of dirty stars, unwanted and despised, descended from some foreign heaven to coalesce among the crowd.
“Fools,” the Magister repeated. “Damn fools.” He looked to one of his Palace Guard, a broad shouldered man whose face was hidden in the depths of his crested helm. “What do you make of them?” Hollis asked.
The guard turned to face Hollis. “My lord?”
“The faithful, idiot. What do you make of them? They seem more numerous than I remember.”
“I can’t say, sir.”
“No, I suppose you can’t. Not much good, are you?”
Hollis waved the man away. “Idiots,” he said to himself. “Cosmin has you trained well, but damn if you’ve got much in the way of brains.” He headed for the stairs which led to his observation platform, but stopped when he saw the huddled crowd that formed around them. A group of cloaked figures, all clad in solemn grey, stood there in a loose circle. Their hoods drawn over their faces and their heads bowed to the ground, though some were cocked oddly to the side like curious dogs. They all stood facing the Magister’s Platform that crowned the East Gate, as if in anticipation of some event that may occur there. “What is heaven’s name,” Hollis uttered as he stepped towards them. The Palace Guard saw the figures and formed a column at his sides and back.
“You there!” Hollis called. “Step aside.”
The figures made no movement whatsoever.
Hollis frowned. He stepped forward, suddenly cautious. The guards to his sides raised their spears, but he motioned for them to lower them. He smiled. “No need for that,” he said. “It looks like some of our slower minded citizens have gotten lost.” He reached out to the nearest figure and placed a hand on his shoulder. He brought his voice low. “Move yourselves from my path now, you imbeciles, or I’ll drop you to the damn ground.”
Again, no movement.
Hollis grabbed the back of the man’s hood and pulled it back, then he spun the man around. “Look you damn fool, when I—”
Hollis faltered. The face staring at him was grinning dumb and slavering, the eyes not shining with the telltale silver of the faith, but pooled with blood instead. Dead eyes, blank and quiet as a doll’s, holding none of the apeish mirth in the grin beneath them.
“What is this?” Hollis said. “What devilry?” He slapped the man hard across the face, but the grin did not vanish. It widened to a great smile. The lips and teeth parting for a moment to expose the cavernous mouth and the absence of a tongue. Hollis stepped back at once, and all the other figures, more than fifty all told, turned to face him, grey hoods drawn low over their faces so that only those rictus grins were seen.
The Palace Guard fell immediately into action. They positioned themselves in front of the Magister, spears raised, feet planted hard to the earth. One among them barked out an order and they moved in a tight lockstep towards the figures, their boots loud in unison and cutting through the early silence.
But the figures only stood. The first among them turned his head back towards the Magister’s Platform where a silhouetted figure appeared at the edge. It stood watching a moment, then made a slight gesture, a wave of the hand, and the throng of hooded figures parted to allow the Magister to pass.
“What in the hell,” Hollis uttered as he walked to the stairs. His Palace Guard surrounded him, spears at the ready, but the figures made no movement whatsoever. They watched the ground with their bloody eyes, their grins never leaving their faces. The silhouette turned back from the edge of the platform, hands folded behind his back. The soft light of the morning caught in his robes, pale white and marked by an old bloody stain that seemed to emanate from his heart.
Hollis grunted with every step. He stopped often to catch his breath, and each time he stopped the line of guards behind him stopped as well. He labored to the top of the perimeter wall and leaned against the embrasure. When he looked beyond the wall for the first time his jaw went slack.
The line of soldiers stretched far into the distance before being swallowed by the forest. There was no movement among them but the flickering of their torches. “My God…” Hollis said.
A guard came behind him and opened the arched door that sat at the edge of the Gatehouse and Hollis pulled himself away from the wall and ascended the last section of stairs. His breath came is wheezing gasps. His hands scrambled for the iron banister.
“Why bring the damned Veng?” he said to no one. “It makes no sense. No sense at all. A damn army at the gates.
He emerged sweating from the darkness, stopping just beyond its threshold to catch his breath. Ambassador Osyth Barton stood at the western edge of the platform wall, watching him.
It took Hollis a moment to notice the Ambassador, and when he did his heart pressed impossibly hard inside his chest. He couldn’t bring himself to move. He opened his mouth, then closed it. He closed his hands as well, balling them into fists so tight the nails left small clefts in the meat of his palms. He trembled.
