22

The Hotel Astarte

This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy in June 2007.

I
Licorice
October 1929

A farmhouse stands in the center of a thousand acres of corn and wheat. It is a windy late-summer night, velvet blue with stars punched out of it. The darkness smells of turned earth and burrowing worms and the shiny carapaces of black beetles.

The farmhouse is white and well-built, trim and tidy and organized. Light blazes from its windows.

Inside the farmhouse, the King and Queen of the Midwest sit in an immaculate parlor. She is knitting and he is reading a farm paper. His heavy workboots are by the door; his feet, in red socks that she has knit from the finest silken wool, are propped on a footrest embroidered with roses and lilies.

A young man sits on the window seat, elbows back on the sill, head turned to the darkness. Just nineteen, he is strong and young and blonde as a hayshock, but there has always been something in the way his eyes reflect the sky that the King of the Midwest does not recognize. Something strange that flashes sometimes when the young man is out in the fields, binding sheaves of slippery wheat.

The Prince stares out across the inky black fields, eyes straining to see another light somewhere in the distance.

*

There is a man coming through the fields, shouldering stiff green blades aside with a rustling sound, his cracked black leather boots making dusty crunching sounds on the clods of dry earth. There is the whir and buzz of crickets around him. He is a dark man with fishpale skin and eyes the color of steel and aluminum and granite, eyes the color of cities, the color of the east. He wears a dusty black suit and he carries a watch on a chain.

He is dead.

*

There is a loud knock on the door of the farmhouse.

The Queen of the Midwest glances at her husband; strangers at night may bode ill, foreshadowing assassination or traveling salesmen.

“Who could it be?”

The King lifts his rifle from above the fireplace; the look on his face indicates that the visit is expected, but is no more desired for being so. The Queen tucks away her yarnwork and goes to sit close to her son. Her son does not stir, but continues to stare out the window.

“A dark man,” he murmurs to his mother, without looking at her. “A dark man from the east. Walking through the corn. He has been summoned.”

The Queen’s breath seizes. She cannot swallow. Her hands become ice. The palace shudders with her anxious dread; muffin tins and cream separators and sheaf binding machines rattle.

But when the King opens the door, there is no one there, only the miles and miles of fields all around.

“Come in,” the King speaks to the darkness, gruffly. “Come in, damn it. I have been waiting for you.”

A strong gust blows past him, smelling of sulfur and tears and something else, something darkly bitter and sweet.

The King of the Midwest turns with the wind, and he sees his wife and the Prince looking at a man standing by the fireplace.

He is a dark man in a dark suit. Light shines through him, through the translucent paleness of his skin. His eyes glow like marsh-gas. He stares at her, at Columbia, Queen of the Midwest. She stares back, and it is a moment like one of the new electric lines that dip and sway next to the empty dirt roads; soft and tense and charged.

“Licorice,” she exhales. She turns desperate eyes on her husband. “What have you done to him?”

“I didn’t kill him,” the King of the Midwest growls. His hand tightens around the polished walnut stock of his rifle.

“Why has he come here?” Columbia’s cheeks burn crimson with old humiliation. His presence makes her remember all that she has tried so hard to forget for the past twenty years.

New York City. The Hotel Astarte.

How they had slept at odd intervals, wakeful in the darkest blue part of night. They had watched the sun rise and set over the tops of the surrounding buildings, glazing the deep carved limestone with lucent veils of peach and pink and purple. He had gone and not come back, and the hotel manager had pounded on her door, and she’d had no money to pay him. He had left her in a bed made of unpaid bills.

She had wandered through the city, crying on a bench in Union Square, bitterness leaking out of her. The land had suffered, crops had failed. Industrial concerns rose on the banks of rivers that had once been shaded by willow trees, smoking factories churned out pollution and foulness and mechanisms of despair.

The King of the Midwest had found her, in a small room with mold-blotched wallpaper. He had spoken her name with tenderness and pity, filling her with shame.

“Why?” she whispers fiercely, remembered disgrace filling her with rage. “Why, after all these years?”

Your husband needs me, Licorice says. His lips do not move; the words hang softly in air, like exhaled smoke, subtly mocking. His Warlocks at the Grange Hall have summoned me back.

“Why?” Columbia demands of her husband, through clenched teeth.

“To kill the Emperor of the East,” the King says.


II
Columbia
June 1910

At the Kansas State Fair, in the summer of 1910, Columbia met the Warlock who would ruin her.

She wore a thin white cotton dress, pintucked and embroidered, enfolding her fragrant golden flesh. Rich odors wafted from her, through the thin cotton; she was a fresh, erotic sachet wandering wide-eyed even in the glaring sunshine, candyfloss collapsing across the back of her loosely-clenched fist.

