At current count, not including the Outsprawls, Araxes is comprised of three thousand and forty-six districts. Altogether they contain an estimated four million constant inhabitants, both alive and dead.
Araxes City Charter, Arctian year of 1003
They came to fetch us at the crack of dawn. Men with robes and gloves of copper thread.
They called us out one by one, shouting our ghost names. I ignored mine until they were forced to come and grab me. A heavy rope was looped about our necks and something in its fibres itched me. When it was tightened, it pressed hard against my vapours, as if they were as firm as flesh again. It must have had a copper core.
Boss Temsa and his soulstealers had been busy. There were twenty of us now, the product of two nights of hunting. Some hadn’t been dead more than two hours, still wild of eye and faint of vapour. They flashed me desperate looks, but I ignored them. My brief time in the cage had hardened me to any plight but my own.
Temsa was waiting in a domed hall beside two covered wagons. A wide, half-open door revealed a street and sunlight. He was leaning on his cane, his leer framed by his dark beard, freshly oiled and combed. His entire outfit was a deep sea blue, trimmed with gold and silver chains. Copper rings claimed every other finger. His cane was an elongated shard of obsidian. Coloured dust had been dabbed around his eyes and their wrinkles. Jexebel stood at his side with a broad-headed axe in her hand, and behind her loitered a gaggle of black-clad sellswords.
‘Load them up,’ Temsa ordered, thumping a wagon’s wheel before addressing us. ‘You’d better be on your best behaviour at market, you hear? Buyers pay good silver for obedience and mild manners in a half-life. Perfect temperament for a house-shade. Play the fool, and you might find yourself heading north to work in the docks or factories!’
The collective groan from my fellow ghosts was audible.
‘Jexebel!’ Temsa hollered. ‘Get the butchered ones up front and get them some shade-dust. The sun’s doing us no favours today.’
I was one of six picked out of the line. One had a sword-cut so deep into his collarbone that his head looked fit to topple. Another’s guts peeked from a slash across his belly, all frozen in the moment of death. Kech was there too, with his glowing talon marks. He gave me the usual hateful and accusing glare, and I mouthed a polite suggestion to go fornicate with himself. It was his fault I was here. The second day in the cage, he’d tried to throttle me. All I’d felt was a cold waft of air at my torn throat and much amusement.
The robed men came at me with clay dishes of crushed blue powder. They flicked pinches of it over my neck and stomach, trying their hardest not to touch me. The dust stuck to my wounds, even swirling with the slow movement of my vapours. The white scars dimmed somewhat, but did not disappear.
I looked down at Temsa as he wandered close to inspect me. ‘You won’t get away with this.’
It was clear he’d heard these sorts of complaints countless times before. ‘And so you have yelled for almost two days now. Tell me again how you have business in the Cloudpiercer! Of the injustice! The horror! Fear not, shade. It will sink in soon enough. That, or your new master will beat it into you.’
I muttered something foul.
Temsa wasn’t satisfied with me. He waggled the sharp metal tip of his cane in my face. ‘You curse like that at the soulmarket, shade, and I’ll have you put through a copper mangle. You think pain’s only for the living? Just you wait and see what death can hold.’
That put a good measure of fear in me, so I held my tongue and let Temsa’s workers haul me away. We filled the interior of the wagons with our glow: ten ghosts and a guard apiece. With a whip-crack, we juddered out into the dawning daylight.
All I’d seen of Araxes at this point was a few alleys, the sharp end of a knife and a dingy cage. I craned my neck to see the grand spires above me. It was almost as if I needed to prove, once and for all, that this wasn’t a nightmare, nor some devilish dream.
But there they were: the mighty towers of Araxes. Sandstone, marble and imported granite occupied half the sky. Some coiling and needle-pointed, others wider and pyramidal. There seemed to be an unspoken challenge between the buildings of the City of Countless Souls; every one of them competed to touch the sun. They stretched into the brightening sky, gleaming yellow on one side while their western flanks took on a colourless shadow. The beauty was far from lost on me.
Like a mountain range thrust up by some churning of nature, Araxes was not only mighty in its peaks, but in its foothills, too. Even at street level, buildings clambered atop one another. Houses and minor towers rose above in twisted shapes or clung like molluscs to older structures. Whitewash and adobe glowed pink and orange in the morning light. Ropes and cranes poked from every other rooftop. Billowing flocks of pigeons and starlings raced each other between pennants and spires.
Above that, the rich held sway. The towers cast their long shadows over the streets. Spiderwebs of lofty roads and bridges spread between them, leading to the core of the city. There the buildings formed a crown about the mighty Cloudpiercer, staggering even at that distance. No other tower reached more than half its height. It dominated all.