“Good morning, Magister,” Osyth said.
“Ambassador,” Hollis managed.
“Come, stand by me.”
Hollis obeyed. He looked briefly to the east where the soldiers lined the road, then walked to stand beside Osyth. The city spread out wide and waking far beneath them.
Jeremiah lay tucked into a dark corner in the northern parapet, but spilled out as Hollis approached. He stretched to his full height, all arms splayed to the sky, then dropped down to trot around the perimeter of the platform. His pale skin milky and smooth in the dawn light, his silver mask holding the pink sky in inverse, all the eye holes fixed upon the Magister.
Hollis watched the creature for a curious moment then turned away in disgust.
The Palace Guard emerged from the stairwell to set up a formation near the door, but they too faltered when they saw Jeremiah. Osyth didn’t spare any of them a glance. He watched the crowd as it grew and grew along the edge of the East road. “They all look so fragile, don’t they?” he asked. “From this great distance.”
Hollis stood at his side. He drew a silk cloth from his robes and dabbed it along his brow. He saw nothing fragile about the swarming crowd. To him they looked like a disturbed nest of ants. An infestation.
“This must be the way the Spire sees the world,” Osyth said. “Everything so delicate. Like motes of pollen riding a stream.” He stood silent for a long moment, bemused in thought.
Hollis thought of the flails and whips of the chanting faithful. The raw brands and the flayed skin and the shining of their jackal eyes. “Delicate,” he uttered with a cold laugh. “I’d hardly call them delicate.”
“You don’t agree? It not just the faithful down there, you know. It’s all of Mayfaire. The entirety of your city. Saved and sinner alike.”
“I’d still not call them delicate,” Hollis said. “Some of them, perhaps, but not all of them. Certainly not all of them.” He spared a look at the Ambassador as he said these last words. He saw the bare and muddy feet and the stained hem of the robes, the colors shifting there from rotten brown to ivory. The waist tied with a simple cord of braided twine, and no adornment otherwise. No jewelry, no rings, not even a button on the robe. The Ambassador held himself with a humility betrayed only by his sheer size. His broad shoulders and hard set jaw. Hands folded behind his back and standing now like a great monarch over a conquered land. A monarch without a crown. Naked, it seemed, save a tattered and stained robe. It was almost shameful to Holis. He turned his nose up.
Osyth followed the Magister’s gaze and turned towards him to expose yet another stain on his robes, this one the color of rust and spreading over his heart. Hollis frowned at it. “Cut yourself, have you?” he asked.
Osyth touched the stain and held his hand on it for a brief moment. He ran a finger through the tear in the fabric. “I met a group of pilgrims just outside the gates of Vennath,” he said. “It seems a lifetime ago, but it was barely more than a week. Isn’t that odd? They were all so young. So afraid. The poor blessed things. They’re always so afraid. I wanted to show them the gifts of the Spire, so I did this to myself. To show them a miracle. To give them hope.”
Hollis turned away from the Ambassador to keep his eyes over Mayfaire. He had no patience for the Spire’s miracles. “That’s an old trick of your’s,” he said. “If I recall correctly.”
“A trick,” Osyth grinned. “I suppose, if that’s how you want to see it. And yes, I have done it many times, but this time was special. So much has changed since I spoke with those pilgrims. So very much. In many ways they saw the end of me.” He smoothed out the robe. “I’ve taken to wearing this in remembrance. As a way to grieve my old self. A mausoleum for my best intentions.”
“What became of the children?”
Osyth shrugged. “I’m sure they are all dead.”
Hollis grunted. “Well I don’t see the point in that,” he said.
“And neither do I. There was a time, not long ago, when I believed that death is a result of heresy or disbelief. And that all suffering leads to grace.”
“And what do you believe now?”
Osyth looked up from the street and to the dawning sky. The clouds overhead had lost much of their crimson and were just beginning to turn a light gold. A color of glory. The sun was still below the horizon, but its light was not far away. “I believe you must be wary of the form that grace takes,” he said at last. “And I believe that a spider can hide behind anything, even vestments.”
“Sounds like you’re having a tiff with your Angel.”
Osyth smiled, but said nothing. He looked once again to the Magister. The oaken bulk of the man. Arms folded over his barrel chest and the deep green robes filigreed in gold and tufted in sable at the neck like the ruff of a vulture. His great bald head and sagging jowls pulling his mouth forever downward to scowl at the world.
