AMOR ET SANGUINE
“Can we hurry this up?” the Dragon asked. “I have to be in New York City tomorrow morning.” He adjusted the cuff links on his black suit. “It would be very embarrassing if I was late.”
Bel growled. “The only reason it took so long is because you were busy playing war games. We should have had this meeting weeks ago.”
Dracul smiled at him, his godeyes sparkling. “I was defending our fair city, Honored Noble. What exactly were you doing when warships arrived on our shores?”
Before they could get into another argument, Ishtar slowly took her seat, languishing across the velvet couch like a great cat. Her sensual dress made her every motion the center of attention. “You are the one who called us here, dearest Fierna. I think it is only appropriate that you be the one to get us started.”
‘Here’ was Jealous Heart, Ishtar’s aptly named domain. It was patterned after Shendilavri’s velvet halls, which always made me a little uncomfortable. But it was warm and quiet, which made it better than Phlegethos right now. Sure, I had plenty of cold-weather buffs, but it was the middle of winter and half the damn domain was styled after a medieval castle. Concrete walls made the whole place feel like an icebox.
I nodded to her. “Thank you, Honored Ishtar. I’m not sure how much Gazra told you—”
“Nothing interesting.” She waved her hand. “Something about it being important to something or something.”
“An apt summary,” Bel said. “I have a better understanding.” He gave me a weary look. “You want to free the sclavi. Truly free them, not just cut them off from the chems and leave them to die in the back alleys of Acheron.”
“Yes, which is why—”
“It’s a nice idea,” he said. “But I’m not sure it will work. Phlegethos just isn’t set up for that sort of thing. How many members do you have right now? Real members.”
“A few hundred. But—”
Bel sighed. “Look, I know you think you can handle it. But having that many people under your command is more than just feeding them all. The freed slaves are going to want voices in the culture. They’ll be happy with you at first, but that will go downhill quickly. Do you even have a basic republic framework set up?”
I frowned. “No, but neither do you!”
“The Avernans number a little over a thousand,” he said. “Enlightened dictatorship works pretty well at that level. Especially since my drakes can leave if they don’t like what I’m doing. Yours won’t have that option.”
“Yes, they will,” I said. “That’s the entire point.”
He gave me a pitying look. “You know it’s not that simple. Yes, they’ll be free to leave, but where else will they go? Who will take in thousands of just-clean chem-heads? Even Butler would have trouble with an influx like that. You will be their only option, so you need to make sure it’s a good option.”
I squared my jaw. “Then what do you suggest, hm? That I turn Phlegethos into an elected oligarchy? Oh wait, that’s what the pines did, and they all died. Or maybe an anarchy, like the Satanists! Because they are wonderful role models!”
“Fierna,” Bel said chided. “You’re being unreasonable.”
I nearly pulled out my hair and threw it in his face.
“Actually, I’m with her on this one,” Dracul said. He was leaning forward, that small knowing smile on his lips. “Worrying about the government of a sick culture is putting the cart before the horse. Keep it a dictatorship right now.” He winked at me. “Though maybe cut down on the executions.”
I frowned at Bel. “Is that what this is about? You don’t like that I’m executing traitors?”
“He’s a scientist, love,” Ishtar said without opening her eyes. “Executions are a waste of test subjects.”
Bel glared at her, but decided she wasn’t worth the effort. He turned back to me. “Sweetie, I know you’re doing your best. And you’re right, a lot of those people deserved worse than what you gave them. Bleeding night, maybe all of them did. I’m just worried that you might let the power go to your head. There need to be checks and balances.”
“I already have a slave army that only I control,” I said. “Tell me uncle, how exactly is freeing them going to give me power that is more dangerous than that?”
“It’s not—I’m not—” He sighed. “I just want you to be mindful of the mistakes your father made. Please, that’s all I ask.”
“I will,” I said, and meant it. “I left because of what he did.”
Bel nodded. “Good. Excellent.”
I scratched at the spot where my fixer used to be. “Now, on to actually curing the sclavi—”
“First, we need to discuss retribution,” Bel said.
I closed my eyes and counted to ten.
“What exactly are you talking about?”
“Mom already forgave her for the whole Whorestown thing,” Ishtar said. She was popping grapes into her mouth one by one. Where did she get grapes?
“I thought even you forgave her,” the Dragon said. He was looking at Bel with the gaze of a predator. “Lots of yelling, made you feel better, all that?”
“I remember the yelling,” I muttered petulantly. I couldn’t help it. Bel always made me feel like a child.
