Second Blast: Two Pronged Revolution
Lee had been a fugitive for seven years. She rather enjoyed most of it. There were a few moments she regretted, like convincing her father to kill himself, but on the whole she’d had a perfectly wild time, just the way she liked it. The party went on, even as the faces in attendance changed. She didn’t forget those who were dead and gone but she was hardly weighed down by mourning.
Life in the tor hadn’t been kind to Chatham Garnet. By the time she’d managed to pull sufficient strings to install one of her false identities as a guard there, two months had passed since his arrest and he had wasted away to little more than a scarred and battered skeleton. He recognized her once she removed her false eyelashes, but his tongue, cracked and desiccated, couldn’t seem to find its way to forming words. She hushed him, gentle as she imagined her mother would, and passed the sharpened piece of flint through the bars of his gibbet.
“Pappy, you know what to do,” she had told him. “Remember to cut down, not across. I’ll stay with you while you go.”
She’d held his hand even as the blood ran down his arms. It was the closest she’d ever felt to him. She hadn’t shed a tear.
Lee had been much angrier in those days. As she retraced her steps out of the prison she went out of her way to kill five guards, descending on them with her blue-varnished claws as they made their patrol. She’d checked the prisoner roster clipped to one of their corpses, realizing she’d have need beyond just her sisters for the kind of mayhem she was planning to unleash. Of the captives still fit enough to move on their own, she made her choices: Ezra, a dwarfish safe-cracker; a trio of knife-men whose names she could never be bothered to remember and collectively referred to as “the kit-cats”; Bartholomew—a behemoth simpleton imprisoned for vagrancy and subjected to various experiments by the tor’s alchemists and sarxomancers until his skin had hardened to stone-like scales; and Erin, a boy-girl prostitute who had slit a trick’s throat after he’d been too rough with them. There was a political dissident, jailed for protesting the uneven distribution of food across the tiers, who had begged her to release him with the others, but she had seen no utility in it and left his cage shut.
She armed the freed reprobates with weapons from the slain guards. They’d made their way to the gondola that served as the tor’s only access point—set as it was on a geological formation adjacent to Bastion’s mesa—cutting down prison officers as they went. She gave her new friends ample opportunity for revenge. Erin pointed out three guards who had made a game of habitually raping them. Lee used a variant of her rouge to entrance the apish subhumans into stillness that was nonetheless fully conscious and sensate while Erin opened them from taint to throat, slowly, with a not particularly sharp knife. She’d let Ezra into the evidence lock-up where he could steal back all the treasures that he said had been unfairly confiscated from him. She’d invited the kit-cats to stuff the warden into a gibbet, which they proceeded to cut free from its moorings and tossed over the side of a lookout tower. Lee had found the prison’s chief sarxomancer frantically attempting to work the gondola’s ignition and given her over to Bartolome who grunted in dim recognition and crushed her skull with his bare hands.
It was all a bit excessive but that was the headspace she’d been in at the time and, besides, after she freed them and bestowed these gifts of brutality, they were hers, body and soul. Now she had a crew of the toughest, meanest ne’er-do-wells in Bastion, her sisters included, and she actively cultivated a reputation as being the maddest, most heartless bastard of them all. She christened them “the orphans” and set about a crime spree that gave the upper tiers of the city pause.
She started by balancing some accounts. The inquisitors who had questioned her father had been off-duty during her massacre at the tor but it was not long before they were wishing for the relatively quick deaths their colleagues had been granted. Their bodies were discovered strapped to chairs next to their own bloodied tools, every harm that they’d inflicted on Chatham Garnet having been revisited on them. She found the home of the magister who had sentenced him and slowly filled it with a variety of spiders and snakes until he and his wife were stung to death. She captured the informant who had given him up to the Sanhedrin and let Misty, Knife, and the kit-cats play with him until he was not only dismembered but his individual parts were unrecognizable.
She knew that Esper the Elder had given the order and resolved to terrify him out of his wits before exacting her final retribution. He thought he was above it all, untouchable, so she showed him how easy it would be to reach out and touch him by assassinating his friends and political allies, the thin-bloods who licked his ass and asked for seconds.
Erin and a few of their friends lured three of the more depraved councilors into a fatally compromising position. A duo of constables came across their remains in an alley behind one of the palaces of justice—britches down, their various cavities invaded by a cornucopia of objects that had no business being there. The two constables had resigned their commissions that very day.
Once Lee’s gang began offing members of the Sanhedrin itself, they quickly closed ranks, surrounded themselves with heavy guard. She thought about sending Bartolome into one of their homes anyway, even though it was guarded by an entire contingent of constables, but she had developed a particular soft spot for the mush-brained, stone-skinned giant and did not yet wish to test his invulnerability. So instead she started stealing from the councilors, their most precious and valuable possessions. No lock could keep Ezra out. His stubby fingers were so sensitive, it was no wonder he received universal adoration from the small harem of whores he spent most of his free time with. She turned these treasures over to the other orphans (usually to Ezra, who lived for such prizes) but far more often she destroyed them in some loud, public manner. She kept only one of note for herself, an item even more rare in the city than books or bacon, one that not only captured her fanciful sensibilities but would also be ideal for covert assassinations.
Wanted posters went up all over the city with Lee Garnet and the orphans’ names and likenesses. She was too hot for most of her former associates; even Mumma Mumma wouldn’t truck with her any longer. It didn’t matter. Lee could mix her own make-up now, had even devised a few new recipes. One of her favorites was her indigo lipstick; its main ingredient was an eel gland and it gave her kisses an electrocuting kick that could stun with a quick peck or burn a person from the inside out if she used her tongue.
She was wearing just this shade during the job where the Hero of the Night finally set upon them. She had gone to deface Esper the Elder’s garish memorial to his dead son in Daylight Square. It was an unnecessarily ornate golden fountain with automated instruments built into it so it was perpetually playing a dirge. Lee had brought plenty of dynamite in order to show the city the proper way to express one’s grief. There were usually a couple of constables posted on patrol around it. She’d come at them, unseen thanks to her concealer, and kissed them each into shocked unconsciousness.
Just as she began to plant the explosives around the base of the fountain, the terror himself had swooped down on them, seemingly from nowhere. The kit-cats were the first to fall on him and the first to go down. For all their oft-proven talent for homicide, two of them were useless in seconds, their limbs feathered with obsidian throwing-blades. The third rushed at the grim figure. He went crashing to the ground, his face scourged unrecognizable by the Hero’s hydra o’ nine tales.
It was known, or at least strongly suspected by Bastion’s criminal community, that the Hero of the Night was a mortal man. Every so often some rowdy miscreant would land a lucky blow, draw a drop of blood or hear a grunt of pain from under his mask. It was said that in her younger days, Mumma Mumma had nearly caught him in a deathtrap or two. So Lee did not order the orphans to retreat. Instead she began lighting the fuses of her dynamite and hurling sticks in the direction of the brawl.
“Pin him down you sons of bitches. Pin him down so I can blow him sky high! This is your chance to die like legends!”
Bartolome came up behind the Hero and managed to get his stony arms him in a bear-hug. Lee was laughing like a lunatic. It was the most fun she’d had in a long time. She hurled a stick at their interlocked forms. The Hero flicked a blade into Bartolome’s left eye and he screamed in bestial pain, loosening his grip sufficiently for the terror to lever himself free just as the dynamite landed at their feet. He somersaulted onto Bartolome’s shoulders, then dropped down behind his back so that giant took the full force of the blast while inadvertently shielding the Hero. Bartolome, charred and smoking, collapsed to his knees. His remaining eye blinked once, then froze in the stillness of death as what was left of his gray matter ran out of his ears.
Lee’s elation, as it did so often back then, twisted into rage. Explosions tore through Daylight Square. Their force threw Ezra’s diminutive body against the fountain’s baroque spire and his spine shattered on impact. Erin took advantage of the disarray to abandon the scene, their slender form disappearing down a half-concealed maintenance hatch, and Lee did not blame them. Misty and Knife had pulled back to her side, and the Hero of the Night was advancing at them through the flames. Lee smeared on the belladonna eye shadow.
“Stay where you are!” she commanded him.
He paused in his tracks. She hadn’t been expecting it to work. Indeed, after a moment he shook off the trance and, with a tiny shudder in his step, moved towards them.
“I said stay back!”
He struggled against her command. She felt the make-up heating up beneath her eyes, beginning to bubble.
“It’s time to lay down, old boy. You have a rest.”
The Hero’s entire body shook with the force of their clashing wills. He opened his mouth, snarling, and roared in a voice like a demon’s:
The make-up burnt her, forcing her eyes closed. She felt her sisters’ arms around her, lifting her off the ground. She struggled. If she could just scratch the bastard now while he was disoriented, the poison would do its work and she’d be rid of him forever. But Misty and Knife, murderous whores that they were, had grown strong in their years of service and refused to release her. They managed to make their escape.
Lee spent the next two weeks blind, her sisters bringing her witch hazel and shoots of aloe to rub on the burns that had sealed her eyes closed. She was holed-up in an abandoned pulley-carriage in Gehenna while the constables searched the city for her. Her crew was done. Misty and Knife asked if they should track down Erin.
“Oughta make the skinny little catamite pay for steppin’ out on the gang in its time of need,” Misty said.
“Make it slow,” Knife said. “Only proper way to do a coward. We still have a rep to uphold.”
“No,” Lee croaked, finding a shred of authority somewhere in the fog of her blindness and misery. “You leave them be.”
The rest of the orphans who didn’t die of their wounds were brought to the tor—newly re-staffed—and the inquisitor’s persistent inquiries as to Lee’s location and future targets were the end for the rest.
Dying in prison seemed to be the height of fashion that season. Misty and Knife brought her news to ruminate over during her convalescence. In Hue’s absence, Esper the Elder had made the treason and conspiracy charges stick for the whole Bradley family. Hue’s mother, father, and brothers all perished in the tor, one not long after the other.
Her other former partner in bliss, Bathsheba Collings, had overdosed on some off-brand junk she’d bought in a furtive visit to Happytown. She was eight months pregnant. Contemplating this news inspired Lee’s next move.
In the makeshift workshop she’d set up in the back compartment of the carriage, Lee slowly regained her sight and set to work creating dozens of new false eyelashes. Lee Garnet’s name and face were too notorious. She would have to give them up for the time being. She spent the next several years diffused across a multitude of identities.
Her brush with blindness inspired her to become Zidonia Gabray, sightless busker. She would play the hurdy-gurdy in the street, turning the crank and making beautiful, buzzing music. She took her time learning the instrument, had a talent for it, and eventually began drawing large crowds around her in the street. People liked the romance of her empty white eyes narrowed halfway between concentration and rapture. She feigned the blindness sufficiently and the eyelashes took care of the rest. She came and went as she pleased with this identity, when the urge to spend nights or weeks at a time feeding on the raw emotion of her audiences took over.
Some of her new personas were more practical than others. Every other weekend she was a bartender at the High Rise Club. She played the role of vapid flirt well and, catering to the city’s elite, she was able to sift through drunken rumor, innuendo, and overshared secrets to keep tabs on the higher-ups. She had several high-ranking constables, aldermen, and magisters under her thumb. All she had to do was giggle at their crude insinuations and keep pouring them liquor.
Once a week, she was also the secretary to the record keeper of the Sanhedrin. She recorded and archived the minutes of all their meetings. The record keeper was not even supposed to have a secretary. She was doing his job. The marvelous thing about her false lashes was she didn’t have to be any of these identities full-time. She could step away from them for days, even months, but when she slipped back, people might squint in confusion for a moment but then the lashes would begin fabricating intervening memories of whichever character she was assuming, and the confusion would fade into familiarity. As far as the record keeper was concerned, she had been his devoted employee for years (he saw her as a middle-aged frump, by design, and so kept his hands off of her) and she was by his side every day.
She was a nurse in the children’s wing on the tier four hospital, the one next to the asylum for victims of colossi madness. While she was not a particularly nurturing person, she initially required this identity to carry out a specific and necessary act of theft. Once that was accomplished, she decided to hang onto it. The children of the elite were cared for in this facility. People had a tendency to be quite candid with their caretakers, even more so with their children’s. You could learn all kinds of secrets about a man if you paid attention to his wife as she sobbed over their son or daughter’s sickbed.
Lee also ran three separate businesses through three separate identities, and so she had to be them more often, such were the necessities of operating a going concern. She was the proprietress of a moderately successful hang-gliding business on the ninth tier. She had grown quite familiar with the principles of flight during her time at the academy and put that knowledge to use, leading tours for the young and adventurous, wheeling about the open air around the city. She gained a rare knowledge of the full architecture of Bastion, great tin can that it was, set solitary above the desolation of the world. Moments like these, borne up by the thermals, unfettered by gravity or worldly concerns, were beautiful and valuable to her and it gave her genuine enjoyment to gift her clients with a similar experience. For an added surcharge, she would even give them scraps of raw meat to feed the buzzards and other carnivorous birds that nested along the walls. The carrion eaters knew her glider by sight and would swoop along in its wake, so it often seemed as if she left a trail of dark feathers behind her as she flew.
She kept a studio in the artist commune on tier twenty under the name Hoi Polloi. She became one of the highest paid working artisans in the neighborhood. Her specialty was fabricating pinwheels, the current most popular art form in Bastion. While the lower tiers disdained them as putting on airs and the upper tier citizenry had actual lawns of soil imported from Hareth to demonstrate their fine taste, the middle tier populace loved to festoon the front of their homes in multi-colored pinwheels that caught drafts and spun festively. Suppliers of these products were willing to barter generously for bulk orders of Hoi Polloi’s one-of-a-kind pinwheels. Lee found it relaxing in a largely mindless way to sit and spend hours fashioning pretty colors and designs. She liked to be creative and found this act of craftsmanship rewarding in a very different way than the musical stylings of Zidonia Gabray.
She also operated a brothel in the industrial district. A lowdown, dirty, nameless place that in her mind she referred to as The Creep Joint. She had acquired it in a hostile takeover from an abusive lout who’d been made to see the error of his ways in a more-or-less permanent fashion. Lee fashioned it into something that, while it could not be called respectable, could certainly be called profitable. The girls had better lives with her as their pimp anyway. She only got forceful with them when it was absolutely necessary to keep the peace. They catered to a particularly coarse client base: the sweaty, stinking manual laborers from the nearby factories. For this role, Lee dawned a pair of dark, circular eyeglasses and called herself Salome Skull after a minor character from her favorite pre-dust age novel (another fine work of literature preserved by Nicodemo Speranza). She swore, spat, snorted amphetamines with the clients, kept the whores clean enough to work but not so clean they put off the johns, broke up catfights, and made sure they got regular visits from a qualified cunt-inspector. When she wanted a decent screw, she occasionally went to bed with some of the rougher clients, gratis, since Lee did not sell her body no matter which self she was wearing. She liked men who worked with metal the best; they had calloused hands, hard bodies, and were far less inclined to sentiment than most.
She never kept a lover for long in any of her various identities, seldom for more than one night. Anything more than a few go-arounds would poison them to death. Lee suspected that she would still do much the same even if she were built like any other woman. She had gotten very good at saying goodbye. People were so replaceable. You let go of one. You met another. Her men were generally guileless and brutish. Her women were typically unbalanced and brilliant, many of them unhappily married. She left them all wanting more but she left them just the same.
She had made one unfortunate exception in all of the seven years that followed her first misadventure with love. She had several vacation identities, personas she would store herself in when she needed a moment away from the party to catch her breath. She had her highs, and they were astronomic, soaked in booze and adventures and sex, but she had her corresponding lows as well. It was during these lows that she would retreat into personalities like Cozbi Burr, night watchwoman at the palace of the arts. This palace was one of her favorite places in the city, even though it was in the judicial district, surrounded by the palaces of justice where criminals were condemned to the tor.
They had the most extensive collection of artwork and books in Bastion. Lee would spend nights reading and wandering the galleries. There she made an acquaintance of the librarian of their old world book collection, an adorable boyish thing, stick thin with a messy shock of raven dark hair. He sheepishly admitted to her that he lived in his office and asked her to please not tell anyone. While shy, sensitive men were not normally her type; she loved his devotion to the books and their upkeep. He was pretty, kept his fingernails clean, and he had the rich, musty smell of the tomes he organized and kept intact. The librarian and Lee had long, wonderful conversations about literature, about what these fragments indicated about the world before the age of dust. She confessed her fascination with the mythological land of Texas, enshrined in her imagination by the cowboy novels she had grown to enjoy in her adulthood, a land often depicted as tough and wild as she would have liked herself to be. He blushed whenever she made a bawdy joke and one night it got to be too much for her and she kissed his bright red face and had her way with him on the floor of the sculpture garden.
