By Raiff Taranday
First Blast: Children
It was in her twenty-fourth year—the year of darkness in the age of dust—that Lee Garnet finally met her match. She had been born in Bastion, just like all the rest, born in the Gehenna slums at the base of the city where the metal walls were most corroded, where neglect and time wore through the patchwork paneling. In these low places, you could peer out with your naked eye and see the swirling oceans of dust stretching in every direction. You could look down and see the mesa upon which the city rested drop away into oblivion and imagine your own body borne down, plummeting amid the wind and static, the freedom and the terror.
Lee’s earliest memories were of wet rags clamped over her mouth, wet sheets pressed against the blackened windows and jammed into the cracks beneath the door. Her mother sweeping, fighting against the dust that crept back in each day. Her family had committed three of her infant brothers to the pyre. Their lungs packed with the wet dirt they inhaled one wheezing breath at a time. Lee survived, sharpening her nails to blades, drawing blood where she could.
They ate roaches, mealworms, and grubs; they prayed thanks for the sustenance. They lived in the shell of a dilapidated house—an actual house, not a tent, a shack, or a lean-to—one of the few left standing in the slums. Her father labored every day to preserve it, plugging holes with pieces of salvage, fending off the scroungers and ragmen who sought to pilfer what little they had. When Lee looked up she did not see sky—she saw the pipe-work and rolled steel joists that crisscrossed the bottom of the tier above them—but she knew the sky was somewhere beyond, that it was some color called blue.
She was a scrappy little bottom feeder. She fought, she spat, she stole food and trinkets, she shared what she could with her family, kept a few personal treasures hidden beneath the floorboards. She rested on Sunday and walked her mother to the Christer church down the way—perfect in her way, for the life she was born to.
Whenever he had the opportunity, her father picked up work patching and maintaining the extensive network of pipes that pumped water from the ground beneath the slums up to the rest of the city. Engineers and machinists would occasionally come from the higher tiers to supervise these labors and Lee’s father forced them to notice him with his tireless work ethic and mechanical-mindedness. He learned by watching them and, occasionally, posing soft-spoken but direct questions. Sometimes he would let Lee follow him to work and she would watch him toil with the other men as they scrambled over the gargantuan tangle of pipes and junctions.
The up-tier men would give her father the dangerous jobs, ones they would never do themselves. He would venture into the warrens that mazed their way into the stone of the mesa itself. He donned his rubber gasmask and slops. He waded through industrial effluent and purified the ancient mechanisms that kept the pumps working, the water flowing up, clean and regular to the rest of the city.
One time when she was eight or nine, Lee followed him there too, this time without his permission, darting from shadow to shadow to evade his notice. He lit his lamp, unsealed the tunnel, and lowered himself into the subterranean darkness. She made a slow count to ten and went in after him. Unlike her father, she wore no protection save her tattered denim dress.
Knee deep in a millennium’s worth of toxic waste and alchemical discharge, she pressed into the tunnel’s narrow dimness. She caught the distant glow of the lamp and went in its direction. She hugged her body against the wall as she moved, her feet finding a thin walkway carved in the rock. It kept her out of the deepest parts of the waste, for all the good that did her. She was used to the constant irritation in her lungs and throat, so it took her longer to notice the pain searing her airway. Then she felt something worse than pain, pushing against the sides of her skull.
The next thing she knew, Lee was home, fevered and trembling, her head in her mother’s lap. She did not remember how she got back. Her father hadn’t brought her. He wasn’t even back from work yet. When he did come back, he brushed her mother aside, not ungently, and knelt over her. He lay his sandpapery hand on her forehead.
“Hot, getting hotter,” he said to himself, then immediately turned back to the door. He was back soon with two huge, heavy pails. He knew exactly where to find the pipe that leaked the coldest water. He emptiest the pails into a basin and plucked her off the floor. Lee shrieked as her father pushed her into the icy bath and held her there, her nostrils just above the surface. It was the closest she had ever felt to him. She remembered feeling so pleased with what she’d done.
He went back to work the next day.
She was beset by a terrible, weeks-long sick-spell. She lay on the gritty floor of the Garnet home next to her mother, slick with fever, muscles racking with spasm after spasm.
Phantasmagorical visions wavered before her eyes, bulbous shades that would expand until they burst in a shower of vivid starlight. At the time, they appeared to her the most real things she had ever seen, true in a way that the anxious hallucination that had been her waking life until now could never be. Time lost its meaning then abruptly reasserted itself, second after burning second. Her mother prayed over her, but also plied the folk-apothecary skills transmitted to her by her own mother—dead long before Lee was born. She ground the herbs that grew by the drain basins into a broth that she patiently spoon-fed to Lee. Even at an early age, Lee intuited that it was these ministrations and not the prayers to which she owed her eventual recovery.
Now and again one of her sisters would come by and ignore her while they did some chore or another around the house. They weren’t at home much those days anyway. Lee liked it better when they stayed away.
She didn’t just recover. She felt even more alive than before she’d been sick. Back on her feet, she swore to her mother she’d stay out of trouble.
The next time she followed her father through the noxious catacombs, she kept her foray brief and was only ill for a few days afterward. With each successive misadventure, she recovered more quickly, until she was as at ease skipping through the sludge as she was on her mother’s knee, a true child of poison. Without the challenge of the sickness, she eventually grew bored with the repetitive, seemingly meaningless nature of her father’s daily labors, wandering off on her own grubbing and thieving adventures.
Eleven years of life in Gehenna, then her father’s quiet diligence finally bore results; a new position, maintaining service automatons in the administrative district. Her family moved to a higher tier where the walls were in decent repair, where breathing was not a painful chore. Lee would recollect this transitional period with an even sharper pain than her earlier years because this was when she truly lost her father. He did not die. He left for work before she woke in the morning. He came back late at night. When he was present, he would sit as blank faced as the machines he kept in working order. He was like a walking absence.
Her mother prayed, her father worked, leaving her in the care of her twin elder sisters, Misty and Knife. In the slums, they had never been much of a presence for Lee. Five years older than her, the twins had given themselves over to gang life in their early adolescence. In Gehenna, they’d been occupied with menacing and robbing pedestrians, drinking until they passed out in the streets, standing watch and running errands for mid-level hoods that bossed the corners of their neighborhood. They started as lookouts, then pupated into slash-purses and skin carvers. They’d done their best to strike intimidating figures in the dark, but they’d trembled in fear of the Hero of the Night’s shadow all the same —as if he’d stain his obsidian gauntlets with their bottom of the bucket scum blood. They donned welder’s goggles, branding their flesh, and discarding their birth names. Lee likely would have done the same if they had not been elevated out of the dust by their father’s self-sacrificing industriousness. Without the daily company of the criminals they had turned their bodies and wills over to, Lee’s sisters grew restless and cruel. They focused their energies on making Lee their new plaything, devising games and amusements at her expense.
“Today, you be our mule and we be the farmers. You work our fields or we beat you with a stick.”
“Today, you be a little worm. We be the birds that swoop down and pick you apart.”
“Today, you be kindling and we be the fire.”
The games became more painful until all pretense was abandoned. Lee was bruised, pinched, stabbed with pins, sliced with razors in places normally hidden by her clothing. She was certain they meant to kill her, that she had only a short time to act before this final brutality was accomplished. There was no inciting event that convinced her, no single moment that made it clear what had to be done, just a gradual crystallization as the cuts got deeper and the hurts got worse. Lee also knew that there was no one to help her; that it fell to her to save herself.
She followed her father to work one day, resuming the old habit, creeping along a few paces behind his shadow. He either didn’t notice her or was indifferent to her presence. She hid near his work station, waited until no one was watching, and stole a sheet of copper, a heavy work-wrench, and a canister of the alkahest the machinists used to purge heavy rust from the automaton’s gear-work. She made her way to the shadow bazaar and managed to trade the copper for some corn whiskey. She waited for Saturday night and presented the whiskey to her sisters as a peace offering.
At first they accepted the gift with measured gratitude, grinning between swigs. Then they cooed over Lee like she was a doll, dragging her into their room, brushing her hair, insistently dressing her in some of their old clothes. Lee hated it, almost worse than the cuts and burns, but showed them a deferential smile, even gave a soul-scraping giggle or two. But as the night wore on, with father working a thirty-six hour triple shift and mother asleep (she slept like the dead) in the next room, the twins nearly finished the jar and so exhausted their good will.
Misty pronounced that Lee was too filthy to be allowed to wear their old clothes and too stupid to appreciate their style. Knife insisted it was a mistake to give her ideas about herself, that they needed to correct her before things got out of hand. They were pinching her now. When she spun to face the one who just tweaked her, the other would get her from her blindside, making her hoot in pain. Lee bore this indignity as well, knowing it and whatever was going to follow were necessary. There was nothing she could do or say to alter the course of things at this point. They were going to make something happen and they would take any excuse to do it. Gang life had made them little more than animals, but it had taught them well in matters of ritual humiliation.
“Let’s see what little Lee is working with,” Misty slurred. She pinched Lee’s nipple through the fabric of her shift, then twisted it hard.
“Where are your tits, you grubby slit?” she said.
“She ain’t a real woman,” Misty mused. “Just a scared little girl.” She walked backward in a dreamy way. She took the whiskey in hand and polished it off, teetered to one side, corrected herself, and attempted to set the jar on the counter. “Needs to be toughened up proper.”
“We’re helping her, really. You gotta be strong to get by. It’s a well-known fact,” Knife said. She leaned in close to Lee’s face. “You want to be a weakling forever?”
“No,” Lee said meekly. She was afraid, not so much of what they were going to do (although she couldn’t keep herself from being frightened by that too) but that her rage might show through. One wrong glint in her eye would betray her and make it all for nothing.
“We oughta put her through her paces. Hammer the iron to make it stronger.” Misty said, wobbling toward them. “Hold her down.”
The emptied jar had been set awkwardly on the counter corner. When Lee thudded to the ground with Knife’s weight on top of her, it wobbled, fell and shattered.
First came the kicks and slaps. She did her best to absorb the blows with the harder parts of her body, to avoid any injuries that might immobilize her. Next they brought the broken glass into the game. They gave her little cuts beneath her eyes, so that she appeared to be crying tears of crimson. Then they forced her to walk on the shards. If she managed to make it ten paces, back and forth, they promised to leave her alone. She did her best to avoid crying out. She did not want to wake her mother. If she interrupted this sadistic tableau, it would not only break her heart, it would ruin Lee’s plan.
“Let them do what they want,” Lee thought. “Let them think they’re breaking you until they break themselves against you.” She gave them the whimpers and sobs they wanted but not the fight. It was hard, the not fighting, much harder than the pain.
Later in her life, when Lee looked back on this moment, she would see it as the first decision that truly saved her life, of the importance of that lesson. If she had fought, if she had shown even a hint of defiance, they would have slit her throat with that broken glass, taken her body to one of the maintenance hatches that studded the city walls, and dropped it into dusty oblivion. They would have told her parents that Lee had run off, gone back to the slums to turn whore or run with the gangs—it happened all the time to up-jumped families.
The way that Lee played it, they eventually got bored, passed out in two sweaty, stinking heaps next to her. She lay between them all the rest of the night, feeling the blood dry to crust on her face and feet, feeling the pain fade to soreness. Finally, dawn’s light glinted through the windows and cast a pale rectangle across the floor. She waited until she heard the sounds of her mother stirring.
Before she had made a show of offering her sisters the liquor, Lee had written out a note and left it where she knew her mother would find it, tucked between the pages of her bible. It said Lee was feeling sick, asked her mother to find her own way to church, to please let her rest for now and check on her only when she got back from services. Lee heard the sound of her mother dressing, walking into the house’s main room, pausing to pick up the letter, sighing, and trudging out, her pace slower and more depressed.
Lee cautiously turned over onto her stomach and silently wriggled across the ground. She crept into the main room, to her hiding spot beneath the floorboards. She retrieved the heavy work-wrench and the canister of alkahest. In moments she was standing over her unconscious sisters.
“Try not to enjoy it,” Lee thought and then she opened the canister above Misty’s right eye. The alkahest dribbled out and right away the flesh of Misty’s eyelid reddened, blistered, and smoked. It snapped open even as it dissolved and the solvent went to work on her ocular tissue. She screamed, all awake now, and clawed her wound. Her fingers came away dripping with sticky threads of gore.
Knife was conscious now, groggy and mumbling. As she began to sit up, Lee swung the work-wrench down as hard as she could right into Knife’s kneecap. The twins howled in agonized chorus, and whimpered, crawling away from Lee. The air reeked of blood and burning and fear.
“If either of you wretched bitches ever does one more thing that doesn’t please me,” Lee spat, “I’ll do more than half-cripple you.”
Her parents came home together. They had met by chance in the square on their way back from their respective houses of worship. It was perfect for Lee. Chatham and Collette Garnet walked into their house to find their youngest daughter standing over her cowering, mutilated sisters.
“Take a look,” Lee said. They stood, rooted and mute. “You always found a way not to see everything they did to me but you will see this. Look at them. I want you to see and I want you to know, because from now on you’re all a-goin’ to do exactly what I say, when I say it. I’m set to protect us, I’m set to make everything better for us, but I can only do that if you listen to me and never, ever not listen. I don’ want to have to do this again to any of you, and I won’t have to if you don’ make me. For now, what I need you all to do is nod if you understand me. Mom. Dad. Big sisters. All of you need to look at me and nod if you understand that I’m in charge of this family now.”
Before he acquired any of his titles—the Wraith, the Crime King of Bastion, Admiral of the Open Sky—Gavirel Esper was born on top of the world. His life began on the highest tier of the city, among the spires where the wall ended; raised so high not even a draft of dust could reach. Those who dwelt here were the only people in the city who could look upward and see pure, unobstructed blue. Esper’s father, Esper the Elder, was one of the twenty-three councilors of the Sanhedrin who governed Bastion under the aegis of the Hero of the Day.
Esper was loved in a mannered distance by his own parents and more directly by the series of au pairs and attendants that did the work of raising him. Esper was fed a steady diet of fresh pears, goat’s milk, and even pork bacon—all considerable rarities in Bastion. He had an education: mathematics, mechanics, what was left of the arts, sciences both physical and arcane. He was one of the few permitted to slay animals in Hareth, the massive forest that grew in a corkscrew through the heart of the city, and he proved to be a capable hunter. He had the finest combat training, hand-to-hand and with blade, lance, studded shield, escrima stick and—though they were widely considered a dishonorable weapon—garrote gloves, for his father insisted that a fight won by any means remained a fight won. When Esper was thirteen he was even once permitted to spar with the Hero of the Night, an experience he found comparable to battling his own shadow. He was bruised and beaten but he recognized the beating for the honor it was.
He was civil to his father, civil to his many instructors, civil to his peers, and especially civil to his servants. When his mother began to forget how to find her way home from the communal gardens, or where she stored her paints, or the given name of her own son, Esper tended to her with patient care and never flagged in his many other duties. He was a good boy, good as gold, his father was wont to say.
To Esper, scion of the great house of Esper, his goodness felt like a collar chafing his neck. Though he was well capable of meeting the high expectations presented to him by his birth, he still found them lonely and oppressive. It was not that he longed to be bad, not exactly. He felt what he suspected was a perfectly normal amount of wicked impulses behind the mask of civility he shaped his face into each day. He just wanted to stop, to cast his goodness over the side of the city and watch it tumble end over end until it disappeared. He was always busy but never fulfilled, never even engaged. It wasn’t until years later that he was able to give a proper name to the feeling that grew steadily inside of him during his adolescence: boredom—acute, profound boredom. It would be better, he ruminated in his most secret heart, to burn it all down rather than endure another tedious minute.
This feeling was not helped at all by the arrival of the girl in the short skirt and ridiculous make-up. One morning at the academy, she strolled into Esper’s Principles of Automation and Gear-Work class, a new student when typically it was rare as a solar eclipse for anyone to enroll midterm—that would mean a social advancement on the part of his or her parents that was equally exceptional in Bastion. Esper was seventeen and not only one of the highest born but also top student at the school for the children of the city’s elite citizens.
He’d heard rumors about the new girl. Konstantin Gardiner said that her father had become Primate of the Machinist Guild only after the old one had died of mercury poisoning. Hester Xing told Esper that she was attended by two servants who were identical save for the eye-patch worn by one and the nasty limp sported by the other. While many of the tales Esper heard or overheard seemed overly fanciful and contradictory, there was a general agreement from all corners that she had been born all the way down in the dust clouds of the Gehenna Slums.