Bel looked annoyed, but nodded. “True. Your involvement in Shendilavri has been… resolved. The question is everything after. Everything the culture has done in your name since.” He pulled out a pad. “As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s quite an exhaustive list.”
I finally sat down and put my head in my hands. “Noapte, please tell me those idiots didn’t.”
Bel hesitated. “Well… yes. They didn’t. That is, they didn’t pay retribution.”
“Yes,” said, deadpan. “I was hoping they didn’t do that.”
Bel frowned. “So you were hoping they didn’t didn’t pay retribution?”
“Yes yes, I worded it poorly,” I snapped. “Get on with it. How much do I owe?”
He looked over the list. “This is an estimation, you understand—”
“Mine isn’t,” Dracul said. He pulled out his own pad and threw it at me with perfect accuracy. I caught it easily. “First page. My boys have been tracking what those idiots have been doing since your mom left.”
I scrolled through the list. “This… isn’t as bad as I thought.”
Dracul shrugged. “A lot of them got voided when people decided violence was better retribution. After all, it’s not like your people ever actually paid. Then the judges started awarding violence for all retributions against Belians. Your warlords started paying on time more after that. Your biggest debts are from the early days. Things people have forgotten about.”
“If they’ve forgotten, then you’re all set,” Ishtar said. I glanced up. Now she had a glass of white wine—rare, for a vampire. We drank red exclusively, due to the association with blood. “Just ignore them and you’re good to go.”
“They’ve been forgotten, not forgiven,” I said. “As the culture begins to rise again, debtors will find themselves suffering a sudden outbreak of memory.” I paged through the list again. “Very specific memories with very long numbers attached.”
“Exactly. So you need money.” Dracul smiled. “You have a big giant labor force ready and willing to make you piles of cash. Now you have a moral question: Do you want to put them to work now and keep all the profits? Or do you want to cure them first, which is the right thing to do but leaves them with the lion’s share?”
Bel shook his head. “Don’t bother trying to appeal to her better side, Drake. She inherited her mother’s pragmatism. You’re not going to convince her to—”
“Cure them,” I said.
Bel frowned. “It’s a trick.”
“It’s basic business,” I said. “Free men and women are more productive than slaves. Especially when the slaves are literally mindless. There’s not really that much work in this city for a bunch of drones.”
“Asmodeus still has that market cornered,” Ishtar said. She was sitting upside down now, for some reason. I had given up on trying to understand her years ago. She was either genuinely insane or had so much fun pretending that it made no difference.
“That settles it,” Dracul said with a clap and a massive smile. “Bel, I’m sure with Naome’s notes, you can figure something out rather quickly, correct?” He winked at me. “I’m sure he’s been working on it since you came back.”
Bel muttered something under his breath about how he had actually been working on it for years. He just hadn’t had much progress until now.
“Excellent!” the Dragon said. He stood up, getting ready to leave. “If that’s all, I do need to prepare for tomorrow—”
“No,” Bel said, standing up as well. “There is still the issue of payment.”
I scowled. “For years, you’ve been working to free the sclavi on your own dime, but now it’s about money?”
“Yes. Especially since we still haven’t figured out how you’ll handle the sudden influx of free vampires.”
I sighed. “Okay, so it’s not your money you’re worried about.”
“Not just my money,” he said. “But I’ll work on this one at cost. I’ll send you an invoice later, it shouldn’t be more than ten thousand dollars or so.”
I nodded. Even though my culture was destitute, ten thousand dollars was chump change. If I decided to crack open my father’s quarters and sell some of his crap, it wouldn’t even be a drop in the bucket. The problem was that selling things would attract attention from creditors. I wanted to hold off on that for as long as possible.
“The bigger expense will be the sclavi themselves,” Bel continued. “Have you given any thought to how you are going to make it up to them?”
“Freeing them and giving them appropriate medical treatment will help clear away some of the debt,” I said. “Going by Butler’s retribution laws, that is. I’ll need to check the actual numbers, but in the end it shouldn’t be much more than a couple thousand a head.”
Dracul chuckled. “That’s what, ten million or so total?”
“A little less,” I muttered.
“No way you have that much money lying around.”
“Well, I’m not going to take any more loans. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place.”
Bel shook his head. “Your father’s stupidity and drugs got you into this. Take the loan.”
“Speaking of which, how is the drug trade?” Ishtar asked. At least she was sitting right side up now. “You’re following Butler’s rules and all that, but what are your profits looking like?”