It ended badly, of course. She went back to him too often. It was the literary discussions that kept her returning, more than the sex or the affection, although it became difficult to separate these various aspects the longer it went on. One morning she woke up on the cot in his office, saw he was still asleep, and started to brew a coffee for them to share. When the smell failed to rouse him as it usually did, she went to shake him awake. His body was limp. His flesh was cold. He had never had a strong constitution. It was the only time she had killed a lover by accident. She didn’t cry. What use would her tears be to this corpse? Lee didn’t want to make it about her, other than to acknowledge that it was her greed and thoughtlessness that had played this boy into eternity with far too many books still left unread.
She returned to the palace of the arts occasionally after that, in part to remember him and check in that his books were being cared for, although she wasn’t that sentimental and her primary purpose in these visits was still to read and to admire its collections of art. She steered clear of the new librarian, who was a dour-faced spinster who looked like she wouldn’t be any fun at all in bed.
Another vacation identity she enjoyed was working as a fortuneteller at Professor Parallax’s Carnival of Diversions. An itinerant act that posted its pavilion tents on whatever tier was willing to have them for a week, it was easy to join up with or depart from their band as they made their haphazard way along the circuit. Being a fortuneteller was easy, with or without her magical makeup. People carried their desires and expectations into the tent, writ clear on their faces in large type. She would ask them about their lives, the date of their birth, and tell them either what they wanted to hear or what would shock them the most, depending on her mood. What she loved about this job was the constant ebb and flow of strangers into her tent. She loved peering into peoples’ lives, tiny windows into a deeper, more complex existence that was often never revealed to their fellow creatures. She liked meeting and parting as neither friends nor enemies, but with a sense that she had gotten a glimpse into an experience outside of her own. While people were replaceable, strangers were unique, and Lee placed great stock in them.
She was also occasionally a nameless street tramp in the alleys and vice dens of Happytown. She took a certain satisfaction from garbing herself in rags and bindles. She had plenty of practice pretending to be high from those long ago afternoons in the Collings household. Not even Mumma Mumma, for all of her wily craft, could’ve been aware of Lee’s comings and goings when she wore this particularly wretched character. In such a manner, she stayed keenly plugged into the stream of rumor that circulated through the underworld.
She listened especially hard for any word on the Hero of the Night. The snooping, masked little creep had nearly blinded her and wrecked her crew. She wanted payback. She didn’t particularly care whether or not she came out of hiding, she was enjoying the party, but she wanted the option and with the terror out there, watching for her, she was denied it. As much fun as their dance had been, he was a liability whom she wished to be rid of. Unfortunately there was no solid word on the Hero. His movements couldn’t be predicted or tracked. One night he would be busting the small time gangs in Gehenna to keep them on their toes, the next he would be gelding a would-be rapist in the industrial district, the next making open war with the more organized criminal enterprises in the middle tiers. His creed was to protect the innocent (whoever they were, Lee could not properly say) and, far more so, to punish the wicked.
Though the Hero of the Night had been a part of Bastion since early in the city’s history, he was not immortal. The rumor was that he was not even a single man. Each Hero of the Night, it was said, would select an apprentice and successor to train. The elder criminals, Mumma Mumma chief among them, said that you could tell the difference by looking at the exposed lower quarter of the Hero’s face that protruded beneath the mask, or the slight differences between their builds or heights. In any event, it seemed he was not an individual so much as a secret order, kill one and another would take up the mask and mantle. It frustrated Lee but she was capable of patience. She would watch him die, she knew that much. Then she would take up his mask as a trophy so it could not be donned by any other body with a foolish wish to interfere with the anarchy that was the one true law of the universe. Perhaps that act would shake the supernatural hold he had on the city’s underworld, inspire more villains like her to rise up against his oppression. For now, all she could do on that front was bide her time and wait for an opportunity.
Lee maintained her criminal enterprise too, running numbers and girls, underwriting heists, delivering to the citizenry all the poisons they craved, murder and dismemberment when it was called for. This time around, she elected for a far different management structure than she’d utilized with her orphans. She chose one of the more respectable bosses from the mid-tier mobs: Nehemiah Kusik. He had a rep as a solid, intelligent businessman who would not shrink away from brutality when crossed. She approached him under one of her more amusing handles: Jezebel Amour. He was strong willed but between her rouge and the structural improvements she suggested for his organization, Kusik was won over.
“What do I tell the boys you are to me? My partner? Their new boss?”
“You tell them I’m your little girlfriend, that my head’s an empty bubble but I have gorgeous tits and am a positively religious revelation in the sack. You make sure they understand that I don’t know a thing about the business. All my decisions go through you, savvy?”
“Keep that attitude and this here is gwine to work just fine.”
Lee kept their relationship strictly professional. Kusik wasn’t her kind of man. There was no chemistry and she was fairly certain he preferred boys. More than that, she simply had no esteem at all for him, which isn’t to say she didn’t appreciate his handsome face or his cunning mind. He profited from addiction and debt and violence but he simply didn’t have the sense of style that distinguished Bastion’s superior class of criminals. Lee was a villain. Kusik was just a bad guy. She would use him for as long as he was useful.
Whenever possible, she arranged for her crimes to hurt the members of the Sanhedrin, never forgetting what they had done to her family. She went about it in a less high profile way than she had during her initial revenge spree, but she made the wounds hurt and ground salt into them for good measure. She trapped their sons in gambling debts, in vice scandals; would find out their worst secrets and demand personal treasures or political favors in order to keep them, then when she had what she wanted she would reveal them anyway.
It didn’t hurt her efforts that the government of Bastion had never been less popular. They had enacted new laws in order to limit the population’s current rate of growth, sanctioned by the divine will of the Hero of the Day, who had foreseen the city’s increasing numbers and dwindling resources precipitating the end of the Continuance. One child per family, though some exemptions were permitted for high born bloodlines and citizens of noted skill or station in order to preserve the leadership and knowledge vital to the city’s future. The Christers were also granted a spiritual exemption—being fruitful and multiplying was a core tenant of their faith—so long as they agreed to confine themselves to their newly established reservation in Gehenna.
The first family that was found breaking the law was on tier fifty-nine (Lee had predicted it would be a low tier family) and they were made an example of. A constabulary officer had taken the newborn second child to the wall and, in front of a huge crowd, pitched it out into the dust storm. Some had spoken out against it—the Hero of the Day himself forbid the civil authority from even lawful executions, let alone a summary one of an infant. A riot almost formed but a few well-timed truncheon blows had kept the people fearful. The officer who had thrown the baby explained, wiping off his hands as if he’d been holding something dirty, that the new law contained a provision excepting children born in excess of the limit from the protections of citizenship, and this argument, however cursory, gave the onlookers sufficient excuse to act on fear instead of outrage. Then the officer ordered his constables to hold the mother down while a state sarxomancer performed a flesh-twisting on her womb that ensured she would never give birth again. When Lee found out, she was furious.
“Why did they only punish the infant and the mother!?” Lee had screamed at her sisters. The three were standing in Kusik’s back-office while Lee plotted a reprisal for this latest offense against her taste. “Why didn’t they cut the husband’s balls off too?”
“Whose balls you want us to cut off?” Knife had asked in that stupid, low voice of hers and Lee had thrown an ashtray at her head.
Lee had decided the first person she would chastise would be the infanticide constable. While she knew that unjust laws came from on high, she also knew that they were only bad ideas until people were stupid or weak enough to actually follow them. An example had to be made. But when they went to his home the very night after the atrocious scene had unfolded, they found that someone else had already done their job for them and done it with gusto. The constable’s blood and flesh were splashed all over his den, not just on the floor and walls but dripping off the ceiling as well.
The strangest aspect of the murder, however, was that the man’s skeleton was standing upright in the middle of the room. It had somehow been pulled out of the man piece by piece, and threaded into full articulation. Bright, colorful threads bound the bloodstained bones to one another in perfect anatomical order and strung it up like a marionette. Lee had to admit she was impressed (she had articulated a few animal skeletons in her day but never the bones of a freshly murdered man) and sought to discover the identity of this macabre artist, although she wasn’t sure if it was to congratulate them or punish them for committing a crime that she meant to in a manner even more stylish than she herself had planned.
“My people are saying it was the Wraith,” Kusik reported to her.
“Who the fuck’s the Wraith?”
“Some up and comer. I’ve heard rumors about him. He’s putting his own crew together. They say he has powers or some nonsense.”
“Like he can walk through walls or he has nine cocks and a head made out of diamond, I don’t know. They’re just rumors, Jez. Man’s out to make a name for himself.”
“Any word on why he picked this particular constable to forcibly donate to science?”
“Well, it’ll play well with the rabble, that’s for sure, and that’s enough to make it a good move if he can stand the heat the law’ll bring down on him. But I don’t think he’s making himself out to be no kind of hero. One of my boys heard one of his say that the Wraith told his crew that the officer was ‘uncouth’, said that he’d made some off-color comments to the mother prior to chucking her little tit-sucker off the wall, said there was no place for that kind of vulgarity in his city.”
“His city? We’ll just see about that.”
The years sprinted by and brought certain changes to the Bastion with them. Lee remained in a holding pattern, juggling her various selves and their enterprises, but she noticed the changes. Through the false cataracts of Zidonia Gabray, she saw jazz wash over the city. It seemed to happen all at once. Suddenly, every horn-blower and string-plucker in Bastion seemed like they wanted to swing. Dance halls began popping up across the tiers. Zidonia even started gigging with a few bands, though her style was more rehearsed and formalistic than the wild improvisations than her contemporaries enjoyed.
Lee couldn’t help but be fond of the swing dance craze. It seemed to her that the people were rousing, embracing chaos, throwing off the moldering old conventions that had made Bastion such a dreary place for so long. They might just be a bunch of pretty youngsters in flamboyant clothes swinging each other around but they looked damn good doing it and, more importantly to Lee, they weren’t doing it because it had been done before. Quite the opposite.
Lee would have been more excited by this new age of music and style, except she also knew its origin and that made her deeply uneasy. They said the Wraith loved jazz, it was his favorite music and he demanded it play in all of his clubs. Just thinking of the Wraith made Lee grind her teeth in frustration. He came out of nowhere and suddenly word of him was all over the city. Gangs were rolling over for him left and right and the ones that didn’t were folding up, their bosses going missing or suddenly deciding to retire from the life all together.
Everywhere Lee looked nowadays she saw those damn suits. Coordinated jackets and trousers, that pointless scrap of cloth they hung around their necks. The Wraith’s men wore them as a signal of allegiance, competed with one another over whose was the prettiest. Soon, the style wasn’t contained only to the growing army of ne’er-do-wells that worked for Bastion’s newest crime boss. Men all over the city were wearing them. It had never been easier to spot a conservative, the few still willing to venture out of their homes defiantly garbed in Sanhedrin-style robes, the attire of authority and tradition. The Wraith had brought new fashion and music to the city and, in doing so, had given voice to the restless spirits that dwelt within it.
Lee retaliated by making some waves of her own. She took her trendsetting personalities—Zidonia, Hoi Polloi, even Salome Skull—and set about popularizing a new form of women’s fashion. Straight, loose dresses with bare arms and waistlines dropped to the hips. The skirts were just short enough to expose a hint of lower thigh, and Hoi Polloi made it common practice to apply some rouge to the knees. Stockings held up by garters, simple bust bodices so that the dancers wouldn’t be restrained.
Lee didn’t know why she felt the need to compete in this way, but she did and indulged it. It took months of work but she eventually began to see young ladies emulating her. It had caught on and, now that she saw the two trends side by side, the Wraith’s suited men walking arm in arm with ladies in her dresses, she believed they were quite complimentary. She was elated and celebrated with an evening of gin and carousing, but the next day she was overcome with a crushing depression and spent the following three weeks folding pinwheels and refusing anyone her company.
Lee realized she was in something of a slump. She wasn’t languishing, not exactly. She had her trades and they were quite prosperous. She had some long-term goals. She wanted to murder the Sanhedrin and the Hero of the Night. She had just turned twenty-four and was no closer to accomplishing them. In fact, thanks to the Wraith’s audacity, the task of removing the city’s oppressors would be even more difficult.
The Wraith had recently taken over an entire palace of justice, had walked right in and told the magisters, constables, and petitioners that they had one minute to make their exit before his men set to gutting. Half the constabulary was on his dole anyway. They gave it up without a fight. The Wraith had turned it into a nightclub and it had quickly become the party center of the city, siphoning off a fair amount of Happytown’s action. The Sanhedrin tried to save face by officially selling the palace to him, but had refused the manner in which he insisted on wording the deal:
We the Sanhedrin of Bastion do officially cede this territory to our sovereign Crime King.
The Wraith didn’t want peace with the city’s rulers. He had made it clear. They were on a collision course and the whole town was holding its breath, in between drinks, waiting to see how it would play out. The Sanhedrin had shut itself up in the Temple of the Continuance on tier one, the seat of their power, and sealed themselves behind its heavy iron doors. They had massive cannons on either side of the great marble stairs that lead to the entrance. It was said that, with both his wife and son dead, Esper the Elder had gone a bit mad and was now living in the Temple. Lee might’ve had his head on a plate by now if the Wraith hadn’t come in and shaken everything up.
Bastion’s newest crime lord was becoming more and more irritating to Lee with each move he made. No one could describe his face. His image would not stick in the minds of the people who saw him (Lee knew that trick), nor did the sound of his voice. They said he could get in anywhere, that no wall or fortification or vault could keep him out. In terms of furnishing a description of the man, all people could properly say about him was that he wore a suit of extraordinary resplendence and was the most dangerous person in the city.
Lee was insulted by the lack of proper recognition and snorted derisively whenever she heard anyone call him “Crime King”, although the title was increasingly accurate with each day. She’d heard that even the rowdy and unmanageable gangs in Gehenna were offering him their allegiance, that the slums were enjoying a period of peace and quietude they hadn’t experienced in centuries. Kusik and Mumma Mumma were among the small number of crime bosses left not yet pledging loyalty and half their profits for his protection. Lee could tell a confrontation was coming, that she would either have to back Kusik in a play against the Wraith or trade up.
This inevitability was made even clearer when, one afternoon, Lee attempted to step into the identity of Zidonia Gabray, only to discover that she had died. She was walking up to one of her regular busking spots on tier six, only to find a crowd already there. They’d assembled some kind of little altar with candles and flowers. When Lee approached, a young woman in the crowd turned and squinted at her.
“Is that her hurdy-gurdy? Were you her sister?”
“What are you talking about?”
She should have recognized Lee as Zidonia by now. Was there something wrong with her lashes? Had she put on the wrong set?
“What about her?”
“Yesterday a cable on one of the pulley-carriages snapped, dropped the entire thing right on her. Everyone’s been talking about it. Oh, I’m Atarah, by the way, sorry for being rude, I’m just in such terrible grief over this whole thing. I’ve been listening to her play for years.”
Lee recognized her now. She really had been a faithful and frequent fan.
“I… I’m sure she would have appreciated that, Atarah.”
“I hope so, I really do.” Tears were beginning to well up in the woman’s eyes. “I got so sad, I wanted to shut myself away for at least a year. Then I thought, no, no, that’s not what Zidonia would have wanted. Her music was all about celebrating how strange and unexpected our lives can be. She taught me that. So then I thought, we should get some people together and have a little service. Did you know her?”
“I’m so sorry. Hey, no offense, but is your face painted white?”
“No, Atarah, that’s just what my skin looks like these days.”
“I’ve never seen anyone so pale.”
Lee’s skin hadn’t always been bleached like this. She had been born with beautiful brown skin, an ethnic mélange similar to most of the citizens of Bastion, but years of the make-up’s toxicity had bled all the color from her face. Without a pair of functional false eyelashes, anyone was free to see her true countenance.
Lee understood why the ones she was wearing were not working as they always had. If everyone believed that Zidonia was dead, it was impossible for the suggestion of her identity to take root in their minds. One of her favorite personas was gone, murdered by a rumor. She laid her hurdy-gurdy down on the altar, and held hands with Atarah as they listened to a few of her fellow buskers play some tunes in Zidonia’s honor.
The next time Lee donned the round, darkened eyeglasses of Salome Skull and made her way down to the industrial district, she was met with another surprise. The Creep Joint was gone. It had been burnt out. An explosion, either accidental or manmade, no one could tell her. Everyone was sure that Salome Skull had been killed in the blast. There was a silver lining in the arsonist’s smoke cloud. All of Salome’s girls had survived. The Wraith’s men had taken them. The Wraith and his crew had a good reputation with the whores around the city. It was said he remunerated and protected his girls very well and insisted they be treated with, well not respect exactly, but rather only be disrespected when it was sexy and appropriate.
