The Banker of Aurora
675 Years Since Light
Sareas stood in line behind a man who lived in one of the dust-filled districts. Dirt from his week’s work covered his hands, but this didn’t stop him from rubbing his chin, his mouth, his jaw. The sweat on his cheek mixed with the filth and grime, making a kind of sickening paste there.
Does the Dweller want me to pay to proceed? Was it the Dweller’s voice?
She rummaged in her purse and produced some high-grade sairo.
“Here,” she said to the soldier, eyeing the dirty man she’d sidestepped. She held out her money. “I would like to go in next.”
“As you wish,” said the soldier, depositing the sairo in his pocket.
The dirty man didn’t grumble about her move, but she’d seen some of the rag-wearers do so before. These souls—the complainers—had reason to grumble, but the Dweller favored the wealthy for a reason—it made sense that those with more sairo could speak their grievances to the steward first. The airing of a wealthy soul’s grievances led to solutions, and those solutions, in the hands of someone with enough wealth, only led in turn to the betterment of Aeris. The same solutions in the hands of the poor led to transient happiness, which they inevitably drowned in anima.
As she waited, she gathered her thoughts, fingering the papers in her hands. These papers would perhaps create a world where words like “poor” and “wealthy” no longer existed.
Sareas’s parents had died when she was two, and her paternal grandfather had succumbed to that loss. Her paternal grandmother, Estas, viewed life differently after the loss of her son, daughter-by-marriage, and husband and often said afterward, “The Dweller has created me to suffer great losses before blessing me with great fortune.” Estas endured tragedies like losing family with barely a tear, so she didn’t dole out sympathy for Sareas, no matter how much her granddaughter needed it. Sareas never wondered about her mother’s parents; they’d been rag-wearers, too, and they’d already drowned in the dust long before she was born.
It’d been an odd thing, her parents’ union, but it hadn’t been unfeasible. Her mother, a sifter named Rea, saved sairo for years before seeking an audience with Aurora’s bank—with Estas herself.
Rea sought her fortune, and she found it in producing cloths of superior softness. With that wealth, she moved to the Asaire District and married Sareas’s father. Later, when Sareas was two, both Rea and her husband died during a short-lived attack on Elis Tower; some crazed westerner had attempted to kill the Elis family. The Isle’s Voice kept the event quiet from most of the poorer districts, but Estas had lived in the Asaire District then, and she’d lived near enough to the site of the attack to see her son and daughter-by-marriage killed.
“Family is but one kind of treasure,” Estas had told Sareas later. “There are others.”
Her grandmother’s way of consoling her. Sareas called upon that wisdom—Family is but one kind of treasure—the day she awoke to find her grandmother had died, too. Estas had passed away in her sleep at eighty-years old. She’d lived longer than most Aerisians—even wealthy souls—did.
The lightener came the following day. White robes. Pale, round face. Hair that shot in all directions. Young. There, outside the comfort of Estas’s polished stone home, the lightener performed the ceremony. Sareas watched as her grandmother’s body floated into the sky, upheld by the mysterious forces of the lightener’s aereo. When the ceremony ended, nothing remained of Estas. No new aereo returned from the sky. The lightener placed a hand on Sareas’s shoulder, a solemn smile on her face.
“Do not worry,” said the lightener, “your grandmother has surely joined the Dweller’s number. It’s rare for an aereo to return after one’s body has been lightened. More often, the aereo created from the remains goes north to float near the Dweller. It’s said that the Eriae Ceia is overrun with such aereo, the spirits of our fallen.”
Sareas didn’t care about the Eriae Ceia; her grandmother wouldn’t return. What did she care about some lake on Vai? The last of her family had died. She’d lost them all. At twelve years old, a westerner’s lunacy and the unyielding churning of time had orphaned her.
Books and sairo—and nothing else—remained to comfort her. She, by the Dweller’s will, continued living in the Asaire District, her parents’ fortune stayed with her, and she came to own her grandparents’ fortune, as well.
When a banker from the Asaire District’s bank came to console her, he mentioned an opening at the bank—her grandmother’s position. “Since you’re so educated,” said the banker, “we would love to employ you when you come of proper age.”
