A few millennia into the future, on a different planet, in aging biodomes, the human race grapples with a new threat, or maybe a new gift – humans with fire in their blood. Nigrae Lunam, ex-soldier and current co-leader for the Caeruleum gang, finds himself ensnared in a fire fight when he rescues a pair of children, Sam and Abby from the Aurantiaco gang, and a man with cognac-colored eyes, Sanctus, from the Rubrum gang. This would be any average day, save for the fact Sanctus is a rare Providentia, a person who can boost a fire-user’s powers ten fold. A priceless, coveted treasure in the city of Urbs Aquarum. As Lunam shows the man and children what it means to be safe, he develops a fondness for Sanctus that he swears he will never reveal. When Sam and Abby are threatened and Sanctus is kidnapped, Lunam must face the responsibility of taking over another gang’s territory, his true feelings for Sanctus, and the chance it all blows apart in a fiery inferno.
Ever taste copper? That cloying metal viscosity that tells you pain will soon follow? Or maybe that charcoal burn taste of ash on your food when you’ve grilled it? I despise that taste. I crave it.
I co-lead the Caeruleum gang on the south end of Urbs Aquarum, the Urbs, the largest city in Biodome Three, better known as Imperium. Infiltrating another gang’s territory, specifically Aurantiaco, is an easy way to get yourself offed by the way. Thing is, I was never much of one for heeding warnings. So, there I was, standing in a back end alley smelling of piss and garbage, the clouds causing shadows to flicker against the clapboard walls. Maybe I was trying to toss out this life and was looking for the most destructive way to do it.
I had been having a rather nice day, honest. Amazingly enough, I had actually had a bath and washed my hair. A rare treat, because pulling forty gallons of water into the warehouse and heating it was something that took up energy. Electricity is saved for the pumping stations, it’s too expensive to run all over the Urbs. It wasn’t just the heat energy consumed, but the physical energy of lugging multiple hot buckets up three flights of stairs and setting up the collapsible metal and watertight canvas tub.
My room barely had space for that dang thing plus the buckets when it was all set up. A long rectangle of beige painted cinder block, the high ceiling box that claimed my sleep was perpetually left in shadow as it existed on the north end of the converted warehouse. The transom windows at the top of the farthest wall left me with a view of cloud cover over the dome panels. Pushed against one wall was my extra wide mattress on a low rusted frame. I tended to hide my shoes under it. Near the far wall under my windows, I kept a laundry rack, boxes of random crap I sometimes needed, and my makeshift foot locker end table. Across from my bed, an icebox and a shelf with my aluminium scrap counter top and butane burner plate sufficed for a makeshift kitchen. Hooks screwed into the concrete held a pot, pan, my hair ties and random accessories, and ceremonial materials. A couple oil lamps tended to find random homes wherever I needed light. A threadbare brown rag rug warmed the concrete floor in winter. The space was cluttered, but it was mine.
Clavis had set up a fire for melting down scrap metal and I decided to take advantage, along with Archimagirus, who thought to use it for slow roasting and canning. This meant I didn’t have to use my own energy for a personal luxury. I despise cold baths something fierce. Enough of that from my military days. If I’m going near water, it better be hot. Maria Mater had lent me an oil she had made of orange peel and cinnamon bark from Flumen’s greenhouse. It was potent enough to wash the smells of the other living souls in the warehouse out of my sinuses for a bit.
So, there I was, in the middle of my bath, in the privacy of my own room when I got a knock on my door. It had been quiet, peaceful, you know nice. Lights low, my tight cubby of a room relatively clean. Looked like I might actually get a morning to myself.
Most of the crew knows that if my door is closed, they had better have a good reason to disturb me. Everyone needs brain space time. This was mine. So, I told off whoever was on the other side of the door. The lock popped. That’s enough to tell me it’s one of my right hand men, or my co-leader. No one else would dare throw that lock. Petrol and iron filings. Pine sap and bread. There goes my orange and cinnamon. In barrelled my two men, one Nympha blond, the other a ruddy Imperium brunet. “Tempestatis, Cortex. How may I be of service?” I asked, not making a move to leave the tub. Like infernus was I wasting hot water.
“Warm enough, boss?” Tempestatis, the blond, his Nympha accent heavy on his Imperian, raised an eyebrow at the water. He
adjust a grey scarf at his neck that threatened to slip. Cortex was already rolling up his sleeves.
“Clavis has a fire outback going.” I deflect. “I didn’t need to burn, Cortex.”
“Good. I’ve got something that you might want to see.” Tempestatis handed me a dossier.
I flipped the folio open to scroll through the paperwork. Tempestatis had brought me this rather outlandish tale about a pair of Accendium, children with the power of fire, that had been found by the Aurantiaco gang. Now, usually, I don’t interfere with Aurantiaco business, even if I despise them and their leader Mercurius. However, I do make some exceptions. Kids taken in by the Aurantiaco get turned into soldiers or toys, whatever their aptitude or his appetite. When possible, I get them out. I have my connections. It was a rare occasion that they sent me faulty info.
That led me to standing in the back alley with my fangs sunk deep into this Aurantiaco bruiser’s neck, trying to figure out if I should drop the bastard before or after he died. He sure as infernus was not getting my coagulant, that much I was certain of. The two girls sitting across from the mess I was making were not making my thought process any calmer. I was probably not making it easy on them either. Something about watching a bulky thug sucking the life juice out of another person does that to people.
One of them was for sure Accendium, the smaller sister. Her cloud of thick black ringlets was matted and showed signs of neglect, and her shift was more patches than whole cloth. Her tears were burning on her face, leaving black holes in the fabric of her short gown. I don’t often see liquid fire burners. The other one holding on to her was glaring death threats at the man in my arms. She could not be more than nine, maybe? Skinny, underweight, a sickly pale shade of brown that told me she had not seen the sun often.