The factory foreman who was filling her in on the rumors (he had been a regular at the Creep Joint) did not recognize Lee, except to remark that her glasses were the same style that Salome always wore.
“Yeah,” Lee said with a sigh. “That Sally was a trendsetter.”
The next identity she lost was less personal but far more vital. When she tried to report to work as the secretary for the record keeper, she was denied entry to the offices. The record keeper had been dismissed from his position. A new one had already been appointed and he certainly didn’t have a secretary. The old one shouldn’t have had one either.
Lee cut the conversation short by entrancing the increasingly suspicious constable. She was about to leave it at that, but decided to blackjack him unconscious for good measure. She was angry again, angrier than she’d been in years.
In the darkened office he kept on the top floor of his pleasure palace, the Wraith snapped his fingers three times; one for each of Lee Garnet’s identities that he’d burned.
“And she will come, and she will come, and she will come,” he sang to himself with each snap. He felt like a kid again, except more light-hearted by far than his actual childhood had been. He sat back on his desk and bicycle-kicked his feet in the air. It was time to make a formal invitation. A fountain pen floated toward him through the air, suspended by a filament so fine it was nearly invisible. He took it and with its point pricked the tip of his thumb. With the ink of his heart, he began to write in his finest calligraphy.
Beneath him he could hear the distant sound of the band warming up. The party, the real party, was raring to start. It wouldn’t be long now.
Kusik held up the envelope.
“It says: To Lee Garnet,” he said obtusely.
“I can read, man,” Lee said. “And I’m telling you, it’s for me.”
“I thought Lee Garnet was dead. Heard she fell out during a fracas with the Hero of the Night.”
“The Hero of the Night doesn’t kill people, no matter how bad they are.”
“Sometimes he hurts ‘em so bad they end up dying later, or are just crippled for life. But don’t change the subject, Jez. Are you telling me that you’re Lee Garnet?”
“You stay out of this, Kusik. It’s between me and the Wraith.”
She snatched the envelope from his hand, neatly opened it with a flick of her nail, and card it contained. Kusik looked on over her shoulder.
“So you’re gonna accept this kooky little invite? You told me, the man’s been gunning for you and you’re just gonna roll up to his party? And do I need to point out that this is clearly written in blood?”
Lee had dyed her hair dark red earlier that night. She was wearing her little red dress, a night-black sash, and her crimson lingerie. She was ready for battle.
“I ain’t gonna let the bastard burn me again. It’s time to take it to him, find out just what he’s up to.”
“You sure you don’t want any backup?”
“No, I have everything I need.”
“Doesn’t look like you have much.”
“Never underestimate the power of color coordination.”
Lee walked into the pleasure palace and felt at home right away. She was a party girl and this was the party. The people and the music and scent of booze buzzed around her. The walls were decorated with illuminated reliefs of vipers, centipedes, and other venomous animals. There were uniformed waiters pouring drinks and lighting the patrons’ cigarettes. Many of the former trappings of justice had been covered up or simply removed to make room for the dancers. The judicial benches where solemn magisters once sat in judgment had been converted into a bandstand. Lee marveled at the band, in part for their skill and their impressive array of instruments. In addition to the usual plethora of horns, drums, and strings, she saw a seven arched harp, a lyre guitar, an arch-cittern, a tenor trombone carved in the shape of a dragon, even a zither with a turban-sporting swami-type playing it.
She’d presented her invitation at the door and been allowed in without any further ceremony. The man in charge must already know that she was here. She went to the bar to order a drink.
“Miss Garnet,” said a soft voice behind her. “I knew you’d come.”
She turned and saw him. He was wearing the most beautiful outfit she had ever seen. It was the original suit. It’s color was the summer sky. A golden grid pattern seemed to be floating along the surface of the fabric. His other characteristics—his dark, searching eyes; his black hair swept back in a pompadour; the alabaster skin of his nearly expressionless face—paled indistinct when set against his suit.
“So you’re the rotten bastard who’s been blazing through all my fronts,” Lee said, although it didn’t come out as mean as she meant it to.
“I left you most of them,” he said. “But I am sorry for taking away some of your lovelier toys. I needed to get your attention.”
“Well you absolutely have it, darling.” She batted her eyes, turning the power of her bloodberry rouge on him. “Shall we go somewhere more private?”
“Not just yet, lady fair,” he said. Lee blinked. When was the last time her make-up hadn’t worked at all? Even the terror himself had proved somewhat susceptible to it. He continued: “I can’t let the craftiest, wildest villain in all of Bastion into my club… not without asking her for a dance.”
Lee could tell that she was already caught up in his game, although she could not say yet what sort of game it was. Normally, this ignorance would have bothered her, she liked setting the rules a hell of a lot more than following them, but the man in the suit intrigued her. She would play for now; see where it would take her while she stayed keen-eyed for the moment of advantage.
His arm was around her waist as they made their way to the dance floor. The instant they touched, his suit shifted into a light pink hue. He bowed to her and his outfit transformed again into an ethereal shade of white.
The horn set the rate of their revolutions and the bass put a jump in their step. His touch was neither formal nor lascivious. He danced with both purpose and joy. The music picked up and they began to swing. He was strong, able to pick her up, throw her in a spin, and catch her again effortlessly. There was a trumpet solo where they caught their breath with a light shuffle. Then the entire band kicked in again and he tossed her into the air. She felt her body invert and realized he had thrown her nearly five meters straight up. She was even more surprised when he seemed to transform into a cloud of smoke. It gusted up, the misty tendrils curling over her arms and between her legs before continuing on to the ceiling, where they reformed into a man so he could catch her there. She shrugged off her astonishment and kept dancing in this new venue, the two of them upside down, cutting a rug across the ceiling while the partygoers below looked on, jaws slack.
“That’s quite a trick,” she said as they continued spinning around one another.
“I thought you’d like it.”
“As long as it’s not the only one you got.”
The song ended and he scooped her up in his arms, their undeniable strength and solidity incongruous with his body, which floated to the ground as if it were no more substantial than a feather. He set her down. Lee could feel her face begin to flush while his remained the same white mask, his skin as pale as hers.
“Would you care for a glass and in that glass, some gin?” he asked.
“Darling, I had no idea this little palace of yours was so well provisioned.”
“Something tells me I ought to resist indulging you.” He had the wickedest smile she had ever seen outside of a mirror.
“Gin’s my favorite.”
He hailed a uniformed waitress. The glass was in her hand a moment later. He secured some brown liquor for himself; something she imagined was appropriately dark and smoky. They clinked their glasses and Lee set about imbibing a pleasing portion of gin.
“I like the way you drink,” he said.
“I like the way you dress.”
“Have another. It’ll put some snap in your garter.”
“You’ve no idea what I’ve got in my garter.”
“That’s true, but my imagination’s a playground.”
“You never looked up my dress once while you were throwing me around? I appreciate a man who doesn’t sneak a peak until he’s invited.”
“Come with me. I want to show you something.”
“Oh is it that time already?”
“Alright, mystery man.”
She followed him through a secret passage behind the bar and up several flights of stairs to his private office. It was a sparely appointed place, but it had a generously stocked liquor cabinet that Lee helped herself to. “I still have to get one of these for myself,” she thought as she fixed herself a drink.
“So, I can see why they call you the Wraith. I never saw someone who could do what you did on the dance floor. Is that you or the suit?”
“Clothes make the man,” he said. “But really it’s a team effort. We’re bonded, it and me.”
“Well, it becomes you. So, you went through a bit of effort to get me here. Care to tell me why?”
“I have a proposal for you.”
“Ah, you mean a proposition.”
“I mean what I said.” He turned and walked to the window of his office, which overlooked the other palaces of the judicial district, the most ornamentally designed buildings in the city. There was an enormous sculpture of the Hero of the Day in the enormous plaza they shared. The man in the suit frowned at it. “I know all this city’s secrets. I was its ghost. Now I will be its king. I summoned you here because I want you to be my queen.”
“This is what you wanted to show me? This is why you burned up three lives I was perfectly happy with? Big talk?”
“No,” he said. He reached down, undoing the button of his jacket. Bleeding Christ, was it all really that simple? But his hand stopped there.
“Would it change your opinion if I killed the Hero of the Night?” he asked, utterly sincere.
“Ha! Here’s a tall man making tall orders. I know a thing or two about trying to kill that bastard.”
“I’ll defer to the expert. What would you say is the principle challenge of such an undertaking?” His eyes on her like a cat’s on supper.
“Just to start with: you’d have to know where he is to get the drop on him and no one in this whole fucking city knows where he is.”
“Better than knowing where someone is, if you mean to kill them, is knowing where they’re going to be. Tell me, darling,” he rolled the word in his mouth as if he enjoyed its taste. “Do you ever wonder why there are so few firearms in Bastion? We have the technical know-how to build them, resources too. Yet there are maybe, what, less than a dozen of them in all the city, mostly museum pieces not more advanced than a simple flintlock or harquebus. It’s the Hero of the Night. He hates guns, hates them worse than anything else. If he smells any sign of a gunsmith operation cropping up, he will come down on them harder than any murderer or rapist. No one knows why he despises them so much, but it’s a fact of his existence. He hates them and he’s drawn to them, like a magnet.”
“Are you saying you have a pistol in your pocket?”
“I’m saying that you should move about five paces to your right.”
Normally, Lee did not obey commands, she had a contrary nature, but his voice had the right blend of authority and genuine concern for her. She did as he asked and it was a fortunate thing. An instant later, when the Hero of the Night crashed through the office window in a shower of glass, he landed right where Lee had been standing, knocking over the liquor cabinet in the process.
“You black, booze-botching flea!” she screamed. That had been some really good gin.
“Bad form, old man,” the Wraith was beside her. He gently nudged her out of the way. Lee was mildly offended. Her matching hair, lipstick, dress, and poison-tipped fingernails would be more use in a brawl than turning into a puffy cloud. She felt the warmth rising from the top of her head. Her hair began to whip about her face, animated by the power she’d infused into the dye. “Calm down,” he said.
“You don’t tell me to calm down!”
“PUNISH,” said the Hero of the Night. He cracked the hydra o’ nine tales and advanced on them, crunching broken glass beneath his boots.
The door of the office flew open. Three of the Wraith’s men stormed in, pulling switchblades and garrote-gloves from their suits. The Hero of the Night made a gesture at one of them and the tough flew against the wall, his hand transfixed there by an obsidian throwing blade. The other two he took hand-to-hand, shattering one’s knee and breaking the other’s arm.
“Now that I think about it, you go ahead,” Lee said, taking a step back.
“Do I have to worry about any errant sticks of dynamite?”
Lee’s eyes widened slightly. He must’ve been referring to her last battle with the Hero, all those years ago at the memorial. The only survivors of that encounter were the Hero, the twins, Erin, and Lee herself. She knew for a fact that none of them had ever talked about it. So how could the Wraith know any of the details?
The Hero of the Night swung around. The Wraith faced him. Colors and patterns screamed across the surface of his suit; a disorienting blur of stripes and zigzags. The Hero grimaced and paused in his tracks. Lee had to turn her head away. Just a glimpse of the visual distortion had begun to make her sick to her stomach.
“You’ll want to watch this part,” the Wraith said.
“Fuck you, I hate being dizzy,” she shouted. Then she heard the soft, slithering sound coming from his direction and forced herself to look. Around his wrists, at the hem of his jacket, and the cuffs of his pants, the suit seemed to be unknitting itself. The threads of the fabric wound away from the body, somehow not depleting the suit itself, and rose around him like the limbs of a jellyfish.
The Hero of the Night turned back to the Wraith, his mouth frozen in a jagged snarl. He brought up his whip and snapped it at the Crime King. The threads of the suit shot forward, twisting their way around and through the barbed lashes. The hydra o’ nine tails attempted to grow its way around the threads but they were too quick, winding up and binding its every attempt. With a twitch, they jerked back and yanked the whip from the Hero’s hand. The Wraith was smiling now, his suit going a blue so dark it might as well be black. The threads wound their way up the Hero’s arms and legs, beginning to constrict themselves around his body. He struggled, attempting to snap his constraints, but the filaments were as strong as spun steel and held him even tighter.
“You’ve come into my palace,” the Wraith said, his voice full of laughter. The threads of the suit lifted the Hero off the ground, held him aloft for a moment, then slammed him down hard enough to split the floorboards. “You wrecked the lady’s drink, interrupted our conversation.” The Wraith raised a hand and moved it side-to-side, as if he were slapping the air. The threads imitated him, raising the Hero up and, in a jarring motion, smashing him against the left wall, then the right. A great gout of red erupted from his mouth. Things were rupturing inside of him. “You ruined my window and three eager young minions.” The air was thick with plaster and the smell of blood. “And you don’t even have anything clever to say!”
The threads brought the Hero down against the floor, harder than ever. He crashed directly through it and the partygoers beneath them shrieked as the masked, cloak-and-armor clad figure plummeted into their midst. The Hero of the Night slammed against the marble dance floor, cracking it, along with a variety of his bones. The threads were still twined around his wrists and ankles, pinning him in place. Three new tendril-threads slithered out of the Wraith’s suit. Two softly lifted him through the new hole in his office floor and back down to the party while the third twisted around Lee’s waist and effortlessly brought her up and along.
Once she was back on the dance floor, the thread gently released her. She came up behind the Wraith, who was standing over the Hero of the Night’s battered, pinned body. The Hero was still struggling, attempting to use his serrated gauntlets to saw through the threads.
“What are you gwine to do now?” Lee asked.
“What any proper villain would,” he said, reaching into his jacket and pulling out an enormous revolver. Two thread-tendrils arched from his shoulder seams, striking the Hero in the chest, twisting their way under his armor and tearing up the protective breastplate. “Without any further discussion.” He pressed the barrel of the revolver against the naked flesh of the Hero of the Night’s chest and shot him in the heart. Smoke and bubbling blood rose from the wound.
A final, rattling breath wheezed out and his body went limp. The Wraith holstered his piece and rubbed his hands together. The thread-tendrils retracted back into his suit.
“Go on,” he said to Lee, not even turning to look back at her. “Unmask him.”
Lee blinked with rage. It had all happened so quickly and that was all there was to it. Her nemesis was dead on the floor and she hadn’t lifted a finger to accomplish it.
“Naw,” she said, teeth gritted, “You bagged him, you peel him.” She felt her voice assuming the laconic articulation and dust-bitten inflections of a true Gehenna rat, as often happened when she was genuinely beside herself.
He shrugged, knelt, and tugged the mask off. The blank face of a corpse was all that was revealed, a dead man like any other dead man. The Wraith held the mask aloft, turning to the stunned partygoers, and his laughter was like a turkey’s cackle. The crowd, recovered from their shock, began to applaud wildly. Lee appreciated the theatrics but she’d also just spied her moment. She reached up her short red skirt and pulled the derringer pistol she’d been hiding there. She pointed it at the Wraith’s exposed back.
“Gavirel Esper,” she said. “Good to see you again. It’s been a while.”
“I was hoping you’d recognize me,” Esper said.
“You did just what you said, scratched off the Hero of the Night. Congratulations. They’ll really have to call you the Crime King now.”
“If I survive the evening, you mean.”
“You knew I had this gun. That’s why you invited me here.”
“I catalogued everything you ever stole, Lee. One gun was good. Two was better. I knew he wouldn’t pass up the chance. The heroes of this city are so damn predictable.”
“Are we all just pieces on a board to you?”
“You aren’t. You’re…”
“What? The queen? The prize?”
“The other player, I hope.”
“If I pulled this trigger right now, the bullet’d just pass through your smoky body, wouldn’t it?”
“I’d rather not find out, but you do what you need to.”
“Well since I’ve got your undivided attention, I want you to listen very carefully to me. I ain’t gwine to be your queen or whatever crazy nonsense you were talking earlier. Sorry darling but I am not the type to settle down and rule a city.”
“As you say. I never want you to be anything, except what you are.” Esper smiled over his shoulder. “Because, my darling, you are perfect at being just what you are.”
“I didn’t say it was your time to talk.” Lee contemplated the gun in her hand. The man standing with his back to her. The dead legend at their feet. She swallowed her anger. “I would, however,” she said, “be willing to consider a partnership.”
“Now that you’ve had some practice at it, Esper darling, what would you say is the best part about being a black hearted villain?”
“That’s a fine question, Miss Lee, and the answer deserves some thought. Hm. The best part? I’d have to say the honesty.”
“Honesty? Not the answer I’d expect from a man who hides himself behind a nom de guerre like ‘the Wraith’.”
“I mean that I don’t have to pretend that my actions have motivations besides my own selfish ones.”
“Everything you do’s only for yourself?”