Sareas read as much as she could. After the banker’s visit, she read mostly of sairo, money, and commerce. The fortune seekers—and sairo itself—fascinated her. Colorful tomes about money stole away every opening on her bookshelf. Four years after the banker’s visit, she began working at the Asaire District’s bank, the most prestigious bank on Aeris.
Two years had passed since she began work at the bank. Now, she held in her hands something that her grandmother had warned her about. These things in her hands could melt away her flesh like a roaring flame.
“Next,” said the soldier as a grinning man emerged from the steward’s chamber.
Sareas entered the room and strolled over to take a seat on the opposite side of the steward’s grandiose desk. Behind the man, a giant window let in the harbinger’s light, which enveloped the steward. Nothing more than a fetching shadow sat across from her.
“Hello,” he said with a smile framed by a kempt, black beard. “What ails you?” His dark, golden eyes gripped hers, caressing them, embracing them. They moved in minuscule patterns; he didn’t stare at her with boredom but admired her, searching her expression for pain.
How can he still care about the plight of his people? she wondered.
Sareas held up her papers, trembling a bit. She set them on the table, hoping it was permissible. The gesture didn’t seem to bother Her Joy.
“My Joy,” she said. Speech would’ve materialized like rain in the west if she’d come here to speak of her problems—she’d done it before. When one spoke of her problems, the words came and came, flowing. But to make a suggestion… The Isle’s Voice was divine, and she didn’t know what awaited the soul who dared to suggest improvements to its policies. No, you know what awaits you, she thought. All the books have told you. Your grandmother told you, as well. “I have here some ideas.”
At that last word, her grandmother’s warning appeared in her mind again: In this world, ideas are as dangerous as roaring flames.
Her Joy’s eyebrows lifted with surprise. Oh? Few of your visitors come with anything but ailments?
“When Cronos led the people,” she said, “the society didn’t need money. When Escher Elis created sairo… forgive my saying this, but I don’t believe he envisioned the world we live in today.”
She flipped the first page of her notes over, revealing some sketches she’d made. Her Joy’s eyes moved to them. Amazing. She’d obtained the attention of a member of the Isle’s Voice.
The words drifted to her as if floating leisurely down a stream. “When the people are given the means to act in their own interests instead of the interests of all souls, they invariably do so.” She’d used her sairo—money that her own self-interested mother earned—to take that dirty man’s spot in line. She’d acted in her own interest, though, with good reason. Had she not, perhaps the dirty man would’ve come and given the steward a list of grievances that would’ve soured His Joy’s mood. No, the Dweller had wanted her to use her privilege because her ideas would liberate; they had the potential to free the poor from the dust. “I believe there’s merit in both Cronos’s allocation of all goods and services and Escher Elis’s cacophony of debts and interest.”
Cacophony, she thought, suddenly nervous. Her words were blasphemy.
“You must learn to choose your words more carefully,” said the steward as if he’d read her thoughts. “But your notions intrigue me. May I see?” He reached for her papers and paused, waiting for her permission. She was aghast; how could a member of the Isle’s Voice await the permission of a commoner?
“Yes, My Joy. Without question!” She thrust the papers over.
He perused her notes for a long while, leaning back in his chair. Would the chair tip and fall backward? Sareas swallowed the thought. After a long, contemplative silence, Her Joy said, “What is it you desire? An audience with Our Soul?”
She nodded. He set the papers in front of him as though he didn’t intend to return them to Sareas.
The steward straightened, his mouth thinned, and he began kneading his knuckles but stopped at once. He swallowed and pierced her with a weighty glare. “I urge you not to seek it. Judging by the first thing you said to me, it sounds as though you’ve read Ezra Cabal’s Journeys.”
Again, she nodded. Yes, she’d learned of the origins of sairo as money in Cabal’s work. Few knew of those origins. One couldn’t even find such knowledge in the Dweller’s Pages. Perhaps an astute soul could contrive such conclusions from reading the holy book, but the origins of sairo weren’t explicitly written there. Her Soul, an Elis himself, had shared the information with the famed journeyer Ezra Cabal, and, with the pinnacle’s permission, Cabal had passed that information on to the people—the minority of literates—in his book.