All the loose talk and gossip of dangerous connections was certainly enough to interest him, although at the moment Esper was far more captivated by two of her more immediate qualities: one, that her entire face, neck, lips, and eyelids were all painted the same unearthly shade of white; two, that he was seeing the lower thighs of a girl his own age for the very first time. All the other female students at the academy dressed in the flowing academic robes of their uniform, an outfit that itself imitated the councilors of the Sanhedrin. What the new girl was wearing was proximate to what Esper imagined a particularly wicked prostitute might as eveningwear. Not that he had in his whole life once seen a prostitute.
“How is it that no one else is reacting at all?” Esper asked himself feverishly.
He noticed that her thighs were pale, round, and juicy (a word he had never previously associated with anything but fruit). He wanted to reach out and touch them. He wanted everyone else in the room to disappear while he did it. He felt a stab of shame, then an even greater surge of fury that he felt any shame at all, that the architecture of his mind was hewed in such a manner that shame was a reflex. He wanted never to recoil, even for an instant, from his own desires.
She introduced herself to the class with a soft laugh that, even in his distraction, Esper recognized as practiced.
“She’s playing the part of bird out of sky but she’s too inexperienced at it, too used to making everyone believe she’s seen it all and knows it all. Look at her, physically she’s all but the smallest girl here but she can’t help but make the impression that she stands taller than any other. No one can see it but me: she’s a confidence woman.”
He knew that the city was full of them, men and women who survived by tumbling from swindle to scam. Rarely was one so successful that he or she ascended to the higher echelons, let alone at such a young age. Far from putting him off, this realization only heated his immediate interest until it was rarified into pure fascination.
He watched her glide—for that was how she moved, as if she walked not on the floor but several inches above it—to her desk at the back of the class. He resisted the nearly overwhelming urge to glance back at her, to feign stretching his neck or dropping his writing charcoal so he could momentarily catch sight of her. “Betray no interest,” he commanded himself. Between and after classes he did not speak to her. “She’ll either find you completely boring or see you only as leverage, only in terms of how you might benefit her. Do not let that happen… at least, not yet.”
Esper brooded over the matter during the rickshaw ride back to his residence. He felt the dull weight of his life now more acutely than ever. She was like a signal that had gone up in the dark. He could see now where he needed to go, though he did not have a plan for how to get there. By chance or providence, the makings of one were waiting for him when he arrived at home.
Esper the Elder stood before the gates of the house, which was more sizable and lavish than a typical Bastion household, though not excessively so (fresh air and unfiltered sunlight were by far the greatest luxury afforded to their caste). With a wave of his hand, the venerable old statesman halted the rickshaw driver in his path.
“Leave us,” he said in a voice both commanding and mildly senescent.
“He’s growing so frail,” Esper thought. “He waited far too long to have me.”
“Father,” he said, bowing his head to the man.
“No time, child, no time,” Esper the Elder replied. “We’ve been summoned…” he paused, frowned deeply, corrected himself. “More accurately, you’ve been summoned and it falls to me to conduct you there.”
“Council business?” Esper asked, his frown an unlined reflection of his father’s.
“After a fashion.”
This was all highly irregular, starting with his father being there to greet him when he got home from school through to the halting, allusive manner of his speech.
“Father, surely if we have no time for formalities, we also cannot afford such circuitousness. Speak to me in words, not weighty pauses.”
Esper the Elder’s eyes widened then narrowed. Esper was not supposed to speak to him with such impertinence.
“You’re to accompany me to the Stronghold,” Esper’s father said. “Then enter, alone.”
For a moment, Esper felt as if there was no city at all beneath him, nothing to hold him suspended above open space. The Stronghold was the abode of the Hero of the Day. Not even the councilmen and women of the Sanhedrin were allowed within its golden walls save on matters of extreme urgency. Though it was within walking distance of Esper’s own home, he had never been closer than thirty meters to its radiant façade. Such was the religious awe and fear it inspired in all of Bastion’s citizens, the elite included.
This was not the command of the Sanhedrin. For Esper the Elder to attend to this matter personally like a common courier, only the Hero of the Day himself could have made such a summons; a thing unprecedented in Esper’s knowledge. The true ruler of Bastion rarely gave direct edicts or involved himself in the day-to-day governance of the city beyond the occasional, politely worded suggestion to the Sanhedrin. He had greater concerns—it was said—to occupy his inhuman intellect.
“Whatever happens, wherever this path takes me, I must accept it and only let them see of my heart what I allow them to see.” This was the whispered resolve in Esper’s mind. “Nothing can ever be the same again.” The thought was sudden and shocking, the first one he’d had in recent memory that had kindled in him any kind of hope. It girded his resolve adamantine.
“I will do as commanded, father,” he said. Esper the Elder turned wordlessly and moved in the direction of the Stronghold. Esper followed.
As they walked, Esper tried to recollect the handful of times he had actually seen the Hero of the Day; always from a distance, almost always with a sense of panic or helplessness. It was during the day, of course, for the Hero of the Day never appeared save where there was sunlight just as the Hero of the Night was never glimpsed outside of nocturnal darkness. Even on the top tier, where light was abundant, the sight of the Hero of the Day was extraordinarily rare. There were two events that would reliably draw the Hero from his fortress-home, both of them disastrous.
Occasionally, Bastion was besieged by one of the colossi, the dwellers of the dust ocean that swirled endlessly around the mesa. Esper had seen illustrations of fire-breathing wyrms and many-tentacled shoggoths in the history texts. He had never seen one of the colossi himself nor, he knew, had any sane citizen. When the walls and struts of the city shook, it signaled an imminent attack and the telegraph wires would scream with warnings from the very heights of the city all the way down to the slums.
It was mandatory for all citizens to evacuate their residences and congregate in the windowless bunkers that were set near the center of each tier. To disobey was to risk not only one’s life but also one’s own sanity, for even the slightest glimpse of the primordial dust-dwelling monstrosities instantly drove mortal minds past the threshold of madness. Every so often, one of the lower tier gangs thought they would take the opportunity to loot, or a citizen was too elderly or infirmed to heed the evacuation order, or a maintenance crew was trapped on the wrong side of the wall. There was an asylum where they drooled their days away three tiers beneath Esper’s home.
Once the order was given and the alarums reverberated throughout the city, a member of the Sanhedrin would set the great gear-work into motion, sealing every window, hatch, and balcony on every tier of the city, save those in such bad disrepair that they would not close (the number of which multiplied every year). With the city bathed in darkness, the alderman of each tier would ignite the gaslights or torches and lead their terrified constituents to their bunkers. Bastion’s citizenry would huddle in there for hours, listening to the sounds of titanic combat resounding even through the thick concrete walls. They would hear the Hero of the Day throw his might against the attacking colossus until at last he triumphed and it was driven back into the dust. Then everyone could emerge, blinking, back into the sunlight, offer the Hero a silent prayer of gratitude for preserving the city, and resume the normal course of their lives.
There had been an evacuation just last week. Esper remembered sitting packed in among the city’s elite, idly holding his mother’s hand; it was his responsibility to guide her to the shelter because her condition meant she might not be able to find her way there on her own and his father, like the other councilors of the Sanhedrin, spent the colossi attacks sequestered in the Temple of the Continuance. Even though the air was thick with worry, Esper recalled feeling nothing except mild contempt for his wide-eyed peers and their equally cowed parents.
The second occurrence that brought the Hero into the public view was any living thing falling off the sides of the wall. This happened occasionally, by accident or design, and the results were as predictable as they were astounding. The Hero would respond instantaneously, flying like a stone from a sling, up and over the side of the city to catch the unfortunate soul. In a matter of moments he would gather the falling citizen up in his arms like a father holding a baby, float back to safety, set them down with a few short words of kindness or humility, and be off again; a casual worker of miracles. Men would drink and brag about the Hero of the Day saving them, snatching them up like they were a feather on the breeze. Women would tell their little children that they never would have been born if not for the demigod’s intervention. He saved these hapless, plummeting bodies as if he were compelled, like a reflex had been triggered, even when they were only animals (Esper had once heard of him rescuing a litter of kittens that some sadistic child had chucked to their doom) or those who had fallen deliberately.
Citizens who legitimately wished to commit suicide by air had long ago learned to either wait until after sunset or throw themselves from a lower tier. The Hero of the Day was fast, certainly, and possessed attributes far beyond mortal limitations, but even he had his limits. If the origin of your fall was too far below the Stronghold, you would meet the death that waited for you below. The Hero would still rush to save you without fail, but he would catch only a palm-full of air.
Conversely, the Hero of the Day seemed entirely unconcerned with any dead matter that fell from the wall. You could drop a corpse from the highest tier of Bastion, from an eave of the Stronghold itself, and he would pay it absolutely no mind. Sky burial was among the most common funereal practices in Bastion for those unwilling to donate their mortal remains to the alchemic recycling centers, as well as the favored way for murderers to dispose of evidence, but the Hero somehow possessed the ability to discern between a living body and a dead one even as it reached terminal velocity. Esper found the phenomenon fascinating, even more so than the Hero’s battles with the colossi. In his short life, Esper had experienced only seven attacks including the most recent while the Hero’s aerial salvations occurred nearly a dozen times a year.
It was with these thoughts turning in his mind that Esper parted company with his father at the huge, sun emblem embossed doorway to the Stronghold. It swung wide, seemingly of its own volition and Esper entered the bright chill of its interior, where the walls pulsed with soft, steady luminescence and the Hero stood awaiting him.
“Hello, Gavirel,” he said, his voice overwhelmingly gentle.
Esper was nearly as shocked to hear his given name as he was to clearly see the Hero of the Day for the first time. He was clad in golden lorica segmentata, the armor decorated with elaborate scrollwork, the chest-piece stamped with the symbol of the morning star. A pointed helm rested atop his impossibly handsome head. He was beautiful, but it was not a human beauty. Unlike the Hero of the Night, who—when seen up close—appeared to be a mortal man, albeit one in a terrifying mask, the Hero of the Day was obviously a being utterly unlike Esper or any other citizen of Bastion. His skin, where it showed on his bare, thickly muscled arms and legs, resembled not flesh so much as alabaster marble. More than that, Esper realized that what he had first mistaken for the light glinting off the Hero’s armor was actually a soft glow emitted by his skin. It brightened and dimmed with the same even rhythm of the Stronghold’s walls, as if he had swallowed a piece of the sun. His incandescent face was calm, like a sculpture of an utterly untroubled man.
Esper refused to avert his gaze, staring directly into the yellow eyes of Bastion’s supreme being. In those eyes, Esper detected, somewhere beyond the impassive exterior, a white-hot smolder that could consume him effortlessly.
“My lord, ” he said, his voice cracking slightly.
“No need for that,” the Hero said. “I have no titles or even a proper name. Never had a need for either.”
“As you say,” Esper replied. The best course, for now, seemed to be to say as little as possible.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you here. Please, follow me.”
The Hero of the Day turned and advanced down the gleaming corridor. Esper kept a pace behind him. As they walked, the Hero spoke, his voice taking on the cadence of the idle chatter friends might make on a casual stroll.
“Well, as you know, Bastion is the only city in the world, but it was not always so. Long ago, so long that even I’ve lost count of the years, this planet was filled with people, billons of people, thousands of cities. I wish you could have seen it, Gavirel, the multitudinous wonders worked by your race, the way they lived. It was a thing of true beauty. It drew me from far away. I… loved humanity, you see, though I was not born among them. I loved them as only someone who watches from above with all-seeing eyes could love them, for all their imperfections, for all their petty ways, I could do naught else. I wanted nothing more than to protect them, to protect you.”
The Hero paused, placing a hand on his own chest as if to steady himself.
“I failed. The age of dust began. Man and all his works fell into ruin. I did what I could, preserved what I could. I brought what few I could save here, before there was a city. The mesa is a uniquely suited location, you know, it has a replenishing spring of fresh, drinkable water flowing beneath it, capable of supporting a limited number, high enough to remain unpolluted by the dust. I helped the survivors raise a habitation, planted a forest of hanging gardens with seeds I had gathered from the corners of the globe. I created Bastion as an ark for the last of you. It was the only thing I could do, when I was unable to help in any other way that mattered.”
“This city was born from this strange creature’s guilt,” Esper thought. “It’s an apology from a contrite do-gooder.”
They entered a great hall filled with various objects Esper struggled to adequately comprehend. There was a fountain of glistening, silver water and its babbling was the sound of complexly symphonic music. There were crystalline cages that contained animals Esper had never before seen, many of which he could barely describe—he recognized a few from history texts, creatures that had been called “elephants” and “lions” while still others he doubted could have been of earthly origin, so monstrous and strange was their composition. Some were still living; some were preserved in life-like motionlessness like an insect trapped in amber. There were shelves and tables filled with books, some of which seemed to be reading themselves, their pages open and ceaselessly flipping. There were doors that stood in midair, closed and set into nothing, yet Esper sensed that they lead to other places. There were cases that held various curiosities, suits of armor, ornate weapons, antique furniture, chests brimming with treasure, every-day objects that somehow radiated miraculous or sinister qualities. There were great statues of beings that resembled the Hero of the Day, armored and golden, both male and female.
“He spoke of coming here from elsewhere. Maybe these are mementos of his people.”
An automaton in roughly the shape of a man, its gear-work machinery naked save for a bowtie around its neck, approached Esper, silently offering him a chalice. He accepted it and found the water inside cool and refreshing. The Hero beckoned him to an ornate table and they sat down across from one another.
“This is my inner sanctum, Gavirel. I’ve brought you here, where I’ve not brought any living human for quite some time, in order to ask for your help.”
“Speak carefully,” Esper cautioned himself.
“Forgive me but what could you of all people possibly need my help with?”
“Governing Bastion,” the Hero answered with complete certitude. “It is becoming necessary to focus my attention elsewhere. The city’s resources are dwindling, I’m afraid… food, water, space. When I first brought the founders of the Continuance to this place, there were some fifty men and fifty women. Now your numbers strain the very seams of the city. At this rate, in a matter of decades, Bastion will be incapable of supporting life. I wish to avoid the barbaric necessities of population control and consequently I will need to look… elsewhere, to resupply and ensure your future. Since my hours outside the Stronghold are limited to the daytime, this task will be a significant undertaking. As such, I will need to restructure the Sanhedrin. It is my wish to appoint a supreme councilor, someone who I can trust to lead and safeguard Bastion while my attentions are divided.”
“You can’t possible mean—”
“I do.” The Hero placed a hand on his shoulder. Esper couldn’t help but think that with the slightest squeeze, the Hero could detonate the soft flesh and pulp the bone beneath. “Not right away, mind you. This conversation is the first of many we will have here, the beginning of an education that will take years to complete. There are many things you need to know: the history of this city, the demands of governance, but I think it’s best to start with the seriousness of the responsibility you are being entrusted with.”
“You don’t know how to be humble, Gavirel—that’s always how it is when a person’s intelligence is so far beyond their years—but what I’m sure you do know is that you’re the best and brightest of your generation.”
“He’s not wrong about that,” Esper thought.
“Your bloodline has sat on the Sanhedrin since the beginning of Bastion. I remember Nicodemo Speranza, the first of your line, as a wise and invaluable partner. It is a rare thing for me to remember individual humans, after all these years and so much loss, but I remember Nicodemo. Without him, I would have never succeeded in establishing a peace and order that has outlasted the end of the world. His intellect, courage, and foresight made the Continuance possible. Seeing you now, I know the generations have not diluted those qualities. That is why. You have been called. For the sake of your city, for the sake of your people, for the sake of goodness. You are good, Gavirel, and good men must serve.”
“No.” The unspoken response boomed like thunder in Esper’s mind. “No no no no no.”
He felt the collar around his neck, tighter than ever. He couldn’t breathe. He would never breathe again. In the midst of his desperate, silent panic, something to his right caught his attention, as if it had whispered his name. It was one of the many cubic glass cases scattered throughout the chamber. Inside it was a white plastic mannequin, dressed in an article of clothing Esper had never seen before.
“What’s that?” Esper asked, tilting his head at the case. The Hero of the Day raised an eyebrow, a small gesture indicating the surprise he felt at Esper’s response to this momentous news.
