Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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The Glass Cage

by James Lecky


In the Shining City of PameValdas, darkest of the last cities of Earth, nights are long and fiercely cold. Razor-winds from the south bring desert sand in their embrace, while from the north they bring salt from the Mare Draconis so that even the most pristine snowfall turns to freezing slush, choking the narrow streets of the Low City.

Take a walk from Martyr's Square through the serpentine alleyways that lead to the Wharf and in every home you pass you will hear the scrape, scrape, scrape of blade against whetstone or the incoherent muttering of sorcerous incantations as the inhabitants of the Low City prepare for their evening's entertainment.

By dawn there are corpses floating in the frigid water of the Bay -- meager creatures for the most part, but now and again some minor Lordling will be found with his throat cut, his robes stripped away and his fingers mutilated as part of some arcane ritual.

But still they come, from the granite towers of the High City to taste the sordid delights of the Low.

####

Ulphia, self-professed Queen of the Harlots, stood by her window and stared into a silvered mirror, appraising herself.

Her face was smooth, her lips plump and red, azure eyes still bright with promise, but here and there the faintest hint of a wrinkle played around her lips and cheeks. But a little more powder would conceal those -- a little more than the previous day.

"Do you think me beautiful, Flavian?" she said to the young nobleman lying across the rumpled bed.

"There is none more desirable in all the Shining Cities," he said.

"You are a liar, but at least you are a good liar."

He stood up and stretched his long limbs. "By the Obsidian Gods I swear it is the truth." He crossed to the window and wrapped his arms around her.

She smiled briefly, then checked herself as she saw new wrinkles form.

"If I am so beautiful, then why do you not make me your wife?"

"Ah, Ulphia, if I could I would, but..."

"But the House Merovech would not have a whore as its Lady?"

"At least not one who has made her living on her back."

She pushed him away playfully.

"Do you love me, Flavian?"

"Yes." The lie was an easy one.

"Then perhaps that will be enough."

"Enough?"

"To hold back the years."

"We grow old and we die," Flavian said, "It is the nature of the world."

"Not the whole world," she said softly. "Sometimes bargains can be made."

He seized her wrist and held it tightly, causing her to wince with pain. "Do not even contemplate that," he hissed.

"As you wish, My Lord." And then she took him to the bed, but there was no joy in her smile and her gaze strayed again and again to the mirror.

####

That night, as Flavian slept -- his dreams made deeper by the addition of a drop of darkseed into his wine -- she prayed dark prayers to the Obsidian Gods of PameValdas.

Her scream awoke him.

And for a long, long moment he went out of his mind.

####

A fortnight later, Flavian waited in his chambers for the man known as Vedreem.

Outside the razor-winds howled around the tower and crept through cracks in the stonework, making the rows of candles gutter, casting grotesque shadows on the walls.

The preceding two weeks had taken a great toll on The Lord Flavian of House Merovech and even his oldest servants, those who had nursed and guided him since he was whelped, remarked the on the changes that had come over their master.

"Like a man who has stared into hell itself," some said.

His eyes had dulled, seeming like two spent embers in the pale hearth of his face, his straw-blonde hair hung in greasy ringlets over his forehead and his fingers twitched continuously as if obeying some rhythm of which only he was aware. He could barely control their shaking to bring the brandy-filled goblet to his lips.

In his mind's eye he saw the gibbering, nebulous thing that stood in the centre of Ulphia's chamber, the terror etched on her beautiful face and heard again the mocking laughter of its master.

"Where are you, Vedreem?" he muttered.

A voice from the shadows answered him:

"I am here."

Flavian turned, spilling brandy on his tunic.

"Do not be alarmed, My Lord," Vedreem said. "After all, I am here at your command." But there was something in his voice that suggested mockery.

He was not a tall man, an inch or two shorter than Flavian, but he exuded an air of power and ill-checked threat, like a snake poised to strike. His wore a dark cloak over clothes that had once been bright motley but were now faded, although dull red trim could clearly been seen on the hem and cuff of his tunic. On his left hip he carried a long curved sword and on the right a short bladed basilard with a crescent shaped pommel. His dark hair was cropped close to the skull and a neat grey beard, shot through with grey, framed his mouth and jawline.

"How did you get in here?"

"There are ways," Vedreem said. "Simple tricks to fog simple minds and, with the greatest of respect, My Lord, your guards are among the simplest." He smiled at his own joke, but there was pain in the smile. Even basest tricks must be paid for.

Flavian fought to regain his composure, his rebellious fingers twitching as if they desired to crush the goblet.

"You know why I summoned you?"

"You lost a whore and you wish her returned, to wipe out the stain on your honour."

"You are an impudent man, Vedreem."

"Forgive me, My Lord, I did not mean to distress you." But still there was the edge of mockery. "What do you wish?

"I wish to purchase a life."