The guy stopped gurgling, which was a relief. I dropped him to bleed out on the ground at my feet. Let’s say it’s one of my calling cards to the Aurantiaco. The girls scuffled back from the body. This part was going to be annoying. I tossed my trench coat over them, effectively capturing them. Sixty pounds of plate metal, leather, and aramid. Mainly, I just didn’t want them hitting me about the face when I picked them up. Which they tried to do.
There’s a reason I keep the trench coat around. That and it doesn’t burn.
“Oye, oye, oye, calm down. Not gonna hurt you. Then again, you’ve probably had too many people say that to you already. Still! Do you speak Angelus or Nemphium?” I needed to find out what of the other two domes, the Purgatorium, they got dumped out of. I suck at Nympha pidgin for all of Tempestatis’s schooling. Imperian was difficult at times as it stood. Particular off days kept me thankful that I had Cortex and Tempestatis at hand. I prayed the Accendium would say Angelus. That one I’m fluent in, having been born and raised to it. The older of the two shook her head. What does she mean no? “Where?” I pointed to the dome wall, just visible along the edge of the smoking chimney stacks. It’s a long shot. Most Accendium from the Pergatoriums can’t speak Imperium.
“Inferis,” the girl whispered in Angelus with a hiccup as I started walking.
Inferis? Inferis is a burned out crumbled myth. An operational tunnel that ran under the labyrinth of the three domes. It had been destroyed in the Cardinal Wars when a fleet of Angelus drillers punctured a rift and flooded the thing in contaminated black gold, salt, and water. My grandmother had worked that lost rig. The puncture affected the aqueduct and canal system for all the domes, though more so for the dome I now called home.
That rig was why twenty-three percent of the population was nixed in a pandemic and thirty percent were afflicted. That pandemic triggered something in a percent of those who had survived. It happened every grand once in a while in the Purgatoriums. It was to be expected in Imperium.
Ustor. Pyro. Fire users.
Flames that gave the commoners, the Plebes, and the well off Electi nightmares. Poverty and riches were no barrier to an Ustor’s Catalyst or Repercussion. They can light up like a bonfire and come down off it with a crazy need, a tick that has to be addressed before they can act like normal humans again. Can’t vax it, can’t squash it. Wanna see a dome turn on itself? You can only kill so many people in broad daylight before the people revolt. Wounded dogs in corners bite. I should know. I was the one who held the gun to too many Ustors’ heads in the Hades Purge.
Now, six years after the Purge, when an Ustor crops up, the military in Angelus or Nympha will open up a panel onto an armoured walk-way and drop the offending being into Imperium instead of instigating more riots. At least dumping Ustors in this infernus ditch is considered humane by the Nympha and Angelus people, even if the corporate states would still have them massacred. What the population does to them here is our own problem.
“Easy Inferisiai.” The bird boned children did not make my efforts at moving them to a safer location any easy job. Wiggling mass of chaos. “Hush, hush. Oh for the love of Hade’s first soul! I’m taking you to Maria Mater. She’s nice. She’ll get you some food and new clothes,” I persuade in our common language. They settle at the mention of food. Always does the trick. Hopefully, she would forgive me for dropping a pair of Accendium on her suddenly.
Getting to the South end on foot dragged on past sunrise. The girls were heavier than I bargained for, but shoeless, I was not putting them on the ground. For early winter, the dome was warming up the Urbs and leaving the chipped concrete and asphalt streets hot. Shattered glass and discarded metal accumulated in piles along the curbs and up to the crumbling shops and houses. People were either sleeping or already at work, leaving the world feeling empty and quiet with the sun radiating golden halos on tin roofs and unruly grass heads. Small birds flitted in and out of old trees, all imports from centuries past when spaceships landed and the first humans colonised Throni.
“You’re Vampire, aren’t you?” the smaller of the two girls asked, her voice soft and, I must admit, ridiculously creepy. My heart threatened to escape my chest at that question.
“Where’d you hear that name?” I asked, not wanting to admit to it. I mean, they did just watch me down about half a man’s life blood in front of them. Kind of hard to ignore that right in your face.
“Mommy said to trust the Vampire,” the little one cheeped. “You’re Vampire, right?”
“Who is Mommy? Do you know her name?” I turned a corner to put myself deeper into the alley labyrinth that led away from the main thoroughfare. Why would a supposed Inferisiai know about me?
The little girl shook her head. “I don’t know. Mommy is mommy.”
“Can you describe her?” I asked as I rounded a brick building in the South end. Tempestatis and Cortex stood guard at the corner. They nodded their heads my way. “Com’s busted. Can you
go tell Mater I’m coming up, Cortex? Tell her I’ve got Accendium that need clothes.” I commanded. He turned and dashed in the direction I was heading.
“Mommy’s pretty. Tall and pretty.” The younger girl shoved her thumb in her mouth. She had burned. The tears had stopped thankfully, but she would need a solution to her Repercussion soon. I anxiously glanced down at her from time to time for the tell tale signs of instability while we walked.
“She’s light like Abby,” the older girl supplied.
“Is that your name, Abby?” I asked the little one.
“Abigail, but Sam calls me Abby. I’m really hungry.” Abby rubbed at her stomach.
“We’ll get you food as soon as I can make it to that building ahead. See there?” I pointed to the stained white plaster and rusted metal of a four story walk- up. The little one nodded. I turned to the other girl, “I take it you’re Sam?” Her lips flattened at the question and her jaw clenched, but she did nod once. “Do you know how to get back to mommy?” I pressed the two. They shook their heads. So much for finding the entrance to Inferis. “What about your daddy?” Can you describe him?” I pursued a new avenue of the conversation as Mater’s door came into view. Several flights of stairs would put me at her apartment. Maybe with a bit of luck I’d be able to get the Accendium back to their parents. They had to be worried sick.