“A trophy,” he replied. “A souvenir from one of the most terrible battles of my life. It belonged to an enemy of mine, a powerful and resourceful enemy, one of the few to almost bring me down. I keep it here as a reminder of—”
“I meant the outfit itself,” Esper said, interrupting the demigod. His gaze was now fully transfixed “What, what do you call that?”
“A suit, Gavirel. A lounge suit, if memory serves, or business, depending on the hue. Before the age of dust, a man would wear one to show others that he was important. Of course, this one has certain unique properties that distinguish it from others of its make.”
Esper was already beginning to see that. The suit had triggered a series of associations in his mind, rushing towards a single memory: the book. He had found it as a child, no older than seven. Since he had learned to crawl, his curiosity had always brought him to unexpected places. He had found the book somewhere in storage, somewhere dusty and forgotten. It was unlike any tome he had seen before, thick and hardbound yet it barely contained any words. It was an illustrated book of patterns. He had poured over it for hours, enthralled by the colors and shapes. Each pattern had a name: cartouche, paisley, quatrefoil, foulard, zalij, so many more. He was captivated not just for the sake of its intrinsic beauty, but because he liked to imagine the people who had created the patterns, the thought and creativity that had gone into dreaming them into being, living in a world so unlike his own yet capable of engendering a connection powerful enough to transcend time and circumstance. He had kept the book, staring at it every night until his father had discovered it, denounced it as utterly inessential to survival, and torn it from Esper’s hands.
Now, Esper had turned to fully face the suit. He had to squint when he looked at it directly, because the colors and patterns of its weave seemed to be shifting as he watched them. One moment the jacket and trousers seemed to be sky blue, the next they were light pink, then white and a series of pastels, then darker shades. The tie around the mannequin’s neck was particularly frenzied in this respect. The patterns leapt and shifted across its fabric, paisley teardrops sprouted vines and buds, grew into floral, then caught fire and exploded into suns that set into shining, metallic fleur-de-lis. It was as if the fabric was frantically attempting to relay some sort of message.
“It’s very… beautiful,” he said, breaking his resolution to guard his heart in the presence of the Hero.
“And deadly, in the wrong hands. It’s responding to you, Gavirel, in a way it hasn’t in years. Best to look away now. The more attention you pay it, the more powerful it becomes. That’s why I’ve barely looked at it since—”
In an instant, the Hero of the Day’s voice fell off and his eyes widened.
“Someone fell,” he whispered. There was a rush of air. Esper blinked. The Hero was gone. He was alone in the sanctum. It took him a moment to deduce what had happened. Even now, some poor creature was hurtling through the open air as the roiling dust storms rushed up to meet them. A dim part of Esper hoped that the Hero would catch them in time, although his gladness to be alone in the sanctum overwhelmed this goodwill.
“Just us,” he said to the suit of multitudinous patterns.
As it should be, the cloth seemed to whisper back.
He sat down cross-legged in front of the case. The fabric was speaking to him now. He was sure of it.
See the pattern, it said. The pattern unending.
It was revealing its true nature, offering Esper a sort of service. Esper would have need of it. The plan was already coming together in his mind.
By the time the Hero returned (nearly ten minutes later, Esper was careful to note), he was nowhere near the suit. He was paging through a comprehensive index on the colossi, the enemies of all life in Bastion. He apologized for taking the liberty but the Hero made a wave of dismissal. He looked tired, the lines around his eyes slightly deeper.
“A maintenance crew was performing some repairs on the piping system six tiers below us. Some of the walkways there have grown quite corroded. Will have to suggest the Sanhedrin reallocate resources to restore them. One of the men fell right through one. I caught him.”
“I’m very relieved to hear that.”
“I think this would be a good time to conclude our discussion for the day. The sun is setting. I must, must rest. In a week, I will call on you again and we will continue our preparations for the great work ahead of us. In the meantime, I’d ask that you reflect on what I’m asking you, on the sacrifices it will demand.”
“I’ll prepare.” On his way out, with the Hero’s back to him, Esper gave the suit one last sidelong glance and risked a tiny smile.
At dinner that night (freshly poached quail eggs on a bed of barley and carrots), Esper relayed the news to his parents. His mother, despite being nearly thirty years younger than her husband and still possessing a delicate beauty, had last year been officially diagnosed with early onset fading sickness and had plunged headlong into premature senility, and so her response to the news was to smile as if she knew what he was talking about and continue eating. His father was shocked into monosyllabic wonderment.
“Is he proud of me or angry that I’m already surpassing him? Probably both,” Esper thought.
“I’d like to make a request of you, to help me get ready to take on this immense responsibility.”
“What do you need?” Esper the Elder said tersely.
“My curfew extended and my access restrictions lifted. I need the freedom to see more of the city, to move in it as I see fit, to walk among the people as one of them. If I’m to lead Bastion and stand at the head of the Sanhedrin as the Hero of the Day himself wishes, I must know it, inside and out.”
“I am not sure if I am comfortable—”
“Please, father. My childhood is done now. The last of it ended this afternoon in the Stronghold. Let me become the man you want me to be.”
“…Very well. You’ve done nothing but earn my trust since the day you were born. You are good, my son. Good as gold.”
Esper swallowed hard and forced a smile on his face. Esper the Elder continued.
“But I have some conditions. You do not go below the fifty-seventh tier without a security detail and you stay out of the near-nils, Happytown, and Gehenna entirely. Gangs of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells aside, I will not see my only son and heir contract brown pneumonia and choke to death on dust and spittle.”
“As you wish, father. Thank you.”
The plan proceeded apace. When lessons concluded at the academy the next day, Esper waved off his rickshaw driver and ventured down to the lower tiers, for now obeying his father’s strictures and staying above tier fifty-seven. At this early juncture he was primarily interested in the market places. There were materials he needed to acquire and he did so with focus and industry. He liked the lower tiers, liked being a face in the crowd, the dirt and squalor and labor (both honest and otherwise) that comprised life here.
During the days at the academy, he watched the girl in the skirt whenever he was sure no one else was looking. She had a loud voice and a louder laugh. She seemed not to pay attention to the instructors’ lectures, yet when asked, she always had either the correct answer or a cunningly worded question that reflected the class’s scrutiny back on the instructor. She gathered a circle of friends and admirers around her. Hagar Antioch, Venus Fitzroy, Bathsheba Collings. Only the richest and highest born. Esper pondered, in a detached way, what her game was. Whatever it was, Esper knew that no good would come of it for the young women who were fawning over her.
“It doesn’t matter. Whatever she’s up to, it won’t interfere with me.”
Even knowing this, it was a struggle to take his eyes off of her, to force himself not to approach her. He had to be patient.
Esper met with the Hero a week after his first visit to the Stronghold. They spoke of the importance of pipes and plumbing, of maintaining the city’s rain-catchers and access to the spring within the mesa. They spoke of the colossi and the threat they posed the bodies and minds of the citizens, of the upkeep of the evacuation bunkers. It was all very tedious. Throughout the exchange, Esper was careful not to look at the suit, to ignore its plaintive call. He tested whether or not the Hero of the Day could read his mind. He filled his thoughts with every blasphemous, vile, violent, sexual, or philosophically heretical notion he could. Not a single reaction from the Hero, who continued to prattle on about the mason’s guild and the falling standards of construction that had to be rectified.
Their weekly meetings continued, the Hero’s enthusiasm for his education undiminishing. One afternoon after their third meeting, Esper made his way down to a marketplace seven tiers beneath his home. First he acquired a mechanized timepiece, the most accurate one he had managed to find in his weeks of searching. In the street outside the machinist shop, there was a raggedy woman with a litter of puppies in a small wooden box. Keeping animals for purposes other than meat or service was a luxury in Bastion; one his stoic father had never permitted in his boyhood. He traded her two pears for a puppy, a wide-eyed yappy little thing that licked his palm enthusiastically.
As he made his way out of the marketplace, he passed a pair of lovers in a heated embrace. He was seven strides past them when he realized that he knew them, knew both of them. It was the girl in the white make-up. She was locking lips with one of the boys in his class at the academy: Elihue Bradley. The Bradleys were an up-jumped family. They had only been members of the Sanhedrin for three generations. Esper didn’t hold it against them. He saw little actual evidence of the class system’s efficacy in producing superior heirs, except for himself, of course. However, he had known Elihue Bradley since childhood and disdained him for much of that time.
Esper had once considered him a candidate for friendship, briefly, but he had proved himself time and again an unrepentant slacker, a dimwitted waste of air, prone to boasting over feebleminded or invented accomplishments, with irritating fixations on juvenile literature and pornography. He was not talented, intellectually or athletically. He had an on-and-off relationship with Bathsheba Collings that occasionally exploded in immature, embarrassingly public arguments or, worse, sloppy displays of affection. Yet now here he was with the object of Esper’s fascination, slobbering on her, running his hands up and down her body. What was she doing with him?
Esper retreated down the narrow corridors, over the corrugated bridges and walkways that took him closer and closer to the wall. He had always known, intellectually, that she would attract the attention of the other boys at the academy. Some of them she might even consider worthy of a dalliance, as he had occasionally desired to do. He’d traded kisses with a few of his less priggish classmates—he was, after all, expected to one day marry a daughter of one of the founding bloodlines—but had so far been denied the sight of their thighs. He generally disliked the company of people his own age or social class, and made any romantic concessions at all only for the sake of his adolescent libido—encounters he always regretted within days.
Esper had even considered the possibility that she might use seduction as a means to an end, ensorcelling whichever men or women might be of use to whatever angle she was working. But Elihue Bradley? What practical purpose could that greasy idiot be of to her?
He was beneath her, unworthy of the honor he was presently receiving. Esper made this judgment—not of Elihue Bradley, but of this girl he had never even spoken to—with the same certainty with which he approached every other aspect of his life: she was lowering herself, debasing herself, and, worse, for no reason he could understand. His eyes were boiling inside of his head. He felt exactly as he had when he was thirteen and the Hero of the Night had punched him in the solar plexus during their sparring session. He could barely breathe. The puppy was squirming in his hands. He gripped it tighter and it began to whimper.
He was at the edge of the wall now, on a narrow and secluded platform that projected over the side of the city with a clear view of the tiers that stretched below, down to the apex of the mesa, down into the raging storm.
“Remember the plan. Don’t be weak. You will get what you want, in time. In time. Everything you want. Be patient. Be strong. Don’t think of her. Don’t think of him and how he must already be touching her thighs, that she is allowing him to…”
Esper clenched his burning eyes shut, took a labored breath, realized he was trembling. He felt the cold metal of the timepiece in one hand, the warm flesh of the puppy in the other. He took the animal by the scruff of its neck.
“Lee.” The girl’s name sounded over and over in his mind. “Lee. Lee. Why?”
He lifted the puppy up, heard it whine in fear, and tossed it over the side of the city.
By the time she turned sixteen and enrolled in the academy, Lee Garnet’s prospects had never been brighter. Under her stewardship, the Garnet clan had risen to new heights. Once her father’s appointment as Primate of the Machinist Guild was finalized, they moved into a new home on tier six. It amused Lee that the people of Bastion counted the tiers from the top down, as if anyone were likely to forget that their betters lived directly above them. Their new digs were neither the squalid shacks nor cramped apartments they were accustomed to, but an actual house with three floors, room enough for all, a trio of servants, and a private toilet for Lee. There was even a backyard with pens for geese, ducks, and chickens, and a small garden that her mother took great joy in tending.
“It’s eggs and herbs with every meal from here on, just like proper upper-tier thin-bloods!” Lee announced to her family. Her sisters were especially pleased by the prospect of fresh eggs and took to cracking them, raw, into one another’s mouths.
Chatham Garnet still worked with the same tireless, soul-voiding intensity as ever, making him the ideal front for Lee’s operation. He followed her directions with nary more than a grunt or resigned sigh. She had him grow out his whiskers in the style of the men of the Sanhedrin (“A beard for our beard,” Lee laughed). She directed him to appropriate social functions, told him who to talk to and what to say.
“See here, pappy. That’s Japheth Conway, alderman of tier six. Ask him about his daughter, Lydia. Get him a drink—one drink—and offer to increase his apportionment of maintenance automatons. I want him in our debt.”
“The fat man with the lazy eye is Enoch Hayes, under-secretary of victualing. Get a private word with him. Tell him you know about the warehouse on tier twenty-four where he hides all the goods he skims from the provision chain. Let him know that half of everything he has and will ever have is ours or the Sanhedrin gets a true and detailed account of his off the books earnings. Better to keep half than lose it all, eh?”
“The drunken old goat at the High Rise Club is Ham Marigold, a merchant who wisely reinvested his fortune into bankrolling some of the most powerful gangs between Gehenna and the mid-fifties. He might not look like much but he’s built up a downright impressive network of informants. I want them informing for us. Propose a partnership and strongly imply that, as a goodwill gesture to seal the deal, you’ll let him have a dirty old night with your twin daughters.”
It was in this fashion that Lee shaped Chatham, the most boring man in Bastion, into one of its most effective bureaucrats and feared criminals. If the transformation had any effect on his sense of self-worth or triggered any pangs of conscience, he did not register it in the slightest. He was a man who did as told and in this regard, if no other, he was the perfect father for Lee.
Despite her considerable success, Lee’s mind was not entirely untroubled as she walked through the shadow bazaars of Happytown. The threatening stares or fevered, perverse whispers that followed her from the stoops and alleyways did not trouble her. True, Happytown was no place for a sixteen-year-old girl in revealing clothing but Lee was unafraid. Misty and Knife were three paces behind her (three and a half in Knife’s limping case) ready to gut anyone who did more than stare or whisper. The twins had a reputation for flaying and castrating men who offended Lee. Even without them, there were other protections at play, assuring her safety among the fiends, freaks, and pimps that pursued their trades in this forsaken place.
She moved past piles of sticks and rags that were actually people, some with their works spread thoughtlessly around them or still protruding from their arms.
“How do these poor fuckers have a single uncollapsed vein between them?” Knife said, kicking a particularly insensate wretch out of her way.
“Did I hear you say something?” Lee asked, halting in her tracks. Her sisters replied with submissive silence. Lee was watching a pintsized cutpurse as he covertly robbed a high-tier looking john; too busy making small talk with a trollop to notice the sack of valuables fall from his belt. She waited until the urchin stowed the goods then recommenced her pace, brushing past the child. She lifted the sack, effortless and unnoticed, not even breaking stride.
“Never forget where you came from,” she told herself.
On her right was a small crowd of the twisted. She was enough used to their grotesquerie to tamp down the sickened expression that seeing them provoked in most people. She could not, however, still the shudder that ran along her spine as their mangled bodies came into view. They were all nearly naked, displaying their bodies to one another, petting each other’s deformities lasciviously. One of them had a row of infant arms grafted along his bare chest that feebly pawed and grasped at the air. Another had a crown of teratoma ringing her brow, fangs and fur protruding from the tumorous masses eradicating her facial features. Others had blinking eyeballs instead of nipples, scrotums dangling from their ears as if they were fine jewelry, mouth-like gashes crisscrossing their abdomen; a catalogue of inexplicable horrors and mutilations.
Lee wished they would wear clothes. Everywhere else in Bastion, the taboo against flesh-twisting was strictly observed and the degenerates who partook in it kept themselves covered. Here in Happytown, the bastards could flaunt their sickness for all to see. Lee believed she understood most of the perversions and self-inflicted degradations known to humanity, could imagine the motivations behind even the basest and most depraved acts, but the flesh twisters were beyond even her understanding. She knew that the act of twisting was pleasurable for both the sarxomancers who performed the mutilations and those they changed, but to allow your vessel to become so abject and corrupted, Lee could barely fathom it.
Remembering the task at hand, she dismissed her musings. The abundance of twisted meant that she was in the right place. She breezed past them, careful not to touch their despoiled flesh, and through the heavy oak door into Mumma Mumma’s parlor. It stank of the witch’s acrid pipe smoke. Through the dingy air she could see tanks of polluted water in which splashed tentacled and finned monstrosities, vines and herbs growing from the ceiling, shriveled doll-sized men shambling about carrying fine silver chafing dishes. At the far end of the maze of curiosities and horrors sat Mumma Mumma herself at a floor height table, spindly legs crossed, working a mortar and pestle. Her pipe, still lit and giving off great gouts of smoke, rested on the table to her right. Her raggedy robes were strung with bones, teeth, and various bits of shrunken anatomy. She was mostly bald save a few kinked silver strands, the majority of her crown occupied by her second face. The sleeping, youthful visage grafted atop her skull was as placid and serene as the grinning, nearly toothless countenance beneath was ruined and alive with malice.