“I admire you, Magister,” Osyth said at last. “Your boldness. And the efficiency under which you operate. Hard and smooth as iron. Able to speak as though I were nothing more than a visiting dignitary.”
Hollis did not take his eyes from the city. “You are a visiting dignitary, Osyth. And I’m not afraid of you. I stopped fearing you a long time ago.”
Jeremiah let out a low whine at these words. Hollis pretended to ignore him.
“Have you?” Osyth said. “And was that before or after I took your son?”
Hollis reared on the man. “Don’t speak of him,” he growled. “You damned foreign dog. I don’t care what monsters you pray to. If you speak of him again I’ll throw you from this wall.”
From the edge of the platform Jeremiah began to wail. And in one stride he was looming over the Magister. Trails of darkness writhed over his flesh like snakes and as he reached for Hollis the air began to pop and sizzle around him and the nails of his fingers grew long and hooked and sharp as knives and his wail grew to a screech that set Hollis’s mind to reeling. There were words hidden within the wailing. Words of bile and hatred not spoken so much as forced into the mind.
“Calm,” Osyth said as he held out his hand, and Jeremiah stopped at once, relaxing and lowering himself back to stand on all of his hands. The air calmed and the nails slid back and the darkness rippling over his skin faded then vanished in little crackles of light. Jeremiah huffed, then padded back to the edge of the wall to lay in its shadows.
The Palace Guard had no time to react at all. They stood dumbfounded along the edge of the platform.
“I apologize,” Osyth said. “That was unkind of me. I won’t mention your son again. Not unless you ask me to. Will that be ok?”
Hollis could only nod. His eyes stayed locked on the corner where Jeremiah lay. The placid silver mask shining within the shadows and staring. When he shifted his weight it too shifted. When he stepped to the left or right it followed.
“Pay no mind to Jeremiah. He is quite protective of me. And I of him.”
Again, Hollis simply nodded. The stone floor beside him was scorched black where Jeremiah’s hands had touched, and Holis felt a pain suddenly in his shoulder where the beast had nearly grabbed him and he found the robe there to be burned wide open. He touched the exposed skin and felt blisters already beginning to form.
If Osyth noticed he made no sign of it. “I’d like to speak to you about the army that stands just beyond your wall,” he said.
The Magister pulled the fabric of his robes to conceal the burn. He winced as he did so, then cleared his throat. “I’d like to speak of them as well,” he said.
“First though, tell me about the Reaches.”
“Yes. And speak freely. I need truth from you, not platitudes.”
“I don’t…” Hollis frowned. “What do you want to know?”
Osyth said nothing.
Hollis hesitated. He looked once more in the direction of Jeremiah, then turned his attention back to the view of the city. He could see the twisting shapes of the Reaches unfolding into the southern sky, just before the endlessly spinning Water Wheels that hugged the river wall. “Well you can’t speak of the Reaches without speaking of the faithful. And they… well…” He breathed out hard, and shook his head. “Understand that my mind will always travel to commerce. Always. Trade is the pulse of this city.”
“It is indeed,” Osyth said. “This city has two heartbeats. And one of them is certainly trade.”
“Yes well, it’s the only one I hear. The only one that matters as far as I’m concerned, and I’m sure it’s why I’ve kept my position all these years. It would have been easy for you or that Angel to put someone else on my throne but you haven’t. I can only think that has to do with my ability to keep the trade routes flowing.”
“You would be correct.”
“Of course. Well, you see the faithful… their minds are… well they are so enrapt that they don’t do much good for commerce. Speaking freely, of course.”
Hollis waved his hand dismissively towards the Reaches. “But you know all of this,” he said. “We tried employing them but it just didn’t take. They serve a purpose, but it isn’t helping the docks.”
“And what purpose is that?”
“What ‘purpose’ do you see Vellah’s faithful serving? Those here who have taken the Angel’s communion.”
“I… I can’t say. Freely or otherwise. I think in terms of commerce, I’ve said that enough but it bears repeating. I think only of the merchants, the river, and the barges that all flow to the Pale City. I think of this city and its purpose and its people.”
“And Vellah’s faithful are not a part of that.”
“They are not,” Hollis said with finality. “But not without trying. Their minds just aren’t up to it.”
“They are good for praying and little else,” Osyth said.
“Those are not my words.”
