Liquid Gold by Ian Zerafa
It was with an ostentatious display of wealth that Amintore Volantesso, the Margrave of Giaverno, had chosen to flaunt the first gratifications of his new position. An enormous column of glass descended from the ceiling, filled entirely with golden brown liquid. Avrahm reckoned that the width of its base easily exceeded five metres, and the room was well over three times as tall as the pillar was wide. Considering that liquid was constantly being drained from it without the level ever dipping, it had to be taller still, stretching beyond the ceiling to some sort of filling station. Avrahm didn’t spend too long contemplating it; he’d get a good look at the top later.
Near the ceiling, smaller glass pipes spiralled out from the main column, twisting their way through the air just under the ceiling, and then coalescing to come down into a dozen evenly spaced, perfectly straight smaller columns on either side of the ballroom. Throughout all the pipes, hundreds of miniature bottled lamps floated, each of which would take a skilled artificer almost a full fortnight to make. A delicate mechanism corkscrewed in the main pillar, gently stirring the liquid and sending currents spinning off into the tributary pipes. The currents spun the hundreds of little bottles, and the light that danced through the amber liquid warmed the ballroom with a gentle swimming glow. Standing slightly away from the crowd, the glow helped him cast a particularly impressive shadow on the marble floor behind him. The cost of the containers and mechanisms, immense though they were, paled in comparison to the worth of the liquid they bathed in.
Giavernan Impreso was the finest spirit known to man, and, as the other sentient races on The Continent had learned since humans colonised it a millennium ago, no one could make alcohol quite like man. The cost of a single bottle could buy a small ship, or a large house. For Volantesso to provide enough to sustain the horde of nobles at a party of this scale would have been considered showing off. For the newly appointed Impresario to provide a twenty-four-station free-flowing dispensary, an undiminishing reservoir large enough to house a family of sharks, and then use the whole thing as a glorified lightbulb, was arrogant rich bastardry of the highest order. As much as Avrahm hated Volantesso, the arrogant rich bastard within himself had to admire the audaciousness of the move. He responded with his own, of course.
Standing slightly apart from the crowd, the glow from the central column assisted him in casting a decidedly impressive shadow across the marble floor. And though black-cloak was the official dress code, Avrahm’s seemed to drink the very light from the room. He was attracting quite a few glances. Most were in admiration, though he was sure that quite a few were from the more jealous within the crowd, sour about their own accoutrements being so radically outshone. “Let them stare,” he thought, “she loves to be ogled.”
“Lord Metzières! How delighted I am to see you here!” Volantesso’s voice broke over the back of Avrahm’s head like a bottle in a barfight. Avrahm turned, slowly enough to ensure he had enough time to iron most of the contempt out of his smile. “Lord Volantesso!” Avrahm greeted him with a bow, just low and flamboyant enough that an onlooker with an apprehensive disposition might have interpreted it as mildly sarcastic. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! Though, I must admit, I didn’t expect to be greeted personally by our most distinguished host.”
The taller man boomed with laughter. “Oh, come now Metzières,” Volantesso laid a tree-like arm across Avrahm’s shoulders. “The matter that divided us has been settled. And,” he added, in a stage whisper, “across the course of it, we got to know each other rather well didn’t we? I don’t know half the people here. I’m just glad to see a face I can put a name to.”
“Well, in that case, I’m immensely glad to be of service to our new Impresario,” said Avrahm, flashing a charming smile that carried all the warmth of an ice cube. Volantesso took it in stride. With his arm still draped around Avrahm’s shoulder, he turned them both towards the glowing centrepiece. “You were good competition. If you hadn’t spent so much time abroad cavorting with the elves, it would’ve been a very different story! The office is a great responsibility. I just hope I can do it justice.” This form of apologetic bragging was the foundation upon which all Giavernan courtly graces were built. Flaunting one’s successes in a way that would insult one’s opponent while leaving them with no room to politely rebuff was a delicate art, but Avrahm could dance through mazes of verbal thorns with the best of them. “I wouldn’t worry about it, the office has survived far worse than you,” he replied cheekily. Volantesso chuckled.
Apart from being the cultural pillar of the state, financing all the great spectacles and requiring every noble family to have his writ of permission for any ball, dance or wedding party, the Impresario was also the figurehead for the production of Giavernan Impreso throughout his decade-long tenure. Volantesso’s stunt with the display and liberal distribution of the Impreso, ostentatious as it was to everyone else, should have been doubly biting to Avrahm, who had been his election opponent. But annoyed though he was at having lost to someone he had a deeply personal disdain for, the loss of the office wouldn’t inconvenience him much. He’d only run the campaign to try to save a couple of innocent lives. Volantesso was right about one thing. If Avrahm hadn’t encountered the elves, it would have been a different story.