"If you seek an assassin then there are many bravos in the Low City."

"This matter is not as straightforward as you would believe," Flavian said. His fingers had pressed into the soft gold of the goblet almost denting it.

"There is more here at stake than the loss of... than the loss of a Lady. The Lady Ulphia is with child, do you understand? She carries my heir."

Vedreem nodded.

"There is dark magic at work here, Vedreem. Darker even than yours, I think. I saw -- or I believe I saw -- the thing that took her. I recognised its taint." He took a long draft of brandy before speaking again. "Barcaradin sent it."

"The Earl Barcaradin? You have powerful enemies, My Lord."

"More than even you know. Do you understand now why I sent for you?"

"You wish him dead?"

Flavian laughed, a short barking sound. "I doubt that even you could kill Barcaradin, although you are welcome to try. No, the life I mentioned is that of the Lady Ulphia, I wish her returned."

"A thousand sequins for my time and expertise. The price is not open to negotiation, My Lord."

"Very well. Bring her back to me, Vedreem."

####

Just before nightfall in the High City, temple bells rang to mark the end of another day, the sound drifting throughout PameValdas, to be snatched by the winds and sent into the great emptiness beyond the city walls.

In Barcaradin's Keep in the southern quarter of the city, the faint clangour disturbed the wild ravens nesting in the crumbling stonework; or perhaps it was something more that sent them winging into the darkness.

At midnight Earl Barcaradin entered the high vaulted chamber that served as both study and sanctum. The walls were hung with tapestries and paintings that depicted scenes of slaughter and depravity from the history of the Afternoon World -- the Execution of the Hundred Martyrs, the sack of PameMorturas a thousand years before, the rape and torture of Queen Sarada, and many more -- and in each of them, often in the background but here and there represented more clearly, could be seen the hawk-like features of the Earl himself.

And everywhere, on tables, shelves and piled in seemingly random patterns on the floor, were grimoires in a thousand languages -- the dark knowledge of a myriad of dead civilisations.

In other circumstances the Earl would have spent his nights poring over the books, searching for a clue to another of the Thousand Words of Power, but tonight he ignored them, crossing instead to the mirror that hung in the centre of the room.

By comparison to the rest of the room it was a bright and colourful object, its frame made of lapis lazuli inlaid with a delicate silver filigrane. An unaccustomed smile crossed the Earl's face as he studied it.

Then he softly spoke one of the Thousand Words, wincing slightly as the glamour took its toll.

The glass in the mirror began to shift, like mercury blown by a soft breeze, it billowed forward an inch or two then subsided. And when the glass cleared he stared into the face of the Queen of Harlots.

Her features were blank, like a new parchment, her skin flawless, made even more delicate by the single perfect tear that fell from her right eye onto her cheek -- a frozen moment of perfection. She had called to the Obsidian Gods, but it was Barcaradin who had answered.

He stayed there for hours, marvelling at her.

####

At the Hour of the Ox, a solitary figure moved through the darkness of Saint Phalle's Square, heading towards the stark walls of Barcaradin's Keep. Overhead, dark clouds promised more snow and ice glinted on the keep's high crenellations.

In the lee of the granite walls, Vedreem halted and stared upwards. There were perhaps a dozen guards on the walls, but on a night such as this he judged that even Barcaradin's men would not be fully alert. The Earl's troops were well chosen and better paid, but even the best soldier preferred to huddle around a warm brazier than stand in the snow and wind.

He reached out and grazed the wall with one gloved fingertip. Almost at once he felt the presence of a dozen different ward spells -- powerful words all, but not so powerful that he could not counter them. He spoke a short sentence then sucked in a deep draught of cold air as the pain of his counter-charm struck him.

Then, as the first heavy, dirty flakes of the night started to fall, he began the climb.

Lithe as a shadow he slipped across the battlements and onto the ramparts. He stayed there for a moment, nursing his pain and allowing it to ebb. From this vantage PameValdas was almost beautiful, glimmering in the snow filled moonlight, and even the dark waters of the Bay seemed peaceful and welcoming.

When his head had cleared, Vedreem began his murderous task. With blade and cord he silently dispatched all but one of the guards, a tall grey-beard dressed in a captain's livery.

As Vedreem approached him the captain turned, some ingrained warrior's sense alerting him to the danger. A cloud passed away from the moon and he could see the figure standing there -- the once gaudy clothes, the cruel, sardonic face with its hint of a smile. A naked sword was held loosely in his right hand.

The captain took a deep breath, preparing to bellow the alarm.

"Don't bother," Vedreem said. "They're all dead. You're next, I'm afraid."

With a wordless, feral snarl the captain drew his broadsword and lunged. Their blades came together with a furious crash that shattered the stillness of the night.