When I grew bored of the heavens, my gaze turned back to the gutters. I saw then how Araxes had earned its name. I watched the multitudes of ghosts flowing through the streets, swelling at every junction like tributaries of a gargantuan river. The living were flotsam amongst their numbers. Traders, citizens, beggars and travellers far luckier than I, all beginning their days by jostling with the dead. It was a gruesome sight, and a far cry from the streets of Krass cities, like noble Taymar or the capital Saraka, where the dead merely peppered the cobbles instead of infesting them. Then again, in Krass, we did not measure wealth by the number of souls one owned, but in good old-fashioned silver.
I found myself wanting to see more of the living, and I searched for them among the glowing crowds. Copper and steel-clad knights took their places in guard-boxes, or on corners where headless statues of dead gods gathered sand. Bakers and smiths stoked their street-side fires. Shops and teahouses flung open their doors to set out cushions in the dust. Pipe and card-dens were already summoning a haze about their doorways. Some old bugger with a white beard wrapped around his head like a turban sat in a doorway, wailing away on some curly kind of flute. A yellow rat danced before him.
Here and there a wagon or cart would force its way through the crowds, led by stout horses or enormous insects. We saw few of the latter in my country. I stared at the beetles and their tree-like horns of deep emerald and black, the hairy spiders creaking as they took their ponderous paces, and the centipedes in their long traces. Every now and again one reared up, spiny legs flailing as they hissed at something in their way. Whips would crack, and they came back to the earth with a bang. The armoured plates along their backs rippled as they moved along, their legs undulating like waves approaching a shore.
I’d heard tales of the Arctian fondness for the large desert insects. We Krass trusted in smarter beasts: horses, ponies, goats, even wolves. There was more intelligence behind their eyes, instead of the black, deadpan gaze of a beetle. To me, it seemed the insects were constantly deciding whether to eat you or not. It was certainly true of their wilder cousins; the ones that roamed the deserts and gobbled up unwary travellers. Dunewyrms, they called them, giant creatures that had a frightful habit of hiding in dunes and luring in prey with a glowing tentacle.
A puff of coloured smoke distracted me, and my attention was drawn to a seemingly endless row of street kitchens. Simple coals and grates smoked in doorways or under dangerously low-slung tarpaulins. On those black and dripping grills I saw chunks of meat on skewers, quarters of chicken and waterfowl marinated in lurid red and yellow pastes. Haunches of what I suspected to be beetle meat roasted in beds of hot coals. Glass jars of rainbow-coloured juices lay on slanted tables, surrounded by their associated fruits and vegetables. I didn’t recognise half of them.
Besides the intoxication of cracking locks and pinching other people’s things, I am a man of simple tastes: fresh air, another body in my bed, and as my ample belly would suggest, beer and food. On the accursed Kipper, I had salivated over the idea of filling myself with western food. I had thought long and hard about the waves of heady spices and sugars Arctian cuisine was famed for. I sniffed, but found nothing but icy air in my nostrils. I snorted long and hard until the guard glowered, but the world stayed bland. My sense of smell was non-existent. Another insult for the pile. Strange, how one longs for something only after it is taken away. At that moment, I would have buried my face in a sun-baked gutter, just so I could smell again.
The wagons came to a halt in a wide square lined by old brick towers and overshadowed by awnings of bright crimson. Temsa clacked his cane on the bench-backs, ordering us ghosts up and out. I could already see sweat on his forehead. I imagined the air was growing hotter by the minute, but all I felt was cold.
We ghosts were poked into a smart line of height order, and I took the chance to look around the soulmarket, where thin groups of finely-dressed buyers hovered around clusters of stalls; merchants, eager to provide some distraction while the wares arrived. I could see sizzling pans for those who hadn’t yet broken their fast, and all manner of ghost-related paraphernalia for the buyers. Whips and switches, shackles and gags, all of them gleaming copper.
Behind us was a squat wooden platform, standing about three feet high. A ring of gold rope had been stretched around poles on every corner. Packs of men and women wearing white silk cloaks stood about it with scrolls in hand and bags under their wrinkled eyes. They seemed official enough, and the fact that this wasn’t some cellar-room soul sale but a legitimate and sanctioned soulmarket was actually more disturbing. The Arctians seemed to approach death and slavery with fewer questions than a drunk being offered another glug of palmshine. Had I not already felt deathly cold, I would have shivered, and only the fear of being thrown into a factory kept me from cursing them all at the top of my voice.
Other wagons were beginning to arrive. I stared at the ghosts filing out onto the sand. I wondered if the living who herded them were also soulstealers, and as cruel as Temsa and his crew. It shocked me to think the hundred or so dead that stood around the edges of the square could have all been murdered. Surely there had to be honest soultraders here, profiting off genuine accidents and illness. The Tenets’ definition of “turmoil” was amazingly broad. I’d heard that in the Arc, it was considered fortunate to die at your allotted time at a ripe old age.
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