I turned into the stairwell as Sam replied, “shorter than mommy. Dark like me. Has a number on his cheek like yours.” The child traced my face. A thick black number scrawled across my sharp cheek bone on the left side – Seven-oh-two. Below it as a series of thin and thick vertical black lines was my bar code, what would have linked back a list of my medical files, accomplishments, statement of discharge. Interrupting this entire formation ran a massive diagonal inset scar from my temple to my chin.
My whole body went cold at Sam’s description. I drew in a steadying breath as I tried not to trip on the stairs. “Do you remember what number he had?” I plastered as much false bravado as I could pump into the question. It could be any garrison. Angelus task force was extensive. There was no way I knew this guy from my military years.
“Seven twenty-two. His number is higher than yours.” Sam traced the man’s number over mine. I think my heart took a bath in stomach acid. I can only thank the canals of Imperium that I had arrived at Mater’s home at the same time Sam admitted that.
The peeling red door opened to a short middle aged brunette woman with a curvy frame and hair to match. Her smile could melt iron. She was not amused. I had decided to infiltrate Aurantiaco territory right before the Meeting of the Heads and she had expected me to go over a set of inventory ledgers from the farms in Caeruleum. It was either that, or the fact that I was bringing the children to her apartment.
“Hey, Maria Mater,” I greeted with a broken smile. My composure was going to be gone in minutes if I couldn’t free myself from the tykes. “Abby, Sam, this is Maria Mater. She’ll help get you settled,” I reassured as she let me into her apartment. A thin soup of cabbage and carrots was already coming to a boil on her stove. I spotted a pile of mended fabric on the end of the ragged sofa. Picking up the clothes, I deposited the girls, trench coat and all in her bathroom and left them to dress.
“Lunam?” Mater turned me to meet her eyes, her fingers cold on my wrist. Lilac washed away the stench of the alley.
“Molly, they know me.” My voice wobbled under a whisper. My anchor. My faith. She patted my arm in understanding. I tried not to use her given name often. In here, in Imperium, given names are secret, sacred things, only trusted between close confidants, not something you use out in the open.
“Are they the Accendium that Tempestatis was going on about?” she asked me.
“Beats me. Kids are saying they’re from Inferis. They speak Angelus fluently.” I flopped on Molly’s battered gold and brown sofa. Flopping was always a bad idea, I reminded myself as I jarred my spine. Thing lost its springs years ago and was now reinforced with a slab of plywood. Her pillows were lumpy and the knit blanket on the back was warm. Her scarred coffee table, an old slab of plywood propped on cinder blocks, held a pair of worn hardback books that had lost their dust jackets well before I had been born. A bookmark was still swinging from one. She had been reading before I disturbed her.
“Why do you look like you ate something that didn’t agree with you?” She tested the soup, her face souring. Walking to the one window in her apartment, the crowded one in her kitchen where she grew a myriad of herbs, she pinched a couple leaves off her plants and tossed them in the pot. She was always too good at catching my moods. And good enough to let me bask in my misery without demanding under judgemental eyes.
“Not hungry. Honestly, sort of just lost my appetite at the doorstep. Aurantiaco provided me with breakfast today anyway.” I waived toward the front door and rolled my head to look at the scratched wood doors that led to the apartment’s one bedroom and the bathroom. The girls were whispering to each other in Angelus. The little one, Abby, was complaining about wanting salt. The older one could not understand why.
I dragged my lazy carcass off the couch and invited myself into Mater’s kitchen. She raised an eyebrow when I pulled out her salt keep. “They’re Sherlton twenty-two’s kids. At least Abby is. I have a feeling she’s a Consumptionist Ustor. She’s asking for salt. If their description of a tall pretty black haired woman holds, he somehow got Velma to bed him. If Sam’s his kid, I’d like to know how he got her out of Angelus. She’s older than the Purge.” Setting the keep on the kitchen counter and rummaging in her cabinet I produced a bowl, spoon and a chipped cup. I ladled water from the fifty gallon bucket she kept at the end of her counter and set it on the tiny table she kept pushed between the front door and her window. I dropped a couple scoops of salt in the bowl and set it with the spoon next to the glass of water.
“That can’t be, Lunam. Your garrison. They-” She struggled with how to say what she was alluding to delicately. My garrison died because of my commanding officer’s ineptitude, and my sudden burnout. It tended to be a sore topic and not something I told too many people.
A kid drifted into my memory uninvited. Like he did every time my thoughts tumbled to that fateful day. Large brown eyes, bordering on the pink orange of cognac, penetrated my soul over the shine of my barrel. Short mahogany hair waved around his ears. He had to have been five or six year younger than me at the time. Late-teens. Shorter by a head and a half. Gaunt, his cheeks hollow. Two children, a couple years younger, clung to him, supported him. Others, faceless and dark in my memory clung to his arms and hands, used him as a shield. Fire snapped and roared around them. “Shoot!” was the command by the captain in my ear.
“Please…” Tears tracked through the mud on his cheeks, revealing black bruises. I could taste the salt then and now.
Something snapped inside of me. Caught everyone by surprise.
Now I was in Imperium, discharged from the Angelus task force after serving them from the age of seven. The court told me all of my garrison burned, all one hundred and twenty-four of them along with three miles of company camps. I gorged myself on my own captain. I ended the Hades Purge. At least, that’s what I was told happened when I woke up to being court martialed, stripped of my bar code, and dropped in Imperium. I was lucky not to be executed. The fact so many Ustors burned up and I cleared the camps was the only reason the court gave me for not cutting my innards out and displaying them to the world. I had made their jobs easier.