I sighed. “A quarter percent profit.”
Ishtar laughed out loud. “How have you managed that? The hags have backed down since the Rampage, so you shouldn’t have any competition.”
I rolled my eyes. “Had to restructure the chem vats. You should have seen them. They weren’t just below code, they were barely working at all. I would trust chems cooked in a bathtub more than those.”
“I just bought from you the other day!”
I nodded. “We got new vats. Upgraded the whole system from top to bottom. We’re back on top, it’s just going to take us a few months to start paying off what we spent.”
“But you have enough money to pay me?” Bel asked.
“Yes,” I said with a smile. “Barely. Don’t worry about my money situation. I have a pretty good idea what I’m doing.”
“Managing the finances of a couple ‘sarians is different from managing an entire culture. There are food expenses, basic upkeep, electricity—”
“Yes, thank you,” I said through clenched teeth. “I know. As I said, I have it handled. I didn’t kill all of my advisers, you know.”
“You need someone smarter than your boyfriend, Fi.”
I closed my eyes and counted to ten. This man… it was almost like he was trying to get on my bad side.
“I will consider taking a loan,” I said. “I’ll talk to Glasya about it. She’ll give me a good deal.”
“You sure you should trust her?” Ishtar asked.
“Ishtar, get off the ceiling.”
“It’s my domain, I can do what I want!”
I sighed, but didn’t press it. “Yes, I trust Glasya. To a point. She doesn’t break deals, you know that. And yes,” I said, pointing at Bel before he had a chance to speak. “I will bring a lawyer with me. There are a lot of them in Phlegethos. They were some of the only ones who didn’t run away.”
The Dragon chuckled. “There’s a joke in there.”
“Please don’t make it.”
“So is that it?” Ishtar asked. “Have we settled everything? Your culture seems to be doing fine, so I don’t think we need to interfere quite yet.”
“There is something,” Bel said. “The sclavi still need to be dealt with.”
I looked away. I had been hoping he had forgotten.
“I’ll cure them,” I said. I had been thinking about it during the conversation. “Remove their chem glands, flush their systems, and give them enough treatment to make them clean. The whole process should take two weeks minimum. I’ll stretch it to a month to be on the safe side. Most of these people aren’t healthy.”
Bel nodded. “A wise move. And if Phlegethos falls due to a lack of manpower—”
“However, I have a condition.”
The Dragon smirked. “I think I know where this is going.”
“I don’t,” Bel said. “Fi, I’m sure you believe you can save both the sclavi and the culture, but I think you need to accept that—”
“I need your help to cure the hags.”
Bel stopped speaking. He blinked like an owl. “What?”
“Baba Yaga has… had a change of heart since the Rampage,” I said. I had spoken to Obould and Veronica a bit. “She has little wish to keep her slaves. In fact, she wouldn’t be unduly bothered if she was knocked from her throne entirely. She has never enjoyed being a warlord. She was forced into the role because a bunch of drug-addled morons demanded it.”
“What does this have to do with anything?” Bel asked. “I am honestly impressed that you are willing to help other chem-heads. I just don’t understand how this will help you save your culture.”
“Because, dear uncle, the hags will know who saved them,” I said. “As will the sclavi. And I will give each and every one of them the option to join me at Phlegethos. Where they will be fed, sheltered, and given jobs.”
“And drugs?” Ishtar asked.
“Eventually,” I said. “But to start, I’ll just give them a place.”
Bel leaned back. “I don’t know, Fi. I don’t think it will be enough to keep the culture alive.”
I resisted the urge to grind my teeth. “It will last for long enough. As the culture regains legitimacy, more people will join us normally.”
“All right, sounds easy enough to me,” the Dragon said. “I’ll tell my boys to help you while I’m gone. I just have one question. What will happen to the rest? The chem-heads who have been cured, but don’t want to join you?”
“I will direct them to Necessarius,” I said. “Butler always needs more men, for anything and everything.”
“And if they don’t want that?”
“Then they’ll have to find jobs elsewhere. I will do my best, but there’s only so much I can do.”
The Dragon nodded.
Ishtar flipped down from the ceiling. “I’m game.”
Bel slowly stroked his chin. “…very well. My men can make tranquilizer darts that will even work on a life-long sclav or hag.” He gave me a level look. “Let’s see what you can do, dear Fierna.”
Behind the scenes (scene 298)
I’ve been pushing back the sclavi problem for a hundred chapters. But I think now that the war is over, it can finally come to a close.