“Our Soul allowed him to publish his work, but Ezra was made to sprinkle warnings throughout the text. One should not consider other ways of handling our monetary system—in handling money the way we do, we honor both the aereo and our first pinnacle, Escher Elis. To do anything else is blasphemy.”
“But the Dweller’s children drown in dust.”
Her steward sat for a moment. She’d argued with him, had brought an objection to Her Joy. Would he strike her? Would he yell? Would he banish her from his office or—worse—from the city? I’ve been a fool, she thought. I’ve handled an idea—a roaring flame—as though it wouldn’t burn me.
But it had burned her.
“Yes, they do drown in dust, and it is a travesty.”
She sat still, struck by the deep sadness in her steward’s voice. Perhaps her idea hadn’t burned her. Outside, a rare cloud slithered across the harbinger and painted a serpentine shadow across Aurora.
“If you see it as a travesty, too, why would you deter me?”
“Because Our Soul will not see it as such. To him, these ideas will only serve to blaspheme the Dweller. Let me ask you this: would you consider letting me keep these papers—your notes?”
She nodded. The steward reached into a drawer and removed a chittering raeren. He rolled the notes into a tight scroll and attached them to the creature. With a whispered word in its ear, he set the creature free, and it vanished from their presence at once, shifting some of the items on the steward’s desk as it went.
Sareas didn’t ask where he sent her notes. “I still seek an audience with Our Soul,” she said at last. Her grandmother had warned her about entertaining any ideas, yet Sareas had managed to inspire even Her Joy. Now her steward was warning her of danger, yet some part of her believed—and perhaps foolishly so—she’d evade the flames a second time.
“I cannot deny my citizens their right to stand before their pinnacle, but I must ask you a second time to reconsider.”
She could persuade Her Soul, too. “My Joy, I feared I wouldn’t be able to share my ideas with you this day, but I did. Others have warned me against sharing thoughts like this—” she motioned with both hands at papers that had already gone away on the back of an aenti “—but I believe the Dweller’s voice led me to share them anyway.”
“It wasn’t the Dweller’s voice,” said the steward. “What is your name?”
What had he asked her? She hadn’t yet shared her name? Her comfort with the man in front of her had tricked her.
With a slight giggle, she said, “Sareas.”
“Sareas,” said the steward, and now his golden eyes had somehow darkened. “I fear, if you see the pinnacle, danger will find you.”
A queer feeling of indignation washed over Sareas. Had the steward leveled a threat against her? Yes, she supposed he had—though it was as indirect and cowardly as a threat could be. Would living with her wealth in the Asaire District satisfy her if she left now? Could she return to the bank and toil, knowing every second of her life that things could improve? She’d made it this far, after all—she’d unearthed her ideas and, as they breathed, she found they wouldn’t be buried again.
“When is the pinnacle available to meet with me?”
The steward looked down, swallowed again, his beard bulging slightly and transiently as the muscles in his neck worked. The harbinger’s light burned behind him. Somewhere, the vayle slept in their underground dens—or perhaps they slept in the walls of caves. Floors above the steward’s office, Varaa Elis sat in the pinnacle’s chambers, elevated because he, in a contrived and dastardly way, owned immersia itself, because most of the people couldn’t obtain myrra lanterns, because the people couldn’t grasp immersia the way the Elis family had.
The steward stood and opened the door of his office. He mumbled something to the soldier there, who produced a raeren and sent it speeding through the tower. The harbinger’s light painted its golden colors all over the backside of the steward’s marvelous cloak, and Sareas found herself admiring the garment’s fine, smooth saeth. After a brief time, the soldier outside received a response to his message; he handed it to the steward.
“It appears Our Soul is currently in the Chamber of Myrra, visiting his wife. Soon, he’ll be free of engagements. Would you like to see him in a few hours?”