“Child,” the incantatrix hissed, eyes darting up from her work, “I expected you some time ago.”
“Stuff it up your dingy cunt, hag,” Lee said good-naturedly. “I’m here right when you said to be. Stop trying to knock me off balance or this conversation will take much longer than it needs to, something I’m keenly hoping to avoid.” She looked over her shoulder at her sisters. “Stand guard outside, cripples. Cut any throat foolish enough to come close… and clear away that crowd of twisted. Their proximity upsets me.”
“Don’t like my work, eh?” Mumma Mumm said.
“I understand the profit you make from it. What I don’t savvy is why you choose to live among it. Right in the heart of Happytown, surrounded by all the lives your poisons spoil.”
“Half the fun of any decent craft is admiring your handiwork, dear.”
“Whatever helps you diddle yourself, I suppose.” Lee turned again to her sisters, who had yet to vacate the room. “You waiting for an engraving? Get the fuck out of here!” They received the abuse with their usual stoicism and exited.
“You ought to be kinder to them. They are your blood.”
“What do you know about kindness?”
“It’s occasional utility, honey-pot.”
“I’ve elevated them a hundred times past what they’d have done on their own. That’s kindness enough.”
“As you say, dear heart, as you say.” Mumma Mumma grinned, exposing blackened gums interspersed by the occasional yellow fang. Lee took a seat on the floor across from the witch. One of the shriveled little servants tottered by with a tray of cinnamon beetles. Lee took one and crunched into it. A gesture of respect, for a supplicant to break beetles with her host. It helped that the crone’s cinnamon beetles were delicious. “To business then,” Mumma Mumma said, taking an enormous drag on her pipe. “The usual?”
“The makeup. I need double what you gave me last time.”
The incantatrix set to work. She held out one of her withered claws. Her cane, a bulky piece of intricately carved wood and metal, lay atop a pile of refuse across the room. At her gesture it began to shake and rattle. As if acting on its own accord, it shot through the air, collided with one of her servant pygmies, knocking him to the ground, and flew into Mumma Mumma’s waiting hand, even as she laughed at her servant’s misfortune. She got up with a show of effort and began hobbling around the room, collecting various herbs, powders, and toxins from the variety of unnatural plants and animals exhibited about the parlor. Every so often she whispered a primal, guttural syllable into the mixture to bless it. Lee paid attention to every ingredient she mixed and collected, every word of power she uttered, committing them to memory. Lee would not rely on the witch to supply her for any longer than she could help it.
“Let me see if I remember,” Mumma Mumma mused. “Some bloodberry rouge to entrance, very good for making new friends, whether they like it or not. Belladonna eye shadow to intimidate, lightly shaded to unsettle, smeared on for mortal terror. Concealer for stealth, obviously. All the shades of lipstick you cherish. False eyelashes for false identities. I have something new for you this time: blue-ringed octopus nail polish… so hard to maintain sea creatures without a proper sea, but worth it when one scratch gets your enemies dead before they even feel it. I milked my little beauty this morning just for you. Speaking of poison, will you be needing any more mercury?”
“No. Not for now. I need to pace myself in that regard. It made sense last time, machinists get exposed to it all the time, but there’s a line between sending a message and drawing unwanted attention.”
“Of course, love, of course. You’re lucky, you know. Because of my make-up, you’ve managed to rise to places most girls don’t get to without spreading their legs. Further even, and you don’t have to do it unless you want to, which I imagine will be quite soon. Your mind’s an ancient piece of deadly machinery, oh yes, but your body’s young and hot-blooded. It’ll want what all young bodies want, oh yes yes yes. Very lucky, my girl, very lucky.” Mumma Mumma gave one of her signature cackles. Her fingers worked quickly, shedding their arthritic creaking as she dropped the act. “That should do it, double the supply. Am I missing anything?”
“The foundation…” Lee said, the disquiet that had haunted her earlier stirring again.
“Ah yes, coca powder and wasp wings for projection.”
“I meant to talk to you about that, I think you might need to adjust the proportions.”
Mumma Mumma’s second face stirred slightly, its eyelids fluttering in a momentary sign of unguarded puzzlement.
“Was there a… problem with my work?”
“Yes, a slight one. Almost everyone did what they were supposed to do, looked at me and saw their own expectations reflected in the white, just like always, so they saw the prim and proper society slip they expect to see at the academy, no more scandal, no more rumors. I could even wear my darling little skirt and the bitches didn’t bat an eye, except…”
She thought of the tall boy toward the front of the class, the one with the distinguished, not quite handsome face; the prominent, swooping eyebrows; the coal-black eyes, intelligent and searching. The split-second of curiosity and lust that had wrecked his composure like a whirlwind. He recovered himself in an instant and he’d made a point of ignoring her since, but still, she’d seen what she’d seen.
“Caught him inspecting your gams and hams, eh, sweet thing?”
Mumma Mumma returned to her seat.
“…yes. Obviously your recipe needs some work.”
“Wouldn’t matter. You can’t fool all the people all the time.”
“What does it mean, that he can see me?”
“I’ll let you figure that one on your own, dear.”
Lee felt her face warming and cursed herself out for exposing even a sliver of vulnerability to the hag. She redirected the conversation as quickly as she could.
“I need something else: five pounds of nepenthe.”
“If you’re looking to form a new habit, I’d consider that jumping from the highest tier.”
“Don’t be dense, Mumma. It’s not for personal use. When I want to get nice and fucked up I have my lovely, lovely gin. No, I mean to make very good friends with my new classmates, and I mean to make them a dazzling get-acquainted gift.” There was no harm, Lee calculated, in telling the witch what she would eventually suss out anyway. Sharing information tended to provoke reciprocity, in Lee’s experience, and she was curious what the boss of Happytown would let slip. “I’ll start them slow, smoking it, a girlish little adventure. In a few months, I’ll have them on the needle. Won’t hurt when the next generation of Bastion’s leaders belongs to us.”
“Belongs to you, you mean. Dangerous games as ever, my girl.”
“Will you give me the shit or not, you miserable flesh-twisting harridan?”
“Such a shame, that so much of your considerable fury and violence is directed against other women, instead of where it properly belongs. Oh yes, I’ll give you what you want but it’ll cost you extra.”
“What do you want?” Lee sighed.
“I have use of your girls. Tell the twins they’re going to do a job for me.”
“The kind they do best.”
“I need details, Mumma. Knife and Misty are my property and they don’t do a thing until I’m fully informed.”
Mumma Mumma sighed and called for some liquor. The serving pygmy she’d earlier knocked over with her staff shambled up to the table. In his puny hands he held a yellow glass bottle. Inside it, embalmed in the alcohol, was the winking head of a cobra. Mumma poured a shot for each of them and slid one across the table to Lee. They downed it simultaneously. Lee winced, then grinned. She loved the way Mumma Mumma’s venom moonshine burned. The ritual accomplished, the witch divulged the details:
“Ham Marigold. I want him strung up by his wretched guts, somewhere public.”
Lee raised an eyebrow. She had just finished cementing her relationship with the lewd old information broker. Dispatching Knife and Misty to polish his wrinkly scepter had given her a particularly vicious twinge of satisfaction and the dirt he’d provided since had already expanded the Garnets’ sphere of influence.
“I thought you and Ham got along just fine. From what I’ve heard, he’s had close ties with Happytown for years.”
“Too close, says I.” The witch took a drag from her pipe, downed another shot of cobra juice, and banged the glass down. An eddy of smoke swirled in the emptied glass. Inside the smoke, for just an instant, flashed an image in yellow lightning: the wrinkled, screaming face of Ham Marigold. Lee had to admit she was impressed. “Two evenings past, the Hero of the Night crashed through the rear window of the High Rise Club, collected old Ham by the scruff and dragged him to the city wall. Dangled him off it by his ankles. Thrice-damned fool gave up four of my lieutenants. The Hero took it to ‘em on their turf. When we found ‘em, they was whipped within a cunt-hair of their lives, their men all beaten and broken-limbed past useless.”
“The Hero of the Night took him out of the High Rise Club? I didn’t know he ever made his way to the upper tiers. I never knew him to beat or whip a ne’er-do-well above the twentieth.”
“He makes an exception every now and again, when word of corruption on high reaches whatever pointy ears he’s got under that mask.”
“He knows about Ham?”
“Everyone knows about Ham, girl. That’s what happens when you try so hard to be the man. People notice. It got so bad that any half-clever cunny understood that supposedly respectable Mr. Marigold was your go-to underworld connection among ‘em high-tier pricks.”
Lee felt warm behind her ears. “There’s a lesson in this, if I’m smart enough to see it,” she thought.
“There’s a lesson in that, if you’re smart enough to see it, honey-pot,” Mumma Mumma said. “Now if you were me, what would you do about this mess? Every gang boss between here and Gehenna knows it was dear old Ham who pointed the Hero of the Night right at my fucking doorstep. I wouldn’t be surprised if the terror himself was in Happytown right now, knocking over one of my stashes, whipping my men to bloody fucking ribbons, tossing those obsidian throwing blades of his this way and that. I have my ways of keeping him from coming at me direct, but he’ll be watching my men, waiting for me to order one of ‘em to stab Marigold’s eyes out. That’s how the cocksucker operates, you see. He shakes the cage and catches whatever flies out.”
“If I were you, Mumma, I’d ask a dear friend for a favor. Someone I know can get the job done, someone without a direct connection to me…”
“I knew I made the right choice four years ago when you turned up on my doorstep, wide-eyed as anything, asking for a boon. But this isn’t a favor I’m asking you, dear. It’s payment for the junk you plan on shooting into the arm of our esteemed, egg-sucking upper caste. So here’s the deal: tell your girls to slice Ham wide open the next time they pay him a visit, oh yes, I already knew what you were up to with that, prostituting your own sisters to that grizzled lecher, oh my, tut-tut. Tell ‘em to slice off his cock, they’ll like that, have ‘em bring it to me so I can pickle it, after they string the rest of him up right in Daylight Square so the whole city can see what happens when you fuck with Happytown!”
“Six pounds of Nepenthe gets it done.” Lee spat in her palm and extended it to the witch. Mumma Mumma’s eyes darted to Lee’s outstretched hand and her lip curled as if she meant to bite one of the fingers off.
“I thought you said five.”
“That was before you showed me how badly you wanted this. I can hear it in your voice, Mumma. You mustn’t get so worked up, not at your age.”
“Ah! Very well, girl, very well.” The incantatrix spat a thin, black gob into her palm and took Lee’s hand with her own, cold and clammy. With her other claw she reached beneath herself and, one by one, produced six bricks of plastic-sealed golden-brown dust. She set them on the table as one of her miniature servants came around to hand them each a handkerchief.
“Were you keeping those up your ass?” Lee asked as she wiped her hand off, surprised that she could still be surprised by the witch’s forethought.
“Secret of business, secret of love, always know what they want before anyone else does. Now call the murderesses in. I want to tell ‘em the happy news.”
Lee did as was asked, accepting a large canvas bag from one of the pygmies and placing her newly acquired supply of nepenthe into it along with her rejuvenated stores of make-up. The twins came an instant after she called.
“Good news, good news!” Mumma Mumma waved her arms at them. “Rejoice, ladies, rejoice, for death has a sting and you are it!”
As Lee made her way out of Happytown and up a pulley-carriage back to the sixth tier, she wondered if she would ever be able to steal whatever magic the incantatrix used that made Lee feel, even when she had gotten exactly what she wanted, like she was coming out behind. Encounters with the crone invariably left her both well provisioned and with a deep unease in her gut. “In a year or two, I’ll kill her myself,” Lee promised. “Once I’ve learned everything she has to teach me. I’d keep her alive in a little box if I could, but she’s too dangerous for that. Next to me, next to what I’m set to become, she’s the most dangerous woman in Bastion.”
It was only a matter of days before Lee had befriended the three most popular and influential girls at the academy: Venus Fitzroy, Hagar Antioch, and Bathsheba Collings. The make-up made such matters simple. Just as the white she painted on her face neatly erased any suspicious rumors from the minds of her fellow students, the rouge on her cheeks left them spellbound and suggestible.
“Let’s be friends!” she said, mere seconds after they first approached her.
“Okay!” they called in unison. Their previous expressions of hostile superiority melted away in an instant.
“How about we go to one of your houses after class?”
True to her word, Lee had them smoking the junk within a week. Bathsheba’s parents were of a decidedly modern predisposition in their approach to child-rearing, which—far as Lee was concerned—consisted of not giving a shit about their daughter, or at least never being in the same room as her for longer than ten minutes. Lee lit up the nepenthe along with them but her violet lipstick nullified any poison that passed her lips, intoxicants included. She play-acted high, but she barely had to, as out of their heads as the girls were. It was during one of these hazy afternoon sessions in Bathsheba’s room that Lee became acquainted with the boy: Elihue Bradley. He sauntered in, unannounced, like he had every right to be there. Lee felt her pulse quicken for no discernable reason. For the first time in years, she felt like she was in trouble.
“Oh, Hue… hi.” Bathsheba said, blinking through the fog.
Hue had taken Bathsheba’s virginity two months ago and had barely spoken to her since, a fact she had tearfully confessed to Lee, who had summoned all her strength to keep from rolling her eyes.
“What’s that queer stench?” he asked in his loud, overbearing voice. “What are you hens up to in here?”
“Nothing!” said Hagar.
“That’s a load,” he said with the certainty of the kind of almost-man who always knew better.
“It’s nepenthe,” said Lee. “You ought to try it.”
“I might, I might.” He was nodding vigorously, as if agreeing with himself. “Dunno, the last time I sucked down a cloud of that shit, it barely did anything for me. High standards, you know?”
“And a sturdy constitution, I’m sure,” said Lee. Playing him would be easy, she could tell within a minute of meeting him. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have an entrée into the male half of the student body. Constant expansion was, after all, her business model.
“Last night I drank two entire bottles of grape wine, so you tell me.”
Lee liked how he talked. There was something endearing about the way he puffed up, like a game rooster come to pay court.
“I’ll tell you this,” she said, “Man ain’t yet invented shit that’ll get you higher than this here and likely never will.” She extended the pipe to him. “That is, if you’re up for it, son.”
“Oh, I’m upright.” He winked at Bathsheba, who was discreetly trying to wipe the drool from her chin. “Just as any member of this upper-caste dumb-dumb society ought to be. Here, give me that.”
“Remember to breathe deep and hold it. That’s right, that’s right. Keep holding it. The panther’s in the cage, scratching to get out but don’t let him yet. Wait til he’s furious. Wait til he’s roaring for release. Can you feel it coming? That instant you can’t stand it anymore? Now, let him out now.”
Coughing and red-faced, he collapsed to his knees, then keeled over on his side. Lee’s very first instinct was to tend to him, he seemed so enfeebled. It was the most perverse feeling she had experienced to date. She walked over to Bathsheba’s washing basin and soaked the hem of her shirt in the chilly water. She returned to Hue, wheezing on the floor, and knelt by his head. She pressed the damp fabric to his forehead. His hair was long, not at all like the other boys at the academy, and she felt it tickle against her bare stomach. Across the room, Bathsheba was staring at them, the glint of some kind of vicious thought struggling to form in her eyes.
“There there, soldier,” Lee said to the boy. “That was a manful hit to be sure. Just wait out the burn in your throat and lungs. It’ll be worth it, I promise. All manner of wonderful dreams and visions are a-coming your way.”
She didn’t have to wait long for his face to glaze over and his muscles to relax. Then she eased his head onto the floor, got up, and fetched him a pillow from the bed. He gave a soft moan of pleasure. Lee realized she was excited, warmth radiating from her face and belly. She didn’t care to examine why. Instead, she excused herself from the room and its anesthetized occupants, wiped off her lipstick, and helped herself to the Collings’ liquor cabinet.
“I need one of these for my room,” she thought as she poured a glass of gin. It delighted her; the notion of what was obtainable for her now. She drank slowly, luxuriously, sitting at a table by the portal to the back patio and garden, breathing the air without detecting a trace of dust, regarding the white curtains wafting in the breeze.
She finished her drink and poured another, taking the glass with her on a self-guided tour of the house. First, Bathsheba’s parents’ bedroom, where she tested the softness of the sheets and examined the mother’s fine jewelry, seeing if she could tell the difference between the stones and the paste. Then she took herself to the garden where she picked a handful of berries and dropped them into her glass. Then she made her way to the library, her favorite room in the house.