Columbia, divinely fair, walking barefoot on the dusty earth. Columbia, overflowing fecundity and bounty, a rich outpouring of friendliness and trust. She was promise and destiny; she had been painted a hundred times in classic drapery, one firm round breast uncovered, cornsilk hair streaming down her back. She was lush and luscious, curving in all directions. Her skin was like melted ice cream, slightly sticky and very sweet.

Columbia, Princess of the Harvest. The old men with tobacco-stained beards and stained overalls watched her like a prize milch cow. They leaned on fenceposts and watched her and spoke of royal nuptials, barn raisings, prosperity and good harvests. Weddings, gazebos, masses of cornflowers and sweetpeas, gingham tablecloths and fried chicken and fruit pies, bunting and fireworks and brass bands.

She paused before a display of watermelons, breathed a beneficent congratulation on a boy who’d nursed one of the slick green fruits larger than a copper washtub. The boy blushed with pride.

At the exact same moment, in another part of the fair, the man who would be the King of the Midwest was winning a threshing contest, sweat glittering across his broad shoulders. He was beautiful, strong and golden as she, with a throat of bundled copper and eyes as blue and fierce as the midday sky over the prairie. He was betrothed to Columbia, and had been since before each was born.

But it was Licorice who found her first.

*

His name was Jacob Philadelphia. It had been Jacob Meyer, but he had converted to give his soul more worth when he came to sell it to the devil. She came to call him Licorice, because he was dark and chewy and strange and bitter.

He was a traveling Warlock, a salesman of patent magics who could dazzle onlookers with vivid recreations of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo or screaming harpies that descended from the sky clutching sheafs of creamy Lady Washington roses or refulgent, semi-illusory banners advertising the miracle powers of Madame Mehitabel’s Miraculous Medicines. He had sold his soul to the devil because the devil seemed to want it more than God ever had, and was willing to pay a better price. He was whip-thin and dark, like a fibrous plant that did most of its growing at night.

He had been sent for her by hugely fat men in suits with watch chains that stretched across their gold-buttoned vests. Men who smoked cigars and had names that were initials; J.P., A.S., R.T. They had uses for her.

“And that is all you need to know,” said the Warlock of the Emperor of the East, who had promised to pay ten thousand dollars in gold notes. He wore a silk brocade waistcoat and had his fingernails polished by a mute Chinese woman he kept in locked in a small room in his office on the top floor of the Gillender Building on Wall Street.

Jacob Philadelphia came to find Columbia after dark, when the electric lights came on and lit the cricket-whispering blackness with a thin yellow glow. He muttered powerful words of Compulsion, causing late fairgoers nearby to suddenly remember forgotten chores, horses that needed watering, parlors that needed dusting, bundt cakes and hot dishes that needed to be set out for the potluck supper. They scattered, deserting the midway, leaving it empty and trash-strewn.

He got her alone by the coin-operated fortuneteller, the grotesque automaton of an old Hindu woman with a grimy silver turban and a bindi like bloody thumbprint. Columbia had a silver coin in her hand and was staring at the machine, unmoving.

“Do you want to know your future?” he asked her.

She turned wide astonished eyes onto him.

“I already know everything that will ever happen to me,” she said, realization and disappointment blossoming together.

“Maybe you do,” he said, showing her a brief, brilliant smile, tantalizingly false, “… And then again, maybe you don’t.” Under the dipping carnival lights of the traveling show, in a mud-baked field with brown grass and fluttering trash-wrappers and bit-ends of mustard smeared corn-dogs, in Great Bend, Kansas, capital of the Midwest Empire, its palaces carved with cows and corn, he poured words into her whiteshell ear.

Automat. Neon. Elevator.

There is nothing that security wants more than danger. There is nothing that satisfaction wants more than to be overturned.

They boarded the train for New York that night. She took nothing with her, not even shoes.

*

He brought her to New York City, to the Hotel Astarte: small, discreet, and abundant. Silk curtains stirred in the warm afternoon wind, there was an exquisite table d’hote from which lavishly spiced dishes could be carried to the rooms at all hours. He had promised to feed her stars from golden plates and pour her glasses of moonlight from ruby ewers.

We have uses for her, the Warlock of the Emperor of the East had said. That is all you need to know.

Of course, Jacob Philadelphia knew what they intended. They did not have to tell him. They had hired him to bring Columbia to New York, where they would cut her body into a thousand pieces. They would put each piece into their formulations, grind her bones into dust, use the magic of her creation to fuel their machines. It was powerful magic, and the thought of its implementation had fascinated Jacob Philadelphia. He had wanted to be a part of that magic, to watch it and learn from it.

