The Iron City is a prison, a maze, an industrial blight…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from City of Iron and Dust, a dark fantasy from author J.P. Oakes—available now from Titan Books.
The Iron City is a prison, a maze, an industrial blight. It is the result of a war that saw the goblins grind the fae beneath their collective boot heels. And tonight, it is also a city that churns with life.
Tonight, a young fae is trying to make his fortune one drug deal at a time; a goblin princess is searching for a path between her own dreams and others’ expectations; her bodyguard is deciding who to kill first; an artist is hunting for his own voice; an old soldier is starting a new revolution; a young rebel is finding fresh ways to fight; and an old goblin is dreaming of reclaiming her power over them all.
Tonight, all their stories are twisting together, wrapped up around a single bag of Dust—the only drug that can still fuel fae magic—and its fate and theirs will change the Iron City forever.
There is more to the Iron City than one small bar in one small corner of town. The Iron Wall encircles a microcosm. One that sprawls. That heaves. Cars clog its streets. Industry churns. Fae and goblins stumble through its avenues and boulevards. Theaters pump out morality plays performed by immoral actors. Street vendors hawk powdered dragon fangs to stockbrokers. Building styles shift like river currents. And at its septic heart, the great Houses rise.
Once they would have been fortresses. Once there would have been crenellations and monsters of yore curled in deep dark dungeons. Once upon a time, though, is a distant memory in the Iron City. These Houses are modern buildings. Their inhabitants are modern goblins. Their tastes run to neither cold stone nor dark tapestries. They prefer central heating, and high thread-count sheets, and their guards armed with something that can spit out more than one bolt every thirty seconds. This is the modern world, after all, with all its modern dangers and all its modern indulgences.
Granny Spregg would rather like it if the modern world would go fuck itself.
Granny Spregg is a creature of a world gone away. She is a gnarled fist of a goblin. She drags her leg behind her as she stomps down one of the many, many corridors that twist and turn through House Spriggan. Her cane clack-clacks on the tiles. It was a dryad’s arm once. She cut it free herself.
Granny Spregg looks back on the Iron War with fondness. She remembers when her hordes broke the fae army’s back. She remembers when Mab’s Kiss broke their spirit. She remembers Mab…
Old goblin, she curses herself, as she bustles down the corridor. Thinking old goblin thoughts. Getting lost in the past, when the present is so full of snares.
No one here dares call her Granny to her face. They all use the name behind her back. There is, she supposes, some accuracy to it, even if none of the brats her children have clogged the House’s lower floors with are legitimate.
She uses the name in her head. It keeps the anger fresh. Keeps her lip curled and her feet moving. They carry her along the corridor now, hobbling step after step. A victor’s riches surround her. Her spoils despoiled. Fae paintings defaced. Sacred white deer, their heads mounted on plaques. A sculpture built from broken wands.
There is more modern art as well. Creations that conform to her children’s tastes. Letting them have their own opinions, Granny Spregg thinks. That was my first mistake.
Thacker scurries in Granny Spregg’s wake. Thacker always scurries in her wake. Granny Spregg is unsure if he is capable of any other type of movement. She moves at a pace snails would mock, and yet Thacker is always hurrying to catch up with her.
“Are you sure this is wise, Madame?” he asks, which is the most Thacker thing to say that Granny Spregg can think of. He would probably check with her about each inhalation of breath if he knew she wouldn’t wear his balls as earrings if he did so.
“No,” she spits at him. “Which is why I’m doing it. Certainty is the first sign of idiocy.” She grimaces. “My children are always certain.”
Thacker is not an idiot. He is neurotic as a brownie, and an anxious thorn in her britches, but he is not an idiot. It is why she tolerates him. She likes certainty only in her lovers, not in those she keeps around for intelligent conversation.
“Perhaps we should…” Thacker starts, but Granny Spregg is unwilling to let him get to the word “reconsider.”
She wheels on him, brings the cane to bear on his throat, and he almost scuttles right into it. She advances on him, pushing him back to the wall.
“Tonight, Thacker,” she says. “I have tonight. That’s it. To take it all back. This house. My house. All the years of effort and this is it. Eight meager hours. The package is in the city. It is all in play. And I will not have you fuck it up for me. Do you understand, or must I sacrifice a pawn this early in the evening?”
Thacker swallows. He nods.
Granny Spregg hits him with the cane. “Yes, you understand, or yes, I must sacrifice you, you dullard?”
Thacker cowers. “I understand,” he says, whimpering. “I understand.”
She turns her back on him. She stomps down the corridor. She reaches the door. It has taken longer than she wanted it to. Everything does these days. The door is large, steel-mounted, and monitored. Granny Spregg raises a vein-knotted fist to knock.
“Well, then,” she says to Thacker, “here we go.”
Granny Spregg summons every ounce of imperious pride left
to her and shoves past the private who answers the door. Beyond this spluttering barrier, House Spriggan Military Command thrums with quiet efficiency. Goblins mutter orders into microphones with practiced monotony relaying, confirming, and processing missives. House generals lean over monitors and dispatch runners. Sergeants push figurines around a scale model of the city.
Such is the business of protecting the House’s interests, of keeping a populace in check and thwarting the ambitions of their rivals. Such is the business she would reclaim.
Granny Spregg does not belong in this room. There is no efficiency left in her body. Eyes turn to look at her.
She points at one goblin in full regalia. Her knuckles are large as walnuts. “General Callart,” she says through her self-loathing, “I need a moment of your time and a division of your soldiers.”
General Callart, she knows, can be relied on to be professional. Her presence here is unorthodox these days, but he will always be a slave to the hierarchy of command, and even now, she still outranks him.