The court insisted on referring to me as Lamia – Vampire. It was on every news broadcast in the Purgatoriums that a late blooming Ustor had a Catalyst like a bomb. Court compared it to an eighteen tonner. Repercussion – blood sustenance. Fangs and all. If I dealt with my fire for any length of time, next thing I knew, I’d crowd someone into a dark corner and get all up in their business drinking out of their artery. Out of everyone I had ever met in the Imperium dome, I understood why I was here.
Since my ceremonious drop into Imperian, I had met more Ustors than I can count and had learned a few things. Some Ustors have safe Catalysts. Some Repercussions are hilarious. This one guy leaves burning fingerprints on frozen glass. That’s it. That’s all he can do. Harmless and rare. Makes gorgeous artwork. His Repercussion: he sings lullabies for an hour. Has a great singing voice. He’s a Performer Ustor. Most of the Ustor living in Imperium are. They have to perform a task after they burn for a set period or repetition before their brain will let them move on to something else.
Another is a glass blower. She melts silica, soda, and calcium carbonate in her hands and molds it or attaches it to a blow pipe to use. Her Repercussion is dancing. She’s learned to incorporate her pipe into her movement. I have a couple of her blown cups in my kitchen. I had seen her throw the melt at someone once who was trying to make a crude pass at her. So, I would not claim her Catalyst as entirely benign.
Mine? I can blow apart a city if the right conditions are met. At a minimum, I flash heat a person’s internal core temperature until they fry. Then I have to go suck someone’s neck. If I don’t, my control is gone, and I wake up in a puddle of blood, looking like an axe murderer with bodies piling up. Hard work and stubbornness means now I can push it longer than most before I have to sate my Repercussion. Some people have to perform immediately. With a lot of work and time, I’ve been able to push time between Catalyst and Repercussion so that I can eat safely. I try to avoid getting to the point where I lose all control. Hence, my momentary ignition of one of the Aurantiaco patrols leading me to feasting on the other bloke. Copper and ash. Hate the stuff. Need it to end the madness in my DNA. Ustors always taste like ash. Every once in a while I’ll run into a Plebe. Pure metal tastes awful, like drinking distilled water.
Imperium was where Purgatorians dumped Ustors like us after the Hades Purge. Mutant freaks. That’s what we are. People went and poisoned the planet, which led to the creation of LIFE, Living in Free Environment, funded through the Joiner Petroleum company and investors. Three massive domes spread across most of the face of Throni et Inferni. Underground aquifers supplied Angelus and Nympha with fresh water that irrigated most of the vegetation in the domes. As long as the panels were maintained, the water from the aquifers created enough moisture that we had variable weather patterns and seasons.
Biochamber Three, the last dome, was built over a volcanic region of Throni called Stagnum Ignis and a fertile delta region, Flumen Griseo where Urbs Aquarum resides. Three gangs run the Urbs – Rubrum, Aurantiaco, and Caeruleum. A fourth, Thalassium, operates the Hanging Gardens, large gangways suspended from the dome’s roof. They maintain the ceiling panels in our area. I have a decent working relationship with Praetemptura, co-leader of Thalassium. I send her crew tar from our scrap waste for her panels. She sends us food that can grow well in the hot, damp altitudes. Her wife, Ambulatio, is Mater’s identical twin sister.
The other gang heads and I did not get along so well. Gemma runs Rubrum. Mercurius runs Aurantiaco. Purpura had once been a thing, but Rubrum swallowed them up to take the west and north ends of the city. Gemma and Mercurius both have a bad habit of instigating sieges on our borders. Something about poor trade agreements.
“Looks like some of the men from the garrison survived.” The front door was looking awfully inviting in Mater’s apartment. Breakfast wasn’t sitting well. I don’t want to be dwelling on this topic. Some people would be curious. I don’t want to know what I really did. Officially, I was responsible for some 48,000 Plebes and Ustors either dead or unaccounted for by the investigator’s figures. 16,000 people per square mile. Three miles. Vaporised to charcoal. I was dead centre of the ring, gone to the call of blood. Feral and rabid. I have no memory of it. Hades, I hope I never remembered it. There was liable to be miscalculations.
“Can you see to them, Molly? See if anyone can foster? Maybe place them with Pinna and Luto. They said they’d be willing to foster any kids we pull off Aurantiaco territory.” I shifted to leave. Molly regarded me with a look of understanding and more questions. She was holding her tongue though. Some days, I just wished she’d come out and say what was on her mind. Some days I wanted the fight. To validate my reasoning. To hear my ideas from the other side. She never rose to it, instead, she always side stepped it, deflected me, diverted me onto better, more productive things. I might be the boss of the Caeruleum, but she was Maria Mater, the leader to the crew for a good reason.
“I’ll send Coriarius to Luto and have them come meet me here. Cortex left a note with me,” she cautioned. I stared at the brass knob in my hand as I waited for her. We’ve all got feelings bubbling under the river of our mind, and some days we can’t handle the voices that call out from that unyielding darkness. Her hand drew me from my musings. “Here.” She pressed a scrap in my hand.
Treasure box at Requies’s.
“Really? We have a Meeting of the Heads at lunch. Am I supposed to tell Rubrum to get out?” I stuffed the note in my trench pocket. Treasure box was code for Rubrum merchandise being moved across our lines.
“I’d advise not. I’m hoping for civil conversation. We can commandeer whatever she left at Requies’s after. She’s fixated on you, Lunam. Be careful of what you say. She may snap and go on a rampage if you come up against her. On top of this mad woman and that Aurantiaco prick you’re leaving Accendium with me before the Meeting of the Heads?” she demanded of me.