They stood in silence for a moment, admiring the vitreous spectacle, then Volantesso shook himself out of his contemplation. “Pardon me, Lord Metzières, but there are others I am expected to greet. Before I go,” he said, pre-emptively stemming the torrent of regret Avrahm was about to express at the early dissolution of their most fortunate meeting, “Allow me to abuse the powers of my office in your favour.” He accompanied Avrahm over to one of the twenty-four smaller glass pillars, and the crowd parted at his presence. He deposited Avrahm at the front of the line to the Impreso dispensary, and disappeared back into the crowd, chanting an exorcism of polite regret to shield himself from their attempted interactions.
Avrahm poured himself a particularly large glass, and exited the ballroom to the terrace overlooking the gardens. It was about as empty as he could’ve hoped for. With an uncharacteristically chill wind for the height of summer, and an unlimited supply of Impreso that could potentially cost a garnet a glass, very few people had bothered to grace the terraces with their noble feet. Most of the people out here had taken advantage of Volantesso’s generosity too liberally, and were now busy leaning over the stone railings, enriching the garden soils below with hundreds of florins worth of Impreso. Beyond the gardens, from this high up, the forest of the elves was clearly visible. He thought he could just make out Whitetree, but wasn’t sure.
Avrahm found himself an isolated section of railing to enjoy his drink. It started as it always did, with the traditional tang of a strong spirit. Then the alcohol burned away the tastes in his mouth and the wonder that was the Impreso revealed itself. The sweetness of barley sugar was replaced by notes of dry cinnamon and nutmeg. Fresh pine needles and hard green pear gave way to chocolate-covered caramels, then black pepper and orange cream flared up, before a thick hazelnut flavour dampened the fire on his tongue. He shivered, more from the drink than the wind, but his cloak misunderstood, and stretched down to cover his arms with the softness of black swan feathers.
He gave a light, surprised laugh, dipped his finger in the Impreso, and wiped a drop of it on his collar. The cloak sputtered. Ugh! Why does it have to have such a burn? It would be a truly sweet delight otherwise. “It’s the core of a good drink!” Avrahm replied, feigning offence. “I think I can see your home from here. Come on out, no one’s around.” He felt the cloak lighten as the floor took some of its weight, and a second later, rather than being wrapped in black fabric, he was being embraced from behind by a beautiful woman in a dress as dark as her hair.
“Lenorah,” Avrahm pointed, “that is Whitetree isn’t it?”
“Of course it is!” The Queen of the Fae replied. “Are human eyes really that weak? No wonder none of you can see the damage that your industry is doing to it.”
“My eyes were good enough to appreciate you, weren’t they?” Avrahm retorted. She laughed and tightened her embrace. “It’s time isn’t it?” They both knew the answer and sighed, already regretting what they were about to do.
With Lenorah’s help, Avrahm scaled the building up to where he had calculated that the top of the Impreso reservoir was. Thankfully, filling it was hard work, and the men there had opened a window. She leapt off him, and they were dead before he’d clambered through. Innocent lives that wouldn’t have been wasted if he’d become Impresario. They’d run the numbers together. Six hundred dead tonight, or thousands once the forests wilted. Millions – of both races – if it led to war. Avrahm uncorked a small bottle, poured some of it into the reservoir, and drank the rest himself. Then he and Lenorah chanted together, and he began to scream as the molten gold in the reservoir turned into… molten gold.
Hundreds of screams burst through the air as every drop of Impreso within a mile turned to liquid gold, and the smell of charred flesh rose on the hot air and engulfed them. Delirious with pain, a part of Avrahm still felt proud that he would die for a right reason. Then, Lenorah’s lips clamped over his, and she sucked all the heat out of him with a kiss. The gold came up after, and she spat it on the floor with a splutter of disgust.
Avrahm stared at her. “You didn’t tell me you’d save me.”
“I didn’t know if I could. And I didn’t want to deceive you into doing this, it had to be your own choice.”
“Shit,” Avrahm sobbed, tears flooding his eyes. “Shit. I didn’t expect I’d have to live with this decision.”
Lenorah embraced him with one arm and began to plant little kisses all over his face. Her other arm sifted through the gold as she worked some more magic. “I know,” she said, “but it’s hard enough to find a good Elf these days, let alone a good man.” Though he saw nothing through his tears, he felt her slip the ring of gold her magic had wrought onto his finger.
“And I promise that you won’t have to live with it alone.”