She always came here during the hours when the others were gobsmacked by the drugs. Books were a rare sight in Bastion but here was an entire room with nothing else, even a few carefully preserved volumes from before the age of dust; not originals, of course, but copies of copies of the originals brought to the city by the first generation of the Continuance, the few tomes from the world-that-was precious enough for Bastion’s original citizens to keep with them. Looking at the cover of one of these particular volumes, you would see not the name of the author (those were long lost to time) but rather the name of the founder who had preserved the story.
Lee polished off her drink, then chewed the alcohol-soaked berries and spit the seeds back into the glass. She quickly found the book she had begun reading the last time she was in here and plucked it off the shelf. She took a moment to enjoy its smell, the solidity of its binding in her hand, the scrollwork that ran down its side. She regarded the cover: Preserved by Nicodemo Speranza. That name sounded vaguely, vaguely familiar to her but she did not waste time speculating. She opened the pages and returned to the story of a dark stranger come to a long ago city that seemed so different and so similar to her own.
Lee loved to read. It reminded her of her distant childhood mornings, sitting in her mother’s lap over the battered family bible, her mother helping her sound out the letters, teaching her to decipher the words. Mother’s lessons hadn’t taken with her elder twins but they rooted deep in Lee. Many children in Gehenna who survived infancy learned to read, there were more bibles there than anywhere else in the city.
“What’s that one?” said a voice from behind her. Lee was startled; she’d been so wrapped up in the multi-pronged pleasure of the story, the liquor, and her own memories. It was Hue, looking bleary but lucid.
“A novel,” she said. “About the devil.”
“He’s a character from the Christer stories: their boogity-woogity. Drags all the bad children underground and tortures them forever.”
“Actually he’s one of the most sympathetic characters in the book. Definitely the smartest, showing up the fools who don’t believe in him, stirring up trouble left and right, throwing the whole city into chaos while he breezes on by. I think he might actually be trying to help the lovers too.”
“I, uh, I’m a reader, myself. The scary stories, and the ones with action. There’s a real good one I’m working my way through, Daybreak, where the Hero of the Day fights like four different colossi at once and, get this, he does it at sunset.”
“Mmm, sounds thrilling.” It was sweet: how smart he wanted to be. She put the book back on the shelf. “The others come around too?”
“Only for about two seconds. Sheba saw I was there, decided to go another round with the smoke. Venus and Hagar did like she did, like they always do.”
“You two going through a rough spell?”
“She’s alright but she’s always following me around, looking for an excuse to coo at me or scream at me, never sure which it’s going to be. I thought when she found out I was, uh, messing with Venus and Hagar too, she’d finally quit it, but that only made it worse.”
“You have a hard life,” Lee said. “Want to walk a lady home?”
“I, yeah, sure.”
“We’re going to swing through the market on the way so you can buy me something.”
“Whatever you say, books.”
When they got to the market, he picked out a pair of enameled cockroach earrings for her. She liked them better than any of the glittering stones he had to choose from. She would have let him kiss her anyway, regardless of his selection, but it certainly helped when he put his hand around her waist and drew her close in the shadow of the jeweler’s awning. It was the first time she’d let a boy kiss her and it was perfect, long and wet and sloppy. He put his hands on her like he knew what he was doing and didn’t care about being gentle.
Hue walking her home after a session at Bathsheba’s became a matter of routine. Lee found much to like about him, even those aspects that she knew would be widely considered his defects: his greasy locks, his broad-featured face, his bad skin and dirty teeth, that he preferred his given name even though he was upper-caste, his dim attempts to prove his intellect, his insistent cock. During these meandering strolls, they would commence escalating acts of hilarity. They would pass a group of children racing each other or playing hop-the-chalk and wait until one particular child was on the precipice of victory, seconds away from besting their peers, then Hue would sprint right through the game and knock the child over with no regard at all for their safety. Once, Lee took a handful of dust from a windowsill, walked right up to a uniformed constable, and blew it directly into his eyes (“From Gehenna, with love!”). She and Hue booked it at top speed as the constable stumbled blindly after them, then spent an hour kissing in the dark of an alleyway. Lee also saw these constitutionals as a chance to attend to his education: she taught him some of the words you could only learn on the lower tiers. “Fuck” was his favorite, especially after she started letting him into her room at the end of their walks.
In the weeks that followed, Lee decided to slow down her plans. She reasoned that getting her classmates hooked on the needle so soon would burn them out before they could ever be useful. Instead she had Hue deal smoke to the boys. It gave them more time together, as he had to resupply with increasing frequency. She didn’t care that her family had no illusions about what she was up to when Hue and her disappeared into her room and the furniture began to quake. She let Misty and Knife have more time on their own, not seeing the need for bodyguards on the upper tiers or when she was with Hue. She even let Chatham make some of his own business decisions. She had more important things to take care of. She had never been happier and less concerned with her family’s constant upward trajectory.
Hue said he loved her. She said she loved him back. They said it often to each other, day and night.
“I hid my little brother’s socks all over the house. He’s been looking for them for days.”
“Ha! I fucking love you.”
“I love you too, books.”
He talked about the two of them running away with each other, abandoning their families, setting up their own on one of the lower tiers where no one would look for them. Lee found herself daydreaming about them being married, about a simple day-to-day like normal men and women had, like her parents had had before work had ruined her father. Could life even grow inside her? One of the side effects of Mumma Mumma’s boon was an ever-increasing toxicity in her blood (Hue even occasionally complained about tiny burns on his penis after they had gone at it all afternoon, not that it kept him off of her) but if she stopped wearing the makeup, maybe her body would go back to normal.
She had already begun putting it on less and less, especially when she was with Hue, letting him see her true face, pimples and dry skin and all, and he said it was beautiful and kissed it all over. Without it, he also saw some of the truth inside her, the damaged and wary thing she called a heart, and he said that was beautiful too. They fucked until she fell asleep in his arms and woke in the late morning and fucked again. He said he’d kill himself if he ever lost her and she thought it was romantic. Just as a body cultivates an immunity, Lee grew to enjoy sentiments she would have found disgusting merely six months ago.
It did upset her somewhat when, one afternoon in the Collings household, she set down her book and returned to Bathsheba’s room to find Hue and Bathsheba rutting in the bed. After the initial shock, Lee swallowed her anger, undid her own garments, and joined them. She had always liked Bathsheba’s looks: her pale hair, her lightly freckled skin, her narrow waist. It didn’t surprise Lee that playing with girls could be its own kind of fun.
Bathsheba became a regular fixture in their routine. It seemed to solve several problems at once. It prevented Bathsheba from rebelling against Lee’s influence out of jealousy, so there was a practical aspect. It was exciting, too, at first, awakening something orgiastic and primal in the three of them. Also, Hue had made it clear he wouldn’t stop seeing Bathsheba, and discussing the prospect seemed to enrage him. He would bellow that Lee didn’t own him. Once, during a particularly heated argument, he shoved her and she went sprawling to the floor, bruising her forearm. He’d done it thoughtlessly, without a mean intention, and afterward he’d apologized over and over again, until she felt grateful that he cared so much. It was her partly her fault, she eventually admitted, for making him so angry. They calmed down and made love, more gently than usual, and after he told her that he loved her best, but she had to let him be who he was, love how he loved, and she nodded like a dull child and said she would.
So if Hue insisted that he be allowed to love Bathsheba and enjoy her body, it seemed better to Lee that she at least be there to enjoy it as well. He wanted the two of them to love each other, he said, and she could tell he was dreaming of a house where they all lived together, his two women looking after him and one another’s children. It was a very different dream than Lee’s, where it was just the two of them, but she tried to get in the spirit to make him happy. Still, after the initial excitement wore off, she found it painfully burdensome to share her man. She began to be less physically present in their pleasures. Instead, she would let the two of them fall upon each other while she gave them directions, posed them like pornographic dolls. Sometimes she would let them have her once she had watched for long enough. Other times she would bring herself to climax, her fingers now expertly trained to the task, declare the game over, and get dressed. It was the beginning of a propensity for voyeurism that would be with her, in different forms, throughout her life.
Eventually, Lee tired of Bathsheba and the sight of her naked body. Her voice, her manner of speech, her gestures; all of it irritated Lee. She became so tired of the girl that she decided to pay Bathsheba a visit in the middle of the night. Lee’s cheeks were smeared with eye shadow as she stood above her sleeping friend. She clamped a hand over Bathsheba’s mouth to muffle a scream. The makeup worked as it was supposed to. Bathsheba’s eyes widened in mortal terror.
“If you ever touch Hue again, I promise I’ll split you open and stuff you with sawdust. He’s mine. But I have a new lover for you. He’s right here. See.”
Lee brought out the needle. She jammed it into Bathsheba’s arm and depressed the plunger. The girl was limp in a minute. Lee left the works behind, along with a tiny baggy of the junk.
The next day, Lee put on her rouge and informed Hue that it would be just the two of them again. He nodded and smiled but when she mounted and rode him, he would not look her in the eyes. Lee dismissed this observance, cramming it and its implications in a little box in her mind and locking it closed.
“The smarter you are, the better equipped you become to fool yourself,” Mumma Mumma said with a cackle as she bagged up Lee’s latest resupply of nepenthe. Lee wasn’t paying attention. “And the make-up, deary?”
“No thank you, Mumma. Not this time.”
A few short weeks after her discussions with Bathsheba and Hue, Lee was sitting with her mother in her parent’s bedroom. It was early evening and Lee was helping Collette Garnet lace up her gown. The flouncy formalwear looked ill at ease on her mother’s compact body but there were certain expectations of a guild Primate’s wife.
“I do not care for these sorts of parties, not in the least.”
“But you look so good, mom. I’d count myself lucky if my figure held up so well after getting knocked up six times.”
“It’s just not me.”
“It ain’t humble or pious but it is doing your part for all of us, so thank you kindly. You only have to stay for a few hours, until pappy finishes locking down the tier four asylum maintenance contract.” Or was he supposed to be blackmailing the Primate of the Telegrapher Guild? Lee couldn’t remember.
“How would you like it if we moved back to a lower tier?”
“After all your hard work?”
“Come on, you always preferred the taste of fresh, crunchy bugs to runny ole eggs. Wouldn’t you like it if things were simpler?”
“I do miss my old congregations. There’s barely ten of us at services up here!”
All the congregations had been small as the Garnets had moved their way up through the city, each smaller than the last. Outside of Gehenna, there weren’t many Christers left in Bastion. When most citizens offered the bulk of their prayers to the two heroes of the city (the upper tiers to the Hero of the Day for preserving their society, the lower tiers to the Hero of the Night for keeping the gangs in check) there wasn’t much leftover for the kindly man, Jesus. The Christers believed in community, mercy, and charity; consequently, everyone else in Bastion regarded them as stupid-past-saving and easy marks for exploitation. Employers on every level of the city loved getting Christers beneath their thumb. They believed in work but not in worldly treasures, it was perfect.
“What’s all this talk about anyway?” Collette asked her daughter.
“Well, mom, I’ve met a boy.”
“Oh, I can’t know that!”
Lee couldn’t help but grin. “You’ve only been hearing him fuck me senseless for months.”
“I’m serious. I’ll be seeing him tonight while you’re at the party. He has something to tell me. I think he intends to make a decent woman out of me. And wouldn’t that be a miracle straight out of your bible?”
“I want you to be happy, treasure. Would that make you happy?”
“The happiest, mom.”
“Well, then I hope you get what you want.”
Hue showed up an hour after her parents left. He looked nervous, which she had expected, but from the point he started babbling on, nothing went the way it was supposed to. He started talking about responsibility, about how he had to be a man. He was sweating. He barely made any sense.
“Love, love, love, let me calm you down.” She began to unbuckle his pants, licking her lips. He backed away from her.
“I don’t want to fuck!”
“I just wanna taste you. It’ll get your mind right.”
“I said no!”
Lee started to cry. She had no control over herself. She had known her dream was doomed, maybe even from the start. She had conned herself and in the instant of his refusal she finally wised up. What had happened to her? She hadn’t cried like this, tears drenching her face, since she was a little girl.
“I’ve been trying to tell you all week but you won’t let me get in a word. Bathsheba’s pregnant. Her parents know. Both our parents know. Soon everyone’s going to know and they’re telling me I have to do the right thing before that happens. I’m, I’m going to be a father.”
“All the shit she’s been jamming into her veins, you’ll be lucky if that thing is born with eyes.”
“I’m going to stop her. You’re going to stop selling it to her. And whatever it turns out to be, it’ll be mine.”
“Run away with me. Like you always said you would. We can make a life for ourselves, we’d have to go low, where no one could find us, probably below the fiftieth, but I’ve survived worse and you will too. The Collingses can raise your little freakling. And your parents are two of the richest egg-suckers in Bastion, they’d look to it too. No one needs you. No one but me.”
“It’ll be mine,” he repeated, more to himself than to her. “What am I supposed to do?”
“You’re supposed to pick me!” Lee was screaming at this point, screaming and crying like her body was about to fly apart. “We’re supposed to pick each other!” She was hitting him too because why not? Tearing at his shirt and at his face. She drew four lines of blood along his cheek.
“I, I can’t. I just can’t.”
“Then get the fuck out of here! Get the fuck out! Go and kill yourself like you said you would!”
The invitation to leave seemed like an enormous relief to him. He was gone in an instant. Lee lay on her bed, soaking her pillow as she screamed into it. A pit had opened up and she fell right into it. It all made her feel so, so stupid. She had made a decision, long ago on that bloodstained floor, never to be helpless again, but she had almost given up everything she had built up, inside herself and out, and for what? For a boy. A boy who would never make a sacrifice like that for her.
She heard the door to the house swing open. Lee wiped her red, swollen face and went downstairs to greet her parents. She found her mother alone, looking ashen.
“Lee,” she said. “Lee, they took him.”
It was hard to get the straight story out of her mother, distraught as they both were, but it didn’t take Lee long to suss out the news, heavy as it was with the weight of inevitability. Her father had been arrested. The constabulary had marched directly into the upper-tier society party, charged him with treason, a litany of other crimes, bundled him into a restraint-coat, and taken him off to a specially prepared gibbet. He was to stand trial before the Sanhedrin. He would not be executed. The Hero of the Day had forbid the death penalty since the beginning of Bastion’s history. His principles did not extend to the conditions of imprisonment, and very few criminals survived their term of residence in the tor.
Even without her father as a front, Lee had enough influence to keep herself enrolled in the academy for now, at least until he was found guilty. She arranged sanctuary for her mother and sisters in Happytown, where the constabulary would never find them, even if her father’s trial implicated them in “his” crimes. The incantatrix was positively gleeful for the opportunity to extend Lee’s debt to her, especially when Lee asked for more makeup. The right officials had to be enchanted, intimidated, or simply eliminated. Chatham was remaining tight-lipped for now, but the inquisitors could be very persuasive. Lee had to insure that she was protected.
This had all happened because of Hue, she knew it in her heart, or more accurately, because she had let her feelings for him get the better of her, taken her focus away from what really mattered. Love had made her stupid and weak. Never again. Accounts would be set to right: for him, for his fair-haired junky slut, and both their meddling families. She began to plan a fatal accident for him but, before she could even begin to set it in motion, she received the very unexpected news that Hue had murdered Gavirel Esper and disappeared.
During those months when Lee was losing her sense of purpose, Esper’s had never been more clear. He was in the midst of a great undertaking and each of his waking moments was dedicated to its accomplishment. To this end, he neatly folded the paper on his desk into the proximate form of a wasp, loaded it into a self-fashioned slingshot, and snapped it, dead on, into the back of Elihue Bradley’s neck. The dolt hissed in unexpected pain, shot Esper a look of murderous rage, and turned away. It had taken him weeks, but he had eventually learned that any complaint he made to the instructors against Gavirel Esper, teenage paragon, would only result in him being disciplined while Esper watched and smirked.
Esper was careful never to needle Bradley when they were in the same class as Lee. Fortunately, at this point in his academic career, he was permitted to devise his own schedule. Now they shared several classes that Lee did not: Fundamentals of Alchemic Transformation, Horticulture and Environmental Engineering, and History of the Heroes: Distinguishing Myth from Record. As a result, he now had several prime hours a day to torture Bradley. Every opportunity that arose to show him up in front of the rest of the class, to ridicule the answers he gave to the instructor’s questions or the thoughts he volunteered, to belittle his intelligence and sense of self, Esper took it. It was, after all, part of his mission.