But that was before he had met her. Before he had memorized the shape of her lips by means of a hundred small glances, both furtive and overt.

He had promised her wonders. He had promised to show her Colossuses astride waterways that fizzed with lemon soda and diamonds glittering on stormgrates. But he had lied to women before, made promises he did not intend to keep. It amused him to speak of pearls and brocade to greedy shopgirls and venal whores. But what amused him was the thwarting of their greed, the pricking of their covetousness, the deflowering of their expectations. What amused him was maneuvering others, ever so skillfully, into eating their own hearts out.

He paid to have a magnificent banquet laid out for her in the room at the Hotel Astarte, a banquet of the most wonderful things he could assemble or conjure; undead ortolans in raspberry sauce that sang in burbling tones, oysters that were more pearl than meat, red caviar that glistened like pebbles of polished garnet. She touched a dainty fingertip to each dish. The brilliantly saffroned yellow curry made her shiver; after sipping a mouthful of champagne, she rubbed her nose like a cat under a dripping eave. A cut-crystal dish held ropes of black licorice spraying out like black stalks of grass. She chewed the candy thoughtfully.

She looked at it all with admiration, but it was a strange kind of admiration. It was the same kind of admiration she’d shown to the boy with the watermelon. She was pleased that such things existed. She found them wonderful. But they had nothing to do with her, not really.

Without another glance at the wonderful dishes he’d arranged for her, she sat down in the middle of the floor, barefoot, and pulled an apple out of her pocket. She bit into it. She reached it up to him, offered him a bite. He took her wrist to pull her to her feet. But instead she pulled him down to her, the strength in her slender white arms surprising him.

“I want to know my future,” she said, putting her face close to his, her lips smelling of apples and licorice.

You have no future, was all he could have said. But then his lips found hers, and his hand went to her firm warm waist, and wonder became brilliance blossoming with the brightness of ten thousand Fourth of July finales. When she sighed, it was like the sound of wind in lonely places. She was vast and encompassing, and her memory was short. She forgot him from moment to moment, and every impression he made upon her was new and fresh and miraculous. The wide-eyed brilliance of her trust made him feel that the future held far more for both of them than it actually did.

*

And the night they made love for the first time, strange flowers bloomed on the apple trees, and birds sang new and different songs, and the Warlocks of the King of the Midwest stopped their horses and leaned on their plows and looked up at the clouds, which were shaped like sighing lips and spilling hair, and they knew that something was very, very wrong.

III
The Emperor of the East
October 1929

Dawn; cold. Mid-October sunlight rising over shivering dew, the smell of autumn approaching on frost-rimed feet. Purple and blue, distant smoke and the smell of wormcast.

The Prince of the Midwest walks along a dusty road. The dead Warlock shuffles silently behind him, kicking up little dust tornadoes with each step. The Prince is heading into town, where his father’s wheatstalk-chewing Warlocks will mutter homespun charms over him and then put him on a train to New York City. It has all been planned.

The Queen of the Midwest railed against his leaving. Against them all, against living men and dead men and their plots and schemes. Her son, her son! She threw things around the parlor and broke china.

“The boy must go,” said the King of the Midwest. “My Warlocks have seen it. They have read this in the milk of the wheat, in the formation of the clouds, in the way the earth turns from the plowshare. He must do this.” He spoke as if he were reciting an encyclical; eyes downcast, vaguely guilty.

“This is not his war!” the Queen cried. And who was she speaking of, her son or her dead lover?

“It is his, more than anyone’s,” said her husband. “He must go.”

The King of the Midwest stroked a large, callused hand along her back. Licorice watched the movement, dark amusement like flames in his eyes.

“He will be killed,” the Queen murmured.

Maybe he will, Licorice said. And then again, maybe he won’t.

In the end, she could do nothing. She touched her son’s chest with her slender white hand.

“I have given you everything,” she murmured. “I beg you to keep it safe.”

The Prince clasped his mother’s hand, kissed her fingertips.

The King of the Midwest held her in his strong, honest arms and she sobbed against his broad shoulder as the two men, one living and one dead, walked away into the gathering dawn.

“Did you love her?” is the first question the Prince asks the dead Warlock, once they are far enough away from the farmhouse. His eyes are angry and puzzled. The question makes the dead Warlock smile slightly, and it is a long moment before he answers.

*

He left her at the Hotel Astarte, left her sleeping with her apple-colored cheek pillowed on her plump rosy forearm, and he did not come back.

He wandered through the early-morning streets, dropping charms of Misdirection and Confusion and Forgetfulness. He wandered like this for many hours, until there was nothing to connect him to Columbia anymore. Then he turned his steps toward Wall Street.