“Just like everyone else, except villains get to be honest about it.”
Don’t trust the whore!
“Don’t call her that. It’s petty. And oddly prudish for a sentient piece of cloth.”
She’s too unpredictable. You’re bringing a volatile, unknown variable into our equation at a crucial moment.
“She’s hardly unknown. I’ve had plenty of time to form a thorough assessment. You saw to that after your little fit of temper, during my period of enforced non-corporeality.”
Your dreams betrayed you, Esper. I saw what you want, what you are. You may be the most magnificent of animals, but an animal just the same, driven by the base desires that compel all your kind.
“I made a promise to you. Do you trust this ape to keep it?”
“Our union set both of us free. When I put you on, you became the most important thing in Bastion to me.”
Save for the Garnet.
“Don’t be bitter. When you steal a peak into someone’s heart uninvited, you hazard learning that they aren’t what you wanted them to be. Now quiet down so I can think and we just might pull this off.”
Esper believed it was best to start with the truth, although how much of the truth to tell Lee was still very much an open question. On the one hand, he wanted to establish at least a modicum of trust early on. On the other, it was vital that he preserve some of the mystery. He weighed these considerations in the darkened rookery office so tucked away in the recesses of his mind not even the suit could find it. It was in that solitary place where his true self never ceased to scheme, no matter how intoxicated he presently was by the lady’s presence.
The palace had been cleaned; the plaster and fragments of marble swept away and the blood mopped up. The Hero’s corpse carried off on the backs of a drunken chorus of ne’er-do-wells as they sang hosannas of victory—Esper wanted as many people as possible to know that the underworld was uncapped and ready to spew beautiful chaos across the tiers. No one had been able to find the hydra o’ nine tails in the aftermath. Esper wanted it as a trophy but ultimately the mask was all he needed and he had that.
The Hero’s mask, which was really more of an elaborately carved helm now that he saw it up close, rested on the bar between Lee and him as they quaffed liquor. He stole a sidelong glance at her, the sight of her pale thigh recalling those long gone classroom days where desire had first rooted in him. That sweet ache, fresh awakened from dormancy after all these years, compelled him to break their shared silence.
She turned, her violet eyes meeting his black ones directly, giving him his answer.
“You gave the terror quite a thorough murdering, I’ll grant. Don’t think it buys you an iota of gratitude from me.” She leaned closer. The smell of her enveloped him: amber, lilac, semisweet floral notes, iron—perfume and blood—a clean whiff of gin and, beneath it all, the even cleaner odor of venom. “He was mine to kill. You stole that privilege from me, even after you made such a show of being a gentleman. I ought to poison your drink. If I haven’t already.”
“Save the posturing, partner.” He knew her anger was genuine, he had taken what was hers after all, but he was also cognizant that she was using that anger to manipulate him. She was trying to play him, would always be trying to play him. He had to keep that in mind going forward, which wasn’t much of an effort given that the suit was constantly nattering on about it in that voice only he could hear. Esper refused to be the sort of arsonist who was shocked when he inevitably burned himself—just because you love the fire doesn’t mean the fire won’t do to you what it does to everything else. “You’re focusing on the past: how I upended your fractional lives, ruthlessly dispossessed you, drew you exposed into the open and used you in order to kill your sworn enemy. Instead, let us turn our gaze to the glitter and gleam of things to come.”
“Almost seems like you’re approaching a point, dandy man.”
There was a meanness in her that sent shivers down his spine, but he couldn’t afford to be distracted just yet. Esper pressed on:
“What would you imagine is our next move?”
“Now that you’ve vanquished the scourge of the underworld? The rest of the gangs’ll fall in line. Every lowlife and gunsel will queue up to work for you.”
“Pronouns, subtext, whatever. Next, you turn ‘em loose on the Sanhedrin, plow your way through the remnants of the constabulary, and officially make the city yours. Ours. You get to be a proper king and I get to live knowing there’s not a soul left who can deny me my freedom.”
“The Sanhedrin does not interest me, not particularly.”
“We’re not dancing anymore, you don’t have to keep me on my toes. You’ve all but declared war on them, setting up digs in one of their fancy palaces, turning the town over to its undesirable elements.”
Esper smiled and leaned forward conspiratorially. There was a bit of plaster on Lee’s shoulder, almost invisible against her pale skin.
“If I keep their attention stuck here,” he reached forward and plucked the detritus off of her shoulder, “then they’ll never think to look at what’s actually happening elsewhere.” He brushed his knee against hers, felt the warmth of her skin through the cool fabric of his trouser leg.
She nodded, her face narrowing in genuine consideration, before downing another slug of gin.
“So, whatever it is you’re planning, it’s bigger than the Sanhedrin.”
“They’re bit players in the pageant we’re going to bring down on this city. They’re empty robes, devoid of soul, substance, and style.”
“Even your father?”
“Especially my father. No, Miss Lee, if what you really want is to be free, for all of us to be free, we need to destroy the power behind Bastion’s government.”
She squinted, searching for any meaning in his words beside the obvious, taking a moment to realize he truly meant what he said.
“You mean to kill the Hero of the Day? And here I thought you were just acting crazy to keep the rubes where you want ‘em, but you’re actually mad, aren’t you?”
“Exactly as mad as you are.”
“The Hero of the fucking Day? Doesn’t make sense to me. I know that he set things up at the beginning, got the city going, made some decrees about the way that things ought to be, and then kicked back and let the mortals who had certain last names run everything for him and twist the rules in whatever way suited them. He said no executions, so instead they send the men who break their rules to die slow and sad in the tor. He said that the city had to conserve its resources, so they made a law that says having too many babies is a crime, which of course they’re excepted from because it’s so fucking paramount that certain families have their heirs and back-up heirs. He said that there had to be both men and women on the Sanhedrin because the sexes should share power equally, but there’s never been more than three or four female councilors at any one time.”
“Mm yes, patriarchy is a weed; stubborn, persistent, and arbitrary where it takes root.”
“Don’t you see, man, that it’s them who’s the real problem? The men on the top tier, rigging everything so they and their sons get to keep their perch, it’s them who’s fucking us up, not their absentee god.”
“Is that all you think he is?”
“Well, he does fly out every now and again to catch some poor bastard or to fight off a colossus.”
“Do you know what the most effective and pernicious lie in all of history is?”
“Not off-hand, but a few from my own personal experience are definite contenders for the top spot. But since you’re only asking me questions so you can be the one to answer them, go ahead and enlighten me, mastermind.”
“The worst lie is ‘this is how it’s always been’.”
“You missed your calling, not taking a post instructing history at the academy.”
Lee reached out, took hold of Esper’s tumbler of whiskey, and drank a great swallow of it. It wasn’t for lack of gin but, Esper knew, because she wanted to see what his drink tasted like. She was a great sampler, always snatching and tasting, never content being limited to her own choice. Once she scavenged for survival, now she did it for variety. In spite of himself, he imagined sharing a meal with her, the way she would pluck a portion off of his plate like a conqueror taking rightful tribute, and he did his best to contain the giddy, swelling feeling in his chest.
“We both know what the one constant is, don’t we, Lee?”
“Only chaos, darling,” she said with a tiny, dangerous smile.
“Take a walk with me.” Esper got up and pushed in his chair.
“I have to secure my prize first. Finish our drinks. I’ll be back in just a moment.” He reached over the bar and plucked up the Hero of the Night’s mask. As his fingers traced the intricately carved runes, all the light in his vision dimmed momentarily and he perceived a glimpse of the object’s power. The suit had not lied to him, at least not about that. Esper felt himself give a miniscule shudder, unsure if it came from his body or the suit, his nerve endings and senses were so bound up with its fibers that it was too often impossible to distinguish one from the other. Now here was a truly dangerous variable that needed to be taken out of play.
He carried the mask to the other end of the room and, his form expanding into wispy disarray, walked through the wall. He floated up to one of his several vaults that had no doors or windows, no means of admittance beyond the one he currently employed. He deposited his trophy there, making a mental note to come back for it soon, move it to an even more secure location, one where no one would suspect he was keeping it. For now, though, he would not permit himself the rudeness of leaving his date further unattended.
The air outside the palace was warm, electric with fear and excitement. The city was changing and it could no longer be said otherwise. Word of the Hero of the Night’s death was spreading and even those who weren’t in the know could sense that something was different. Esper knew that the Sanhedrin would be calling an emergency session, pulling back their forces to consolidate them around the Temple. What remained of the constabulary on this tier had gone.
Young people had come out into the plaza in great numbers, some wearing the high style that marked their allegiance to Esper, or rather to the Wraith, while others were garbed in grungier attire: ripped denim, tanned leather vests, multicolored ponchos, a fair amount of bare chests from both the genders. They were forming circles, passing bottles back and forth, smoking, talking audibly about revolution, of the end of the old order. Esper darkened his suit to the point of inconspicuousness. No one would recognize the Wraith without his trademark flair. He didn’t have to worry about anyone identifying his face. The suit periodically emitted a strobe of subliminal pattern that erased certain pieces of information, like any specific memory of Esper’s voice and countenance. Lee had proven immune to it—not surprising—but he was still proud of that trick. It wasn’t innate to the suit; they had devised it together and perfected it through significant trial and error. He had learned to do some astounding things with pattern in the seven years since he had stolen the suit.
Esper and Lee walked side by side. Music had started playing. The disparate groups began to coalesce around these ad hoc performances. A look of apprehension crossed Lee’s face that, for a single moment, struck Esper as inexplicably tragic. Then he realized what was wrong, reached into his jacket, brought out a silver flask, and handed it to her. She swigged from it gratefully, licked her lips, belched, and took a moment to read the inscription stamped in a ring around its circular form:
‘Life is sweeping by; go and dare before you die. Something mighty and sublime, leave behind to conquer time.’
“Where did you get these lines?” she asked, tapping her fingernail against the lettering.
“In a dream,” Esper replied. Lee’s thin eyebrows arched curiously.
“The hell you say. I can abide all manner of villainy, darling, but I will not keep the company of a credit-thieving plagiarist. I’ve seen this fucking verse before… in a dead friend’s library. It’s from before the age of dust.”
Esper knew she was a prodigious reader, that her appetite for books likely exceeded near anyone else’s in their half-literate city—especially since she fucked that poor librarian to death—but knowing something was different than experiencing it. Was she aware of how impressive her mind was to him? He took a moment to remind himself that he was the smartest, best dressed arch-criminal in all of Bastion’s history and capable of making an impression himself.
“It is from before,” he said. “I’ve seen much of the world that was, its cities, its peoples. Some of its treasures are too wondrous to leave entombed in the past, so I’ve resurrected them into our world.”
Lee paused in her tracks.
“…How?” Her face was curious, hungry, but not legitimately flummoxed. She had taken this entire evening of tremendous spectacle in stride, making Esper wonder what it would take to actually astonish her.
“The suit remembers. It’s existed for a very long time, the product of an age replete with thaumaturgical marvels and high technology, the barest ruins of which sustain us to this day. It witnessed so many miraculous, nigh unimaginable things before the Hero of the Day defeated its original master and imprisoned it and their record is imprinted in the deepest fiber of its stitches. It shares these memories with me, imparts visions to delight me, and, when I can, I share them with the city. Listen to the music, Lee.”
“You’re the one who brought jazz to Bastion.”
“It took some doing, but I reinvented it. I thought it’d be perfect for shaking some of the dullness out of this bleak old place. It’s so much more satisfying to be a crime lord when you have the right music playing in your clubs.”
“What else have you brought back?” Her eyes were shining with another unasked question: what else could you bring back?
“Oh, this and that. A gift for you.”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“But I want to.”
“You’re quite single-minded, you know.”
“It’s my great charm.”
“We’ll see… hm… about that.” Something had caught Lee’s eye. Esper followed her gaze. Just beyond the crowd that had gathered about the motley band of musicians, two figures were twined around one another in the shadows. It was a man in a burgundy suit, trousers hitched around his knees, pinning a lady in the rags of her flapper dress to the wall of a courthouse alley. His face was buried in the crook of her neck, her expression ecstatic. Esper off-handedly noted that he knew them from around the palace, the burgundy suit he recognized as belonging to a bootlegger of some small talent and his mol, but they were hardly his priority. He watched Lee watching them, saw her hand involuntarily grip at the hem of her skirt. Esper was entranced by the flush of her skin, the perspiration on her upper lip. Then she noticed his eyes on her and her expression shifted, first to agitation, then to downcast modesty. She turned away from the lovers.
Esper frowned. It wasn’t like her to act so maidenly. It was him, of course, his presence. In spite of himself, he felt mildly hurt.
Remember that it’s different to watch her when she actually knows you’re there, the suit whispered. Do you think she wants your intense fascination? It’s discomfiting, Esper, to be the subject of an obsession. It can feel oppressive and foster resentment.
“Don’t I know it,” Esper thought back at it sharply.
Only trying to help, mon beau. Remember, you know her far better than she knows you.
Lee was worriedly turning her gaudy bracelet around her wrist. Esper could see she was suffused with a certain kind of energy, the kind that agitates for release.
“Music,” she hissed to herself, then louder: “Music! Music!”
She shouldered her way past Esper and a dozen others in her path, making a beeline for the band playing at the center of the crowd. She fell in with them, said a few words Esper could not make out, and was quickly handed a washboard. She began to play it in a tumult of motion. Somehow, using an instrument that was barely an instrument, she set the tempo for the rest of the players.
Soon the majority of the crowd was dancing, not in the high chaotic style that Lee and him had indulged in earlier, but in a genuinely chaotic manner that defied style. She had them jumping and waving their arms and imitating sex acts. She would occasionally look up from the tight concentration of her playing in order to ad lib a few lines of poetry synchronized to the beat.
Esper watched, a statue amid a feeding frenzy. What was Lee inventing? It was not his music, or anyone’s but her own. The demonstration helped Esper to recognize that Lee operated in a very different way than he did. When it came to getting his way, Esper was a great believer in subversion and coercion. More often than not, he found that people bent at the mere notion of being broken. He had once held a bandleader upside-down by his toes for questioning the wisdom of having a cymbal crash and a drumbeat hit together on the big four.
Lee did not employ such methods, not when persuasion and influence were available. Social super-animal that she was, she read the crowd and gave them a version, her version, of what they wanted. It was enormously pleasurable for Esper to witness; he was so unused to admiring methodologies other than his own. He tried to focus on the audience and the effect Lee was having on them rather than gawking too much at the lady herself. While the occasional glance was irresistible, he knew that his gaze had already unsettled her once and, at this stage in the plan, he was only willing to push his luck so far. Her role was too vital (and he had waited so long for her company) to frighten her away now.
She played until blood flew from her fingers in bright red drops. To Esper they seemed to gleam in the gaslight. He was cognizant that this was the sort of moment that other men had described to him but that he had never before personally experienced. He wished he could amber it and reside there perpetually, that at least a part of him could stand here in his muted finery and watch her play the crowd into a tumult forever. The necessities of the plan called him out of it.
He gestured for her to come with him. She either didn’t notice or was ignoring him.
Kill everyone here if she doesn’t do as told. That’s the sort of telegraph you only have to transmit once.
“I’m going to bundle you up and leave you on my bedroom floor you crazy rag.”
You want to control the Garnet. Demonstrate that we will not be trifled with.
“You could learn a thing or two about social graces from her.”
After all I’ve beheld in my sempiternal existence, I sincerely doubt she has anything to teach me.
“The corners she’s going to disclose will astound both of us before she’s finished.”
In candor, Esper, my ten thousand eyes look upon this toxic trollop of yours—fast-talking, self-loathing, ferret-faced dipsomaniac that she is—and I just don’t see what all the fuss is about.
“I don’t need you to.”
“Hey, you high?” It was Lee. She was standing beside him, lightly blowing on her lacerated fingers.
“No, unfortunately. Merely lost in thought.”
“I don’t remember you being much of a daydreamer back in the day.”
“And I don’t remember you sparing me so much as a second glance.”
“I could say the same thing to you, except that I know what monstrous sneaks we both are.”
Esper smiled at her. Unlike the majority of movements his face made, especially concerning the curvature of his lips, he had not done it deliberately. He took hold of her injured hand.
“Let me take care of that.” At his will, despite the suit’s objections, threads shot from the sleeve of his jacket. Expertly and painlessly, they wound into her wounds and bound them closed. They detached from the suit’s body, almost invisibly embedded in her skin where they shimmered and sparkled.
“You did tell me you had more than one trick.” She flexed her hand experimentally.
“I want to show you your gift now.”
“Splendid, darling, splendid. Could you have one of those ever-so-helpful minions of yours bring it to us?” She seemed genuinely interested in what he had for her or, more likely, what insight into his thinking his choice of gift would provide her. However, she seemed equally interested in staying near the crowd, thrumming now with an excess of frenetic energy, and discovering what further mischief her performance would inspire.