She hadn’t expected an audience with the pinnacle so soon, but she nodded anyway. Though she’d given away her sketches, her memory of them would serve her well enough. She could illustrate them in front of Her Soul, if needed. Or, if she had hours to wait, perhaps she would simply reproduce the sketches on some new paper…
“Very well,” said the steward, an unfitting acquiescence in his voice. He was sullen, almost like an adolescent who’d taken a slight. He nodded and offered his hand to her, a gesture that told her to stand and leave but also made her feel welcome. She grabbed his hand. Soft fingers enclosed hers—callouses didn’t mar his skin because his work was work of the soul.
“Return to the tower when the harbinger is at high position. I’ll meet you here. Come to the front of the line. My guard will know of your business.”
She nodded. He lifted her hand with his own and placed his other hand on top of it. The steward’s eyes pleaded with her, Please reconsider.
When she left and emerged into the city’s heart, she didn’t want to go home. She glanced in the direction of her bank and the small sairo office next to it. The day after tomorrow, the sifters and graders would queue outside and bring the desert’s treasures with them.
On three more pieces of paper, she scribbled copies of her sketches: the flow of money from the desert to the bank to the people; the diagrams showing her ideas for adapting Illumina’s printing machines to print paper money; the designs of such money—it would honor the aereo and the Elis family alike. She scanned the sketches for some time. She hadn’t illustrated them as well as the ones she’d given to her steward. After crumpling them, she deposited them in a pocket.
High position was nearing. She was sweating and not because of the desert’s heat. People moved around the district, shopping, their wealth apparent because of their saeth clothes and jangling, musical jewelry.
Time consumed the last of her minutes as she mentally rehearsed what she would say to the pinnacle.
When the harbinger sat at the top of the sky, she entered the tower again and met with the steward.
Together, they climbed the steps. Their footfalls produced dull, dry reverberations. Her reflection in the stairwell’s onium walls followed her, its slight blur unnerving her.
“How strange to climb the steps of Elis Tower with a steward whose name I do not know.”
The steward didn’t give her his birth name, and she didn’t ask.
When Sareas and the steward entered the pinnacle’s chambers, Varaa Elis was sitting in his chair behind a marvelous, large table of melan. The unreality of what she was doing caused Sareas to shiver—she was standing before the pinnacle, moments away from sharing her ideas—roaring flames… roaring flames—with him.
“My Soul,” said the steward, “This is Sareas. She seeks to share with you some ideas.”
“Thank you, My Joy,” said Varaa, and he turned from the steward to Sareas. His gaze pierced her more than the steward’s had, and it imposed a greater dread on Sareas. “My child,” he said, “you come to the Isle’s Voice with ideas? Surely you do not mean to imply that the Dweller has led us astray? He guides us daily; we procure blessings for the people without rest.”
His voice contained a critical annoyance. Her steward had been right; Varaa Elis didn’t want to consider her ideas because the Isle’s Voice didn’t need them. The mere existence of her ideas proved Sareas had doubted the Isle’s Voice and, further, the Dweller himself.
Stuttering, Sareas shook her head vigorously. “No, My Soul… I… I did not mean to imply…”
“My Soul,” said the steward, “this girl’s mind is powerful.” What else could he say to defend her? She smiled at him and bowed low in his direction. To hear such words of praise come from a divine man like Aurora’s steward…
But would they save her?
Varaa tilted his head, but his eyes never left the banker before him. A surreal stillness affected them all. Surely, none of them would ever move again.
“What is it that you’ve chosen to do to uplift Aurora?”
The words crawled from her throat. “I’m a banker.”
“Do your ideas deal with commerce, then?”
Sareas nodded. Deep, visceral fear had assailed her so much that she’d already abandoned her ideas—she no longer care about sharing them and wanted nothing more than to leave this chamber alive; something in the pinnacle’s eyes made her believe she might not.
“Commerce… Money… Money is a fabrication. Such a fascinating device we use.” Thick strands of saliva thinned and split in the pinnacle’s mouth. For a fleeting, horrid moment, Sareas found that the man repulsed her. Did Varaa know? Did the Dweller know?
“It’s fascinating, yes,” she said. She turned to the steward, who beheld her with sorrow in his eyes.
“Let us hear them.”