Esper enjoyed this aspect of his work far more than the equally necessary tasks that had become routine in his after-school and evening hours. Once his lessons at the academy had finished for the day, he rendezvoused with his security detail for a trip to the lower tiers. While they were under strict orders not to let him out of their sight, the rotation of bodyguards that escorted him on these downward jaunts proved quite susceptible to bribery and manipulation, leaving Esper free to roam the city as he saw fit. Only one of their numbers, Samson, demonstrated a commendable devotion to his duties, refusing Esper free reign. Samson was scarred and his close-cropped bristle was starting to gray, a former combat instructor at the academy who had several times been offered captaincy of the city constabulary and refused.
It had been difficult to win Samson over. Esper formed an assessment of his character and set about crafting a bond between them, cemented through weeks of intense afternoon sparring sessions. The aging guardsman was a capable opponent but Esper eventually gained an understanding of his limitations and managed to draw blood with an unexpected right cross. Samson was thoroughly impressed and Esper used the opportunity to, in a conspiratorial whisper, explain the true purpose of his weekly sojourns to the Stronghold: that he had been chosen to lead the Sanhedrin and rule Bastion.
Esper had gone on to say that, when he was in power, he would surely need a chief of security he knew he could depend upon. To his surprise and, he found, relief, this was not enough to cajole Samson’s compliance. It was refreshing to find someone he could not cow with status alone, someone who it required a degree of whit to outmaneuver. He realized he had to find out the man’s sad story; everyone had one and once you learned it, you could understand a person and, to a certain degree, control him or her. Esper was keenly aware of his own—a privileged boy, bored by the world—and made it his business to learn Samson’s. His bodyguard was a hard case, harder than most. Unlike the majority of military men Esper had encountered, his strength was not a mask made of overcompensation and preconceived notions of masculinity. It was born of surmounting genuine pain and hardship.
Esper knew that Samson believed Esper’s desire to slip his chaperones was all about a woman—that some low-tier doxy had beguiled his young charge—and to some degree he was correct, but it was not the torrid pay-by-the-hour affair he thought it was.
One morning, after a particularly bruising training session, Samson even broached the subject as directly as the disparity between their stations would allow. Esper recognized it for the opportunity it was.
“Young master, I’d have a word.”
“Speak as you will, Samson. It’s just us here.”
Esper recognized that Samson had some sort of misplaced sense of paternal responsibility towards him, a trait he was growing resentful of in so many would-be mentors even as manipulating it became more and more facile. In this case, however, he didn’t mind it as much. The flint-hard guardsman was honorable without being an utter fool and Esper respected intellectual consistency.
“…I don’t know how to say this without feeling like a rat’s trying to climb out of my throat, so I’ll just say it. These ‘errands’ you feel you need to run to the lower tiers. Well, most of the other top tier sons go to the silk lady and her girls. I hear they’re skilled and, er, discrete. More than that, they’re right here, just a few tiers down, and it’s safe.”
Esper had suspected Samson and the other guards were privately rooting for him to become a man in the typical fashion of the city’s young male elite and now he had the awkward confirmation.
“Samson,” Esper favored him with a small, playful smile, “have you ever had occasion to pay a visit of your own to this, what did you call her, the silk lady?”
A hint of color actually rose in the normally unflappable bodyguard’s cheeks.
“N-no, young master. A proper house of mislaid virtue is no place for a low-born pile of scars like me.”
“Do you think it’s a sign of weakness for men of privilege to buy flesh?”
“I do not. At least not necessarily.” Samson’s voice grew steady and thoughtful. “If no one’s hurt and all parties are fairly compensated.”
“That’s an interesting line of thought to voice so freely.”
“If you’re going to rule us, you’re going to need to know what’s true, young master. Everyone in Bastion’s just trying to make their way, do their job, get their ration, secure a future for their pups. Everyone trades what they got to trade.”
“Except for the lucky ones born with everything, like me?”
“Sometimes I think your lot have it harder, at least for the ones with more than half a brain or soul. You might never have to worry about going hungry or choking on dust, but you have so much weight heaped on you from the time you’re babes on. I’ve seen plenty of fine young ones from the most proper families completely broken by that weight. They flee to the lower tiers, take new names, or wait til after sundown and take that last step off the side. The Continuance, the future of humanity, the city. All these big ideas and all they come down to is people and their lives. That’s what you’re responsible for, so many lives, all that’s left of us, even though you’re just a person yourself. That’s why I don’t see any harm or weakness in finding what relief you can, where you can, as long as it helps you keep a clear head and focus on what’s important.”
“And what’s important, Samson?”
“Service. Being of use to others. At least that’s always been the way for me. When I was a boy, I wanted to be as strong as the Hero of the Day, so I could protect my mother and my little brothers. These years later, my feelings haven’t changed much, except now I have them for all the families in this city.”
Esper knew he was close to finding the true shape of the man’s honor and motivations. In doing so, he would overcome the last obstacle to his independence.
“Is that why you spend your life protecting its wealthiest citizens?”
“Our government isn’t perfect or always fair but it keeps most of us fed, keeps us going. The hovel where I grew up was the kind of place… when we weren’t starving we were eating vermin. Not all of us made it out, but some did. So when the youth constabulary came looking for recruits—I don’t want to bore you with my story, young master.”
“I appreciate that.”
Samson blinked, the micro-expressions of surprise and even hurt forming on his craggy features. Esper cursed his reflexive insouciance, then quickly recalculated.
“That is to say, I appreciate you… sharing your story with me. It can’t be easy.”
“I only bring it up because I hope that, when it’s your turn to serve, you remember that the many sacrifices you’ll be asked to make aren’t for the Sanhedrin, or your father or your caste or the Heroes. It’s for all the lives that happen beneath your feet. Seeing things that way might help you to hate your lot a little less.”
“I… appreciate that as well, Samson. You’ve been honest with me. I will be honest with you. My ‘errands’ to the lower tiers are not going to stop. I need them. But they will not interfere with my… service. In fact, they will help me to get to know the very ‘lives beneath my feet’ that you speak of. They will give me the chance to find something worth protecting, just as you have, but it is something I must do on my own, can only do on my own.”
“As you will, young master. Just promise me you’ll be careful. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to you.”
“I promise to take care of myself, Samson. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a day full of appointments to see to.”
From that day on there were no more stays or encumbrances on his freedom to move about Bastion as he wished. The plan proceeded and so did he.
Once parted with his security detail, Esper donned a heavy burlap cloak and hood and rode a series of pulley-carriages down through the city. He quickly left the pristine chrome of the upper tiers behind, the elite residential district and the magisterial judicial levels, descending past the mid-thirties, where he became as subject to delays in service and overcrowding as any common citizen.
He passed the hanging gardens of Hareth, its pastures and forests winding their way down a series of suspended platforms, bustling with the agrarian caste’s activity as harvest approached. The farmers gathered crops, their abundance carefully calculated to feed the entire populous—calculations that never considered the hoarding frequently practiced by upper tier residents or the thieving that took place all along the supply line—even as they rotated their seed stock to keep the soil fertile. Shepherds guided herds of livestock in and out of their paddocks. Beekeepers tended their apiaries among brightly colored fields of flowers. Luminary alchemists adjusted the stalactite clusters of salt crystal lamps so they emitted the optimal light for the flora beneath them. Representatives of the Plumbers Guild, the haughtiest and most self-important tradesmen in a city that lived or died based on the functionality of its pipes, oversaw the irrigation that kept the plants green and growing.
Past the fifties, the metal of the walls and supports grew dingy, pocked with rust. The air became dirtier, the tongue drier, every surface filmed with a shallow layer of dust. He passed the industrial district, where his senses were assaulted by the heat of the foundries and smelting pits, the reek of ozone from the power stations, the acrid smoke rising from factories, the arcane green light that pulsed in the windows of their alchemic recycling centers, where the city’s dead came to be broken down into more useful components and where the city’s living came to trade scraps of metal for food vouchers or have their dilapidated possessions made new again. The whir of enormous fan blades could be heard in every direction, purifying the air, sucking it in along a byzantine labyrinth of ventilation shafts and smokestacks all the way to the exterior of the walls where it was belched out in a toxic cloud. Esper wiped the soot off of his face, imagining the hellish misfortune of those citizens who lived proximate to this place, choked by the heat and the stench of industry. His descent continued, the gears grinding as his pulley-carriage changed tracks, the ropey armed factory workers having disembarked, leaving Esper in the company of a decidedly sicklier lot: the stoopers.
The tiers this low were so closely pressed on top of one another that the residents inevitably developed bent backs and in some places could only get by on their hands and knees. Multiple families packed into box apartments and lean-tos. Esper could see their crooked forms scrabbling about in the dim and the dust. Their lives were brief, fearful and subject to every depredation attendant to being utterly forgotten.
Finally, one hundred thirteen tiers down, close to the neglected border that separated the Gehenna Slums and the near-nils from the rest of the city, Esper arrived in Happytown. Here, he moved past the sights of wretchedness, cruelty, and violence without flinching or averting his gaze. Beggars attempted to cling to him as he passed. The hot air reeked of decay, dirt, and fornication. On one of his first visits here, some months ago, he had felt a child’s hands probing in his pockets. There were urchin pickpockets everywhere here. Esper had given the boy a small, deep scratch across the back of his thieving hand. The message was sent, his poniard was back in its sheath in less than a second, and since then the cutpurses had given the young man in the hood a wide berth.
In his travels here, Esper occasionally recognized, from a distance, some of the customers emerging from Happytown’s prodigious brothels; magisters and constables and secretaries and guild primates from the upper tiers. He regularly passed games of vicious bloodsport, fists and knives and garrote-gloves. The walkways were littered with lushes, junkies, and nepenthe-tripping dream-chasers. Esper stepped lightly over their puddles of sick, daintily lifting his cloak. As much as he regarded what he saw as testaments to the failings of both his city and his species, Esper had to admit that a part of him liked coming here. He learned more about the true way of things during one hour in Happytown than in all his time at the academy or in the Stronghold.
Toward the ultimate destination of his journey, Esper harbored no such ambivalence. It made his flesh crawl every time he passed through the threshold of the top story apartment. It was his meeting place with Abel Gladhand, Esper’s newest employee. Gladhand had a reputation that was known all the way to the top of Bastion. He was a master flesh-twister with a clientele made up of some of the city’s richest citizens. It was said that he had even performed some kind of eldritch genital enhancement for one of the councilors of the Sanhedrin, although Gladhand kept his clients’ confidentiality firmly in his own backpocket—refusing to share even a single opportunity for blackmail. The sarxomancer was tall, bald as an egg, and spoke with a pronounced lisp that only emphasized his blithe, condescending manner.
“Young mathter, young mathter, tho very good to thee you. Tho very good to regard your… handthum fathe.”
There was a record playing. A light piano rag. Esper had bought the gramophone it was playing on. He had bought the gaudily upholstered furniture. He had bought the entire apartment and everything in it, including the awful man, for five rods of iridium. Esper was the only client Gladhand ever met here.
“The name’s Bradley. Elihue Bradley,” Esper had told him when they originally struck their deal. “I’ll make you the richest pervert in Happytown if you give me what I want.”
There was usually a corpse on the table in the living room. This time was no exception. He couldn’t have been older than twenty when he died. There was an ugly purple mark across his throat. Esper never asked where they came from. He only cared that they were fresh.
Without another word to the flesh-twister, Esper approached the body, lay his hands upon it, and set to work reshaping it. He despised this particular labor. It was not that it had been difficult, learning this craft from Gladhand; no study he set his mind to ever was. Esper had extensive knowledge of both human anatomy and the redirection of arcane energies. The sarxomancer barely had to interrupt Esper’s work with his slushy corrections anymore. It was more difficult to twist the flesh of the dead but that only made it better practice. He preferred it to the live animals Gladhand had provided for his use at the beginning his instruction. What bothered Esper the most about flesh-twisting was the sick pleasure it gave him. The creeping tingle along his fingers, the way his senses distorted as he blurred the boundaries between will and being, the feeling of incredible dominion he felt over the physical world. When the trance broke, he was invariably repulsed to find himself sporting a rock-hard tumescence.
“Very good, young mathter Bradley, very good,” Gladhand said, eyeballing Esper’s erection. “I’ve been meaning to athk you, what you intend to do with thith new thkill.”
“It’s a vanity project.” Esper stepped back to appraise his work. He had to admit, the resemblance was uncanny.
He was home after dinner but in time to say goodnight to his father. He walked the old man up to his room and situated him there. He went down to the study and read for an hour, a catalogue of the herbs that grew within the confines of Bastion and their practical applications. Esper missed reading fiction and poetry, but the task at hand spared him not a moment.
Esper snuck out in the dead of night. He made his way to the tier-level maintenance hatch that led to the exterior of the wall. The heavy bulkhead was secured in its place by a gear-work lock. Since he was a child, Esper had been fascinated with gear-work, the intricate systems perpetuating one another, transforming small actions into large ones. Esper disabled the locking device with practiced handiness and made his way through the hatch where the wind whistled and the world dropped away.
Esper made his way down the ladders and walkways that crisscrossed against the city’s skin. Five tiers down he came upon the construction site, presently unmanned. The workers were in the middle of repairing a waste disposal pipe. Maintenance staff rarely worked after sunset, when the Hero of the Day was not available to catch them should they fall, which made stealing into such sites under cover of darkness all too easy. Two huge, multi-appendaged crab automatons sat deactivated by the unfinished work. Esper pried one open and set to making adjustments. When the workers ignited its engines in the morning, the machine would go on a short, violent rampage, flinging the men over the railings before itself plunging off. Esper would be watching from a balcony over a dozen tiers beneath the site, his mechanized timepiece in hand.
This time made an even two-dozen. If anyone was paying attention to the uptick in maintenance accidents, they were not remarking on it. Esper found no joy in placing the men’s lives in danger, even less when they actually died, but the data he had gathered was invaluable. When coupled with his earlier experiments tossing dogs and kittens off the lower tier overlooks, Esper had a reliable average for the Hero of the Day’s response time and, more importantly, could calculate the exact point in the city’s height where a falling body could no longer be saved.
This particular accident provided him with one final, essential data-point. As close as it was to the top tier, there was no doubt the workers would be saved. Esper did not focus on them as he crouched in concealment beneath a tarpaulin. His eyes held fast to the gleaming base of the Stronghold, highest edifice in the entire city, where it protruded over the edge of the wall. When the shrieking of men and metal commenced, Esper’s gaze did not waver and so he beheld a man-sized porthole open and the lightning fast form of the Hero of the Day emerge. He had long suspected that the Stronghold had a secret entrance. Now he knew all he needed to know for his plan to enter its terminal phase.
Esper crept into his bedroom not very long after sunrise. He slept for what seemed like a single blink. It was still long enough for him to dream of Lee Garnet.
He woke, dressed himself for school, enjoyed a breakfast of scrambled eggs and pomegranate juice
Esper shared his first class of the day, Major Arcana and Thaumaturgic Applications, with both Lee and Elihue Bradley, which meant he had to be on his best behavior while he watched them coo and canoodle. Esper was in the process of creating lightning in a bottle when the instructor announced that they had an unexpected guest speaker. A uniformed constable walked into the room. For an instant, Esper began mentally devising an escape plan, slitting the constable’s throat, seizing Lee as his hostage, escaping with her to the lower tiers. However, an instant was all he needed to realize that the law was not here for him.
The constable was there to lecture them all on the dangers of nepenthe. It was no secret that at least half the academy’s present class were users. Parents had begun to find baggies of the dream-dust hidden in their children’s rooms. To illustrate his point, the constable brought out a convicted nepenthe-junky, freshly pulled from his gibbet at the tor, yanking him into the class by way of a thin chain around the man’s neck. The poor soul was barely more than a skeleton, wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, although Esper suspected his present condition had more to do with the circumstances of his imprisonment than his preferred method of recreation. The truth was that life in Bastion was, for most, very boring and repetitive for the majority of the population. Esper saw no harm in people seeking out what relief they could, but there were too many influential citizens with financial connections to the gangs and drug-trade for the prohibition of narcotics to ever end.
The constable began to beat the junky with his truncheon. The scene did not resemble a morality play so much as a puppetry farce. Most of the class was grinning or laughing at the spectacle. Esper expected a similar reaction from Elihue Bradley and was surprised to see a troubled expression on his face, what appeared to be real sympathy for the suffering he was witnessing. Esper did not want to recognize any humanity in his rival and made a semi-conscious choice to ignore it.