The Warlock of the Emperor of the East had thought that a man who had sold his soul to the devil could not fall in love. But he did not understand that a man who had sold his soul to the devil is more likely to fall in love, for he has nothing more to fear.

Jacob Philadelphia had fallen in love. He didn’t even think of himself as Jacob Philadelphia anymore. He thought of himself as Licorice, for that was what she had named him. She had reinvented him. He had never fallen in love before, so it was surprising to him. Falling in love made him change his plans drastically.

He came to the Gillender Building on Wall Street, and rode the rattling elevator up to a meeting room with a long table. Men sat around the table, men in morning suits and cutaway waistcoats. They were a dark monotone mass, disapproving, vaguely shiny. Licorice stood at the foot of the brightly polished meeting table, alone.

“Where is she?” demanded the Warlock to the Emperor of the East. The Emperor himself sat at the head of the meeting table, behind a screen embroidered with Masonic symbols and other charms of power. From behind the screen, cigar smoke curled up into the air, blue and reeking.

“I have changed my mind,” Licorice said. He reached into his pocket, threw handfuls of gold eagles onto the shiny wood surface. They clattered and skid. He shoved his hands into his pockets, lifted his chin. “She’s gone. You won’t find her.”

Behind his screen, the Emperor of the East chuckled low, but said nothing. The Warlock of the Emperor of the East turned a shade of purple.

“You slimy kike fucker,” the Warlock growled, his fingers digging into the wood of the meeting table. “Tell us where she is!”

“No,” Licorice said.

The Warlock of the Emperor of the East lifted his gold ringed hand, sketched curses in the air, sent them against Licorice with a bark. Licorice lifted his hand in a cross, but he knew it was futile. He was no one, a man without a country, a servant of kings, an assassin. He knew he could not defend himself there, in the Gillender Building, in the center of their power. He had known that even before he walked through the brass filigreed doors, into the black-marble lobby. He had known, even then, that he was dead. The rest was mere formality.

They beat him to death in that room, twenty-two floors above Wall Street, those men with sticks and silver-headed canes. They beat him because he would not say the words: the Hotel Astarte. The words would have saved his life, but he would not say them. They were his one bright thing. The Lords of the East broke his nose, his fingers, his ribs, his neck. The thought of her, hidden and unreachable, comforted him as he died.

*

I did not love her, the dead Warlock says finally, his voice bitterly cold. I was an agent of the Emperor of the East. I humiliated her and broke her to serve his ends. The power of that humiliation has fueled their power for the past two decades.

The Prince shudders with revulsion.

“Then you deserved what you got,” he says.

Certainly, the dead Warlock says.

“And why have my father’s Warlocks summoned you?” The Prince asks. “Why you? And why now?”

I know better than to scry the motives of Kings, the dead Warlock says. But he knows, of course he knows. Even in death, Jacob Philadelphia is a great Warlock, and he sees many things.

The King of the Midwest and his Warlocks want the death of the Emperor of the East for pedestrian reasons: because newer and better machines have made the prices of crops fall, and the farmers have been forced to take credit to buy still newer and better machines simply to keep up; because farm women and children grow more and more dissatisfied each day, sick with longing for the shiny toys tantalizingly whispered-of by thousands of radios in small farm kitchens and living rooms; because their sons and daughters want to drink cocktails and smoke cigarettes and read French novels and dance the Charleston. The King of the Midwest is losing a war of dissatisfaction. Motorcars and capital move too swiftly, and the slow ways are being cut to ribbons beneath steel wheels.

But these are the reasons of kings. The Prince surely knows all these reasons. They are not what he has asked.

Why him?

Because Jacob Philadelphia wants revenge, more keenly than anyone has ever wanted anything, ever. Those hard-handed, sunburned men, Warlocks of the King of the Midwest, they have seen that plain, seen that desire for revenge like an undeniable physical thing, like a clubfoot or a harelip. They have called him back because his desire for revenge is so powerful that he can use it to make the death of the Emperor of the East.

“And is the revenge you seek for yourself, or for her?” asks his son.

The boy is perceptive, the dead Warlock thinks with surprise. He is even more surprised to find that it makes him feel proud.

*

In New York, the dead Warlock and his son take a small room. In the Hotel Astarte. The very same room. Not out of any kind of nostalgia; the place is a key part of the magic he must create. The magic that the Prince is key to.

Much has changed in the past twenty years. Once a genteel district, the neighborhood has run to seed. Automobiles rule the streets now, black honking boxes of steel and velour, and from open windows with cracked paint comes the sound of radios. Women rouge their knees and smoke cigarettes. The dead Warlock thinks of Columbia, rich and round and curved and buxom; all of those things are gone from womanhood now and women are straight, flat, with short hair and boyish torsos.