“You just said you’d send Coriarius.” I paced the tiny space.
She sighed, flicking a glance back at the door where the girls were getting dressed. “Yeah, Luto will probably come pick them up before the meeting.”
“It’ll be fine then,” I reassured.
“First time we’re meeting with Gemma and Mercurius in a year. Not like the lines have changed.” She threw salt in her pot and turned the heat down.
“Gemma keeps up with dealing petrol to Angelus, she’s going to have to deal with the water shortage to their canals. We can’t have back fill coming in with oil. She’s never sealed her waterways. I won’t have our reservoirs contaminated. Mercurius can jump off a cliff. Lay off the Accendium and I won’t go killing off his men. At least you get to see your sister and Praetemptura.” I opened the door to the apartment.
“Washes out the taste of the other two at least.”
The Chambers always made my skin crawl. It was a converted cathedral. Ceilings soared above me and the main room that used to be the chapel echoed ominously. Large stone masonry whitewashed the ashen colour of corpses threatened to fall in against scaffolding. Stained glass had been smashed out so long ago no one remembered when. The glittering jagged colours of what remained of the glass jutted out of the casements as monstrous teeth. Pigeons fluttered in the rafters and holes in the roof, sending dust motes and pieces of hay flashing through shafts of sunlight.
The reason for it’s use did not add to my opinion on the place. The Meeting of the Heads. Held annually at the beginning of winter, it felt like a waste of time. Posturing peacocks. There was always a minimal amount of negotiation done. Enough that the Heads could go back to their people and say they tried. Sitting in the same room as a warlord and a ring leader had me ready to burn something. Mater and I had a tradition of discussing ways to dismantle Rubrum and Aurantiaco every year we returned from this useless charade. Caeruleum was not positioned to take on that many people though, which left our after-party tirade a useless fantasy.
A massive old oak table sat where the altar used to stand. Around it were a scattering of mismatched chairs. I grimaced as my eyes caught those who stared at my entrance. A woman in a tight fitted blood red gown sat at the farthest point directly opposite of me. A pudgy balding man in grey sat a few chairs to her left, providing space for her entourage and his.
To the woman in red’s right was a pair of women in soft browns and greens. A brush of relief slipped down my shoulders when I spotted those two. At my side, Mater’s tense energy eased. I flicked a quick glance to her and Cortex. He nodded at me over her head. We proceeded through the old chapel to the far end, up the dais, and allowed Mater to take her seat.
Mater nodded to Amulatio, her sister, and Praemptura. Moss, precipitation, mushrooms, lilac. They always had the uncanny scent of under story decay for living so close to the sun. Her sister-in-law motioned her to the one remaining seat. Mater slipped into the rickety chair and set down her notebook.
Gemma had seen to her men taking up most of the seating that would have been reserved for the co-leaders of Mater and Mercurius. I kept my face stolid at that slight and took up guard position to Mater’s left, placing myself between her and Mercurius. Cortex took her left, if only to gossip with Praemptura. Mater’s sister-in-law passed her a tall glass of water, a knowing look flitting across her eyes.
Before setting out for the Meeting of the Heads, Pinna and Luto collected the girls for us. Though the couple did not speak Angelus, they were thrilled to be able to foster the Accendium. They had tried for years to have their own, with no luck, as they were want to inform us. It had been all we could manage to get them to stop going on about all their plans for a merry family so that we could leave in time.
“So nice of you to join us, Maria Mater,” Gemma crooned, her voice a muted handful of needles on slate. Her focus was not on my co-leader though. She was watching me like a cat eyeing a mouse. I was pleased to be on the opposite end of the table from her this time. She tended to smell of necrosis and I hated having to be close to her. She also had the unfathomable inability to keep her fidgety fingers to herself. I was not partial to her during the best of times. Her Catalyst tended to make me cross my legs when she went all touchy-feely.
“Gemma, Mercurius, Ambulatio, Praetemptura.” Mater ignored Gemma’s slight, instead flipping open her notebook and uncapping her pen. Though nothing was ever reached at these meetings, Mater insisted on taking meticulous notes, if only to have evidence of what was discussed to mutter about later in revulsion. She drew out her crossed boxes and put in names as the others eyed each other with thinly veneered civility.
I took account of the personnel around the table. Gemma had her standard followers at hand. The one she tended to keep hidden beneath a bright red sheet was not at her side today. The one that smelled of rosemary. No surprise. She had a nasty tendency of killing off people on a whim. She had not replaced her absent co-leader yet either. Her other cohorts were relatives. I smelled it in the shared scent of granite that lingered on them.
“Shall we begin?” Mercurius asked, an edge of impatience lacing his voice. A pair of hooded henchmen, both of a slim, small build shifted behind him at his tone. Sage, honey, and cedar. In the five years since I had started attending these meetings, I could not recall having seen their faces. They had shown up about the time he had offed his co-leader. I grimaced, baring my fangs at the remembered callousness. Mercurius went green around the gills at my thoughtless action. Hadn’t meant to threaten him, but the hit of adrenaline on his oil shale scent had me smiling. Maybe no one would miss the old church if I could just burn it to the ground.
I hated Mercurius’s catalyst. I had watched him use it on a number of occasions. He spread puddles of Greek fire from his feet. Often it was collected and used to throw at our buildings. Water doesn’t get rid of Greek fire. We kept a tank Clavis had outfitted with foam canisters because of Mercurius.