“No. They are mine. And it grieves me to say them. I once believed in a great harmony here in Mayfaire, with its two beating hearts. One beats for trade. It is controlled by heretics and unrepentant sinners like yourself, but it beats loud and strong. The other belongs to the faithful. It beats for God and the glory of the Spire, but has grown so dim as to barely be heard. The dischord between the two is my great shame. I fought to keep the faithful undisturbed while the heretics held to their commerce. You prayed to greed while they prayed to Vellah, and I saw a city where the faithful grew in love and devotion while the goods flowed from your docks. It was a lovely picture, but ultimately quite flawed. I see it all very clearly now. Even more so from this height.” He turned to Hollis. “These past days in the Reaches have been tragic for me,” he said. “But also very enlightening. I’ve seen what the district has become. I’ve heard the dying rhythm.”
“Well it’s no fault of mine,” Hollis said, rubbing once again at his shoulder. “I’ve followed all of your damned rules. Those streets are governed entirely by the Angel’s decrees, not mine. The Vacant are undisturbed in the district as you well know. They keep the holy laws and I do not intervene.”
“So why the decay?” Osyth asked.
“You’ll have to take that up with your Angel. It’s his blood in their veins, not mine.”
“I intend to take it up with him,” Osyth said. “But his blood, rotten though it may be, is not entirely to blame. There is something else in your city, Magister, something insidious. Have you heard of the Avarine?”
Hollis waved his hand. “A fairy tale,” he said.
“If only it were,” Osyth said. “If only… I have a sister, did you know that? Her name is Prudence, and she is a sister to me only in name and for that I am thankful. She is a foul, insane thing. Utterly possessed, though I don’t know by what. She is talented though. Very, very talented. She has learned things about your city. Things that have been hidden from you. Terrible, terrible things. Unforgivable. And it is why this army has been summoned. Your city needs to be cleansed.”
Hollis was silent for a long moment. When he tried to speak again he found himself barely able to unclench his jaw. He chanced a look towards Jeremiah and saw the beast drawn back as if to pounce. “But… the docks…” Hollis stammered. “Damn it Osyth I feed the Pale City night and day. I run the goods that you will get from nowhere else. Nowhere else!” His face deepened to red, his jowls shook with his every word. “Mayfaire won’t survive another of your damned… purges. You would break everything. Everything!”
“Some things must fall for others to rise,” Osyth said, his voice calm and soothing. “But you need not worry, Magister. You are necessary to me… and beloved. Heretic though you may be. You serve a great purpose. You are not the one I’m here for.”
Hollis followed the Ambassador’s gaze. The swarming road was just beginning to clear as the crowd found their place at its borders. A small group stood out as they walked down the center road. The crowd was giving them a wide berth, and occasionally he could see heads drop low in respectful bows to the man and woman who led them.
“Cosmin,” Hollis whispered.
“But what issue could you have with Cosmin? He keeps the peace.”
Osyth ignored the Magister’s words. He seemed caught in some thought or vision just beyond the city, or far beneath it. “I’ve done terrible things,” Osyth said at last. “In Mayfaire, and to you, but I’ve done them in the name of love. I know you don’t understand that, though I pray that someday you will.”
“I doubt that.”
Osyth smiled. “Someday you may feel different,” he said as he continued to watch Cosmin moving along the road. “There is a storm coming to your city, Magister. I ask that you weather it at my side. And when it has departed I ask that you help me to bring harmony back to Mayfaire. You keep the first heart beating, and I will save the second.”
“And betray the Commander of my City Guard.”
“Cosmin does not command in your name, Magister. He commands in the name of his father. His loyalty has never been with you.”
“They are fierce, well trained,” Hollis said, shaking his head. “There will be casualties if you war with them.”
“Yes, there will be. There is always a price for justice. But there is reward as well. I told you that I would not mention your son again unless you ask it of me. Would you like to know what became of him?”
“I—yes of course, but…”
“How long now has it been since he left with me? Twenty-six years?”
“Yes, of course,” Osyth said. “Again the strange swiftness of time.” He closed his eyes for a moment to think. “Marcus would have been thirty-two now, wouldn’t he?”
Hollis nodded. His eyes were glassy.
“He was a strong boy, Magister. Willful, brave, and so very strong for a child. Like his father before him, no doubt. Do you ever think of the leader he would have become?”
“I think of little else.”