Even the Prince is not immune to the times. He has purchased several moving-picture magazines and is reading them seriously in a corner of the room. They are all graced by a picture of the Queen of Hollywood, a young woman with bee-stung lips and a shimmering shingle bob. The Prince of the Midwest scrutinizes her picture.

The dead Warlock has assembled several things. Knives. Oyster shells. A shallow silver bowl.

“Do you think what you are doing is right?” The Prince asks, casually, without looking up.

I do not make such judgments.

“I do,” says the Prince. “Killing the Emperor of the East will have terrible consequences. It will hurt the whole country. The suffering will be immense. You know that, don’t you?”

The dead Warlock says nothing.

“The King of the Midwest does not think deeply about such things,” says the Prince. “He reacts like a seed grows in the soil; vigorously, and without thought.”

That is why he has advisors, the dead Warlock says, carefully.

“His Warlock advisors are a bunch of hicks who think that knowing something about moon-cycles and crop-blessing gives them the right to meddle in politics.” The Prince’s words are surprisingly hard and vehement. The dead Warlock looks into the Prince’s eyes. He is surprised at how blue they are, exactly the color of his mother’s.

Then you won’t help?

“I didn’t say that,” the Prince says diffidently. Falling silent, he resumes flipping through the pages of his movie magazines.

*

The next morning, the dead Warlock takes the Prince to 11 Wall Street, to the New York Stock Exchange, the Temple of the Emperor of the East. It glows in the smoky early morning sunlight.

In the twenty years that Jacob Philadelphia has been dead, the Emperor of the East has become vastly powerful. Millionaires are everywhere; they inhabit shoeshine shops and groceries and newsstands. There are new cars and new suits and new jewelry on women in new furs. Unimaginably tall buildings rise on pieces of land priced at $75,000 an acre.

Standing on the sidewalk, gaping up at the New York Stock Exchange building, they look like a couple of rubes. A passing newsboy appraises them critically, and is about to yell something mean when the Prince flashes him a warm dazzling smile. Words freeze in the boy’s mouth. A puzzled feeling comes over him. He feels, suddenly, as if he’s been part of something great.

The dead Warlock does not notice this. He stares fixedly at the massive Corinthian columns, white as refined sugar, like the bars of a prison window. Between them, glass shimmers, reflecting the dull angles of the surrounding buildings and tiny shards of blue sky. In the center of the pediment there is a woman of creamy marble. She is known as Integrity. Her features are like Columbia’s; one of the Emperor of the East’s cruel little jokes, no doubt. The dead Warlock frowns, looks away.

First, we must state our intention, he says, handing the Prince a piece of paper. The Prince unfolds it, looks at it critically.

“Out loud?” he lifts an eyebrow at the dead Warlock.

As loud as you like, the dead Warlock says. The Prince nods, then clears his throat, throws out his chest, thrusts his chin toward the façade of white marble.

“Emperor of the East!” The Prince of the Midwest booms, waving an arm theatrically. “It is the intention of the King of the Midwest to destroy you, scatter your riches, raze your palace to the earth and sow salt among the ruins. Come forth now and treat with me!”

A few businessmen hurrying toward lunch stop to give the young man an odd look; a flock of pigeons rises up from the sill of a nearby building. The Prince and the dead Warlock stand on the sidewalk, wait for a few minutes, until finally the dead Warlock grunts satisfaction.

He can’t say that he wasn’t warned.

*

That night, precisely at midnight, Jacob Philadelphia cuts the hand of the Prince of the Midwest with an obsidian knife. He holds the young man’s hand over a shallow silver bowl. The blood drips down with fat, chiming pings.

While the young man bandages up his hand, Jacob Philadelphia burns tickertape that he has collected from behind brokerage houses and chants words of power through the smoke. He grinds the oyster shells, an ancient symbol of the money that built this city, into a powder that he throws into the flame, making it glow blue. With the tip of a needle, he pierces both ends of a rooster’s egg and blows out the good insides, leaving nothing but an empty shell.

These are all just mechanics, though. While he does all of these things, he is remembering Columbia. He puts all his love for her into the spell. All of it, glad to be rid of it, but the more he puts in, the more is left. Love is so troublesome that way.

He puts in the smell of her hair and the milky smoothness of her belly and her eyes, clear summer blue.

The glow of it fills the room, smelling of apples and licorice, lighting the dead Warlock’s pale features in such a way that he seems almost alive again.

The Prince pauses in bandaging his hand. He is enraptured, astonished.