“I would like to get back to my holdings some time today, yes,” Praetemptura agreed irritably, flicking me a quelling glance. I was being told, in not too subtle terms, to stop trying to make the two psychopaths at the table go pyro on the rest of us civil creatures. She was liable to take my hearing and sight out with a snap of her fingers if she was truly irritated with me. A walking talking flash grenade. I’d seen her work before. Not something I wanted to experience first hand. Her Repercussion was truly hostile – stupidly hot tiny peppers. She did not warn me before offering me one when she was coming down. Worst decision of my life outside of well, most of my decisions. Felt like my face was melting off and my heart was going to come out of my chest. I was not aware spice like that could make a person retch. I learned the hard way and it burns on the way back up.
She hated the other two heads as much as I did. The main ladder to the Hanging Gardens fell in the mid-line between Rubrum and Aurantiaco territory. If one was feeling vindictive, they would blockade the ladder. The next ladder down was three cities over, a full two days walk.
“Shall I assume that you are still withholding a full water supply this year, Maria Mater?” Gemma sniffed at the indignity. She had the densest population in Urbs Aquarum, now that she had captured Purpura. I had rather liked the co-leaders. Soft easy going folk. It had been devastating finding out she had beheaded them when she tore apart their territory. She had no concept of compassion or empathy. Could I burn her? How though? She could care less about her people getting water. She used the canals for cargo transportation and needed them high to float the barges.
“Do you continue to deal with Angelus in trade of petrol for imported luxury goods?” Mater tapped the end of her pen on the table. This particular point irked her something fierce and she had no problem expressing it to me on a weekly basis. It was not necessarily the luxury goods per say that irked her. It was both the oil export and the fact that the return wasn’t profitable to the people. Those who worked for her were slave labour. Those who lived for her were terrified of becoming that labour. She held an iron fist to the people’s throats and made it a daily ritual to brutalise them. Those who fled and were captured back often turned up dead the next morning.
Gemma studied Mater’s pen, a frown giving away her age. “My dealings with Angelus are, as I have always maintained, not your problem, Caeruleum.”
“If it involves petrol, it is all our problem, Rubrum,” Mater hissed. The temperature around her went up five degrees. I slipped closer to her seat. My proximity settled her, the temperature around her falling back to normal. I pulled the glass of water Ambulatio had poured to Mater. She grimaced, downing a gulp.
“Just because we have a profitable pocket and all you have is that flimsy main does not make it your business.” Gemma pushed against the table to scoot her chair back. She left behind smouldering finger prints. She sneered at the embers and snapped her fingers at one of her personnel. The man on her right smothered the smoke. The one on the left popped a cork from a flask and filled her empty glass with a brown liquid – bourbon by the smell of it. “What is your insistence on making me angry, Lupa?”
I shifted at the insult. No one called my co-leader a slut. Mater rested a hand on my wrist, stilling my progress before I could go over the table and deck the woman. I brought my heat down and waited, chewing until the inside of my lip bled. Sharp fangs. Bad idea to have angry chewing propensity. My own blood does nothing for my Repercussion. Damn it. Now I got to stand there with my Repercussion on edge because I lost control.
Mater released me. “The fact that you have yet to seal your canals and back-flow valves means any water drawback from your canal fillings gets into our reservoir and Mercurius’s. Let alone the pumps that lead to Thalassium and everyone’s rain system. We are not singularly responsible for the safety of everyone’s water supply, Gemma.” How she doesn’t rise to the bait, I will never know.
The Rubrum leader shrugged, the shoulder of her gown slipping. “You know very well the cost of buying the sealant is egregious! I motion, if you insist on withholding my fair share of the water, that the whole of Urbs Aquarum put in to pay for the sealant. As you said, it does affect the entire supply.” She smiled appealingly. “Talk to your co-leader if you don’t believe me. He might talk reason into your curly head. We all need to pay for the canal maintenance.”
I rested my hand on Mater’s shoulder. “I support my co-leader’s decision. Fix your problem.”
“Pig. You’ll roll over to the first flash of tail you see.” Gemma’s fingers were sparking.
“At least he’s loyal to his tail.” Cortex hissed.
“You trade your petrol for luxury goods. Trade petrol for the sealant. Angelus makes it cheap enough.” Mater hushed him. Cortex flicked me a shake of his head. We all wanted to end her. I could get behind that. We were not prepared, however, to take on the number of personnel we would have if we broke up Rubrum at that point. I’m not sure we ever would if Aurantiaco kept us pinned in on the south edge, our backs against the dome wall.
“That would be such a waste.” Gemma pouted, tapping her glass with a manicured nail. She had already downed half the glass and her cheeks were going red. Her Repercussion made her Catalyst recursive. She’d be volatile if this meeting continued much longer.
“You’re the one who has caused a subsidence under your section of town, thereby breaking your canals and seals by pumping the infernal stuff up in the first place. If we flushed your system with your full ration of water, you’d lose a third of it in less than a week. Whatever remained would have petrol leaching, seeing as you ran a poor rigging operation and had a black gold gusher salt a fourth of your arable land, right along the primary canal. Clean up your mess before you kill us all!” Mater dragged in a seething breath and made every effort to lean back in her chair and appear calm.
“At least your pet snake is well mannered.” Gemma waived off Mater’s demand. The woman could ping back and forth between seething hate and disgusting flirt, her eyes dragging along my trench coat, raising hairs on the back of my neck.
Mater’s fingers reminded me of where I had my hand when she tapped for me to loosen up. I hadn’t realised I had gripped down on her with Gemma’s reply. “Might remember sometime Gemma, that dogs you can train. Snakes are their own masters. If you will not seal your canal and end the petrol operation that is causing hazardous material to back-flow into our reservoirs, then we will continue with the way things have been since I claimed Caeruleum territory seven years ago.” Mater finalised her demand.