“Marcus Daverne Hollis,” Osyth mused. “A name fit for a king… Marcus the Great. Marcus the Unyielding.”
Hollis wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his robe. The gold threading left red scratches on the sides of his face as he did so. “Please stop,” he said.
“Your son is still alive, Magister.”
Hollis’s breath caught in his throat. His heart pounded suddenly so hard it caused his vision to swim. “You…”
“Marcus is alive. I can take you to him and you can know him and all that he has become. That is what I am offering you. That is your reward. You can join me in what is to come. You can be the keeper of the first heart of Mayfaire. And in exchange you can once again know your son.”
Hollis couldn’t speak. Tears ran freely from the corners of his eyes. He bit the inside of his cheek, an old trick to shock his nerves, to fight the grief, but it did little besides tint his mouth with the taste of blood.
Osyth waited. “I’ve never lied to you, Hollis. I’ve done terrible things to you, but I’ve never lied.”
“Tell me what you want,” Hollis managed. “Name your price.”
“Your loyalty. That is all.”
“And if I refuse?
“You are free to do so. And all consequences will be yours to bear.”
Hollis leaned on the ledge of the platform. The stones there were damp and cold. He looked to the east where the soldiers were lined and where the sun would soon shine above the trees. The sky hazy and peaceful, the morning clouds that knew nothing of suffering or loss as they drifted along. Birdsong rising from the fields beyond the city, ignorant and lovely. Hollis looked to his own hands and the rings that studded them. The largest among them bore a profile of a young boy, though the gold was so worn the delicate features were all but lost, leaving little more than a lumpen phantom shape behind.
“Is he happy?” Hollis said at last. “My boy. Is he happy? Has he been treated well all these years?”
“Yes,” Osyth said. “He lives like a king.”
Hollis wiped his eyes once again. He cleared his throat. “The trade routes of this city depend on thriving markets, wealthy merchants, and a healthy populace. They do not work out of fear or intimidation. You know that as well as I do. You tried those tactics once and the docks froze.”
“Well, I can promise you a fruitful trade, but not if you declare war on my city.”
“The Veng are here for a single purpose. Your city will be fine.”
“You can promise that?”
“I have no desire to see Mayfaire suffer. None. I only want this city to thrive.”
Hollis nodded. “Then you have it. My loyalty. In the name of my son.”
“In the name of your son.”
Far below the crowds had finally settled. Tens of thousands of bodies, faithful and heretic alike, were pressed against the sides of the quickly emptying East Road. The dark shapes of the vacant patrolled along the curbs, barking or hitting the stones with their clubs if anyone dared breach their line.
Only one family still walked the road and they did so with no deference to the Vacant whatsoever. Cosmin and Petra walking side by side, heads high and proud, leading their children. Elias did his best to keep his strides even. He kept his left hand tucked in his jacket and held his cane in the middle of its shaft, not allowing it to touch the ground. Emine walked at his side, the silk of her dress shimmering like a jewel. They vanished beneath the edge of the platform and Hollis knew they were approaching the stairs. His heart began to quicken.
“Mind the twins,” Hollis uttered. “In whatever foul thing you are planing with Cosmin… be careful of them. They don’t need to be a part of it. Elias especially. That poor boy has suffered enough.”
“I doubt the son of a powerful, wealthy man knows much of suffering,” Osyth said.
Hollis laughed in spite of himself, a cruel laugh, chill as the wind. “That boy is his cold mother’s reflection yet he’s grown up in the shadow of his father. And through no fault of his own he’s a poor and twisted thing. Unfit for his own family name in Cosmin’s eyes. That has been made quite clear. The command of the Guard is passed from father to son, you know.”
“I know it very well.”
“Well Cosmin is the first to break it. He sees no leader in Elias. He is handing his dynasty over to his First Lieutenant.”
“To Adrian Redwyn,” Osyth said.
“Indeed, though I suppose none of that matters anymore. Not if your Veng have their say. But the point stands. That boy lives with a shame no one should endure. That is suffering enough. Wealthy and powerful indeed,” Holis scoffed. “Neither has benefitted Elias. If anything they have only caused more him more pain. I doubt the urchins in Riverside deal with such things.”
“No, they deal with much worse. Shame and desperation are not evenly met. Both are tragic, but one is never seen without the other.”
“You need not worry about the twins,” Osyth said. “They are of no concern to me. Cosmin is the one I want. The only one.”