“You did love her,” the Prince says, amazed at the power of it, as the magic causes the whole memory of what happened to unfold before him, the truth unfurling across his memory like a photoplay. Dismay and delight mingle in his voice. “Oh, mercy. How you loved her.”

The dead Warlock says nothing. There is nothing to say. Denials are futile, and assent would be ludicrous, like agreeing that the sun was warm, or air was good for breathing.

The whole room glows with the power of the dead Warlock’s craft. Brilliant light streams out of the small windows into the night, illuminating the neighborhood. People in nearby buildings go to their windows, trying to determine the source of the glare. The light is soft and round, as if the moon had come to perch atop the Hotel Astarte like some kind of strange advertising gimmick.

A storm gathers over the city, like the summer storms that sweep over the plains, fast and rushing. Thunder rumbles, lightning flashes, and tickertape and ash and apple blossoms rain down to clog the gutters of Wall Street.

*

October 24, 1929.

Panic comes with the dawn.

Sell! Sell, for the love of God!

The whole city rings with the words. Tickertape machines smoke and smell strangely of burnt licorice and rotten apples; investors everywhere find themselves hungry and yet unable to fill their stomachs. Everywhere they look, their minds see emptiness; empty eggshells, empty pockets, empty cigarette packs, empty, empty, everything empty.

Sell! Sell, for the love of God!

Thousands gather outside the exchanges and brokerages; police assemble with truncheons and black mariahs, uncertain what they should do against these terrified masses, driven mad by the emptiness they feel all around them, above them, about them, within them. Men are already jumping from windows, but not as many as will come later.

At the offices of J.P. Morgan and Company, the Lords of the East meet in close conference. Statements are issued. Newspapermen take the words down diligently, their hands trembling.

The Warlock to the Emperor of the East clenches his teeth as he makes a paste of corpse dust and wheat stalks and cupfuls of blood from the bluest veins of the richest men in New York. He smears this paste onto the forehead of J.P. Morgan and Company’s floor broker, growling harsh, sandpaper-edged charms of Solidarity and Reinforcement as he does so.

“Go,” he barks at the man, giving him a shove. “There is no time to lose.”

The floor broker of J.P. Morgan and Company, anointed with all the power his Masters can summon, walks onto the exchange floor in a trance, his steps halting and stiff. The crowd on the floor falls silent; panicked brokers look at the man’s glassy eyes and shudder. The Lords are pulling out the big magic, they whisper to each other. But which direction will it go?

In a low, hypnotic tone the floor broker asks for the price on U.S. Steel.

“$195,” says a man at his elbow, who has been crying.

“I am buying at $205,” the floor broker says, mechanically. “10,000 shares. 10,000 shares at $205.”

In an instant, fear evaporates, collapsing inward on itself, and everyone who has been in the grip of terror now sees that the emptiness they have feared is nothing but a hollow shell of illusion. Jubilation bubbles up in little pockets all over the trading floor, smelling of hope and 100 dollar bills, and brokers who’s faces are grimy from the dust of thousands of losing transactions now embrace each other with relief. This is big magic. It will shelter them all.

The floor broker of J.P. Morgan and Company receives his 200 shares immediately. He smiles and nods, his eyes glassy and blank, and he leaves the rest of his order in the hands of one of his specialists. Then he stumbles from the trading floor, his movements puppetlike and jerky. No one sees as he retreats into an antechamber and falls to the ground, contorted in agony. He has been the channel of all the magic that the Warlock to the Emperor of the East could summon; he has been like a steel tube through which the blast of a smelting furnace has been directed.

It is likely he will not survive.

But the markets, the markets move upward like a skyrocket, fears of a crash thwarted.

*

In the small room at the Hotel Astarte, the dead Warlock sits staring at the floor, at copies of the Wall Street Journal spread out across the acanthus carpet. He is slumped; his hand rests over his mouth, as if he is trying to keep his despair from escaping.

The Warlock to the Emperor of the East is more powerful than he remembered.

“Come on, you can’t give up,” says the Prince, who has bought himself a bagful of apples from a corner store. He is eating them one by one. He is cutting the apples into wedges using a silver knife; the same knife that the dead Warlock used draw his blood with. There is a strange false cheerfulness to his voice that irritates the dead Warlock.

What more can I do? asks the dead Warlock, clenching his teeth. What more?

The Prince sighs, staring at his father.

“You really did love her,” he says again.

I will forever, the dead Warlock says. But it is not enough. Dry dusty tears gather at the corners of his eyes.

“You mustn’t say that,” says the Prince, very softly. He sits up, holding the knife loosely in his hand. He unbuttons his snowy white shirt, baring a smooth expanse of young chest. “I want to show you something.”

He touches the tip of the silver knife to the tanned flesh over his breastbone. He pushes with a grunt, driving the knife into his chest. He pulls the blade up, cutting.