“And you, Mercurius? Will you withhold grain from us once more?” Gemma forced an uncomfortable smile, her fingers tight on her tumbler.
“As much as Caeruleum and I do not see eye to eye on most matters, I must side with them. You must fix your canals before we return to our trade deal. As it is,” he turned from Gemma to Mater, “our trade deals soured last time too. We do have an extensive supply this year. Are you still unwilling to work with us?”
“When Aurantiaco stops dealing in child soldiers and scintillam pharmacum or Sparkle as I’ve heard it called, we may return to our original dealings.” Mater crossed out a scribble in her notebook and made a new mark. She raised an eyebrow for Mercurius to continue as her pen hovered over he page.
“Oh, come now, Maria Mater. Have you seen the state of the Urbs? Too many people are left to the reality of their situation and wish for a bit of momentary relief from it.” Mercurius leaned forward in his chair to fix Mater with a keen smile. His Repercussion was eating loads of sugar. Rotten teeth left the air rank around me.
“It does not come into our lines, Mercurius. I find your dealers on my territory, I will send your pharmacum back to you using them as the body bags.” Mater snapped. The cathedral echoed around us. A fractured slate tile dislodged from the roof, tumbling to hit the flying buttresses and thunk to the brick courtyard outside.
He shied back from her tone and held up a placating hand. “I will see to it that my men heed their standing orders to keep it off Caeruleum territory.”If he kept Sparkle off our territory, I did not have a bloodlust Repercussion.
“Same goes for us, Mercurius. Don’t go letting your dealers release balloons to drift into the Hanging Gardens, and we won’t put capsicum pellets through your side of the rain system,” Praetemptura threatened.
“We would never,” Mercurius defended.
“As much as you don’t exploit women and children? You or Gemma?” Mater baited.
Gemma furrowed her brows in confusion. “Why would you not exploit those weaker than you? It’s good business. Cheap labour. Keeping those useful to you sated. Makes them pliable, easy to use and manipulate. Surely you keep your own?” she asked.
“We have more dignity than you, clearly,” Praetemptura hissed at her.
“Oh yes, your in-law and you’re some kind of abolitionists, aren’t you? Why ever for?” Mercurius moved his glass of water around the table to dabble in the perspiration rings.
“We’ve been here before, Aurantiaco. We got nowhere with this last time either. Is there any other pressing need for us to be here?” Mater dismissed the comment.
“Apparently not. If you will not present us with an opportunity to obtain full water-” Gemma checked her nail lacquer, “Or grain trade,” Mercurius interjected. “Then I see no function in continuing talks. We can pick up on this once more next winter then. You can’t hold out forever on trading with us, Maria Mater. Soon enough your people will want more than you are giving them.” Gemma rose in a huff. Her men followed suit.
“I wish you would see reason, girls,” Mercurius hissed, rising to join her.
“Next year?” Praetemptura smiled pleasantly at the escaping group.
Once they had exited the hall, the sisters sighed a frustrated breath. Ambulatio rolled her eyes at Mater. My co-leader returned the gesture in perfect mimic.
“Is there any good reason that we must continue with those creatures?” Praetemptura got up to pace the circle of the table, trying to burn off nervous energy.
“Only as long as they separate our lines from yours.” Mater massaged her neck. I pressed my fingers under hers until she relented to let me handle sore muscles.
“Lunam, Cortex, it’s been a while,” Ambulatio greeted with a soft smile.
“Nice to see you in good health Ambulatio. How is our new nephew?” I asked after her son, born two months earlier.
“Still insists on waking every three hours. Sleep is hard won these days,” she admitted. “Thank you again. We wouldn’t have him without your help.”
“As long as you and Prae are happy, everything’s good.” I dismissed her gratitude. Nephew was not entirely accurate. Ambulatio had been the one to ask if I would mind helping them have a child. Praetemptura, also originally from Angelus, and I both shared distinctive straight black hair, a deep bronze skin tone, and green eyes. Amubulatio had hoped that her child would look like her and her wife. Standing agreement was that if something every happened to them, I would have first rights to claim my son. Stipulation was that up until that time, he was not to find out who his biological father was. He had two loving, intelligent mothers. He would be fine.
“Who is seeing to him now if you’ve come all the way to the centre?” Cortex asked.
“A wet nurse travelled with us. She’s in the courtyard waiting. As it is, we should probably get back home. It would be lovely to see you again for the summer solstice.” Praetemptura came back to her seat after her circuits around the table. I squinted at her. She was being particularly cordial. She tended to lean towards crass and loud. Where was it?
“If we can get through to the ladders, we would love to come up. It has been too long, dear sister,” Mater rose from the table.
“As it is, Gemma and Mercurius will not be friendly with our travels if we do not leave now.” Praetemptura offered a hand to her wife. Ambulatio and Mater hugged as we all gathered to leave. “I miss you, sister.”
“And I you. Make cookies when we come back.” Mater demanded.
“I see how it is. You don’t miss me. You miss my cooking!” Ambulatio huffed.
“Of course,” Mater shrugged.
“No, really, she was making water soup this morning. We all miss your cooking.” I sighed and handed Mater her notebook who subsequently whacked me on the shoulder with it for the opinion.
“I’d be devastated without your cooking,” Praetemptura offered, pulling Ambulatio under her arm and rubbing her chin in her hair.
“Oh! So that’s why you keep me around, just so I can cook for you!” she feigned indignation, crossing her arms. She skipped out from under Prae’s arm to be pulled back.
“That and other delicious things,” Praetemptura wiggled an eyebrow, kissing her on the cheek. Cortex coughed gently and waved us down the aisle. “Oye, don’t you go shaming me Detractisque Corticibus. You and I’ve talked women enough for me to know what type of tastes you like too!”
