The Amber Columns (The City of Dark Pleasures Book 2) (5 page)

BOOK: The Amber Columns (The City of Dark Pleasures Book 2)
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We are all tied at the wrist to a husband that none of us chose, following silently, heads bowed, resigned to this odd kind of stability.

I’m half tempted to latch onto the ribbon man and surrender to it. I’m as pretty as any of his wives. And as for obedience, compliance—I can fake that.

Only those outside our system, those with no status at all, servants in the Pleasures, live an honest life, free of delusion and deception. Is it any wonder that as a journalist, driven by my girlish dreams of ultimate truth, that I would be so captivated by one of them? Perhaps that’s why I’m so unable to let Tully go—because I don’t have the truth of him yet. The Tully I met in the dream I had, wired up to his machine, was a creature of my own creation. So have all the Tullys I’ve met in my dreams been—the loving ones, the violent ones, the monstrous ones. Maybe if I can get a handle on the real Tully, I will be free of him.

Or maybe I just want to disappear into his manufactured dream again.

As I turn west towards the shambling villas that make up the Amber Columns the crowd thins out. Soon the only other citizens on the promenade are solitary men, furtively keeping to the shadows, their heads bowed, eyes on the sidewalk, as though the slivered crescent moon isn’t particularly pretty tonight. I stop and admire it before committing to the long covered passageways of the Columns. There was a crescent moon that first night I met Tully. Two months have passed since then.

The Columns radiate heat, and soon I’m so warm I remove my media jacket and sling it over my arm. I wonder if Bray’s warnings to be careful were warranted. The few men I encounter seem to avoid me like I have some disease.

“Are you selling?” I hear one of them whisper behind me. Glancing back I see he’s addressing a young man couching in a corner. It’s not Tully. I don’t even think this one is a Cull. He has a full beard and a broad bulky build. I don’t hear the rest of the conversation he has with the citizen. They negotiate in low tones and I just catch of glimpse of them disappearing together behind a column.

I have heard that much of the trade here is conducted outdoors. It seems odd, given the shame that such acts normally evoke. But everything is odd and paradoxical about the Pleasures. My even being here is a paradox, looking for someone who doesn’t even sell what I want, not wanting to buy it anyway.

And where should I look for him?

The Columns seem to go on forever, fading into darkness down the end of impossibly long passageways.  I had no idea this part of the Pleasures was so large. Not for the first time I wonder what the original purpose of these strange buildings was. There are periods of history that are never discussed in school. The Expiation is just one of them.

I step through a patch of low yellow light emanating from a narrow passage leading off the main one. At the end of the passage a small man with a round belly is receiving oral sex from a servant kneeling at his feet. I stop to watch for a moment, until I’m certain the servant isn’t Tully. What on earth would I do if it was? Interrupt them? As I ponder this the citizen turns his head, fixing me in a frank stare, as though daring me to judge him.

“Lost, sweetheart?” he says after a moment. The servant beneath him doesn’t even pause, his lips working the man’s turgid cock rhythmically, almost robotically.

I dash away, back into the dim main passage.


Are
you lost?” a voice says. The slight young man, leaning on a column, is smoking a fragrant cigarette. “You don’t look like someone who has something to buy or sell here.”

I can tell by the sweet timbre of his voice, he’s a Cull, and one who doesn’t much bother with the synthetic hormones that maintain masculine characteristics. If it weren’t for his slim flat chest in a fitted blue sweater, and his boyish haircut, he could pass for a girl easily. But there’s something quite captivating about his androgyny. I imagine he has no shortage of admirers here in the Columns.

That said, he’s nowhere near as handsome as Tully. Not to me, anyway.

“I’m looking for someone,” I say

He takes a step towards me, a slick smile lighting up his smooth face. “I can be someone,” he says. “I can be anyone you want.”

“Someone in particular,” I say. “His name is Tully. I was told he might be around here somewhere.”

The Cull takes a drag on his cigarette, wafting the smoke around his head like a halo. “I saw Tully down in the courtyard about two hours ago. He might still be there.”

“Where is that?” I fight to hide the urgency from my voice.

The Cull tucks his cigarette into the corner of his mouth and holds out his hand.

I fish in the pocket of my media jacket and come up with a silver coin. It’s a paltry sum, but all he’s selling me is information. I hardly need pay a fortune for that.

He closes his long fingers around the coin, nudging his head back the way I came. “There’s a side passage. You’ll recognize it by the row of recycling conduits along one side. Down the end of that is a courtyard with a bunch of concrete tables. Look
under
the tables. That’s where I saw him.”

“Under the table? Is he all right? Is he ill?”

“Not ill. He’s having a little party for one, I think.”