Esper had heard tell of the drug-fueled orgies that took place at Bathsheba Collings’ house, with Lee, Bradley, and Bathsheba as their organizers and primary participants. Recalling these rumors, Esper could not help but feel an icicle of jealousy form within his chest. He felt no moral disapproval at the unbridled hedonism of his fellow teenagers. He mostly just felt left out. A good orgy sounded like fun. He wished someone would have asked him to join in. However, he had deliberately kept himself out of Lee’s orbit, had fought hard to suppress the daily urge to make himself known to her. Now, with his scheme so close to completion, he was committed to the path on which he had set himself.
The subject of nepenthe recurred that day. Esper heard whispers in the academy hallways that some of his classmates had advanced to injecting. Bathsheba Collings hadn’t been to classes in nearly a week, busy as she was celebrating her newfound marriage to the needle. That evening, at dinner, Esper the Elder asked him whether he had noticed any change in his classmates. The Sanhedrin itself had begun official investigations into the burgeoning usage of narcotics among the young elite of the city. Esper told his father that many of his peers seemed tired, preoccupied, and that a few were even high in class.
“We believe a small group of individuals is supplying these poor children with the drugs,” Esper the Elder said. “That they have deliberately infected that student body with the curse of nepenthe addiction.”
“I think… I may know who is responsible, father.” Esper had been anticipating this dialogue for weeks and was eager to commence it.
“I would be surprised if anything escaped your extraordinary perception, my son. Please, share your suspicions.”
“I’m afraid to speak plainly.”
“That does not seem like you.”
“It’s just that, the individual responsible for these monstrous acts, they’re so dangerous. I’ve heard rumors of torture and killing. I’ve already made a target of myself. They came to me, tried to sell me their poison, seduce me into their wicked ways. I told them no. I told them what they were doing was wrong!”
“The Sanhedrin will protect you, son, but we need facts. Who is responsible for this blight?”
“It’s, it’s… Elihue Bradley. Please don’t let him hurt me. Since I refused his offer, he’s been harassing me almost every day at the academy, taunting me, insinuating that he might harm me.”
“We… suspected a child of the highborn families might have something to do with this, as vile a prospect as it is to consider. It makes perfect sense that it’d be a Bradley. Five generations ago they were nothing but factory workers, until one of them discovered, I believe it was a new alloying technique, or some method of blending alchemy and automata processors. Of course, one of their sons would be behind this abominable attempt to suborn our youth. The generations always show the truth of the blood eventually, yes. Do not be afraid, my son. We will investigate the matter. I’ll double your guard, even when you’re at the academy.”
“No! Listen, that would be a tactically unsound maneuver. We cannot tip our hands. We cannot let him see that anything has changed. Gather the evidence you need in order to try and convict him. In the meantime, let him continue to think that he is safe, even as the cage closes around him. You had me learn to how to hunt when I was a boy: never let a dangerous animal know that it is cornered until it is too late for it escape or bite the hand of its trapper.”
“Wise counsel, Esper, as ever. This will not be easy. The Bradleys are some of the most prominent citizens in Bastion. Clearly, they have allowed their prematurely advanced rank to poison their minds. I see a conspiracy to corrupt the children of our best citizens, to parlay addiction into sedition and gain control of the city. Just this evening, I had to instruct one of my magisters to order the arrest of the primate of the Machinist Guild. I wonder if he is connected to these plots.”
Esper swallowed hard. Lee’s father had been arrested? This outcome was not part of his plan. He had to tread carefully.
“The Machinist Guild, you say? I believe his daughter is in some of my classes at the academy.”
“All these up-jumped families and their ambitions. This is why it is so important that we adhere to the order laid out by the Hero of the Day. He has chosen certain families to rule and others to serve. That judgment has preserved the Continuance all these long years. There is no true anodyne for human ambition, I suppose. The weeds must be pulled as a matter of routine. Ah, here I am, speaking like I’m some common planter toiling in the fields of Hareth. I suppose the grape-wine has gone to my head.”
“If I might speak on behalf of the daughter. She is one of the most… innocent and… studious young women at the academy.” It pained Esper to talk about Lee this way, as if he were betraying the corruption and mendacity that had first drawn him to her. “If her father is guilty of any crime—”
“He is guilty, Esper. He was caught outright attempting to blackmail another guild primate. We’ve followed the trail of his fraud to several other treasons. He covered his crimes very well until recently, it seems. Success breeds carelessness in these lowborn rogues, mark that lesson well, my son. You will need it when it is your turn to rule.”
“But the daughter…”
“Will remain at the academy until her father’s trial concludes. Then she will rise or fall with her family, just as any true citizen of Bastion does.”
“She should be allowed—”
“Your youthful infatuations are meaningless when cast against the greater good of the city and its people. You must set your feelings aside in the name of the order and stability that ensures our survival.”
“I am not in the throes of a ‘youthful infatuation’, father. I’ve barely even spoken to her. It merely… prickles my sense of justice.”
Esper’s mother placed her hand over Esper’s and spoke for the first time since the meal was served.
“You cannot make someone love you, dear-heart,” she said, seemingly in lieu of nothing.
“You. Watch. Me,” hissed a viper in Esper’s mind.
“You’re overtired, Hecuba,” Esper the Elder said to his wife. He stood, grimacing at the arthritic ache in his knees. “Let me see you to bed.” He turned his face to Esper. “Elihue Bradley and his family will be dealt with soon enough. Until then, watch out for him. Keep your head down. Try not to draw his attention. I trust you to take care of yourself, Esper.”
“Thank you, father. I will.”
Events moved very quickly after that. In class, Esper could not help but notice that Elihue Bradley and Lee Garnet were making a point of sitting on the opposite sides of the room from one another. He found this odd, considering the tragedy presently befalling her family. “Why isn’t he comforting her? Someone ought to.” It confirmed all his worst suspicions about Bradley. Idiot that he was, at least he had made Lee happy. It seemed he had failed in that one duty.
Was someone calling him? Esper had not been paying attention. Elihue Bradley had turned to him, his face beet red. He was shouting in the middle of instruction like some kind of insubordinate child.
“Are you… addressing me, Bradley?”
“My name’s Hue, you cowardly twat.”
“Your invective is utterly meaningless to me, Bradley. Why are you interrupting our lessons and showing such disrespect to our instructor?”
“I just wanted to tell you, the next time you backshoot me with one of those fucking paper wasps, I’m going to jam it up your ass.”
“You seem very upset today. I can only wonder why,” Esper’s eyes darted to Lee, who was making a point of ignoring the whole scene. “Humor me for a moment, Bradley, so I can be sure I’ve grasped the subtlety and nuance of your words. Are you threatening me?”
“You better fucking believe it, Gav. I’m sick of putting up with your shit.”
Esper tried hard not to grin. It wouldn’t be long now.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Esper said, standing up. “I feel quite overwhelmed by that violent tenor in your voice.” He turned to look at the instructor. “I’ll be taking the rest of the day off in order to convalesce.” The man, who seemed desperately trying to work out what any of this had to do with the mathematic principles of automation, nodded dimly. Esper excused himself before he could say another word.
Esper spent the next week making final preparations. He attended his obligatory meeting at the Stronghold, where the Hero of the Day yammered on about the complex genealogy of the city’s ruling caste. Esper paid only enough attention not to draw suspicion. On the seventh day, before classes began at the academy, Esper drove his rickshaw (he piloted it himself these days, the better to store the various sundries he had to truck from one end of the city to the other) to the telegrapher’s office. He encoded a message in the simple cipher he used in order to communicate with Abel Gladhand, LESSON TONIGHT. STOP. WILL PAY TRIPLE. STOP, and sent it singing down the wires.
He arrived in Happytown just after sunset. On his way to Gladhand’s apartment, Esper spied something quite curious. Perched atop the roof of a nearby gambling hall, Esper saw a shadowy figure in a ragged cloak. Esper squinted and, by glow of the gaslights, distinguished that the figure was armored in a motley of leather and chainmail. The forearms of his gauntlets were serrated with vicious obsidian hooks that glittered in the dark. In one hand he held a multi-tailed whip, its barbed lashes twisting and growing with an organic sinuousness: the hydra o’ nine tails. Upon his head he wore a great, arched mask with peaked crests rising to either side of it like diabolical wings. Carved into the mask’s forehead was the scythe-curved symbol of the crescent moon. He was the Hero of the Night, perched like the revenant of a crow, ready to swoop out and cast its fearful shadow over the debauched populace below. He seemed to be looking directly at Esper.
“Does he recognize me?” The last time they had been face to face (so to speak), Esper was a boy in the academy’s grand sparring hall. It had been the first time in living memory the Hero of the Night had actually responded to the martial arts instructors’ annual invitation to help test the mettle of their top student. It hadn’t gone well for Esper, although it had been an invaluably educational experience. Involuntarily, Esper stepped backward into the shadows, realizing even as he did so that they could not hide him.
The Hero of the Night leapt from the roof. He cracked his whip and it lashed out like a rapidly growing vine, affixing itself to some nearby edifice so he could swing away on it. Esper exhaled. He had merely been put on notice. His little errands to and from Happytown had been detected and remarked upon. It didn’t matter. This would be the last visit he would pay to the flesh-twister’s den.
He walked through the door. Glandhand turned to face him. A record was playing. A honky-tonk rhythm from a steel guitar. A dead girl was on the table, a teenager by the look of her.
“If it ithn’t my able-bodied young thtudent. Thuch a pleathure, mathter Bradley, thuch a deep, abiding, thr-r-r-robbing pleathure.”
“You’ll never believe who I just saw,” Esper struck the sarxomancer in the chest, hard enough to send him flying backward. He crashed into the table, knocking it onto its side. The corpse slid off, landing on top of him. Gladhand was quick and his leather tunic made him slick as an eel. He wriggled out from under her and made a brake for the door. Esper caught him by the crook of the arm, reversing his momentum so he crashed headlong into the gramophone, smashing it into kindling.
Gladhand stumbled around to face Esper, blood seeping from the wounds on his forehead.
“Merthy! Merthy!” Even as he was crying these words, he leapt at Esper, hands outstretched. Arcane energy sparked to life in the sarxomancer’s palm. He clawed at Esper’s face, attempting to perform some fatal transformation. Esper caught him by the wrists.
“Trying to seal up my mouth and nose? Or boil the fluid in my eyes? That’s what I’d do if I had the misfortune of being you.” Esper broke the man’s fingers with three relatively simple gestures and dropped him into a heap on the floor. “Sorry about all the pain. I’d do this fast but it has to look right. Also, I hate you.”
“What, what, what have I ever, ever done t-t-to offend you, mathter?”
“Just by being what you are, I suppose,” Esper sighed. He kneeled by the battered flesh-twister, took him by the head, and twisted until he felt the snap. “Sometimes that’s all it takes.”
It was the first time he had killed a man with his own hands. He felt nothing about it, at least not immediately, and he suspected he would be best served by not allowing himself the time to reflect.
He placed his fingertips on the dead man’s face and, as he had so often before in these chambers, began to rework the features of a corpse. When he was done, the body looked nothing at all like Abel Gladhand. It was relatively easy to twist flesh in this manner when you did not care about breaking bones or rupturing organs. The carcass that had once contained Gladhand was shorter, fatter, with a drooping face and a head of tight, gray curls. Esper had managed to coax enough hair from elsewhere on his body to migrate to the scalp.
He went about the apartment, pocketing a few valuables. He looked at the dead girl one more time. She had perished violently, bruises distorting her face like bad makeup. There was no need to tamper with her, something for which Esper was grateful. He went to the door and smashed the lock in a manner to suggest it had been kicked in. He listened for any signs or stirs from the neighboring apartments. None. Those nearby, those who were not already intoxicated past caring, were keeping mum. They had learned, just as all who called Happytown home did, not to hear anything that happened outside their own bubbles of stupor and discontent.
He was back on the top tier in three hours. After dinner and bedtime, he stole out to the exterior of the city, chucked what he had stolen from Gladhand’s apartment into the dust storm below, then practiced scaling the exposed base of the Stronghold. It was a treacherous climb with precious few handholds, the metal exterior of the Hero’s citadel being far more perfectly formed than any other structure in the city. Esper was young, though, and strong and unwearied by the earlier night’s murder. He made his way to the hidden entrance, saw the access mechanism, and climbed down. One last errand for the evening: a descent along the ladders and scaffolding to yet another construction site. He did not sabotage this one, however. No mal-programmed automatons or slow-dissolving alkahest applied to weakened struts or screws loosened or gears jammed. This time he was content to filch some high-grade explosives and make his way back home.
He got three hours of sleep that night, more than he had in months. In his dreams he was traipsing, solivagant, along the empty corridors and thoroughfares of Bastion. Everyone was hiding from him. There was a fire, he knew, consuming the tiers beneath him one by one. He had a plan, of course. But he was missing something, something important without which success or failure would be irrelevant. He was running now, looking everywhere for it in a panic. He woke with his heart making frantic hummingbird wing-beats against the inside of his chest. His first coherent thought: “Today’s the day.”
He put on his school uniform, the gray shirt and gray pants, then the flowing academic gown, knowing it would be the last time he wore it. He walked downstairs; saw his mother sitting in a sunbeam, pecking lightly at a grapefruit.
“Hello love, you’re up early.”
“Things to do today.”
“Sit with me?”
“Just for a moment.”
He parked himself by her and she absently teased his hair, just as she had done all throughout his childhood. It was very painful for him, and comforting too.
“You’ve been so busy lately. Just like your father.”
Esper shook his head.
“I’m more like you than him.”
“Whatever does that mean?”
“I, I don’t care about any of this, mother. Leading the people. Ensuring the Continuance. It’s all he lives for. It’s why he hasn’t lived a day in his whole wrinkly life. Sometimes I think he was born an old man.”
Hecuba Esper laughed lightly.
“He’s certainly been one the entire time I’ve known him.”
Esper chuckled. He was glad she was in one of her good spells. Depending on the day, she might have trouble forming anything more than rudimentary language and the simple phrases hardwired into her mind: I wish you the best; can I get you anything; I love you.
“I want you to know something, mother.” Esper toyed with his words. “Things are going to change soon… I’m going to change them. I want you not to be afraid.”
“I’m never afraid when I know you’re around, love.”
“I wish you’d spent more time making the life you wanted for yourself,” Esper muttered.
“No, I don’t think so.” Esper stood. He blinked. There must be something more to say. “You take care.”
As he made his way through life, it would never be Esper’s habit to acquire regrets. They were, in his opinion, largely an abject and self-indulgent waste of the finite time each living soul was gifted. However, he would—until the very end of his strange, singular days—lament the way he left his mother, quietly losing interest in her breakfast as her son turned away and departed without another word.
He had two hours before classes began. He made his way three tiers down, to a tailor whose acquaintance he had recently made: a short genial man who smiled and waved to him enthusiastically.
“You said it would be ready today,” Esper said as soon as he’d walked into the shop.
“Indeed I did my boy and time has yet to prove a liar of me. Such an unusual request, never seen a garment like it, but the sketches you gave me were so detailed. If people see it and the look catches on and you’re hailed as a trendsetter, be sure to give me a piece of the credit before you make all the other tailors in Bastion rich! Here it is, boxed up like you asked.”
“Thank you.” Esper took the parcel from him. He overpaid handsomely, even absurdly (two-dozen iron rods and a decade’s worth of food vouchers), then he slipped a caplet of distilled Nerium toxin into the glass of water the tailor kept by his workbench and departed. Esper would have liked to give him a far better reward but at the very least his family would, after he expired of a heart attack, receive the small fortune he had just delivered into the man’s hand. He packed the newly acquired box and its contents into his rickshaw and made his way towards the academy.
“It’s my, uh, my belief,” Elihue Bradley said to the assembled class, “that the soil regeneration techniques we use to keep Hareth green and, you know, lush, and fertile could be applied to the lands outside our walls, the walls of this city. We could, what I’m saying is, we could restore the world, you know, the rest of the world.”
It was the day for the presentation of their senior theses.
“What about the colossi?” Esper called. It wasn’t time for the question and answer component but no one was going to stop him. “How could anyone get to the land to restore it while they’re too busy being driven insane, flayed alive, and devoured by unspeakable horrors?”