“Shall we leave?” I opened the door that wasn’t rusted shut.
“Don’t even think you can get away with staying out of this conversation. You’re as bad as a swinging door, Nigrae Lunam,” Praetemptura ribbed me.
“I prefer to think of it as a revolving door, Prae, and ‘this conversation’ is your monologue,” I reminded her.
“Oh right, you don’t really care who it is, as long as you like them and they like you, right?” she asked as we finally made our exit from that unholy rubbish pile.
“Boss likes who he likes,” Cortex defended.
“And you still fancy no one?” Praetemptura turned to her sister-in-law.
“Hasn’t changed yet. I haven’t thrown love out with the bathwater, just not interested in sex. You’ve got enough to talk sex with your wife, Lunam and Cortex that you don’t need me for it,” she deflected.
“Whatever makes you happy.” Ambulatio patted her sister’s hand.
“Happy as a clam.” Mater opened the door to let us out of that infernal chamber.
We left the building shortly after the midday sun had begun it’s descent. Mater sighed heavily with disgust. “I hate dealing with the Heads,” she grumbled as she led Cortex and me to a shaded spot in the courtyard garden. A pair of birds took umbrage with our interruption, scurrying off over the courtyard wall with a series of startled squawks.
Cortex pulled me to the side behind one of the large trees while Mater visited with her nephew. “You just about put a crater in the cathedral, boss.” Cortex rolled his sleeve.
“No one calls Maria Mater such a vulgar word,” I hissed. I didn’t need much to address my Repercussion. That would keep Cortex from having to take the next day off.
“Eat, boss, before you burn the tree down.” Cortex looked up at the wilting leaves over my head.
We returned to Mater after her sister and sister-in-law left and I wasn’t liable to put a fang into someone uninvited.“At least we don’t have to deal with the other Heads again for another year,” I offered, sitting down on the grass.
Mater lowered herself next to me, her joints cracking in the quiet. “I doubt it. Gemma’s more keen than usual. To refuse her bid will just enrage her.” She leaned back into the grass. Cortex shifted from one foot to the other, having refused to sit. Mater raised an eyebrow at his wiggles and motioned for him to spit out what he was impatient about.
“I’m going to head back. Tempestatis set up a card game and I still want in. He said he’s got some great stuff up for wager today.” He glanced at the rays of light sifting through the rambling vines covering the courtyard gates.
Mater waved him to it. “Go have fun.” She yawned as Cortex scurried out of the courtyard. “At least he doesn’t seem all that worried.”
“New box of boots has him thinking of the here and now, rather than the there and then. It’s all right.” I pulled at a couple blades of green, the texture slipping in my fingers
“We should get back with him.” She threw her arm over her eyes to block out the light as she molded to the soft ground. Another yawn escaped. Sitting up, she took her messenger bag off and plopped it down where her head had been. She poked it a couple times before laying back on it.
“I’m in no rush.” I could see she was drifting. Her insomnia must have been getting to her recently. Worry of the meeting had probably not helped with her anxiety. I could sit and watch over her while she caught up on some sleep. It wasn’t half bad sitting out and enjoying the sun for a spell. Dead centre of the three territories, the cathedral was considered a safe zone. I didn’t trust Rubrum or Aurantiaco to break safety, so I forewent a prospective nap in order to keep an eye on Mater.
Three and a half hours later, the sun set behind the sandstone walls of the courtyard. Dark shadows pressed in to chill the space, rousing Mater. Good timing too as a messenger arrived from Cortex explaining he had got home safe after tossing a Rubrum off our line and that he had forgotten to ask if I had gotten his message he had given Mater at her apartment. The note in my pocket had slipped my memory. I cringed as I headed back on the almost two hour walk to base with Mater in tow. I had forgotten entirely that Requies had a job for me regarding Gemma moving merch on our turf.
I wanted to return to my small room in the warehouse and go to sleep. Was there any way I could send in Mercator or one of the others? Boss my butt. Some days I felt more like a janitor.
I pushed the heavy metal door to our base open with a thud. Well, talk about convenient. Cortex and Tempestatis were still set up with some of my other men to play an all hands in game of cards in the middle of the massive warehouse floor. At the centre of the table in all it’s dusty gloriousness was the fabled sealed box of boots. A jar of preserved crabapples gleamed on top of it. A couple mangled tools that could be melted down for metal were tossed in on the pile. Someone was wagering high today.
“Requies in a hurry?” I asked as I walked up to the table and eyed Cortex and Tempestatis’s hands. Tempestatis was going to win, no matter who had what on the table. He’d be smiling in a new pair of boots. If he had the guts to pull them right. He was chewing on his lip nervously, but his face wasn’t his tell. He and Cortex laid their cards down to wait for the others to figure out what they were doing.
Tempestatis always had a tell, but you had to be on the right side of the table to see it. He had the only key to the guzzler and had a bad habit of petting the rabbit foot on the keychain when he was sure he’d win. Amazing the thing wasn’t hairless. Blessed by Fortuna or card counting, I never could figure out how he did so well.
“He sent a messenger up early this morning. Said Rubrum’s been camped up there for five days now. Four days ago, a van arrived and a trio of people bunked down in the room with the other three, which was over the occupancy limit. He said they’re getting edgy and quarrelsome. So, he went up to ask them to git, and they shoved a shotgun in his face and told him to beat it. He doesn’t want no trouble and he’s got ‘better paying, more polite customers’ looking to rent rooms.’” Cortex leaned back to look at me. His cards were crap, but he had the best bluff of them all…
To Read More, please check out the book on Amazon here: The Fire in My Blood