They traded a dozen strikes, each one ringing out louder than the one before, both men searching for a gap in his opponent's defence. The Captain was a bull of a man, his muscles straining against the fabric of his tunic, each blow he delivered would have knocked a lesser man from his feet, but Vedreem merely shifted, riding each strike. The Captain pressed forward, seeking to exploit his advantage, grinning wolfishly as he drove the smaller man back. A sweeping smash knocked Vedreem's sword aside and the Captain stepped forward, the broadsword held high to deliver the killing blow.

The basilard slid silently from its scabbard. Two feet of steel plunged into the Captain's armpit. He died choking on his own blood.

####

Barcaradin knew the very moment of Captain Halvard's death.

More than that, he knew the very blade that had caused it.

"Your lover was more astute that I had given him credit for," he said to the silent image in the mirror. "I did not think he would send Vedreem against me."

Ulphia blinked once, very slowly.

"No matter."

He stood for a moment in quiet contemplation, searching his memory, then, satisfied, he sat behind an oaken desk and waited.

Finally Vedreem pushed open the door and moved cautiously into the room.

"Welcome," Barcaradin said.

"Good evening, Your Grace."

"So formal? Very well, if you insist on titles, welcome Vedreem Lusnan... Vedreem the Lost."

Vedreem faltered. "I have not heard that name for a long time."

"Not since the fall of PameMorturas? Ah, what days those were, eh, Vedreem? But you have not come here to discuss ancient history and the fall of an ancient people."

"Ulphia, where is she?"

"Ulphia is mine, she gave herself to me freely," he gestured towards the mirror and the exquisitely beautiful face framed within it. "You cannot take her nor would I advise you to try."

"I made a bargain."

"So did she."

"Even so, Your Grace, I have come to take her back." He crossed the room and reached out to the mirror.

Barcaradin spoke three Words, very softly. Pain exploded behind his eyes and he barely managed to suppress a scream.

But their work had been done. The summons had been made. He continued to chant, fighting his pain, dragging something terrible from one world to another.

The Thing that stood in the centre of the room had been human once, or at least had the semblance of humanity about it. It towered above Vedreem, peering down with idiot eyes, a steady stream of black drool falling from its lipless mouth. One pale white arm hung uselessly from its right side and from its chest and groin thick tentacles lashed the air. Its back and sides were covered in grey-green scales and it moaned in a malignant, unearthly voice.

Before he could move, a dozen tentacles whipped out, slashing at Vedreem's face and arms, tearing a gash across his cheek and scraping a deep furrow across his left forearm.

He danced back and drew his swords.

The creature lashed out again and he hacked at the tentacles, cutting deeply. Foul black fluid sprayed from the wounds, hissing where it spattered on the floor. A savage blow sent Vedreem spinning across the room and he landed heavily against the far wall, his wounds already beginning to burn.

It advanced upon him, howling its baleful cry and he could see rows of yellowed teeth begin to protrude from its tiny face.

He struck out again and again, heedless of his wounds. The tentacles seized him in a ferocious grip, and he felt something snap inside as he was lifted up towards that drooling maw.

Savagely, he thrust the basilard into the creature's mouth, twisting the blade sideways. Bone cracked and splintered and a hot gush of corrosive blood splashed onto his gloved hands. He withdrew the blade and struck with all his force at the creature's eyes, slashing them open. The Thing screamed horribly and released him, scuttling away, clawing at its ruined skull.

But still it did not die.

Vedreem stood, black motes were dancing in his vision, the blood from a myriad of wounds stained his tattered clothing, his lungs were on fire and with every breath he drew something sharp scraped at his innards.

And through his pain he saw Barcaradin.

Barcaradin the Destroyer. Barcaradin the Eternal.

The Earl's lips continued to move, holding the creature in his thrall at the cost of his own pain.

With the last of his fading strength, Vedreem threw the basilard.

The blade stuck the Earl in the throat, cutting off the chant with a hideous gurgle. He fell back, clawing at the wound, trying to stem the flow of blood.

Instantly the creature vanished, sent back to whichever Hell Barcaradin had brought it from.

Forcing himself to walk, although every fibre of his being cried out, Vedreem crossed to where the Earl lay and retrieved his blade, wrenching it savagely from Barcaradin's throat.

The Earl still lived, despite his horrific wound. It would take more, much much more to end his life. Vedreem raised the blade again. His lips began to form the first syllables of a powerful and fatal Word.

Then darkness took him and he tumbled forward into it...

####

"Vedreem."

A woman's voice whispered his name.

"Vedreem. Awake."

He opened his eyes to see her standing above him. She knelt and soft hands touched his ravaged face.

"My Lady Ulphia," he said softly.

"You should not have come, Vedreem."

He sat up and looked around, fighting the nausea that threatened to overwhelm him.

All around was pitch blackness, the only illumination came from the face of the beautiful woman, a soft translucent glow that played around her features.