“Unfortunately, it’s not the sort of gift that can be brought to us, at least not yet. We must make the journey to it. It’ll be a comfortable trip. I have a private carriage for us.”
“Oh, what a prince.” She took his arm. He felt the molecules that composed his physique whir in excitement, had to make a slight, conscious effort to prevent himself from combusting into smoke. He led her away from the noise and motion. They walked wordlessly, Lee occasionally swigging from their flask. The warmth of her body was palpable, even with this light contact, the force that animated her burning coal-white.
Esper was only now, in spite of his uncanny anticipatory instincts, beginning to understand how all the high times he thought he’d been having over the past several years—ripping the underworld apart (often literally) and refashioning it in his own image (figuratively), subverting the rigid order built over centuries by men like his father, becoming the apex of crime and fashion—was little more than a relatively bland prologue to the real fun that would finally set him free. Down paths and through passages only he and a select group of others knew how to access, they came to his private pulley-carriage, spacious with ample ornamentation and leather upholstery. He dismissed the platform guard and made a simple gesture at the pot-bellied, mustachioed conductor: Take us all the way down.
The conductor, Gregorio, nodded and began to whistle, tunelessly but with genuine good spirit, as he adjusted the controls. Esper had never quite understood this habit (although, in his opinion, proper conductors ought to be portly whistlers) because the man was stone deaf. It was one of the chief qualifications, outside his competence and demeanor, which had won him his current position as Esper’s personal chauffeur. Lee insisted on vigorously shaking his hand and making attempts to communicate and he smiled, cheerfully attempting to show her that he was pleased to meet her but that he had work to do. Using some of his own nonverbal cues, Esper steered her into the lavishly adorned passenger compartment.
“Swank digs wherever you go,” she said appreciatively. She had discovered a crystal bowl filled with tangerines and skinned one of the fruits in a single motion. She handed Esper half and they each experienced the flavor simultaneously. “Where are we bound for?”
Esper ignored the question, not wanting her to think she could get an answer out of him whenever she thought she could have one, responding instead with one of his own:
“Do you actually believe what you said earlier?”
“Sometimes. You’ll have to be more specific, darling.”
“About the Hero of the Day. That all he does is fight the occasional colossus and catch falling unfortunates.”
“To be honest, I’ve never really given him much thought.” A note of mild embarrassment in her voice. She was used to being in the know. “You might as well ask what I think about the walls or the factories or the trees in Hareth. He’s just a part of the city.”
“‘This how it’s always been,’” Esper said, repeating his own maxim.
“Talking with you is like trying to walk blindfolded. You think you’re going straight but really you just end up circling back to where you were before.”
“Oh, sorry.” It was the first time Esper had apologized in years and he instantly remembered why he’d quit the habit to begin with.
“Don’t be. I didn’t say that I’m not enjoying myself, I just want to understand your point.”
“You know, I used to spend a fair amount of time with the Hero, during our academy days.”
“I heard rumors. You were being groomed for the top spot. They were going to hand you the city. I much prefer that you decided to just take it for yourself.” Warmth in her smile, in her eyes. He found it almost hard to look at her, it’d be like going over the edge of the old city map where the inscriptions warned there be daemons in the dust.
“I never told anyone this, but when I would sit across the table from him, listening to him drone on and on about all the inanities he felt a leader ought to know, I was occasionally struck by a sense of,” Esper licked his lips, searching for the right word, finding it, “familiarity.”
“Well, he does have one of the more recognizable mugs in Bastion. Not a lot of giant statues of anyone else.”
“I meant that something about being with him was like… like being with my family. I used to think it was because his faux-paternalism reminded me of my father. Gentle smiles and soft words hiding inflexible minds and dull spirits. I know better now.”
“What do you know, darling? Besides how to wear the hell out of a suit and keep a lady guessing.”
“Did you ever hear that my mother suffered from early onset fading sickness, that it made her more and more demented before it killed her? She was almost twenty years younger than my father and he’s the one who gets to keep his mind.” Esper paused. He had not spoken of his mother since that day he had abandoned her to the belief that her only child had beaten her on a premature path to the grave. How had she reacted to the news? Was she able to remember that he was gone or (more likely, he suspected) did she have to be reminded of it continually, experiencing the grief fresh each time? He wondered this often but did not keep the kind of company in which such thoughts could be expressed. It was relatively easy, he found, to talk about her with Lee. “Her mind was always coming apart and piecing itself back together in the most unpredictable ways.”
Lee was lying sprawled across a leather couch. Esper was standing by the main window of the carriage, watching her out of the corner of one eye and their descent through the tiers with the other. She stretched forward like a cat, tensing and untensing her muscles, looking up at him. The suit shifted its color, burnt umber to reflect the approaching dawn.
“There were rumors,” she said, “especially after you pulled the big vanish.” Esper winced. He did not want her thinking about the day he had stolen the suit anymore than was necessary. Certain details of that caper, under even a minimum of scrutiny, would lead her to asking uncomfortable questions. He played the expression off as the pain of grieving son, leaning into it, allowing the corners of his eyes to quiver. “They would find her in places she wasn’t supposed to be. It got to be so that your father couldn’t cover it up anymore. After he put up that gaudy fountain memorial to you, dead man that you were, that’s where she’d wander to most nights. I didn’t like it, didn’t think it was right. I’d see her there, when I was fleeing from one nighttime heist or the other, just standing in the square, tears on her face, that damn contraption playing idiotic funeral music over and over again… she seemed like a good mom. Good moms deserve good things. I wanted to buy her a drink, tell her she needed to stop clawing the wound open. Instead…”
“You decided to blow up the whole damn memorial. To comfort a stranger.”
“Oh yes, strangers are the best. I didn’t exactly have my head on straight at the time, parental issues of my own, you know, but I really did think it would help her.” She paused, rolling her body over, putting her hands behind her head and staring at the ceiling. Esper couldn’t keep his eyes from drinking in the sight of her, dress clinging tight against her curves. “Say, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” she added, now that she’d played around his defenses with her casual sensuality. “How did you know about my little fireworks display? You weren’t there and no one living is talking, unless you have my sisters on your damn payroll.”
Esper shrugged. “I told you, I was this city’s ghost. There was a period of time, after I put on the suit, let’s call it a ‘getting to know you’ period with it and me, where I could not regain my solidity.” Esper allowed himself to briefly disincorporate, felt his being slide out of the narrow confines of flesh and drift as a light gray cloud. He dispersed himself even further, becoming a haze, becoming barely visible, until the lights dancing off the motes of the cabin air were the only means of detecting his presence. “At first I didn’t understand.” His voice, without origin, produced by the vibration of particles, filled the small chamber. “At first all I could do was fall helplessly through the city. I thought I’d tricked myself into a sort of damnation. But it was only an opportunity to attend to my education.”
You know I only want what’s best for you.
“That has to be one of the most sinister assemblages of words ever strung back-to-back.”
Esper materialized, pulling himself together so that he was sitting on the end of the couch by Lee’s feet, one arm draped over the back.
“This city has so many secrets. I decided to use this opportunity to learn all of them. I remained fleshless until I did. From the bottom up, one tier at a time, I saw everything.”
“Including my little fracas with the terror? You saw him take on my orphans and me.” She kicked off her tiny red shoes, Esper for the first time noticing that the wings of a garden tiger moth were pinned to the tip of each. She slid her bare feet into Esper’s lap and wiggled the toes. He idly took her right foot and began to massage the arch, practicing the lightest of flesh-twisting manipulations to intermittently tense and relax the tissue where his hands kneaded, sending aching little bolts singing along her nerves. She craned her head back in contentment. “You see any of my other grand forays into criminality?”
Esper nodded. With this topic he had to tread carefully, just as with any mention of the day he faked his death. He would try not to lie to her outright, but he had to mediate how much he gave away. “I saw you steal Asehel Kristof’s prize pig from a garden party where he was showing it. You touched your glider down right as they were about to put a garland of flowers around its neck, grabbed the goblet out of Kristof’s hand for a swig, snatched the swine, and flew right off again.”
Lee smiled at the memory. “Had to be a straight up smash and grab. That damn thing was thrashing so much I thought it might upend me. I would’ve bitten it on the nape to show it who’s boss, but I didn’t want to poison the meat so I used my indigo lipstick to shock some stillness into it. Not the only time I’ve kissed a pig, believe me.”
Esper lifted and flexed each of her toes with a satisfying crack. She had a remarkably audible bone structure. “What did you end up doing with it anyway?”
“Brought it to my mother at the Christer reservation in Gehenna. She made sure all the good little Jesuslings had bacon in their bellies for a week. Personally, I only ate its brains and liver.” Esper was pleased to see her eyes light up at the thought of organ meat. He was particular to it too. “I also threaded and articulated its skeleton.” Esper smirked; skeletons were much on his mind lately. “I’ll show you sometime if you keep doing what you’re doing.”
Leaving one foot limp with satisfaction, he switched to the other. “Do Christers eat pork?”
“On that subject, darling, scripture is unclear. Real hunger has a way of trumping mystic taboo anyway.”
Esper was surprised that she’d mentioned her mother’s location so readily. Was it a sign of trust? No, more likely she was getting a read on how much he already knew. Had that aside about the skeleton been her digging for information? He adored this game.
“You’ll have a chance to see your momma, if you want,” Esper said, working his way up her calf. “Gehenna is our destination, after all.”
“I haven’t been there in months. I’ve heard there’ve been some changes. That you’ve been generous to our little rat’s nest. Is that my gift? Community improvement? Gentrification?”
“Not exactly, although your gift wouldn’t have been possible if my organization hadn’t improved conditions for the people there. Now stop trying to spoil the surprise.”
“You’re the one who wants to show me so bad you can barely contain yourself.” She raised her free foot to tickle the tip of his lapel.
Berk! the suit hissed. Putain de merde!
Esper enjoyed its disgust almost as much as Lee’s attention. He couldn’t help but be fond of it when it swore in long dead languages.
The carriage had almost completed its descent. Esper released Lee’s feet so she could attend fully to the view out the window. Through the dust haze, they could see Gehenna terminal, the least frequented station in the city. Though its rusted walls and dilapidated carriages seemed to announce that it was as neglected as ever, Esper knew that eyes as clever and familiar with Bastion’s lowest reaches as Lee’s would see through the deception. There were subtle signs of repair throughout the terminal; holes patched, cables re-strung, camouflaged workers with dust-masks and respirators scurrying back and forth along the roofs and catwalks. There was hardly any need for the subterfuge. To those that lived above, Gehenna was barely ever spoken of except as a cautionary tale or as the object of vague pity. Still, Esper was a wary and thorough planner and he held his employees to the same standards.
“You and your people really have been going to work,” Lee said, taking in the scene.
“What you see is but a slight indication of our labors. Welcome home, Miss Lee.”
The carriage slid into the station’s interior.
A pair of Esper’s men were waiting for them when they disembarked. He nodded at them. Gregorio stepped out of the carriage behind them, lit a cigar, and commenced keeping his post until Esper called on him again.
The men standing before him wore fine gray suits though Esper was not sure which he preferred. Eldad Rake, stick-thin in an understated, elegant cut. Abiah Hooks, muscular with a flamboyant plaid that emphasized the thickness of his limbs. These were two of his more intelligent and therefore most trusted lieutenants (Esper put little stock in anything besides a person’s wits; when you were the best game in town, smarts meant the same thing as loyalty).
Rake and Hooks oversaw his operations here in Gehenna and, Esper estimated with an analytic glance, they were ahead of schedule. He had imported most of his more talented employees down here several months ago; leaving the less useful members of his organization at the massive distraction that was the pleasure palace. Esper himself divided his time between the skilled labor at the base of the city and the ruffians, thugs, and ne’er-do-wells near its apex. He didn’t mind the company of criminals. Most people, in Esper’s experience, needed only a miniscule nudge in just the right place in order to act on their worst impulses towards one another, and worst impulses were predictable, reliable. Esper was at ease in proximity to the foreseeable. He lusted after chaos but permitted only a modicum of it in his own sphere, just as the jazz he adored permitted its wild improvisations but only within the boundaries of specific musical conventions.
Ultimately, though, Esper preferred the time he spent in Gehenna to the debauchery he had unleashed on the upper tiers. It was rewarding work: cultivating his more gifted servants into a superior breed of outlaw, attending to his grand design, and making efforts to improve the living conditions of Lee’s people, the dispossessed unfortunate enough to call this slum home.
“Is it ready?” he asked his men. They gave one another an uncomfortable look. For a moment he thought their hesitance meant some kind of failure, then he remembered that Lee was standing directly behind his left shoulder and he had given them strict instructions never to discuss their business in the presence of outsiders. He sighed—hadn’t he just reprimanded the suit for its own lack of social graces—and made a courtly gesture at Lee, lowering his head and extending his hands out, palms up, in her direction. “Gentlemen, this is Miss Lee Garnet, my new partner. You are to follow any orders she gives as if they come directly from me.” Lee winked at them, causing Esper to make an addendum: “Any orders within reason. Pass those instructions along to rest of the crew.”
“Yes, sir, I’ll spread the word,” Hooks said. “A pleasure to meet you, lady.” They both bowed at the waist and introduced themselves. Esper smiled. Good manners were a key component of obtaining rank within the criminal hierarchy that served him. It was a well-known fact that the Wraith abhorred impoliteness. It had only taken publicly eviscerating a boor or two to make this fact well known.
“We’d be very pleased to show you the progress we’ve made here since you gave us the last set of specifications.”
“We can do that later,” Rake said, stepping over the other man’s words. “Everything’s ready for the, ah, demonstration, sir.” The fast friendship between the two hoods, a friendship that had allowed them to survive a childhood in the rat-eat-rat world of the lower tiers, did not prevent them from constantly competing with one another for Esper’s approval, even the clashing styles of their suits was a manifestation of this rivalry. They were among the first two criminals he had recruited into his enterprise, five years ago.
They had had the bad luck to be a part of the gang that attacked him the very hour he had regained his form after having spent the greater part of two years as an insubstantial wisp. He had been stumbling down an alley in the industrial district, not far from where Lee’s brothel stood before he had it burnt down, when a dozen of them had surrounded him. They came at him with the swagger of men who believed themselves your worst nightmare fleshed, but Esper had shown them what a real nightmare was.
He had brought forth the threndrils for the first time that night, the suit’s ten thousand filament-appendages finally under his control. The first man he killed with them, he had filleted, the threndrils piercing his body, plugging up his screaming mouth, dancing under his skin, pulling out his bones and stitching them together so that the man’s skeleton stood upright next to the mass of deflated gore that had so recently been its home. It had been barely any effort.
Fine as gossamer, strong as steel, the threads had trashed out, detonating skulls, pulling off limbs, lifting and smashing bodies until they flew apart. Rake and Hooks had demonstrated good sense then, throwing down their weapons as Esper and the suit had ripped the rest of their gang into ribbons. The suit had wanted to slaughter them as mercilessly as it had the other ten men who had set upon him but Esper had recognized potential in the way those two knelt at his feet, even though they must have been terrified, and made steady eye contact with him, looking for the man within the monster. It had been the right play and Esper had surpassing respect for those rare beings with the cunning to recognize opportunity and the bravery to act upon it. He had spent the following year sweeping up through the tiers, making similar displays of his power and savagery, separating the wheat from the chaff as he recruited, remade, and unified the criminal demimonde of Bastion. Throughout it all, Rake and Hooks had proven their worth many times over.
Now, they led Esper and Lee through a series of pipe-dense corridors, past flurries of activity as workers rushed to and fro, each pausing mid-errand to nod reverently at Esper before resuming their labors. Normally he found these attentions at least mildly gratifying. Lee’s presence, however, made him uncomfortable with the displays of obedience.
“They probably get more work done when you’re not around,” she remarked absently. “All that bowing and scraping you make them do must cut into productivity.”
“I never told any of them to,” Esper began, noting the uncharacteristically emotional, even boyish nature of his reaction, but Lee cut him off.
“Relax, darling, relax. You’re an important boss-type man. You need to play the part.”
“That’s true,” Esper said. He enjoyed playing parts; had discovered the delight of performance in his years as the Wraith. He had even borrowed a play from Lee’s repertoire and developed several false identities for himself. While Lee’s other selves were, by and large, extensions of her own personality and interests, Esper’s were much more practical, divorced from his inner self, and short-lived—only one of them had developed anything resembling a life of its own while the rest were generally discarded once he no longer had use for them. Still, Esper enjoyed slipping on a set of traits, a history, another life in order to fulfill a specific purpose. He became whatever he needed to be in order to get what he wanted, a skill he had been cultivating since his own privileged childhood.
