"We dream rarely. We dream of the cold empty spaces. We dream of the time before love and the time before names.
We do not wish to speak further of our dreams."
The drink lowers inhibition, impairs judgment, emboldens the artful shadows that conceal and entice with mystery. This is your revelers at their most beautiful: limned with chiaroscuro, plied to the ears with honey and wine; lust, loneliness and the poet's pain, all laid open to the heart's bloody core beneath the pitiless false-starlight.
This is how you spend your nights: waiting with a journalist by the cheap hotels, the dark alleys behind the Singing Mandrake. They provide so sumptuously. And if affection curdles alarmingly quick in the sober light of day—well, what is it to you? Desire cared not what slaked its thirst. These stories are by no means extraordinary. Far from it. A love such as that which felled the Cities has no need of you; it justifies itself with itself.
If your employer wants more it must also settle for less. It is not regrettable, merely necessary. There is only so much time you have in the Fifth City, after all, and the Bazaar needs as it will.
(Wines) "We consider the nature of dreams to be desire. Of all things, we seek to understand desire most completely."
(Spices) "The nature of dreams is the distillation of experience: the secret avenues of knowledge."
Spices deals in weights and measurements and percentages, adjusts ratios and mixtures for age and sex and weight and ethnicity. He raises his bees in exactingly proportioned boxes and grows his rose-garden in perfectly straight lines, and every morning he spares a death-glare especially for you when he sets up shop across from the Singing Mandrake.
You send him invitations to your revels because you can. He shows rarely and you wish it were more often, if only to show him how to dream right— you have it to an art as he has it to a science, and there is no question as to which of you is the better. You match the most debauched among your revelers glass for glass, vial for vial; descend with them the glassy dream-planes of darkest desire and emerge reforged, anew. You can hardly say it has not left you changed.
Oh, but certainly not in a bad way. The vintage thrums pleasantly beneath your skin. Pity he does not partake: he would never cast aspersions on the quality of your wares again. There he is now, looking on your indiscretions with - disdain? Revulsion? Impossible to tell. You smile sweetly, raise your half-empty glass with languid grace.
“Of course, honey will be served my dear. Yours, mine, does it matter? Dreams and hungers are the important things.”
There is nothing to be feared from the absence of light, just as there is nothing to be feared from the Void. But the children of Earth are mortal and afraid, and cling with a fervor to the glimmer that edges the Neath-night.
And neither of you are Candles. That was the point.
After the— incident— with the Third City you both had stood at the border of the Mirror-Marches at the far end of your new domain. Whispered your emissary’s names into the darkglass lakes and listened for the echoes that would tell you everything you needed to know— how to weave dreams from mist and memory; how to draw love like blood from the dreamer’s soul. Administrative questions, but neither of you had thought to ask, and Candles had never told.
There had been only silence, and the darkglass glimmer a strange fascination that grows, grows. It frightens you. The Masters are agents, instruments, nothing more. You should not want. You are not meant to want. And yet…
He had turned to you then, with eyes clear as mirrors. “A dangerous place. Of course it is. But in the right hands – so much to be discovered and learned. Think of it.”
He bursts into your rooms at Veilgarden in a whirlwind of cloak and teeth and claw. "It was a mistake," he breathes, far too close, benighted with a fervour you can scarcely recognise. "You must understand. You must understand."
Jervaise pries him off you with no small effort, holds him down as you unclasp a hip-flask and force three drops of the prisoner's honey down his throat. Then you down the rest of the flask yourself, and wait.
Neath-night over the roads of Watchmaker's Hill. Wind and silence. A glittering smile and a glittering knife, and the shocking scarlet that spills between the stones down the streets of Fallen London.
You twist the dream-strands round your claws and the Neath-sky grows heavy with zee-thunder, the scent of blood washed clean with the scent of rain. "A mistake," he echoes, calmer now, folding his wings closer beneath his newly sodden cloak. The drink lowers inhibition, but the dream— the dream mutes fear, softens panic, quiets rage. Heightens sorrow, magnifies pain. “We were misguided. It will not happen again.”
An error you would never make; therein lies the difference. But you can hardly say you do not sympathise. Your employer’s demands grow heavy upon you both.
The Neath-night will pass away before the honey-gold miasma lifts. Beneath the fog and rain there are neither secrets nor lies, and you speak with him as you have not in a long, long time – not of your disagreements but of your employer, its vanes and spires; of Jenny, and Veils and Fires, of New Newgate and the Fifth City. You will remember none of this come morning.
He does not walk alongside the dreamers down the honey-roads, as you do. A philosophical difference, nothing more – but it grates at you, and he chooses to concern himself particularly with the very methodological disagreements you have the magnanimity to overlook. “Have you learned nothing from the Third City? There must be— restraint. But of course you know nothing of that.”
He would say this— he, who places the heart of the dream in the realm of the senses. He would flood scent and sound with shuddering ice but he does not steady the hand and kindle the heart with fire. Not as you do. There is no authority in this place, only the tides that turn and come and go. He knows nothing. Nothing.
Behind the mirror the darkglass shifts: an advantage; press it.
The pidgin Correspondence sears across the glass in runes of dark fire. Hypocrisy, softened to avoid the harshness of accusation. Many rivers that converge to the same stream, followed closely by indentured servitude. “And you do? We approach things differently, but our purpose is one. Our employer can only benefit from our knowledge.”