I have no idea what that means and the young Cull, with my coin in his pocket has lost interest in me. He wanders off, trailing smoke behind him.

I take a deep breath, the lingering sweet fragrances of whatever he was smoking infusing my nostrils. Turning, I gaze back down the long passageway to where, if I look, I’ll find the side passage. And Tully, maybe. If I look.

I could just go home.

A noise behind me startles me into movement. I stride back the way I came, glancing over my shoulder nervously. Bray might have been right about the Columns. There’s an air of menace here. Menace and secrecy.

The first side passage is featureless, ending in a dark nothingness. The second is strewn with garbage. There’s dense bundle in the dark end that may or may not be someone asleep on the dirty floor. Asleep? Dead, maybe. Should I check on them? While I struggle with my conscience, the bundle gets up turns twice and lies back down. It’s a dog. And very much alive.

The third side passage has the line of recycling conduits the Cull described. There’s a cool breeze sweeping up from the open space at the end. I slip my media jacket back on as I walk, the heels of my flat boots making a dull click on the stone floor.

At the end of the passageway is a large open courtyard, lit only by weak emergency lights and stars. Rows of concrete tables spread out across the space, their polished tops reflecting the dim glow of the sky. The layout of the courtyard reminds me of the lunch room at my school. Orderly. Restful in its minimalism.  I wonder if servants eat here during the day. Citizens aren’t allowed in the Pleasures from dawn until just before dusk, when the gates open. What kind of lives do servants have during the day? I suppose they must eat and bathe and do their laundry like normal people.

The courtyard seems deserted, the tables empty. Remembering what the Cull said, I crouch down, searching beneath the concrete tables and benches. Down towards the end of one row I see a dark shadow. It could be a person, but it’s hard to tell.

I approach, cautiously, reminding myself that I have no evidence that real life Tully is anything like the one I sometimes encounter in my nightmares.


Gentle as a lamb
,” I whisper to myself. Then I’m close enough to see it is a person.

It
is
Tully.

He’s sitting on the floor under table, his arms draped over knees raised up in front of him, his head hanging as though he’s asleep. And I find myself frozen, trapped in a world in between making my presence known and tip-toeing away.

Even dozing, he’s beautiful. I’m tortured by the urge to touch him.

“Tully?” I say, almost involuntarily. “Tully?”

He looks up, his golden eyes focusing slowly.

“Oh,” he says. As though someone has just given him the answer to a perplexing question. Then he nods, a little smile growing on his beautiful face. “It’s good to see you, O’Mara.”

 

Chapter Five – Tully

 

“It’s not safe for you to be here.” She takes a step back as I clamber out from under the table, as though my warning applied to me. My sudden and confusing euphoria at seeing her has receded, leaving only anxiety in its place.

Women aren’t safe here. It’s one of the many paradoxes of the Pleasures that the vilest citizens come here not to buy sex but to make trouble. Many men who frequent the Amber Columns are nice men – I mean as far as male citizens
can
be nice with their privileged existence. But some men come here to prey on those weaker than them: male servants who have lost the protection of a citizen pass, Culls of course, and women, citizens or not. It is a terrible crime to attack a citizen woman in the Pleasures. But here in the Columns with all the secrets and shame, it’s easy to get away with if you know where the scanners are.

If O’Mara has gotten this far it means one of two things: the security network has latched onto her and is following her, painfully buzzing any male citizen who gets too close; or a servant is tailing her, waiting for the right moment to jump out and be the knight in shining armor. It’s a known tactic in the darker corners of the Pleasures, a favorite especially of Culls who rarely earn the tips that make life so much easier here. Gratitude is worth money in the Pleasures too, as are all the things that aren’t for sale in the outside world. Everything has a price.

O’Mara still hasn’t spoken. She looks at me, her wide brown eyes framed by silky skin and her thick doll-like black hair. I think for a second that maybe I’m dreaming.

“Wh-what were you doing under the table?” Her voice is plaintive, as though she’s been talking to me for hours and I haven’t been listening. But it’s a reasonable question.

“Hiding.” I answer. There are, of course, details to add to that, but hopefully those can wait. “Let me take you back to the East promenade. It’s not…”

“Safe?” she supplies. “
You’re
here.”

“It’s not safe for me either, but I don’t really matter.” I mean it to come out lighthearted. Like a joke, but when I see the expression on her face, I see that I’ve failed.

“Tully…” she finally says, reproachfully. “You shouldn’t talk about yourself like that.”

In all the times I imagined meeting O’Mara again, this is not how it went. Like a student being reprimanded by a teacher. What I remember about school, which isn’t much, that happened almost every day. I sort of want to crawl back under the table.