They reached a floor-set hatch with an elaborate gear-work lock of Esper’s own design. Rake and Hooks removed their tie clips and inserted them into the mechanism. With a hiss, the valve began to turn, the hatch opened, revealing a ladder. His two men went first, then Lee.
“Keep those heads down, boys!” she called to them, “You seem nice enough sorts but I didn’t have this exact scenario in mind when I picked out my outfit and I’d just as soon not have my cunt on display.”
Esper himself had taken this opportunity to peak down the front of her dress from his vantage point at the top of the ladder and, while her words didn’t dissuade him, he did respect how thoroughly she understood that men were both base pigs and abashed little boys. Shame would deflect the attention of men like Rake and Hooks but not Esper’s. Esper endeavored to have no shame. He had waited years, despising as ever the absolute necessity of patience, and no matter how thoroughly he planned, nothing after this point was guaranteed, so he would take what he could get.
He melted into mist, floated down past them, acutely aware of every contour of the three bodies his smoke passed over, and rematerialized at the bottom in order to help Lee off of the ladder. They were standing in a chamber with cathedral-high ceilings, its metallic dimensions set directly into the side of the mesa that supported all of Bastion, with a floor angled at a mild decline that terminated a dozen meters away from them where the chamber opened, the perpetual dust storm roiling directly outside, the electric sparks crackling within it reflecting off of the chrome walls. The air within the chamber, however, was perfectly clear and breathable; something that would seem inexplicable to most who beheld it, although Esper knew that it was the antistatic emitters built into the walls around the opening keeping the dust in abatement.
“Call it in,” Esper said to Hooks. The big man turned and walked to a wall where he flipped a large switch up and down three times. A bright, electric light set just below the dock’s opening flashed on and off in sequence with it.
“Well, Miss Lee,” Esper said as he slipped his hands over her shoulders. “If you’ll look dead ahead.”
He savored every detail of her face, every micro-expression of surprise, every drop of the bewilderment that turned into disbelief that turned into wonder as the airship floated into view, emerging from the storm. The prow, which Esper had consciously styled in imitation of the great boats that had sailed the world’s oceans when it still had oceans to sail, came first, a wooden effigy fastened to the front depicting a terrifying maiden with eagle’s wings instead of arms; golden, predatory eyes set into her snarling visage; naked breasts; a pubic thatch of white and gray feathers.
The gondola that served as the ship’s main body was enormous and stately, paneled with stylish scrollwork, studded with portholes. Atop it was the principle source of the ship’s capacity for flight, a rigid framework of metal composed of transverse rings and girders, sleeved in fabric the same earthen shades as the dust, for the purposes of stealth, but embossed with some of Esper’s preferred choice of patterns in order to maintain his signature aesthetic.
Tethered to the ship’s body by an elaborate rigging of wires, cables, and ropes were ten smaller balloons, all of them at least six meters in diameter. They bobbed up, kaleidoscopic, like a halo around it. Each balloon was attached to a thrumming steel nacelle that contained a cunning blend of engineering and alchemy: ionic generators, which augmented the ship’s lift and propulsion. Knowing their designs as intimately as he did, Esper was aware that the ship would stay aloft even without a single one of these subordinate generators, but it would lose a significant amount of its speed and lifting capacity. Expertly trained crewmembers slid along the rigging that connected the main body of the ship to these balloon satellites, servicing them efficiently, manipulating the gear-work of their automata processors when new programming was needed, ready to cut them loose should any of them malfunction.
The airship slid serenely into the dock. A door on the side of the prow opened. An unseen figure tossed out a rope, which Rake caught and tied into place. Esper walked a pace ahead of Lee and turned to face her. He had wondered what it would take to astonish her. Now he knew.
“Remember, I’ve seen you fly. You are a creature of the air, Lee, as much as any raptor or buzzard I’ve ever seen. You were born down here in the dust, just like this ship, but both of you are destined to soar above it. Not as simple as your glider, perhaps, but you will master its workings in no time and it will take you higher than you’ve ever been before.”
“How did you…?” she said, breathless and awestruck.
“Let me show you.”
He extended his index and middle finger and held them beneath her nose, a gesture that might have been an obscene invitation to sniff them except for what happened next: his proffered extremities melted into luminous smoke and drifted up into her nostrils. Ever game for what came next, she took hold of his wrist and inhaled sharply, breathing more of him in. Esper had never shared the visions before, so even he was surprised when the same image filled their minds simultaneously. It started as it always did when he accessed the suit’s memories: with an all-encompassing golden glow. After a moment, shadows began to populate the lightscape, taking on depth, acquiring dimension and distinctiveness until a comprehensible, sepia-toned image of the past crystallized in their minds as clearly as if they were actually seeing it.
Before them was a city, very different from Bastion, not a single great column but an entire skyline filled with soaring architecture. Beautiful, ornamental buildings with forms not entirely determined by utility but governed in part by a drive towards the sublime, a city meant not simply to house men’s lives but their dreams as well. For what was the city—a realization of collective aspirations and grand ambitions—if not itself a dream?
The sky above the buildings was teeming with airships. They soared along invisible paths in a great grid that appeared to mirror the streets below. Several of the more altitudinous buildings had air-docks where the ships laid tether or from which they disembarked. There were commercial zeppelins for transportation and larger, statelier ones for trans-global pleasure cruises; bulky sky-freights for shipping goods to and from the thousands of other cities that existed at this time; construction blimps with ion propulsors lifting heavy building materials further up than any crane could reach, allowing for the construction of even taller, more magnificent skyscrapers. Soaring among these hundreds of crafts, unmistakable even at a great distance, was the form of a man in flight, wreathed in an aureole of sunlight: the Hero of the Day. In this vision, he looked more even more of an ideal, an icon of a halcyon age.
Esper broke off contact with Lee, retracting the tendrils of smoke from her and back into himself.
“See?” he asked. “With those memories, it became possible for me to reverse engineer the technology, to reconstitute that which otherwise would have remained lost.” She barely seemed to hear his voice. Her eyes were wide, half-filled with gratitude and half-filled with hunger for more of the visions, a hunger Esper keenly understood. For all her books had told her of the world before, nothing could adequately prepare a citizen of Bastion to actually see it for themselves.
He gave her his arm and she took it and together they walked to the ship. A young woman leaned out of the side-door, completely unselfconsciousness of the plunge directly into the storm that hovered in the gap between the ship and the dock. She had light skin, a round face, full lips, and hair the color of pomegranate seeds peeking out in spiky jags from beneath her leather skullcap and flier goggles
“Yo! Boss!” she called, her tone as informal as ever. “Is that pretty young thing the new captain you told us to be expecting?”
“Indeed she is!” Esper called back, good humor stealing into his voice at the sight of her. “And your full time job for the next several weeks is teaching her how to fly this fine vessel of ours.”
“Of hers, you mean, if she’s the captain now.”
“Lee Garnet, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Mehetabel Swann, our ace pilot.”
The woman leapt from the portal to the dock, landing directly in front of them, her overstuffed tool-belt jangling at her sides. She drew herself up, shoulders back, arms hanging limp, feet wide apart. Esper was struck, as he typically was when in Swann’s company, by the contrast between her masculine bearing and her small, feminine body. It was a very fetching contradiction and he’d acted on the attraction a handful of times, even though he normally had a policy of avoiding trysts with his employees. It wasn’t serious; these things never were with Esper. His heart, unlike his mind or will, did not belong to him and so was not his to give away.
Swann extended a fingerless leather gloved hand to Lee.
“My daddy called me May Bell. You can too if it pleases you.”
“I imagine it would,” Lee said. The women exchanged smiles.
“Lee Garnet? You ain’t by chance Chatham Garnett’s girl?” Lee nodded, which sent Swann into paroxysms of thigh-slapping delight. Esper braced himself for the eruption of cheer and amity he knew was set to issue forth. “You know, your daddy and mine used to work together, same guild. Him being a machinist and all. He said Chatham Garnet ran the tightest operation of any Primate he ever worked for. Of course, he wouldn’t approve daddy’s prototype for a flying automaton either, but, to be frank and fair, everyone thought it was damn crazy. Even daddy did, half the time anyway, but I’d just give him a smile, or throw a wrench at his head, and I’d say, ‘Daddy, you gonna let a little thing like crazy stop you?’ He passed on last year, never got a chance to see this beauty here make it into the skies, but when I take her up, it’s easy to imagine the kinds of things he’d be sayin’.”
Perhaps it was because Lee’s freshly dyed scarlet hair made them both redheads, but Esper could not ignore the physical similarity between them. He knew he enjoyed the company of small, pale women with serious curves, particularly ones with attitude, grit, and self-possession, but only now did he realize that his inclinations were not simply because of the innately extraordinary qualities of such a figure or character, but also because these attractions recalled their forerunner. Was his desire really such a simple thing, cursed and compelled throughout life to seek out echoes of its first, true longing?
Esper was no virgin. He had labored to build himself into something impressive, mysterious, and attractive; sex was an innate part of that image, but, looking back over it now, Lee’s phantom presence had hung suspended above these dealings. Even the most cursory mental catalogue of his affairs confirmed to Esper what for some reason had not been obvious to him until now: they all looked like her or had some shades of her personality or, more often, both. Each woman, of course, had her own unique charms and he had found those enticing in turn, but the initial draw must always have been the same. “No need for substitutes now,” he thought with a dual twinge of satisfaction and nervousness. “Not when I have the genuine article.”
I’m sure it would endear your one true to learn that you’ve been bedding her by proxy for years, the suit whispered in self-satisfied tones. It could not read any of his thoughts that he did not directly address to it, only the occasional unguarded dream, but it was pitilessly observant and it saw the same thing as Esper, knew him well enough for their musings to run parallel. Even that grotesque bit of trivia isn’t among the most repulsive things that she could discover about what you’ve been up to. Now that you’ve smoothed the way with a shiny new toy, why don’t you let her know the truth? That you’ve been a sneaking little creeper on the stalk? No, you won’t do that because what you feel isn’t actually love, my love. If it were, you wouldn’t be so afraid. If it were, no truth would be a barrier. Do not delude yourself, mon beau. Do not get a mistaken idea.
Its words cut deep and might have cut deeper if Esper were not so keenly aware the extent to which the suit was motivated by jealousy. It wanted him all to itself.
“How about instead of falling into a useless quarrel, we continue to adhere to the plan? Neither of our feelings matters more than accomplishing our goal. You may hate her and what she means to me, yes, but I know what you hate and want even more than that. Let me keep my promise and deliver you your revenge.”
The suit’s answer was stone silence, which Esper found agreeable enough.
“Swann, my dear,” he said to the plucky aviatrix, simulating a warmth the suit’s sniping had bled out of him. “I think it’s time for Miss Lee’s inaugural ride.”
“Sure thing, boss. Let me just make the final preparations, then I’ll send the ramp down for your lordship and ladyship. Safety first, you know.” She turned and practically bounced back onto the airship, easily clearing the deadly gap between it and the dock. Lee brazenly ogled her ass as she went.
“Nice,” she said with a snicker. She lightly elbowed Esper in the ribs. “You been there?”
“And lived to tell the tale,” he smiled. Knowing her voyeuristic inclinations as he did, he reasoned this information would only titillate her. Borne up on a saucy wave of good humor, he did something impulsive. “She can also be a gift to you, if you like.”
Standing a respectful distance behind them, Rake and Hooks shifted uncomfortably.
“Well, I’d say that’s a matter between me and the girl in question, but I do appreciate the sentiment, mister.” She turned to the ship. “Besides, at the moment I’m more interested in getting inside this big bitch here.” Steam hissed from a nearby seam and a narrow metal ramp began to extend from the base of the entrance.
Esper turned to his men. “Back to your labors, boys. I want the last gaps in the wall repaired and the factory up and running in a fortnight. Don’t disappoint me.”
“Never,” Rake said, the slightest hint of terror in his voice.
“No sir,” Hooks echoed.
“By the way,” Esper said, taking a moment to consider the pair, “Rake’s suit is the prettiest today.” It was a game he liked to play with them, although sometimes he would go for weeks without mentioning it to them, keeping them on their toes. Now that he had rendered judgment, he had to explain his reasoning. Rake was beaming while Hooks was positively crestfallen, tugging at his jacket as if he wished to escape it. “I appreciate its elegance. It’s sophisticated without a whiff of condescension or pretention. It assumes a refinement and intelligence on the part of your audience that I find refreshing. Never talk down, never dress down.”
Rake gave a crude whoop of triumph.
“That’s right!” He slapped Hooks’ swollen bicep. “I told you, too much flash. You have to let the cut speak for itself.”
“I liked this pattern,” Hooks grumbled.
Rake thrust his pelvis in Hooks’ general direction. “Sophistication, little lady, so-phist-i-cation!”
Hooks threw his friend into a brawny headlock and the two of them staggered and struggled back and forth. Esper turned back to Lee. “They really are two of my best men.”
“I have no doubt,” she said, no sarcasm. “I’m actually surprised by what good company you keep.”
“That’s… almost insulting.”
“I just didn’t peg you for a people person.”
“Just because I see them as tools does not mean that I hold no value in their, er, personalities. I want the best resources available to me. The degree to which I enjoy their company is no small factor in my estimation of how much they’re worth to me.”
“You might just be the strangest person I’ve ever met, Esper.”
“Now that I’ll choose to take as a compliment.” He gestured at the ramp. “After you.”
As they made their way to the bridge, Esper took the opportunity to explain some of the craft’s technical specifications and better acquaint Lee with her new vessel. While it could hold up to three hundred people, a trained skeleton crew of twenty-five would be sufficient to keep it operational. With all of its balloon-nacelles operating at maximum capacity and its ballonets fully charged, it had a lifting capacity of twenty thousand tons. It had a large cargo hold, common quarters for the crew, several sets of officer cabins, an impressively well-stocked kitchen, a wireless telegraph station, a laboratory (equipped with a variety of alchemic and thaumaturgical apparatuses) for mixing her makeup, a machinist shop, an armory, a half-dozen highly advanced automatons that performed a variety of functions, a vault that would open only for Lee once she programmed its combination, an upside-down crow’s nest that could extend down from the ship’s belly, a powerful antistatic generator that protected it from the dust that otherwise might prove fatal to its engines, a recreation room with a host of games and amusements, and a personal liquor cabinet for Lee in the captain’s office. Additionally, the vessel also had a full complement of weapons including six gatling guns, twelve smoothbore cannons (eight at the anterior, four at the posterior), as well as surface-to-surface and air-to-air missile launchers.
“What a deadly and well-appointed piece of engineering I have in my possession. What did you say about a kitchen?”
As they passed it, Esper ordered a plate of cinnamon beetles for the captain, much to Lee’s delight. She was munching on them industriously as they stepped onto the bridge.
There were nine crewmembers bustling about the control-center, calling out readings, coordinating around their stations. Swann was at the helm and made a point of showing Lee each of the controls as she slowly piloted them out of the dock and into the storm. Whenever Swann would explain the function of a switch or lever, Lee would use the opportunity to place a lingering touch on her hand or back. Esper was amused and, oddly, proud of how fast she was able to insinuate herself. She was a unique creature and it was good and right for him to prize her above all others.
“You ought to name ‘er now that she’s yours,” Swann said to Lee, who had maneuvered her hand to the small of the aviatrix’s back.
“You’re absolutely right, May Bell.” Lee tossed another beetle in her mouth, chewing as she talked. “A proper ship like mine should have a proper name. You have anything in mind, seeing as it’s your baby too?”
“Well, I don’t know, something, well, something wild,” Swann said quickly, unable to keep from blushing. “And dangerous.”
Lee’s eyes shifted back and forth as if following text. Doubtless, Esper thought, she was revisiting the stories of ancient sea piracy that appealed to her renegade nature. After a few seconds, her lips peeled back in a tiny, victorious smile. “Alright, my first order as captain is to name the shit out this tub. Henceforth it shall be the Under Over. May the souls of the weak whisper it in fear and flee before its shadow.”
“Huzzah!” Swann called and the rest of the crew echoed the cheer.
Through the multi-paned, reinforced fiberglass windshield that took up the whole of the far wall and through the whorls of dust just beyond it, Esper could see the great mesa and the base of the city in the early morning sunlight as the newly-christened ship glided away from it. The walls of the lowest tier were expertly patched and as dust-tight as Bastion’s upper reaches; not long ago, they’d been so rife with wear and rust that they might as well have barely been there at all.