“Of course, Madame Spregg,” he says smoothly while the bustle of the room resumes. “If you could furnish me with the details, then—”
“Perhaps before that,” a voice cuts in, “you could furnish me with a ‘what the fuck?’”
Another goblin steps out from behind a pillar of monitors. He is draped in unearned medals, drowning in aiguillettes. He is Privett Spregg in all his glory and absurdity.
Granny Spregg’s heart sinks. Thacker lets out a sound that could generously be called a groan, or accurately called a whimper.
This, Granny Spregg knows, will now have to be done the hard way.
The Iron City, of course, is not just mansions and bars. It is also squalor and squats. It is also high-rise pillars of steel and glass. It is also shops and stalls. Indeed, the Iron City has almost as many facets as it has ways to take your money and leave you lying in a gutter.
The Iron City also has factories in abundance. They churn, and belch. These are the truest monsters of the modern world, smoke pouring from their mouths, their wealth hoarded far away from the fae they subjugate.
In such a place sits Skart. He is a kobold, skin colored as if by sunburn, red hair sprouting from him in wild abundance, his face folded and puggish. He is in his office, hunched over a desk and an ancient typewriter, the chiaroscuro of a bare lamp bulb rendering him a partially glimpsed figure of light and shadow. A clock chirps. He looks up. Finally, it is shift’s end, and he is anxious to leave.
Then: a sound at his door. A creak of hinges. A scuffing of feet. He looks up, and sees a face peeking around the doorframe. One last thing left to deal with.
It is Bertyl, one of the tailors. A pixie like most of her coworkers, the bright yellow of her hair and skin are fading to cream as the years encroach. Skart smiles at her. Everyone, he believes, has a purpose they can achieve if you give them an opportunity. Bertyl has been struggling to find her purpose, but Skart believes he has an opportunity to give her.
“How can I help you, Bertyl?” he asks.
She shuffles towards him, looks back at the door. “Hello, Mr Skart, sir,” she says.
Then she runs out of steam.
“You’re here late,” Skart prompts as amiably as he can.
“Yes, sir.” Bertyl looks at her feet.
Skart knows he has to play this carefully.
“While I always appreciate company, Bertyl,” he says, “is there anything specific you want?”
Skart is a fae with one of the rarest possessions in the Iron City—a sliver of authority. He is a shift leader within a garment factory. He is not even a sidhe, and his success over the old-school network of nepotism that still persists in the Iron City in and of itself suggests either profound skill or unnatural ruthlessness. Evidence supports the former. He is a kindly boss. He helps organize and coordinate the efforts of tailors and machinists. He sets schedules and hears petty woes. It is not a position of great stature, but it is one that allows Skart to make his workers’ lives minimally easier. Bertyl, for some reason, seems hesitant to give him that opportunity.
“Well, Mr Skart,” Bertyl says, not meeting his eye. “I mean, of late I think, perhaps, you’ve been pretty complimentary about some of my dresses. And it’s been long hours, see. And, well, I’ve been here twenty years now, and so, well…” And there she seems to run out of nerve. She pants slightly.
Skart smiles. “This is about pay, isn’t it, Bertyl?” he says.
She gulps. “I’m sorry, Mr Skart, sir, and I wouldn’t ask… It’s only that my husband, Hasp, you know? He’s laid up near two months now with his leg, and things are… well they’re a bit tight, Mr Skart, sir.”
Things are tight. The song of the Fae Districts. Bertyl’s husband was badly injured when he was buried under a half-dozen massive bolts of undyed cloth after a fraying clasp on a delivery truck gave way. Skart is well aware that Hasp has been unable to work for almost two months now. Once, Skart thinks, the story would have filled him with rage. But not tonight. Tonight he will finally do something to stop any more harm coming to the fae.
Just… not yet.
“I understand,” Skart says. Bertyl sighs audibly. “And you have worked hard. And you deserve more.”
She glances at his eyes, just for a moment. He smiles again.
“But for you to have more, Bertyl, someone else will have to have less. There’s not more money. You know that. The goblins always give me the same amount every month. So, I have to share it out. And I have to be fair. So, I ask you, Bertyl, who should I give less to?”
Bertyl swallows. It’s a question she can’t answer. Others could. Others come to Skart and expound on the subject for hours. But it is a cruel question to ask Bertyl, and he knows it. He feels bad. But on the other hand, he was lying when he was complimentary about her sewing.
“I’ll tell you what, Bertyl,” he says, ending her agony. “You go home. I’ll stay here and look at the spreadsheets. Maybe there’s a corner I can cut somewhere, save a few copper teeth here and there. Maybe I can slip them your way. I know how badly Hasp was hurt.”
“Oh! Mr Skart…” She almost detonates with gratitude.
“It’s no worry,” he says. And here he comes to the crux. “I’ll be here a few more hours anyway.”
She stares at him. He could ask anything of her now. Except, it turns out, to leave quickly. It takes ten more minutes of stumbling thank-yous for Bertyl to depart. But Skart’s alibi is established. If anyone comes asking for him, Bertyl will swear to her grave that he is here. Hopefully it won’t come to that, though. Hopefully, Skart thinks, that isn’t her purpose.
He sits for a moment longer, bracing himself. He rolls up his sleeve, looks at the black marks beneath the skin. He has lived longer than most, he reminds himself. He has made it this far. He can make it just a little further.
He takes a breath. Rolls the sleeve back down. Stands up. Lets himself feel the rest of it. The excitement. The hope. His hands are trembling, he notices. Perhaps, though, he shouldn’t be surprised.
After fifty years, Skart is going back to war.
Excerpted from City of Iron and Dust, copyright © 2021 by J.P. Oakes.