The Chambers always made my skin crawl. It was a converted cathedral. The ceilings soared above me, and the main room that used to be the chapel echoed ominously. The stone brickwork was the washed-out ashen colour of corpses. The stained glass had been smashed out so long ago no one remembered. The glittering jagged colours of what remained of the glass jutted out of the casements as monstrous teeth.
The reason for its use did not add to my opinion on the place. A massive old oak table sat where the altar used to be. Around it was 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 right, providing space for her entourage and his.
To the woman in red’s left was a pair of women in soft browns and greens. A brush of relief eased down my shoulders when I spotted them. At my side, Maria Mater tense energy eased. I flicked a quick glance to her and Cortex. Cortex nodded at me over her head. We proceeded through the old chapel to the far end, up the diase and allowed Maria Mater to take her seat.
Pinna and Luto had collected the girls quickly. Though they 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. 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 for the Annual Meeting of the Heads.
Maria Mater nodded to Amulatio and Praemptura. Moss, precipitation, mushrooms, heather. They always had the uncanny scent of understory decay. Her sister-in-law motioned her to the one remaining seat. Gemma had seen to her men taking up most of the seating that would have been reserved for co-leaders of Maria Mater and Mercurius. I kept my face stolid at that slight. Cortex and I took up guard positions on either side of Maria Mater as she eased into the remaining seat.
“So nice of you to join us, Maria Mater,” Gemma crooned. I was pleased to be on the opposite direction of the table from her this time. She tended to smell of necrosis, and I hated having to be close to her.
“Gemma, Mercurius, Ambulatio, Praetemptura,” she greeted, pulling out her pen and notebook.
“Shall we begin?” Mercurius asked, an edge of impatience lacing his voice. A pair of hooded henchmen, both of a slim, small build, fidgeted behind him nervously. In the five years since I had started attending these meetings, I could not recall having seen their faces.
“I would like to get back to my holdings sometime today, yes,” Praetemptura agreed irritably.
“Shall I assume that you are still withholding a full water supply this year, Maria Mater?” Gemma began.
“Do you continue to deal with Angelus in trade of petrol for imported luxury goods?”
“My dealings with Angelus are, as I have always maintained, not your problem Caeruleum.”
“If it involves petrol, it is all our problem, Rubrum.” Maria Mater hissed.
“Just because we have a profitable pocket and all you have is that flimsy main does not make it your business.”
“No, but the fact that you have yet to seal your canals and backflow valves means any water drawback from your reservoir fillings gets into our reservoir and Mercurius. Let alone the pumps that lead to Thalassius. We are not singularly responsible for the safety of everyone’s water supply, Gemma.”
She shrugged. “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 appeasingly.
“You trade your petrol for luxury goods. Trade petrol for the sealant. Angelus makes it cheap enough.”
“That would be such a waste,” she protested.
“You’re the one who has caused 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 flush out a fourth of your arable land right along the primary canal. Clean up your mess before you kill us all!” Maria Mater was turning red. I laid a hand on her shoulder. She dragged in a seething breath and made every effort to lean back in her chair.
“At least your pet snake is well mannered,” Gemma waived off Maria Mater’s demand.
Maria Mater’s fingers reminded me of where I had my hand when she tapped for me to loosen up. I hadn’t realized 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 backflow into our reservoirs, then we will continue with the way things have been since I claimed Caeruleum territory seven years ago.” Maria Mater finalized her demand.
“And you, Mercurius? Will you withhold grain from us once more?” Gemma forced an uncomfortable smile.
“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 Maria 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, we may return to our original dealings.”
“Oh, come now, Maria Mater. Have you seen the state of Urbs Aquarum? Too many people are left to the reality of their situation and wish for a bit of momentary relief from it.”
“It does not come into our lines, Mercurius. I find your dealers on my territorium, I will send your pharmacum back to you using them as the body bags.” Maria Mater snapped.
He shied back from her demanding tone and held up a placating hand. “I will see to it that my men head their standing orders to keep it off Caeruleum territory.
“Same goes for us, Mercurius. Don’t go letting your balloons drift into the Hanging Gardens, and we won’t reign 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?” Maria 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 saited 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 abolitionist, 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?” Maria Mater dismissed.
“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 summer 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, also rising.
“Next year?” Praetemptura dismissed them.
Once they had exited the hall, the sisters sighed a frustrated breath. Ambulatio rolled her eyes at Maria Mater. “Is there any good reason that we must continue with those creatures?” Praetemptura interjected.
“Only as long as they separate our lines from yours.” Maria Mater massaged her neck.
“Lunam, Cortex,” Ambulatio greeted with a soft smile.
“Nice to see you in good health, Ambulatio. How is our new nephew?” I asked after her son, recently born a month earlier.
“Still insists on waking every two hours. Sleep is hard won these days,” she admitted.
“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 asked after us.
“If we can get through to the ladders, we would love to come up. It has been too long, dear sister,” Maria Mater nodded.
“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 Maria Mater hugged as we all gathered to leave. “I miss you, little sister.”
“And I you. Make cookies when we come back.” Maria Mater demanded.
“I see how it is. You don’t miss me. You miss my cooking!” Ambulatio huffed.
“I’d be devastated without your cooking,” Praetemptura offered.
“Oh! So that’s why you keep me around, just so I can cook for you!” she feigned indignation.
“That and other delicious things,” Praetemptura wiggled an eyebrow. Cortex coughed gently. “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 motioned toward the doors.
“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,” 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.
“Boss likes who he likes,” Cortex shrugged.
“And you still fancy no one?” Praetemptura turned to her sister-in-law.
“Hasn’t changed yet. 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.” Maria Mater opened the door to let us out of that infernal chamber.
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