The dead Warlock cries out, but some magic keeps the young man standing, unharmed and unconcerned. There is no blood; only a jagged hole. Licorice watches as his son reaches into his chest and pulls out two hearts. One of the hearts is shattered and fragmented, like rutilated crystal. The other heart surrounds it, holds it together, intertwined like honeysuckle growing around an oak tree.

“My mother’s heart,” the Prince says softly, “… and my own. Her heart was broken. My heart gave it strength.” He pauses. “She would have done anything to keep me from giving it to you. It never knew the truth. Now it does, and now you must have it. It is yours, and always has been.”

Licorice takes the two hearts in his pale, trembling hands. He clasps them to his chest, closing his eyes. He feels them beating, thunderous and fragrant. He wishes his own heart were still beating so that it could answer them.

“You can work a great magic with them,” says the Prince, buttoning up his shirt. His voice is flat, tight. “Greater than the Warlock to the Emperor of the East can imagine.”

The dead Warlock shakes his head.

I cannot take them, the dead Warlock says, finally. If I use them, they will not be yours to reclaim–neither hers, nor yours.

“I know,” says the Prince.

It is too great a price, says the dead Warlock.

“My mother has found a life where she needs no heart,” the Prince said. “She can live without it.”

But you? The dead Warlock is worried about this boy. He is surprised to find that he loves him as much as he ever did Columbia, the love for them both all intertwined like the two beating hearts he holds in his hands.

The Prince flashes a smile, brilliant and unreadable.

“Me?” the Prince says. “I am an agent of the King of the Midwest. I exist only to serve his ends.”

Licorice stares at his son for a long time, scrutinizing those brilliant blue eyes, so like those of his mother, but with something else in them, something dark and strange. Something the dead Warlock recognizes as his own.

The dead Warlock nods his head. Then he drops the entwined hearts into the shallow silver bowl, rolling up his sleeves to begin the greatest magic he has ever worked.

*

October 29, 1929.

This time, there is no answer. The Warlock to the Emperor of the East slaughters goats and burns yachts in the Harbor and deflowers virgin showgirls and chants every incantation he has ever learned or devised and still, the market plummets, and brokers wail and rend their garments, and the marble of the New York Stock Exchange sizzles and stinks of smoke and decay and rot.

The Lords of the East hold one final meeting.

Jacob Philadelphia and the Prince are summoned.

They all reek of panic, the Lords of the East, a smell compounded of stale sweat and fast-bolted whisky and cigar smoke and red ink.

Jacob Philadelphia stands at the foot of the brightly polished meeting table, where he stood once before. This time, though, his son is beside him, tall and strong. The young man smiles faintly, amused by the desperation he sees laid before him.

“We will capitulate,” says one of the men, a bald fat little man who continually mops his brow with a sodden handkerchief. He speaks these words to the Prince of the Midwest. “Call off your attack, we implore you! Your father has sent word to treat with us. You must comply!”

“I will do as I choose,” says the Prince.

The Emperor of the East gestures, and his retainers lower the veil that screens his face. The embroidered velvet, figured with Masonic symbols and charms of power, falls away, revealing a very shrunken old man in a towering leather chair.

“Must I plead with you personally, boy?” he says, bitterly. He looks very ill, thin and sallow. His cheeks are like carved-out bowls. A cigar burns between his fingers, but the smoke makes him cough hackingly. It is clear that he will not survive the week if the magic is not reversed. “I will do anything you ask.”

“I ask nothing,” says the Prince of the Midwest.

“Then you will call off this attack!” cries the Warlock of the Emperor of the East. “You will order your … creature … ” he gestures in disgust at the dead Warlock, “…to reverse his spell!”

Jacob Philadelphia braces himself. He knows the ways of Kings. The King of the Midwest has brought the Emperor of the East to his knees. Now, the Prince will treat, make bargains, offer terms. This, then, this moment is his revenge. It will have to be enough.

It is all I can offer you, Columbia. The dead Warlock closes his eyes and lifts his chin, and waits for the Prince to give him the word that he knows must come. The word of Mercy.

“The attack is not mine to call off,” says the Prince of the Midwest. The dead Warlock’s eyes fly open; he stares at his son.

“I am a man without a country,” the young man continues, his smile snowy and chill. “I am like my father. The heart of the Midwest once beat in my chest; it beats there no longer. I am no one, gentlemen.”

Around the table, men in suits shift in terror and dismay. The Emperor of the East coughs, bringing a handkerchief to his lips; the white linen is spotted with blood when he draws it away.