She stammered through a brief speech about using paper money to eliminate the need for so many sifters and graders. Her hand clutched the crumpled papers in her pocket, and a great desire to remove them seized her. Would they help her speech seem clearer? No, unveiling wrinkled sketches to the man who ruled Aurora—and Aeris, in truth—would only make her speech less impactful. At the end of her discourse, she talked about striking a better balance between the Voice’s intervention and the free exchange that occurred in the marketplaces, alluding all the while to a possible marriage between Cronos’s ideas and Escher Elis’s.
Varaa listened to every word. At last, he said, “You’ll return to your home this day, and you’ll return to the bank afterward. Before you go, I offer you this: be wary of your ideas. If you seek a fortune, ideas are necessary. Still, one must know that there is a limit to innovation. Fortune seekers can please the commoners in a myriad of ways, but there will be no reformation of our society if it means abandoning the divine dictums of our glorious Dweller.”
But the Dweller’s children drown in dust, she thought, and this time, by the Dweller’s grace, she stifled the words before they escaped from her lips.
“You are dismissed,” said Varaa, a finality in his voice that left no room for an argument.
After bowing, she turned to leave. The steward opened the door for her, relief in his expression. She bowed to Her Joy, as well, trying to both thank him and apologize to him with the gesture.
Alone, she descended the stairs of Elis Tower. Three soldiers from the Isle’s Might passed her. When she came to the floor that housed the steward’s office, she eyed the door leading into the hallway where a queue of souls waited to complain. When their steward returned to his office, they would have their opportunity to do so. None of those souls would bring ideas—none of them would brave such an act.
When she emerged into the bustling square of the Asaire District—it was late, and many souls had finished their day’s work—a second rare cloud neared the harbinger. As she made her way to her home, the cloud passed in front of the great light above the city, and the shade cooled her far more than she’d expected it would. The cold caused her to shiver, the feeling reminding her far too much of the one she’d experienced in Her Soul’s chambers.
Her home’s door called to her. Living in Aurora, in the desert, one didn’t often long for warmth, but she found herself seeking the embrace of her home anyway, for its warmth—its safety—might be the only thing capable of banishing the cold from her bones.
That absence, she lay in bed beneath the security of one of her mother’s blankets. She traced her fingers along the soft fabric. It was cocilea—a common fabric made from cilea grass—but it’d undergone her mother’s process. It wasn’t as soft as saeth, but neither was it as coarse as untreated cocilea. Fortune seekers can please the commoners in a myriad of ways…
She drifted to sleep.
The harbinger. The serpentine cloud, slithering across the sky. The piercing glares of a steward, a pinnacle.
When she awoke, the morning light bled into her room, refracting when it hit the many trinkets of myrra her grandmother had collected throughout her—Estas’s—life. The desert’s warmth, burning and encroaching as it always had, had decimated Sareas’s chill from yesterday. Sareas threw her blanket free from herself and arose from her bed without enthusiasm.
Outside, the harbinger hung behind the district’s buildings, somewhere just above the horizon, casting its light into the sky but not showing its face. She dressed and prepared to go to the bank. Tomorrow, when the sifters and graders came in droves from the poor districts to deliver their weekly findings, would occupy her the most. For two years, she’d watched those filthy people line up in the middle of the Asaire District to deposit bag after bag of their clinking treasures. Some of the sifters had been so young—little boys and little girls.
One could start sifting as young as seven.
Before she’d read the small collection of published works about labor and poverty, she’d often wondered why a soul would desire to sift when one could bank or… anything else. But ignorance, a symptom of her age and inexperience and naivety, had made itself cozy in her mind then. For one thing, Aeris’s great cities and towns regulated the number of sanctioned roles they supported. They considered the number of sairo each city expected to bring in every week. If jobs were not available, people were doomed to become fortune seekers. If they didn’t seek a fortune by savory means, then they resorted to thievery, to forgery, to beggary, to criminality of all sorts. Then there were so many souls who were too old, too young, too infirm. For those souls, only the money of a family member could support them.