“Can I walk you back to the promenade?” I try again. “Let’s walk. It’s a nice night.”

She huffs and turns, striding back to the passageway, while I rush to catch up with her. Sure enough, in the shadows, the slender figure of a Cull I vaguely know gives me a quick nod and slips out of sight. O’Mara doesn’t even notice.

The protectiveness is part of our nature. Once a counsellor suggested to me it might be because of our odd hormonal condition, but I think it’s just psychological, cultural even. We all remember the stories of knights and princes saving damsels from dragons and ogres. Men are supposed to be heroes. When else would a Cull ever get the chance?

Or maybe we just know what it feels like to be weak and alone.

We emerge into the Columns, bathed in their amber glow and warmth as we turn back towards the Promenade. O’Mara walks with her arms crossed, holding her media jacket closed, pointedly not looking at me.

She’s angry at me, though I can’t imagine why.

“I can fix that,” I say as the last of the Columns recedes behind us. The bright lights and music of the East Promenade beckon us.

“Fix what?”

“Your jacket’s headphone jack. It’s not retracting all the way. Probably just a broken spring.”

“The heat function doesn’t work anymore either.” Still not looking at me, but speaking at least.

“You’ve tried a new battery?” She nods. “Hmm. Might be a dirty connector. I can fix that too. If you need new coils that’s a bigger job. I don’t have any coils but if you get them I can put them in. Otherwise it’s expensive. Might as well buy a new jacket.”

“I can’t afford a new one.”

“They don’t pay you well at Island News?”

“Ha! No.” She flicks her eyes in my direction at last. It’s brief, but worth waiting for. “Technically I’m an intern, so I barely get paid at all. If I joined a harem or had a child they would promote me but…”

“Too high a price to pay?”

She just shakes her head and sighs.

We walk in silence for a moment. A man hustles past us, on the way to the Columns. He’s shoving flat bread in his mouth as he walks. A cloud of garlic lingers in his wake. It makes my mouth water. I sneak a glance at O’Mara as she flicks the malfunctioning headphone jack off her neck. The skin of her neck is making my mouth water too. People think we don’t feel those things—we
can’t
feel them, but that just what they tell themselves so they don’t have to think about the truth.

I feel everything a normal man does. I just can’t do much about it.

As the noise and light of the promenade begin to surround us something occurs to me—something that might explain O’Mara’s strange mood.

“Have you been having nightmares?” I ask.

She stops so abruptly I have to backtrack.

“How did you know?”

I wince. Of all the citizens who played with my machine, I wish this rare side effect hadn’t happened to her. “It happens sometimes. I guess I’m in the nightmares then?”

She puts her hand over her mouth and closes her eyes. And I’m left wondering what horrific things I’ve done in her dreams.

“I’m so sorry, O’Mara. I didn’t even know that was a side-effect until about a week after we met. An old harem wife complained that she was having nightmares about her husband killing her that started after she visited me. I figured it out. I’ve changed the electrical frequencies since then but…”

She just shakes her head, her eyes still closed.

“Please,” I try. “You have to believe me. Whatever I did in the dreams I would never do those things to you or anyone. Honestly. I’m a pussy-cat.”

She opens her eyes at last, letting out a snuffled laugh behind her hand. Then she sighs. “Do the dreams stop?”

“If you…if you practice controlling the dreams a bit it stops. When one of the nightmares starts you can control it.”

She frowns at me, and begins walking again, towards the flashing lights and music. “So I can have one of the lucid dreams whenever I want?”

“You could learn to control some dreams. But it’s not as reliable as my service. But you can usually stop a nightmare. Or wake yourself up.”

“And how do I learn this?”

I wish I had a different answer for her. “You need to have a few more goes with my machine, but…”

“I don’t think I can afford that.”

“I’m happy to let you have a go for free, but they turned off my power when I lost my license.”

We walk into the growing crowd. Harem brides with ice-cream cones matching their pink veils swirl around us. Two older women slurp on fruit smoothies. We walk past a table where a husband is holding court with a dozen wives, all of them devouring what I’m sure is a very expensive chicken dinner. The smell is intoxicating. I nearly trip I’m so distracted.

“Are you hungry?” O’Mara asks.

“No,” I answer, lying. I’m grateful for the noise and bustle of the promenade that covers the sound of my stomach growling. “Why?”

O’Mara frowns up at me. She’s really quite small, even for a woman. “Why did you lose your license?”

The urge to kiss her is suddenly overwhelming. I kiss women so infrequently now. Sometimes I’ve been tempted by women who engage my services. I was tempted by O’Mara. Her lips were soft and warm. I’m so tempted by her now I put my hands in my pockets to keep from grabbing her. I think the last vestiges of the Synthrogen are still flowing through my veins. I want to taste every part of her. I’m hungrier than I think I’ve ever been in every possible way.