“Now, my delicious little hearties, it’s time for my second order.” Lee widened her stance and put her hands on her hips in a posture of militant authority. “Take us up. Up as far as we can go without attracting unwanted attention.” She had rightly judged the need to continue keeping the airship’s existence a secret from Bastion’s authorities. There was such elation on her face, Esper sighed inwardly, knowing that what would come next would be difficult. “I want to make this sky all mine. Up and away!”
“No,” Esper countermanded her, his voice soft but clear.
“I thought I was the damn captain.” Anger began to pull the corner of one of her eyes into a twitch. Esper had expected this reaction.
“I’m afraid I’ve conned you, darling,” he said. “Just a little bit. While the ship is your property now, the crew currently running it are mine.” He turned to address Swann. “Charge the antistatic field to maximum and take us down into the storm.”
Swann gulped, took a moment to ponder reason and mortality, then:
“If those are your orders… okay, whatever you say goes,” she looked to the crew, dumbstruck and motionless at their stations. “Okay, boys and girls, you heard the king.” She shifted the controls, relayed signals of intent to the rest of the crew in the engine room, and spun the wheel. The vessel leveled onto a declining trajectory, its nose angling directly into the storm.
“You’re taking us down?” Lee called, almost shouting, disbelief in her voice.
“I told you about what happened to me when I first put the suit on,” Esper said, his voice flat, uninflected. “How I fell and fell through the layers of the city. But I didn’t stop there. I went all the way down into the dust, all the way to the bottom. Down among the colossi, among the gods of madness and carnage we’ve been taught all our lives to fear. I want to show you what I saw there.”
“We can’t all turn into impervious fucking smoke!” Lee cried at him. “They’ll smash this death-trap apart.” Esper was able to perceive now, beyond a doubt, what Lee feared the most, even more than death or insanity: being trapped, taken against her will, being helpless. This airship, offered to her as an instrument of liberation, had instantly become a prison. Her instinct to escape at any cost gripped her whole body, imbuing it with feral, desperate energy. “They’ll drive us out of our minds. I’ve been to the asylum. I’ve seen what happens to the fucks who get a clear look at the things down there. We’ll have our brain-boxes emptied out or worse before they fucking eat us!”
“What’s a madwoman like you have to fear from the very angels of madness?”
The Under Over had begun its descent in earnest. Dust and wind engulfed them, obliterating all visibility beyond the cabin, plunging the bridge into deep shadows dimly illuminated by the phosphorescent bulbs along the walls. Lee was furiously calculating, the speed and desperation of her thoughts playing out on her face. Esper was not surprised when she raised her right hand towards Swann, all of the previous flirtation and affection evaporating in an instant, clearly intending to press her poison-enameled fingernails against the aviatrix’s throat and demand that they reverse course under pain of death. With the slightest thought, Esper brought forth a threndril from the hem of his sleeve and, faster than the human eye could perceive, whipped it in a coil that caught around Lee’s wrist. Using her free hand she chucked the now-empty beetle tray at his head like a throwing disc but he sidestepped it with a dancer’s grace. He jerked her arm up, forcing her back and off-balance so she had to hop on one leg to steady herself, her tethered hand flapping wildly over her head so that she looked like an overexcited schoolchild.
“You. Fucking. Bastard.”
“If I let you go, will you behave?”
“If I’m about to die, my final act will be to rip the tiny, bloodless heart of your chest, Esper, I swear it!”
“So that’s a ‘no’.”
Her mood was not being helped by the choppiness of their descent. The ship rocked and shook. It was a design flaw in balloon-based aircraft: a high susceptibility to strong winds that Esper had managed to mitigate somewhat through the use of mystical and alchemical means but could never entirely avoid. The crew all looked terrified too, even the usually unflappable Swann was gripping the wheel with white knuckles and bulging eyes. They had not been warned about the impending dive but had been trained to follow his orders without question. Their fear and awe of him was immense, but this maiden voyage into the very heart of what every citizen of Bastion was trained from birth to dread the most was taxing even that reserve. “And I promise,” Esper said to the men and women manning the bridge, ignoring Lee for now, “that I will kill anyone who attempts to reverse course.” He turned to the navigational officer, “Tibbet, sonar sweep. Now.” The man looked ready to shit himself but he gave Esper the read-out. They were approximately seven hundred fathoms from bedrock, nearly there.
The ship’s buckling had reached a fever pitch; men were vomiting, some even screaming. While the suit’s threads had anchored Esper to the spot and Lee (for all her fear) retained excellent balance, those not belted into their station were pitching into the walls and into one another. Then, suddenly, it all stopped at once. They had passed beneath the storm, into the narrow band of calm between the bedrock and the maelstrom. Esper remembered it from his first descent into the abyss, the darkness and silence, the furious vortex overhead, the earth below as barren, pale, and still as the surface of the moon. Esper walked to the control panel and activated the high-powered spotlights he had built beneath the ship’s masthead.
“Look down,” Esper commanded. “Look and see the monsters that we cower from in our shelters while the Hero of the Day protects us.” He withdrew the threndril from around Lee’s wrist. She stood rooted to the spot, clearly torn between her impulse to do him grave bodily harm and the dawning awareness that Esper had not brought them here to be horribly killed, something she must have suspected on some level from the moment he had given the order, clever monster that she was. He maneuvered the spotlights for maximum sweep, slowly and deliberately illuminating what lay below.
Beneath them was a surreal landscape that would take their minds some time to adequately perceive and countenance. There was no motion, however, no monstrous jaws opening to enclose them, no great claws raised to smash them like insects. Great landforms, jagged and white, rose up mountainous in all directions. Bizarre spires and half-toppled monoliths stuck out at peculiar angles. Yet for all the strangeness of these structures, there was something distinctly recognizable about them, albeit on a scale that had no prior reference. Lee’s voice was the first to break the stunned silence that hung over the bridge.
“Are those… bones?”
“Yes,” Esper said. “This is what I found when I fell here seven years ago. Not a den of malignant horrors but a vast graveyard.”
The enormous skeletons were sprawled in every direction. Some resembled gigantic animals, birds and bats and lizards the size of an entire tier. Others were more humanoid. Ribcages thrust up like buildings, limbs that stretched over kilometers, spines curled like rolling hills of vertebrae. There were hundreds of these enormous remains scattered across the bedrock, piled atop one another among the impact craters where they had fallen. Their sizes were not uniform, but were all of varying magnitudes of immensity.
“T-t-these, these are the colossi?” Swann asked. She had thrown a hand over her face but peeked out of the gaps between her fingers.
“What’s left of them,” Esper said. “All are long dead. Hundreds of years dead.”
He told them the story of wandering this scene of desolation as a specter, or a version of it that omitted certain details. The suit was familiar with the monsters that had once been these remains, though it was not of them. It had known them when they were still animate and at full power, though its own origin was different than the numb void outside of reality that had been the breeding ground for these horrors. It told him something of their names, which were legion, and their natures:
Yan-gant-y-tan, the night wanderer; Itzpapalotl the clawed butterfly; ten-headed Ravana; yellow-eyed Hidimba the man-eater; Vucub Caquix, the demon macaw; mule-legged Onoskelis; Tlaltechutli of the burning tree; the false god Ahriman; Melchiresa, the cursed; Jormungand world-swallower; Dagwanoenyent of the whirlwind; Ereshkigal, queen of the dead; Ashmadia of wrath; Bune, the dragon of corruption.
These introductions were hardly necessary, though. While their physical forms had perished, the colossi did not die in the conventional manner of earthly creatures. Echoes of their wicked spirits and hateful wills haunted their remains. They whispered in Esper’s mind, a sound that he still sometimes heard in his nightmares.
Towering over all of the fallen colossi, with the mountainous skeleton of a city-sized man—the circumference of the skull alone was easily equal to Bastion’s own—was Aka Manah, the greatest and most terrible of them, who had been a god-king among their kind. While it lived its very thoughts had birthed countless monstrosities and in death its voice was loudest, thrumming in Esper’s ears.
“If we stay here long enough, Aka Manah will be the first you begin to hear,” Esper said to Lee and the crew. “Don’t be afraid of them. They’re psychic gnats. They only get in as deep as you let them.”
He himself had spent weeks in their company at the suit’s mysterious insistence. He did not sleep or eat for he had no body to demand either, but his consciousness within the mist did grow weary and occasionally lapse into dormancy, a state in which he would be flooded by hallucinations of atrocities, torture, and mass death. Not permitted a single moment of genuine rest, he had tried to will himself back to solidity, but the suit had not allowed it. Their partnership had been far more one-sided back then (though he did not relate this fact to his listeners, concealing just how much of a will of its own the suit possessed) and it would take years for Esper to master the neural connections that bonded them sufficiently enough to assert his own control.
A helpless phantom, Esper could only listen to the vile whispers of the dead colossi and slowly piece together their story. While they had always been able to exert some level of toxic influence over the material world even from their native void, had been worshipped as gods or demons by the tribes of man throughout history, they had never previously been able to cross over into it. That is, until a millennium ago, when the veil between their realm and this one was pierced somehow, though not even they could say how. They came forth, driven by their appetites for destruction and suffering, blighting the land, laying waste to humanity. When Bastion arose from the dust, they converged upon it, intent on annihilating the refuge.
The city, however, had a protector, a being of light and power, who drove them back into the wasteland whenever they attempted to emerge. While their generalized hatred for all life was their defining feature, the remnants of their malign intelligences reserved supreme antipathy for this one, specific being. For it was the Hero of the Day who had followed them down into the dust and, one by one, slain each of them with his purifying fire. They were unified in their desire for revenge, a common cause that the suit had recognized.
“You say that the Hero killed them all centuries ago,” Lee said. “Then what happens when the sirens go off and we evacuate into the shelters? We feel the city shake. We find people driven out of their minds.”
Esper had asked the same question and the suit had told him to be patient. Finally, as Esper began to fear he would lose his mind permanently if he stayed down among those dead, undying monsters any longer, it answered him. He began to float up, weightless, out of the darkness and into the storm. When he beheld Bastion again, he saw what the suit had been waiting for. The alarums were reverberating throughout the city. The evacuation order had been given. An “attack” was underway.
“Once I had gained enough control over my new powers to return to the city, I saw him, I saw what no citizen of Bastion is meant to see. He was flying around the city, striking and shaking the walls himself. His expression was just blank. This was all routine for him, he’s been doing it for so long.”
That was not the only discovery Esper had made that day. Once the Hero had put on a sufficient show, he flew down to the lower tiers and re-entered the city.
“I realized then that he’d conned us all. Generation after generation. No matter how smart or learned or canny, each of us had accepted the lie presented to us: ‘this is how it’s always been’. I was outraged, although I’ll admit it was mostly because I didn’t like that he’d managed to fool me. I had to know why he’d done it. So I followed him.”
Invisible, Esper had pursued the shining form of the Hero into the streets of Happytown. While his face had been a blank while he was shaking the city, it was creased with concentration now and he sniffed the air. It barely took him any time at all to find what he was looking for. There was a child in the streets, an urchin pickpocket with a livid scar across one of his hands. He had been trying to take advantage of the evacuation in order to pillage the unattended businesses of the vice district. He was stuffing a satchel full of loot when the Hero came upon him.
“Shouldn’t you be in a shelter, little one?” he called. He seemed genuinely concerned.
“Maybe I should, except you’re here now so I’ll be fine. Just trying to scrounge a bit of this and that. Hungry little brothers and sisters and pets, eh? You understand, mister Hero sir.”
The demigod put a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder. Then his face darkened, twisted inhuman. The boy fought to free himself but he might as well have been striking stone.
“It’s important for you to understand, son,” the Hero mumbled, “that I am very, very sorry.”
He lifted the child into the air so they were face to face. A pair of flames ignited in front of the Hero’s eyes, hovering centimeters away from his pupils. They cast a glow on the urchin’s face. He screamed and writhed, the reflection of the flames growing brighter and brighter in his eyes. Then, all at once, he went limp, smoke boiling out of his nose and mouth.
“That was when the Hero began to feed. In a perverse way, everything I was seeing made a kind of sense to me. I had the impression that he was making a meal of the kid’s mind, somehow, but I was not prepared at all for how literal that turned out to be. He put his fingers up the kid’s blackened nostrils, then into his ears, and scraped out the, I suppose you’d call it the coke, what was left over after he’d burnt the thought and memory out of the kid’s skull. He stirred them around in there until this sooty powder was thick all over his fingers. Then the founder of our civilization started shooting it up his own nose in great, greedy snorts. After that, he licked what was left off his fingers like a fiend refusing to let a single particle of his fix go to waste. The kid didn’t die either. Not his body anyway. He was inanimate except for a few little kicks, his face glazed over, no one home. A future inmate for the asylum. A victim of colossi madness.”
“Oh damn,” Swann said. “That’s fucking horrible.”
“As you say, ace. After that, he dropped that kid on the street like garbage and flew off.” Esper remembered how incongruously yet profoundly unnerving it had been to see the Hero litter. “It had all been too much for me. My consciousness fell inward on itself for even though I did not have a solid body, my spirit needed rest. It was the first dream I’d had in weeks without blood or horror.” Esper decided to end his story there, not wanting to discuss what had happened to him next.
“But why does he do it?” Swann asked. “Is that how he lives forever? Or where he gets his powers from?”
“No, I don’t think so. What I believe is that he’s going out of his mind. I should have seen it sooner when I spent all that time in his hokey sunlight fortress, he would make odd remarks about how difficult it was for him to keep track of his memories, how it was unusual for him to recall specific humans, but I just assumed that the absent-mindedness was a part of his nature and his rambling was just so boring I didn’t think about it as carefully as I should have. But then, right after he was done with the kid, I saw this look of clarity shine in his eye, a look I’ve only otherwise seen in visions of him in the suit’s ancient memories, visions of what he was all those years ago before the age of dust. The Hero’s body might still have the power of a god, but his top story’s showing its age. I think that snorting rails of immolated human intelligence is his medicine, how he keeps himself together.”
“And the Sanhedrin must be helping him do it. The only way he could have gotten away with his shameful little habit for so long is if at least some of them have been in on it, doing their part to help him stage the attacks, silencing any witnesses, setting up a nice little sanitarium to house his victims. They’re trading the lives of a few citizens to sate his appetites in exchange for the city’s survival… or in exchange for the order that keeps them in charge; it explains why power is kept so tightly in the hands of a few specific bloodlines. The ruling families must pass down the secret. I’m sure that’s how my own education was meant to conclude, once he’d finished indoctrinating me, with him pulling back the curtain on the whole execrable show.” Esper was nearly done making his pitch. “Have you formulated an opinion about any of this, Lee?”
“No way not to,” she said. She’d spent most of Esper’s narrative leaning against the far wall, eyes closed, arms crossed. As she spoke she rocked forward and approached him. “My formulation?” She punched him in the shoulder, hard. “If that wasn’t clear enough for you to savvy, my opinion is that you are an unmitigated asshole!”
Esper was surprised, not that she was angry with him, but that she’d been fast enough to strike him and strong enough for it to fucking hurt. She had some secrets from him still, it seemed. He would have to gauge the limit of what she was capable of, although there were more pressing concerns at the moment. The lady still had a quarrelsome gleam in her eye.
“Yeah, Esper, all this shit is really monumental and revelatory. And you flew me to a field of giant, evil bones, which might have been enough to make this the best first date I’ve ever been on, except that there was no reason, none at all, that you had to tell me this in the way that you did. Feign giving me a lovely gift and then scare me out of my fucking wits when you already knew what was down here. Boy, what the hell?”
“For starters, it wasn’t a feign. The ship’s still yours, really this time. The crew too, however you deign to use them.”
“Well now I barely want it!”
“How about you try explaining your bastard self.”
“The lie has to die firsthand. You had to feel what I felt when it happened to me, to know what it’s like to be so utterly hoodwinked.”
“You wanted to get me mad?”
“So I’d help you kill the Hero of the Day?”
“Because I believe there’s not many things in this forsaken place deadlier than your anger, Lee. Besides, we’re the only ones clever enough. The two of us need to come up with a plan.”
“What, you don’t have one already? Seems like you’ve had one in mind every step of the way and I’m not sure if you’re brave enough to go off-script.”
“My plan was to bring you to this point and convince you to help me think of the rest.”
I am beautiful and I am terrible, mine darkling love, and I cannot believe that you are making me party to this folly.
“What did I ever do to deserve you?”
So many things. Principally, you look so damn good on me.
There was a pause in which no one—not men, garments, or the spirits of eldritch horrors beneath them—voiced their thoughts. Lee clicked a nail against her teeth.
“How much would you say that really big skull down there weighs?”
“Are we still partners?”
“I’ll tell you what, darling. You killed my hero for me. Seems like a balance that I kill yours for you.”