"Flavian sent me to you."

The light increased for a heartbeat as a brief ugly anger crossed her face.

"Flavian is a fool," Ulphia said. "This bargain is mine and mine alone -- he has no right to interfere."

"Perhaps he loves you."

"Men such as My Lord Flavian love nothing, He merely desires me." She touched his cheek again. "All men will desire me. They will gaze into my glass cage and long for the beauty they can never have."

And he knew it was the truth.

"You would sacrifice yourself on the altar of vanity, Lady Ulphia."

"To remain as I am, I will make any sacrifice. Barcaradin heard my prayers and answered them. He gave me this," she gestured into the vast expanse of nothingness, "and in return I gave him what he desired."

"Your unborn child to seal the bargain?"

"It takes a life to sustain a life, you know that as well as any of us, Vedreem. The life of Flavian's brat was meaningless, with it Barcaradin will live another hundred years." Her voice was cold, emotionless.

"You have paid a terrible price for your beauty, Lady Ulphia -- both your child and your pity." He stood, swaying slightly, and his hand went to his sword.

She smiled.

"You would kill me, Vedreem?"

He half drew the blade, but the loveliness of her smile stayed his hand and the perfection of her face drove the anger from him.

"No, My Lady."

"Go now," she said. "Flavian is waiting for you."

She moved away, smiling sweetly, swallowed up by the blackness of her glass kingdom.

####

He awoke to pain and the taste of blood in his mouth.

Barcaradin had gone, leaving a wide trail of crimson in his wake. The room stank of corruption -- without the Earl's presence his treasures had rotted away; priceless pages from grimoires crumbled to dust, tapestries and paintings little more than splattered daubs and rotting cloth. Only the mirror remained untouched.

Flavian stood before it, gazing fixedly into its depths. His pale features were flushed and his hair hung in greasy ringlets across his high forehead. His courtier's clothing had been replaced with soft black leather and a curved sword hung at his hip.

As Vedreem struggled to his Flavian turned, his bloodshot eyes gleamed with a feral, barely suppressed, madness.

"You succeeded, Vedreem, Barcaradin is gone."

"Dead?" Vedreem croaked.

Flavian laughed, the sound little more than a low, throaty chuckle. "Not dead, but vanquished, and for the moment that is enough." A mocking half-bow repaid all of Vedreem's earlier impudence. "You opened his fortress to me and for that I thank you."

He casually threw a small leather pouch at Vedreem's feet then returned his gaze to the mirror.

"Exquisite," he murmured.

Vedreem did not move. "Do not free her," he said quietly.

"Do not seek to advise me, assassin!" The last word was spat as a curse. "She is mine to do with as I will."

"She will destroy you."

Flavian drew his sword and struck at the glass with its pommel. At the first blow a dreadful scream came from the mirror, at the second the glass splintered, the scream rising in intensity, at the third it shattered and there was a sudden awful silence.

Ulphia stood naked before them and the light of her beauty filled every corner of the room.

Flavian stared at her and she stared back with those wonderful azure eyes. She opened her arms and he stepped into her embrace.

"You have taken eternity from me," she murmured in the moment before his lips pressed against hers.

A long sliver of silvered glass entered his throat above the Adam's apple and his scream was choked off before it began. She held him tightly in a grotesque parody of a lover's embrace until the life had drained out of him, her upper body covered in his blood.

When he was dead she laid his body tenderly on the floor and kissed him once more on the lips.

All semblance of humanity had gone from her, no longer Ulphia, Queen of the Harlots, she had become the creature of the glass cage.

"And you, Vedreem," she said and there was a dark sensuality in her voice, "do you find me beautiful?"

Deep inside, in the part of him that was still his own, he fought to break her spell -- but his eyes were filled with her and his ears could hear nothing but the sound of her voice.

"Yes, My Lady."

"And you are mine to command?"

"Yes, My Lady."

"Draw your sword, my love."

He did as he was bid.

"I will grow old," she said. "My beauty will fade. My cage would have protected me, but without it I am nothing. Would you see me old and ugly, Vedreem?"

"No, My Lady."

"Then strike!"

The blow cleaved through her shoulder and down towards her heart. She died instantly.

Freed from her glamour, Vedreem staggered back, his free will returning with his pain.

For a moment he stared at the corpses -- a whore and a nobleman, their blood mingling together -- then he bent and picked up the sack of coins at his feet.

Outside, the razor-winds were howling again.

Perhaps they would scour him clean.

THE END


© 2008 James Lecky

Bio: James Lecky is a writer based in Derry, N. Ireland. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming in a number of different publications including Everyday Fiction, Sorcerous Signals, Mirror Dance, Jupiter SF, Aphelion (The Season Without Sun, August 2008) and the Aeon Press Anthology Emerald Eye - The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction.

E-mail: James Lecky

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