Job availability was only one factor of many; the wealthiest people often took the best jobs—the least demanding, the least dangerous—and the Dweller blessed such a thing. Sareas saw nothing wrong with this; in her opinion, the most educated souls should have the best jobs. But people still lived in dust and dirt, and Aeris’s cities could operate in a better way. They didn’t need to rid Aeris of the vayle. A finite amount of wealth existed, and the Isle’s Voice could distribute it in a much better way, with much better money. Sairo, in most ways, was an adequate store of value, but the Isle’s Voice could regulate the supply of money with greater ease if they used paper money. Illumina had produced its machines, the ones suitable for printing full books. Why not make a machine capable of printing money?
Fleetingly, all these issues—and many more—sauntered through her mind as she finished her preparations for the day’s work. At last, she moved through the several rooms of her home and came to the front door, the egress that would take her into the quiet center of Aurora, where the mornings rarely roared so early.
The handle resisted.
She couldn’t turn it. It was as though someone had locked the door from the outside. Several times, she fiddled with the locks on the door. Somewhere in her home, a piece of wood creaked. Something rattled. Her breath infiltrated her ears, and its quickening wrought her insides. Her heart throbbed as she looked about the room behind her and peered into the shadowy hallway that led to the depths of her home. The depths of my home, she thought, and she grinned cynically. So many souls in the surrounding districts possessed nothing more than one small room, a kitchen, a bathroom. Those homes knew no depths.
A lone arrow slipped from the shadows of her hallway and pierced her shoulder, pinning her cruelly to her door.
Searing pain assaulted her senses, and she could no longer hear anything but a pulling sound—the sound one hears when yawning—as the muscles in her jaw clenched to keep her from crying out. Soon she cried out anyway, “What’s happening!? Why are you here!?”
But she knew the answers to both of those questions.
She struggled to free herself, but the thick wood of the arrow was stern, and any movement of it caused her wound to resound with pain and send blinding flashes of white across her eyes.
A man wearing the deep blue of Aurora’s Might emerged from the bowels of her home, his bow swinging at his side.
“You’re here to kill me… because of my ideas.”
“I’m here to kill you because I was ordered to,” said the soldier. “It’s not my job to question orders.”
“But we must question. We must question without rest. We must do it ceaselessly. There is a brighter future available only to those who question—please, you must see. This world must see.”
“Your questions earned you nothing but the tip of an arrow,” said the soldier. He lifted his bow again.
“But the Dweller’s children…” She moved again, tried to free herself from the arrow’s tyranny. Futile; she couldn’t surmount such pain. “They are drowning in dust.”
“If the rag-wearers seek myrra and saeth, they need only to seek their fortunes and claw themselves free of the dust. This is a right available to all souls on Aeris, and it is why our world functions as well as it does.”
She didn’t bother to argue. Clawing one’s way out of the dust wasn’t such a simple feat. Not all souls could find an education—a good education—and so not all souls could manage their sairo or seek a fortune.
What would become of her? Would she be lightened? Would she be buried somewhere? She desperately hoped the latter didn’t happen. She’d always feared she would become Milea fare somehow. Every soul had such a fear, whether they admitted so or not.
The injustice revealed itself to her, and she understood something terrible. No soul could prevail against the Isle’s Voice; it wasn’t a divine council concerned with the prosperity of its people but a group of souls concerned only with its wealth and power. The pinnacle was no herald of the Dweller but only a man who abused his power.
The soldier in front of her removed another arrow from his quiver and slid it leisurely across his bowstring before settling it in the bow. He pulled back the string. This time, he would deliver a killing blow.
At last, she found herself wondering where the steward had sent her papers. What would he do with her ideas? The steward had warned her, and he’d smiled at her when Varaa had spared her. I suppose he didn’t spare me, she thought. Considering all the steward had done, she didn’t think it too outlandish to assert that he was—at least in some respects—an opponent of the Isle’s Voice and its system. If Her Joy had patience and knowledge and cunning, perhaps he could prevail against the pinnacle.
Sareas smiled as the soldier in front of her pulled back his arrow even further. The fabric of his uniform rubbed together, rustling as it stretched against his hard elbow. Perhaps there is hope, she thought.
As all its pent-up tension fled from it, the bowstring sent out a musical vibration. A flat sound. One tone. The arrow created a slick hiss as it severed the air and barreled toward her.