I want to do things that I can’t do, that I lack the parts to do.

A popcorn vendor rolls by with her steaming cart.

“Are you hungry?” O’Mara asks.

“No. Do you want to go an watch the Lapis Lazuli light show? There’s one starting in about five minutes.” I turn and walk in that direction, stopping when I see she’s not following me.

“What’s wrong?” I say, seeing her glaring.

“Why are you lying to me?”

“I’m not.”

“Tully, I can tell you’re hungry. Why don’t you just tell me the truth? I can buy you a meal. Have you run out of money?”

The teenager inside wants to stamp his feet, outraged that she can make me feel so ashamed, so
unmanly
. Instead I cross my arms, rubbing my hands over my elbows in a feeble attempt to make it look like I suddenly felt chilled.

“Tully…why did you lose your license?”

“Can we talk about this somewhere else?” Crowds of women flow past us now, half of them have food and they all smell and look beautiful. My head is spinning. “Why don’t we walk down to the farm?”

O’Mara drags me to a vendor and buys us both hot dumplings, which we eat as we walk. At least it gives me something to do with my hands. Suppressing the urge to run my fingers through her shiny hair is becoming exhausting.

We’ve been walking on the long winding path to the farm for about ten minutes when she asks again: “How did you lose your license?”

“It’s really dumb,” I say.

“So tell me anyway. I promise not to laugh.”

I take her empty bowl and my own and drop them in a recycling conduit, listening to the powerful vacuum sucking them away to the depot across the river. Through the razor wire fence, across the misty river, we can just see the lights of the processing sector. Unlike the Pleasures or the controlled areas, the processing sector functions twenty four hours a day. But it’s mostly mindless bots doing the work over there. They’re not likely to complain.

I sometimes envy them. That’s funny, right? I envy machines? Maybe that’s why I build them.

I think I linger a bit long there, by the conduit, looking over the water, because she changes the subject.

“It’s nice here, this path. I didn’t know this was here. What is the farm exactly?”

I turn, leaning back on the conduit pillar. “We grow most of the food for the Pleasures. Our food and some of the vendors’ food too. Have you never noticed that things taste fresher here than in the Controlled City?”

“I guess. Those dumplings were good,” she says. “Do you ever work there?”

“We take shifts. It’s hard work but I like it.”

“That explains why you’re so fit.” The blush rises in her face so fast I’m slightly surprised that she doesn’t swoon from low blood pressure. “Oh, fuck. I don’t know why I said that.”

I take a step forward, closer to her. “It’s possible I have better body in your dreams than I do in reality.”

Her blush deepens and she looks down. “Oh? I don’t think so.”

I reach out, lightly touching the material of her sleeve, sliding my hand down, slowly. It’s not like I haven’t done this before—the things I do here in the Pleasures are always a kind of seduction—but I feel just as giddy as…well as I did with things I did long ago, things my dead twin did before I was cut. Normal teenage things: a girl I liked, an awkward advance. It’s like I’m reliving it.

I’m nearly thirty years old and I’ve never made an actual pass at a woman. At least not one old enough to wear a proper bra. My teenage fumbles, more inspired by the world crumbling around me than any real feelings, are all I have to go on. And like everything else from my old life, I barely remember them. For all intents and purposes I’m a different person. Not that boy. Not the man he would have turned into.

Not really a man.

“There are parts that the dream Tully has that I don’t have, though. Right?” I say. I don’t know if I mean that to be flirtatious or a disclaimer. Maybe she’s forgotten who she’s talking to, whose fingers she’s just intertwined with her own.

“That doesn’t matter.” She turns her eyes up to meet mine.

“It doesn’t?”

“I mean, I’m sure it matters to you, but it doesn’t matter to me.”

I can’t help it any longer: I slide my free hand over her neck and cheek and into her glossy hair. “O’Mara…this is…not wise.”

“Fuck wisdom.”

I shake my head, laughing, and inch my face a little closer to hers.

“Why did you lose your license, Tully?”

“I stole something from a citizen.” We’re speaking in whispers now, though we’re all alone. No one to hear anything out here but sleeping chickens and fireflies.

O’Mara rests her free hand on my hip, gripping me through my sweater. “What did you steal?”

Her breath smells like dumpling soup and mint. An odd combination, but I think I’d find it sexy if I wasn’t so confused. I shouldn’t be doing this. I shouldn’t be here. This will end in tears.

MY tears, as well as hers probably.

“I stole a diamond bracelet. From an old harem wife.”

BOOK: The Amber Columns (The City of Dark Pleasures Book 2)
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