“Well, uhh, well I didn’t even know you were paying attention, Gav. If you’d let me get to the end, I was going to say that the Hero of the Day could surely be, ah, persuaded to provide the farmers with adequate defense while—”
“Do you think this esteemed body of scholars and educators has time to listen to you stumble over your words? Before you answer that one, tell me this, what about the dust? Even without the threat of a colossus, won’t your little miracle workers go blind and choke to death before they can even reach the bedrock beneath the dust ocean? Are you willing to let them suffer and die in a vain attempt to resurrect what is obviously long gone? The agrarian caste sustains this city with their tireless devotion to the forests and gardens of Hareth. Their wisdom has been passed from generation to generation since the beginning of the Continuance. Why do you hate the farmers, Bradley? Why does your thesis require that we kill so many of them?”
“I, I don’t hate the farmers. Wait! You’re doing this on purpose. Why? When did it become your mission in life to fuck me up?”
“I don’t care to listen to a lecture from a drug peddling degenerate.”
“When did you become Mister fucking rectitude, Gav? You weren’t always such an asshole. Before you started taking your fieldtrips or whatever to the Stronghold, I actually thought you were one of the good ones. What’s your problem with me? Does it make you angry that some of us got our dicks wet before you? Is that it?”
“Don’t deflect the subject with vulgarity, Bradley.”
“Gentlemen, please—” said the headmaster, beginning to stand and strike a posture of authority.
“It’s time to be quiet, you insipid lackey,” Esper said without even looking at him. “Have a seat.” The man sat.
“You’re the one trying to change the subject, Gav,” Elihue called at him. “It’s about pussy, isn’t it? You only started all this, this bully bullshit after I took up with… that’s it. You’re fucking jealous of me and Lee.”
“Lee? I don’t see anyone called Lee.” Esper’s voice weakened, momentarily. It was true: Lee wasn’t present in the assembly hall. She hadn’t shown up for classes in days.
“Don’t act like you’re dumb, Gav. You lie a lot when you’re in school but you can’t lie like you’re stupid. She picked me to love and for whatever reason that makes you hate me. Pretty fucking childish if you ask me.”
This confrontation was not proceeding as Esper wished it would. He had only one option left to guarantee the outcome, although he did not like it in the least. He detested it even after he accepted its tactical necessity.
“The disdain you sense, Bradley, has everything to do with the poisons you sell everyday to the same classmates we’ve both grown up with. It’s disgusting enough without you mentioning whatever lowborn, cockroach-munching bitch whore you happen to be—”
Esper was on the ground before he knew he’d been hit.
“Well done, Bradley,” he thought in spite of himself.
For the first time in their acquaintance, he was actually impressed. He had practically flown across the room.
Esper felt his face absorb a series of blows. He counted several dozen methods he could employ but did not to ward them off, to reverse the pinning force of Elihue’s body, to turn the fracas to his advantage. He did nothing but lie there and receive the pain. Eventually, several students and faculty pulled them apart; although it took some time, slow dullards that they were. Esper spat out a mouthful of blood.
“He’s trying to kill me!” he called to the auditorium, shaping his voice into a facsimile of hysteria. “He kept whispering it while he was hitting me. You said I was a dead man!”
“You’re a fucking liar!” Elihue called out, struggling to extricate himself from the multitude of arms holding him back. “But if you ever talk about her like that again, I will fucking kill you!”
It was a simple matter for Esper to excuse himself from the rest of the day’s classes. His battered face made an effective case and it was easy to prey on the instructor’s natural sympathies by exaggerating his injuries. He made a point of weakly announcing that he intended to offer his account of Elihue Bradley’s criminal enterprises once he had sufficiently recovered from his wounds. When he was outside the academy, he retrieved his cloak and a few other items from his rickshaw. He crouched in a place of concealment and waited, patient as a python, for what would happen next.
Hue’s knuckles were split and throbbing. His head was pounding too, although that was due mostly to the extensive shouting at he’d been given after the fight. He’d disgraced the academy, his parents had been wired the unhappy news, the local constabulary would be alerted in case Esper decided to call in the law and, as far as the headmaster was concerned, the school would only profit if Hue was packed off to a gibbet in the tor. There would also be an investigation into Esper’s allegations of drug dealing, once Esper had recuperated enough to offer testimony.
Hue was released, for the moment, under his own recognizance. He was to see himself home and the further shaming that waited for him there. He’d been getting an earful from his parents for months; first over the time he was spending with Lee (who they’d never even met but had no compunctions about branding a bug-eating Gehenna rat who was only after his inheritance), then over the complications with Bathsheba. They wanted to know why he was so hell-bent on jeopardizing the family legacy. Didn’t he know that the Bradleys had always had to fight to hold onto everything that was theirs and still did? At least his upcoming union to Sheba, as dishonorably as it was accomplished, would ally them to an old patrician name, even if the Collingses themselves were air-headed thinbloods. Things had finally settled down at the Bradley home now that wedding plans were underway, but then this had to happen.
Fucking Gav Esper. He’d been pushing Hue for months. If it had been any of the other boys at the academy, it wouldn’t have bothered him. Before selling half the class nepenthe made them start acting like his best friend, Hue had gotten used to being disliked. He’d never been popular. He had an obnoxious way about him, he knew it, and the more he felt others disliking him, the more obnoxious he allowed himself to become.
Gav Esper, though. Hue had always liked him. Sure, he acted like he was better than other people, Hue included, but he also seemed to hate everyone and that made up for a lot in Hue’s mind. There was a certain fairness to that universal disdain and usually the victims of his outright scorn were the arrogant dopes who brought it on themselves. But when Gav had turned the full beam of that odium onto Hue exclusively, all of the esteem Hue had felt for him since their childhood had withered into wary resentment.
What hurt Hue’s feelings the most was the way Esper kept attacking his intelligence, calling into question every notion Hue expressed, undercutting every opinion he voiced with scalpel-sharp precision. Why was everyone always trying to make him feel so stupid? He had thoughts and, even if they might not be sparkling intellectual jewels, they couldn’t be any worse than most of the dumb shit other people kept in their heads.
It was a struggle for him to pick the right words, the ones that would really show others what was in his heart. He knew he’d just been made that way but it meant that almost everyone treated him like an idiot ever since he was a kid. Well, Lee was the smartest person he’d ever met, and she’d chosen him to love, so what the hell did anyone else know? They’d both spent their lives with other people looking down on them, judging their faults, and that had probably been a big part of what drew them together. Of course, he’d fucked that up too, so maybe he really was as dumb as they all said he was.
It was late afternoon as Hue began his walk home, the shadows lengthening. He decided to take the scenic route, as much to delay his punishment as to give himself some time to think. He meandered through the golden haze, along the lonely walkways; letting his feet go where they wanted. He stayed away from people. He didn’t want to see anyone.
Hue’s thoughts turned away from the galling subject of Gav Esper to an equally frustrating matter: his women. It left a bittersweet taste, thinking of their beauty, their softness, and their inexplicable ways. He’d been laid more times than some men twice his age, and that achievement was one of the few sources of self-worth he had left. How had he managed it, with his spotty face and soft body? He didn’t have a proper notion. It had started with Sheba at a drunken cotillion in Daylight Square. The honeyed grape-wine in his canteen had burned through the shyness he usually had around girls. He’d outright spoken to the prettiest blond there without any fear of stumbling over his own words. They’d started sharing a drink and ended up undressing one another in the bushes that bordered the square.
After Sheba, it didn’t take long for the other girls to notice him, especially her friends. It was almost always when one of them was having a bad day or was going through a hard time in their lives; that was when they threw themselves at him. Sheba was always like that since she’d spent most of her life being ignored by her parents, but most young women went through similar spells. Hue just had the good timing to be around when they were feeling low and worthless. He didn’t do it on purpose. He didn’t like thinking of himself as a refuge for girls who had lost or never found their ability to like who they were. He preferred to think he had a bigger than average cock and he knew how to use it. He heard it often enough for it to become the one true explanation for his romantic success.
Then Lee had come to him. Craftier and wilder and surer of herself than anyone he’d ever met. She’d freed his imagination with her wonderful drugs and fucked him with a primal ferocity that utterly blew his mind. He loved her low-tier patois, the way she said “savvy” and “gwine” and, most of all, the glorious world of profanity she’d introduced him to. He felt better about himself when he was with her, more willing to cast off the burden of his family and their expectations. Although, to Hue’s deep regret, it seemed that the longer they were together, the more of herself she seemed to give up. He’d demanded compromises of her, he knew, and he’d been happy to get them. He thought that if he could balance things with her and Sheba and him, he could make everyone happy. He loved them both so fucking much. But what started out as supreme beauty and pleasure got stranger and sadder the longer it went on.
By the time he’d found out he’d knocked up Sheba, he was almost relieved that the choice had been made for him. It still tore him up inside, what had happened with Lee and the cowardly way he’d gone about it. He’d waited a full week to tell her, had kept going to bed with her, wanting to squeeze a few last moments of intimacy out of it before it all went bad. A part of him still wanted to run away with her, but there was too much else holding him in place. He felt so awful about all of it, what he’d done to Sheba and to Lee and even to Gav Esper (he’d deserved a smack for what he’d fucking said about Lee, but Hue still regretted it). He probably would have killed himself if he didn’t have a baby on the way. Maybe he would anyway. Even though its mother was sweating and shaking her way through the throes of withdrawal, Hue was pretty sure it would be better off without him or his family around to fuck it up.
He was completely alone now, standing on an overlook, contemplating the open air beneath as the sun began its final descent along the darkening sky. If he waited another hour or so, the sun would set and he could jump and be sure that no one would fly down to catch him. He sighed and began to turn away when a sharp, familiar pain stung him in the back of the neck. Motherfucker! It was another one of Gav’s fucking paper wasps. After all that had happened, the condescending prick was still intent on screwing with him.
All of sudden, Hue felt dizzy. His hand came up to the back of his neck. It felt like there was something lodged there. He turned, trying to steady himself, and saw Gav walking towards him. He was wearing a heavy cloak and holding some kind of wooden instrument.
“Gav? Wazzat?” Hue said, his words slurring badly. “Izzat a flute?”
“No,” Esper said, his tone apologetic. “It’s, uh, a blowgun.” He nodded gently. Hue nodded back at him.
Darkness rushed in at Hue from every corner. He felt his knees buckle. The last thing he heard was the sound of Gavirel Esper’s voice.
“If it’s any consolation, you wouldn’t want to be conscious for what’s going to happen next.”
Esper was able to pack Elihue Bradley’s limp form into his rickshaw. Timing was everything now. All his months of planning and preparation would be put to the test. He had studied every secret pathway, pulley-carriage, and maintenance channel that connected the various tiers. He was able to make his way from the sight of the abduction to the forty-seventh tier in less than thirty minutes, a record even for him. This tier was ideal for several reasons. There was a long abandoned expansion site here where the I-beams projected over empty space. No one ever came here. It wasn’t safe.
Esper pulled Bradley out of the rickshaw. He cracked his knuckles and knelt by him. He passed into a sarxomantic trance and laid his hands upon Bradley’s face. The transformation began. Bradley’s spotty visage warped and shifted beneath Esper’s fingers. He was still alive, albeit in a deep coma, so twisting his flesh was even easier than the corpses upon which Esper had practiced. In barely any time, Bradley no longer looked at all like Bradley. His face had become a passable imitation of Esper’s own. For some time, Esper had been studying it in the mirror, every pore and bone ridge, and attracted no suspicion at all because everyone expected a man of his station to be vain and preening.
“Ugh,” he thought as he regarded his work. “I am not handsome.”
His typical post-twisting erection grew flaccid faster than ever before. He touched his own face, then that of the slumbering mirror image. He realized that the image was not exactly mirrored yet and brought his fists up.
“Try not to enjoy it.”
It was a tremendous relief that he did not, although it was unsettlingly easy to rain down punishment now that its recipient was his own likeness. Once the wounds matched the ones that he had so recently received, he dragged Bradley onto an I-beam where oblivion opened up beneath them both. Esper almost stumbled in his haste, teetered on the edge, and recovered himself.
He reached beneath his cloak and brought out the blasting cap and explosive putty he had stolen from the construction site. He affixed it to the edge of the I-beam. Then he produced his silver timepiece. It had been his first and most reliable tool in all his planning. He required one final service of it. He opened the back and wired it to the blasting cap. He set the jury-rigged timer. The window was tight but he would make it work.
He left Bradley there, his newly remade doppelganger suspended above the raging ocean of dust and crackling static. The dosage that the blow dart had delivered into his bloodstream would keep him unconscious far longer than the minutes ticking down on Esper’s timepiece. Esper returned to his rickshaw, retrieved the tailor’s parcel from the back, and kicked it onto its side, smashing in the wood and cloth as if it had been set upon in ambush.
With the box clutched under his arms, Esper sprinted up the maintenance walkways along the wall, ducking, diving, rolling, and climbing. His lungs burned as he went. A few construction workers in the process of wrapping up their day’s work noticed him from a distance and called for him to stop, but he ignored them. Panting and glistening with sweat, he delivered himself to the top tier. He crouched in the shadows and took three deep breaths. Then he felt the rumble of the explosion rattle the metal beneath him.
The Hero of the Day flew from the Stronghold in a gleaming descent. He was too distracted by his compulsion to catch a falling body, as he always was, to notice a cloaked form skulking by the base of his fortress. Esper knew exactly how long he had. He had timed it to the instant. He scaled his way to the secret entrance, the parcel now strapped tightly to his back.
He pulled himself up into the glowing hallway. He took a moment to undress, shedding his cloak and school uniform, dropping them down through the hatch into the open air. Then he sealed the hatch and took a few precious seconds to regard his surroundings and get his bearings. He had been inside the Stronghold often enough to have a sense of where he was. He jogged down the corridors, naked, holding his parcel, finding his way to the inner sanctum. None of the Hero’s domestic automatons were about. He had not been expecting company.
The suit was where it had always been, in the Hero’s trophy case, waiting for him. Esper’s internal clock, well developed after all his research, told him it had been nearly four minutes since the explosion.
“Even now, the Hero of the Day is extending his hand to catch Elihue Bradley’s falling body.”
Esper approached the case, opened it, and gently undressed the mannequin inside.
“The Hero’s fingers stretch to seize hold of the whirling cloth of Bradley’s academic gown.”
Esper neatly laid the suit, its stitches wriggling with excitement beneath his fingers, upon the table where he had so often sat and been bored by the city’s god.
“And now they close, catching nothing but air.”
Esper opened the box and took out the suit he had designed and commissioned. It was a copy of the one he had just removed from the case. Of course, this imitation was made of ordinary fabric, its design and color static, but it would do its job as a placeholder. The Hero of the Day made a point of deliberately ignoring the actual suit; he was so unnerved by its seductive power.
“He will have gotten just close enough to see my face before Bradley disappears into the dust. The most reliable witness in all of Bastion will testify my death.”
Esper dressed the mannequin in the facsimile and sealed the case. He took the empty box to a refuse incinerator in the corner of the room, one he had seen the domestic automatons use before, and burned it into nothingness. He turned to the suit. It flashed bright, excited patterns at him.
Put me on, it whispered in a voice that was a reflection of Esper’s own thoughts. Put me on.
Esper stepped into the trousers and pulled them up. The threads caressed the weary muscles in his legs. The shirt came next, drinking up the sweat on his torso as he buttoned it up, leaving his skin cool and dry. Then he swung the jacket around, hooking his arm through the sleeve, which left only one item. The tie was practically strobing with color and pattern as he took it in his hand.
At last, the suit said. A partner. A worthy partner. Shall we be together forever?
“Alright,” Esper said, betraying only the slightest wariness in his voice. This partnership would lead to the one he truly desired, he knew that in his heart. He put the tie around his neck. He had never tied one before, but the suit was able to knot itself. He was fully clad. It was meant to be.
“Get me out of here,” he told the suit.
As you wish.
Smoke began to rise around Esper. The smoke was coming from him. No, the smoke was him. He lifted a hand, wreathed in eddying spirals of misty insubstantiality, and watched with burgeoning horror as it grew transparent.
“What are you doing?” he called to the suit. “What are you doing to me?”
The floor dropped out from beneath his bare feet. There was nothing to hold him up. He plunged downward, the tiers blurring around him. He saw the briefest flash of the world he had known all his life, the people, their homes and businesses, their families and their secrets. He was a cloud of screaming mist. He was falling through the city.