“Our employer, yes,” he says, low and brittle. “Try not to forget that.”
At the next meeting of the Masters, Pages launches into a lengthy diatribe about the vile viscera flooding the penny dreadful market. You are happy to inform Irons that the Parlour of Virtue will put in a large order for long knives. Several weeks later, Doctor Schlomo publishes a treatise on a so-called death instinct.
All will be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. Just as promised. You raise a glass of the finer brew in a silent toast, and wait for Spices to meet your eyes before downing the lot.
At the fall of the Fifth City he petitions for reassignment. “Irreconciliable differences,” he states, and will say no more. The Bazaar accedes; you and he will trade under separate names. The quota for love stories remains.
If dreamers were victims, you expected a massacre, but his meticulous ways blossom among the methodical industry of the Fifth City. Functions and formulae, it seems, map the human soul as efficiently as inebriation and debauchery. Passion is, after all, a state of mind – and the mind can be altered, if one knows how. Outmatched, indeed. Not that you would ever admit it.
You hear reports of the remarkable efficacy of one F. F. Gebrandt’s chemistry. And with the complaints rolling in from your own honey-dens— statues that spit acid, of all things!— you make a note to look into it.
Grey the Mirror-Marches at the far ends of the honey-roads, dark the border-glass. “You spend very much time here,” Cups observes. “What is it you see in the mirror?”
There is relief here— from the suffocating closeness of the Neath-sky, from the Wax-Wind that blows, from your employer’s ever-growing appetites. The streets of London run raucous with life; there can be darkness here, and cold silence, like the Void. This is a secret you have tried, somewhat, to keep. Troublesome to explain. To all save Spices, perhaps, but the rift runs deep.
Cups nods, does not speak, and you are grateful.
He speaks a word across the rippling surface and the mirror clears. Your reflection vanishes. His, on the other side of the glass, does not. “When the light is right, like this,” Cups begins, “one sees things as they are, not as they were or ought to be. The mirror is a means. Nothing more.”
“Ware serpents,” the reflection adds. Sharply edged and brittle. “Ware dreams. Remember what you are. I will not tell him this— you know of whom I speak. He has little regard for us, and our agency.”
Sunlight splinters through the mist. The dream-threads scatter like dust in wind.
"The Masters grow concerned," Veils says mildly. "The mirror-dreams return, the Northbound grow in number…" He pauses, considering. "And what of Spices? Such friends, they tell me you were.”
Veils surprises you, sometimes. It is still difficult to reconcile the prim figure before you now, every inch the Master, with the vast dark creature that rends the London skies. But you have seen and abetted him in his bloodlust, have seen him take to the stars with violent and shuddering joy. For all your shared history, this is all you have in common with your colleagues— your dark-carapaced employer, and the memory of unfettered flight.
"Times change,” you snap, “and work does not. The Bazaar will have its stories, and then thrice-damned Parabola can have the Neath for all we care. All will be well.” And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. Guttering candles on Mutton Island. You grow tired of the Bazaar’s promises; you are, after all, the one who must keep them.
The silence is punctuated only by the steady drip of dark blood into the crystal phial. It goes against your better nature to use him thus. Almost. This Vake business happens to be extremely lucrative.
At length Veils folds up his wing and puts a tongue to the wound, burns it neatly shut with a Correspondence sigil: trust but verify. "Will it, now."
When it is done your wings are wringing blood, splintered with the black glass that floods the streets of the Second City. Wryly you consider that the more industrious will already be selling the fluid for a thousand echoes a phial. But it is done - the last serpent slaughtered and the Parabola-roads welded shut until the Judgments next align at the Surface's summer solstice. Ten thousand years would not be too long to wait. But Candles is far from hopeful.
The Hundreds, the Cantigaster, the Traitor Empress and her Consort - here in the Neath, bridge of two worlds, your employer exacts the cost that is known; Parabola, the cost that is not. A different and brighter place would have seen the Bazaar long returned to the Sun, the Judgments seen fit to know their enemy. But here in the Neath there are only mirrors and blackglass, and the wax-wind that shivers and tears at your skin.
Candles had gone, and left you both to weave the love-torn dreams and hold the honey-roads against the Fingerkings. And you know nothing of hope or warmth or the light that edges the cosmic dark so you gave the children of Earth intoxication instead, music and mystery, drowned their sorrow and lent them voice. A poor substitute for such love as felled the Cities (the Messenger) but your employer will make do, as it must, as you must, until the lifetimes of seven cities draw to a close.
And Parabola warps intention as its mirrors warp reflection, wracks those who would walk the honey-roads with the darkglass glimmering thing that grows. The wretched wanting you had once thought to call desire— it splinters through you like serpents and diamond dust. The hollow where your lungs should be pulls at the air and finds only glass.
You're scaring the dreamers, he whispers, and pulls you from the deep that would have drowned you.
The Void. He dreams you the Void and the endless, blessed silence, the brilliance of the Judgments against the black veil of night and the violant arc of the Correspondence between stars. A time before the Bazaar's mistake, before the Fall and all that came after; before names were prisons, before love had a price. As it has been and will be again. Oh, how you have missed this. Your wings are translucent and membranous in the light.
You will remember none of this come morning.
The dream mutes fear, softens panic, quiets rage. Heightens sorrow, magnifies pain. His Correspondence signature flares against your own, and beneath the cold and glimmering starlight, it warms you.