“You will destroy both of our kingdoms!” the Emperor of the East climbs to his feet; his retainers hurry to help him, anxious hands slid under his armpits. “Both our kingdoms! You will bring misery and despair to hundreds of thousands of innocent people!”

The Emperor of the East snaps his fingers at his Warlock; the pompous fat man scurries to reveal a very large crystal ball in which images swirl and cluster. Farm foreclosures, evictions, auctions, all clouded in swirling dust, failed crops, drought.

“There is no cause for such misery,” The Emperor of the East says, softly. “You must see reason. I beg you.”

The Prince shakes his head.

“Both your kingdoms are dying kingdoms, and these are old squabbles. I have set my sights on a new empire, one that I can win for myself.” He pauses. “I am going West.”

And then, all in an instant, Jacob Philadelphia sees the future his son will create. The dead Warlock sees it all, sees the future unfolding in shadows projected through celluloid.

Prince Philadelphia, that is the name he will take. He will join other men who have left their lands and built themselves from light and illusion, men with names like Zukor and Thalberg and Selznick. With them, he will build a rich and powerful empire, one not subject to the vicissitudes of arbitrage or the rain that waters crops. He will be one of the rulers of the richest Empire the world will know, a Lord of Hollywood, an empire that will outshine all those that came before it. He will board an airplane to Hollywood, and he will never look back.

“We will recover,” says the Emperor of the East, sinking back into his chair. “We will recover eventually. And we will never forget this outrage.”

“You may not forget,” says the Prince, “But you will have no choice but to forgive.” He tips his hat to the men around the table, and snaps his fingers at the dead Warlock, summoning him to follow. “Good day, gentlemen.”

The looks on their faces make the dead Warlock laugh, laughter which he can’t bring under control even as they’re walking out of the building, onto Wall Street, where brokers are still throwing themselves out of windows like sacks of corn.

IV
Prince Philadelphia
October 31, 1929

The dead Warlock and his son stand together in Newark, New Jersey, waiting for the airplane that will take Prince Philadelphia to the West Coast.

All around them, people talk of stock losses, the bubble burst, the crash. Headlines in huge type scream about it; the papers flutter, discarded, around the field. The Prince pays no attention to any of this detritus. His pockets are stuffed with movie tabloids, telephone exchange numbers, and an invitation to present himself at some strange exotic place called Pickfair.

He is wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigarette in a black bakelite holder. There is the bulge of a flask in his pocket. He has prepared himself well.

“What will happen to you?” the Prince asks his father.

I am as dead as the century, says Jacob Philadelphia. What more can happen?

The Prince watches as the American Airlines airplane taxis toward them, twin propellers beating the dawn.

“We have done great things,” the Prince says. “Perhaps you could come West. You could be of great service to me.”

The dead Warlock shakes his head.

I don’t think so, he says.

The Prince exhales smoke. It curls around his head. “We have done great things,” he says again, with an air of self-satisfaction that befits a much older, fatter man.

I only hope the price was not too great.

The Prince shrugs. “I don’t need one heart, let alone two,” says the Prince. “Not where I’m going.”

There is a long silence between them. The Prince finally breaks it, making a remembering noise and digging into a new leather satchel he’s purchased, along with a Remington typewriter.

“I have my first script,” says the Prince, showing a bound sheaf of paper to the dead Warlock. On the title page, in blocky black letters, centered: The Hotel Astarte.

“Douglas Fairbanks will play the Warlock, and Mary Pickford will play the farmgirl.” the Prince says. “If you have no objections.”

The dead Warlock nods, feels himself rising away like a bird from two cupped hands.

6 Responses to The Hotel Astarte

  1. BIG OTHER says:

    […] Author M. K. Hobson, who claims that her most successful short stories are humorous (which is a damned lie), writes a short blog post instructing the plebes on how to be comedic. Much of humor is in the […]

  2. […] know that M.K. Hobson is awesome, right? Because you’ve read “The Hotel Astarte” or “Hell Notes”, and you’ve heard her narrate stories and host episodes for […]

  3. […] within the genre before (though I did make it on the longlist for my Realms of Fantasy story “The Hotel Astarte“) and I wasn’t really expecting to be. It’s pretty overwhelming. Everyone makes […]

  4. […] Hotel Astarte by M. K. Hobson. In this story, the young Prince of the Midwest must face his own heritage, in the form of the relationship between his mother, now the Queen of the Midwest, and a warlock called Licorice, who is acting in service to the Emperor of the East. This story was better than my summary makes it sound, a Neil-Gaiman-esque fable in which the forces of American history are embodied and do battle. I wasn’t over-fond of the ending, though; it fit with the direction of the story, but I felt like it lost some of the mythic tone of the rest. Listen to it | Read it […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>