Together, standing on the bridge of the Under Over, overlooking that titanic ossuary, Lee and Esper plotted their first joint caper. The very one that would inaugurate the year of darkness.
Her dances with Esper had become increasingly dangerous to the point where they where they unmistakably resembled to hand-to-hand combat. His foot would lash out, landing where Lee’s had just been, shattering the marble floor in a plume of debris. He would whirl around her and she would duck underneath the swing of his arms, knowing that if they connected the impact would like as not spin her head off. He would lead them recklessly on and off the dance floor, spinning through the rapidly fleeing crowd. He would swat a table into the air between them when it got in their way, smash it into toothpicks, two-step through the cloud of splinters like it wasn’t even there, and twirl her into a languorous, back-arching dip. They would boogie the palace into a state of ruin night after night, faster than the carpenters and masons could repair it, Esper clearly not minding how much business their terrifying recreation was costing the club.
Lee would be lying if she said the danger and physical contact—fluidly, unpredictably vacillating between cooperation and conflict—didn’t get her heart going, but these dances were as close as she let him get. She enjoyed them enough that it was worth the effort she had to put into night-after-night coordinating the correct combinations of make-up, jewelry, and color-schemes that enabled her to survive them. The dances offered a simplicity that was missing from every other aspect of her relationship with her strange, new partner.
There were times when his motives seemed so clear, writ plain across his pale, wolfish face. He wanted to take the city and Lee as his own. He had said at the outset that she would be his queen, hadn’t he? Was that as close as a man like Esper got to a marriage proposal? A man like him, as if she had ever met another creature to whom he could adequately be compared. He defied easy categorization and she often found herself gripped by an intuition that he was playing a deeper game than he let on. Perhaps his initial proposal had been a front, a means of hiding his true intent, whatever that was.
He loved to look at her; there was no doubt about that. Feeling his gaze on her put Lee off her feed for reasons she couldn’t rightly name; something about the way he seemed, for all the adoration his regard plainly held, to be studying her. She didn’t even know if it was right to call it lust, although it was hard to say that wasn’t a part of it. If he wanted to make her his plaything, he was going about it in an awfully genteel and courtly fashion. He hadn’t so much as tried to kiss her, although he would sometimes bring his face within centimeters of hers during dance or conversation, his dark eyes shining with the intensity of whatever was going on behind them. In these moments it seemed as if he would make the attempt—and if he did, Lee had no idea how she would react—but he always begged off or diverted the mood. She was unused to this much uncertainty housed in a single personage and deeply discomfited by whatever feelings he seemed intent on conjuring in her. Arm’s length, she had decided, was the best distance at which to keep him for now, at least when they weren’t dancing.
They would never see each other during the day. That was when they went about their separate business, each doing their own part in service of the plan they had conceived. Her work consisted of manipulating the leaders of the various guilds, the alderman who presided over the quotidian workings of their respective tiers. Twisting the petty politicians and bureaucrats who oversaw the infrastructure of the city to her will was second nature to Lee. She had started doing it not long after getting her first period and had almost perfected the art during Chatham’s tenure as primate. Now she had even more leverage with which to get their way. She persuaded where she could, capitalizing on how fed up the people were with the Sanhedrin’s remote and brutal reign, employing her make-up and natural skill as a persuader to win their allegiances. If these efforts failed to produce results, she used blackmail and threats. As a final option, when the local bigwigs proved intractable, she made in-roads with their more malleable lieutenants while dispatching some of Esper’s thugs to carry out vicious public assassinations. The end result was the same: the local administrations of Bastion’s various tiers transferred their loyalty from the Sanhedrin to the Wraith. The city’s government, confined to tier one, became like the head of a paralyzed man, cut off and unable to signal its will to the rest of its body.
She was also responsible for recruiting the talent necessary for the endeavor to succeed. Identifying and drafting citizens whose skills would make them assets to the undertaking allowed Lee to indulge in her love of strangers, and she had always been especially fond of the ones who possessed rarified knowledge and experience. The plan required a variety of scientists, alchemists, machinists, engineers, and thaumaturgical specialists. More often than not, the sell was easy since she could honestly offer them the opportunity for access to superior resources and lines of research forbidden to them in their present stations. Once they agreed, she would arrange for them and, when it seemed essential, their families to be spirited to the operation in Gehenna while she crafted a false-eyelash persona to take their place. Loathe as she was to share her makeup, there were too many recruits and she had too much else on her plate to personally assume all these different identities, so she put together a small team of actors (a rare trade in the city, but she still had her connections to the Carnival of Diversions to draw on) and gave them each a dozen false-lashes. Every week they would make the circuit up and down the tiers, convincing any concerned parties that the recruits were still attending their daily schedules, showing up at their jobs, being seen in public. Thus no word of their disappearances got back to Bastion’s authorities. It was a fun game, rarely requiring Lee to intimidate or strong-arm, and as a bonus she got to meet some of the best minds of her time.
Not all her duties were as pleasant. She was particularly irked by her responsibilities as a propagandist and disseminator of panic. It wasn’t difficult to make people even more afraid of the Wraith than they already were; she mostly just had to tell the truth about what Esper was capable of. He could be in any room at any time and you wouldn’t even know. No conversation was necessarily private; no conspiracy was safe from prying ears. His preferred method of execution was to pull his victim’s bones from their bodies one at a time, a process that could take seconds or hours or, hell, even days if he felt like it. The rumors multiplied like vipers and soon even Kusik was scared enough to come into the fold, his assets and crew immediately put to work in service of the plan. Lee felt like a nursery maid, telling tales to frighten children into good behavior. The difficult part was feeling herself subordinated, that—for all their talk of a partnership—she was essentially acting as Esper’s spokesperson, his damn employee. She reminded herself of the big picture, that the Hero of the Day had to die, that the Sanhedrin had to fall, that her efforts were an essential part of that, but rebellion was too much a part of her nature.
Rather than jeopardizing their larger scheme, she found herself taking out her frustrations on her burgeoning personal relationship with Esper. She decided she had been too free with her darlings and misters. It had been sufficient to get him on the hook, Lee told herself, eliding from her memory that the terms of endearment had not been calculated, that it was the natural state of her speech when in his company. Now she was acutely conscious that it was the language of friendship and affection; using it would only lead to him presuming too much, to thinking there was more going on between them than there was or ever would be. She elected to take a different tact.
“There’s an alchemist on tier thirty-six I think you should take a run at. Name of Zosimos Arkady,” Esper said to her as he hunched over a set of record scrolls Lee had filched from the guild archives. “Brilliant fellow, by all accounts. He’d be a tremendous asset for our material acquisition program.”
“Alright,” she replied flatly. “Whatever you say, man.”
He did not look up from his studies but his suit shifted from a festive emerald with floral patterning into severe, dense pinstripes.
She peppered their dialogues with similarly terse statements designed to convey her indifference. She met any warmth, flirtation, or inquiries into her personal life with cold, monosyllabic disengagement. It was important to her to convey that she didn’t care about him. Esper’s reaction to this approach alternated from meeting her detachment with his own cold silence to pressing her even further for emotional involvement. He would go days barely saying more than a handful of words to her, then she would show up at the palace to report her progress and find herself presented with enormous bouquets of wildflowers, rare books, and lines of poetry Esper had hand-transcribed in his flowing, calligraphic script. She kept the books but ditched the wildflowers and poetry—Lee had very little use for romantic poetry, at least when she was the target of the romance, and somehow saw even less value in sentiments about one soul recognizing its shadow or whatever the fuck when it was set to meter.
“I thought you might appreciate some aesthetic delights and beautiful words. Did you like them?” he would ask her, eager as a puppy.
“Sure. Pretty,” she’d reply, avoiding eye contact and getting straight to business. By withholding herself she seemed to be throwing fuel onto the fire of his need for her, which made her wonder just what she was trying to accomplish, but she had set to this course with all of her considerable stubbornness and wouldn’t be dissuaded. She reminded herself of all the reasons she had to be wary of this man. He was a manipulative, controlling narcissist and she was wild as the damn wind. He might talk a good game about freedom and chaos and wanting her to be just what she was but Lee believed he would still expect her to submit beneath his yoke, would probably force her if it came to cases, and she would have none of that. He was also a liar, freely mixing truth and falsehood whenever it suited his purpose, which wouldn’t have bothered her as much—she herself being a talented and prodigious deceiver—except that certain incongruities between what he did and what he said gave her pause.
That suit of his gave him power but it also clearly had a will of its own—the way he would seem to drift off into conversations only he could hear, how his expression would suddenly shift into displeasure or consideration even in the absence of external cause; all clear indicators to Lee that there was more to his relationship with his clothing than he let on. He also had a disturbing amount of knowledge about her life and history; that had been obvious from the moment he had begun undermining her false identities. He claimed to have witnessed some of her high jinks when he had been trapped in the role of ghostly spectator and when he had decided to make an ally of her he had done the due diligence, but he seemed aware of details too intimate to have been brought to him by word of mouth. He must have been spying on her at some point and she had no guarantee he had even stopped. There was also something about their shared past, of the events of seven years ago when Esper had faked his own death, that sent a ripple of profound dread through Lee’s unconscious, although she refused to actively consider it. She didn’t want to think about that time in her life and so she didn’t.
“Will you stay for a dance tonight?” Esper asked her once they had both filled one another in on their respective doings.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Lee said. “I’m busy tonight. Flying lessons.”
“Those are very important,” Esper said, something flat in his voice. His suit lightened into a dull beige. “Don’t1 let me keep you.”
“I’ll have a drink before I go. Momma goes too long without her liquor and she gets testy, then sweaty, then shaky.”
She moved to the bar and maneuvered herself into a seat that was occupied on either side so that he could not sit next to her, a petty move but Lee was in a petty mood. To her left was Abiah Hooks. It was unusual to see him at the palace and without his partner. He must have his own reports to make to Esper. She liked Abiah, he had swagger but it did not define him—he had a way of seeing things most people overlooked, a skill Lee appreciated. She even considered flirting with him except that she had a notion that Esper would simply murder him in response—another offense that sharpened her barbs against him, even if it only presently existed in her imagination.
“Sweet Abiah, how’s tricks?”
Hooks looked up from his drink, surprised to hear his given name. He smiled at her, a smile that creased his face and reached his eyes, and gave a respectful nod.
“Miss Garnet, ma’am.” He raised his glass to her. “Just stopping in for a few words with the king. Thought I might wet my whistle while I waited. For some reason, whenever you’re around, the rest of us might as well not exist.” There was an insinuation is his tone that she didn’t care for. He meant well but it upset her to think that their underlings seemed to fancy that Esper and her had coupled. Esper was probably encouraging them to think that way, make himself seem like a big man in front of his boys, the Crime King who’d landed a deadly queen of his own.
“Did you know,” she asked, changing the subject, “that there’s a delectable bit of strange at the end of the bar whose eyes are roving all up and down those copious muscles of yours.” Lee discreetly indicated the young beauty in the magenta flapper dress. Abiah peeped her from the corner of his eye, then self-consciously looked down at his own thick arms.
“You think I should go over, maybe talk to her?”
“You afraid that Rake’ll be jealous? Look, if you don’t make a move, I will,” Lee said, raising a finger to indicate to the bartender that she had an urgent, possibly medical need for some gin.
“What should I say to her?”
“How about ‘I don’t usually do this but I noticed you from across the room and I knew that if I didn’t talk to you, I’d regret it’? Then be glib for a little and let the chemistry do the real talking. That sort of thing is what gets those young cunnies nigh-on moist.”
“Or you could just pay her,” Esper said. He was standing on the other side of the bar, a glass of gin in his hand extending in Lee’s direction. Lee suppressed the urge to growl at the misty man who managed to be all around her. “She’s a cocotte who works for the club, a new hire. Have a tumble on the house, Hooks, once you’ve finished your business here. Wait for me in my office and I’ll be with you presently.” He slid the gin to Lee. She glanced at Abiah’s disconsolate face as he got up to excuse himself and then she slammed back her drink and took the whole thing in one swallow. Had Esper just castrated the man because she had been paying attention to him? Or had he just been behaving in the same insensitive, dismissive manner he often did with his subordinates? Either way, it was irritating.
“Well, I’m off,” Lee said.
“Shall I have your gifts wrapped up for travel?”
“Don’t have room. Hang onto ‘em.”
“Mayhap I’ll sweat and shake until you return.”
Lee’s eyes narrowed. She stuck a finger at her open mouth, made a retching sound, and set to leave. She glimpsed his suit shift to a hateful shade of lime patterned with jagged, crimson herringbone as she turned her back to him. She knew it wasn’t her meanness that offended him (he actually seemed to enjoy it when she was mean) but that she hadn’t bothered to tell him off more artfully. The childishness of her rejection had stripped him like bark off a dead tree, exposing the rot beneath. Good. Hurt feelings were good. Maybe now he’d back off a bit. Besides, she had other things to do that evening.
As she made her way to her next appointment, she tried unsuccessfully to keep thoughts of Esper from rattling around her skull. She had to prepare for what would happen after their little scheme was accomplished (if it even succeeded, which was no guarantee), for the possibility that she might have to break with him afterward for the sake of her own freedom. He was a useful ally but he had all the makings of a deadly enemy and there was no predicting what might happen if she broke his heart. If she had to take him down, it would mean beating him at his own game. The things he knew about her gave him an advantage on her that she could not continue to allow. She had to understand him better, to see what faults she could exploit if she had to.
Lee knew that sex was often the clearest window into men’s weaknesses. There were so few other moments in life when the boundary between persona and fantasy is so porous, when the difference between what a person claims to want and what a person actually wants is most clear. In weeks past, before she had become so uneasy around him, the topic had come up occasionally over drinks in her late-night chats with Esper. He wasn’t as reserved as she would have expected him to be, although there was often a note of resignation in the way he talked about his past dealings with women, as if he had made some kind of compromise with himself. When it came to speaking of her own exploits, Lee found herself unusually demure. A curious sense of modesty had a way of stealing over her when she was in Esper’s presence, and she mostly stuck to insinuations, smirks, and half-fictions.
In these conversations, Esper subtly wove an implicit narrative that he clearly intended Lee to pick up on—either because he didn’t have the steel to come out and say it or because he estimated that she was quick enough to take his meaning—and the basic gist of it prickled the hair on Lee’s nape: he had fallen for her hard and fast from the moment he saw her and no one else would do. She found it vaguely comforting that at least he hadn’t gotten caught up with childish notions of sexual purity. When it came to concupiscent indulgences, Esper told her that he preferred madams to whores.
He had bedded down with some of the most notoriously glamorous and sharp-witted brothel owners in the city, always breaking off the affair when his organization inevitably absorbed and subordinated theirs. There was much you could tell about a man who preferred to win a woman rather than pay for her. For Esper, who seemed to see all human interactions as a set of manipulations, it would be a validation of his skill and cunning. Lee also considered that, on an even deeper level, it meant he liked feeling like he’d been chosen, that he was as desirous as he was desiring. It made her smile in spite of her sour mood. She had used that same trick herself when she’d been a pimp, had taught it to all her girls. Make them feel special, chosen. It was an excellent means of ensuring repeat business, to say nothing of the tips.
That neediness was as fatal a tear in his seam as she could savvy. As repellant as it made the man himself to her, she would have to explore it further. Now that Lee had provoked an estrangement between them, she would have to find other avenues of insight into how he could best be undone. Fortunately, she was able to make use of one that very evening.
Lee was very comfortable in the bed of her captain’s chamber aboard the Under Over. Her body was entwined with May Bell’s, the two of them exhausted and supine, their garments scattered across the floor. The sheets were crinkled around them like miniature mountain ranges. Lee had felt a genuine friendship beginning to develop between the aviatrix and herself and had wanted to fuck her before the emotional intimacy caused her to lose interest in the physical. After their flying lesson had concluded early (Lee barely needed the instruction anymore, having taken to it so naturally she could now teach others if she wanted), Lee had lured May Bell into her quarters. She had carefully removed the layers of poison varnish from her fingernails, put a few drops of antivenom on her tongue, and set to thoroughly turning out the tough little redhead.
May Bell was inexperienced when it came to being with other women, but she brought the same enthusiasm to it that she did to piloting and that made up for a lot. Even better, as a skilled engineer with an outsized libido, May Bell had a small arsenal of apparatuses, all her own design, that pulsed and vibrated and otherwise gyrated the two of them to ecstasy. Lee’s favorite was a tiny, unpresuming device that May Bell held against Lee’s clit while it emitted electric shocks of varying intensity. Lee adored the sensation it gave her, like a split-second jump right out of her skin.
“Didn’t know if ya’d care for this one,” May Bell said with a sheepish smile. “It can be a little intense.”
“More, more, more! I want it more!!”
Lee found she liked giving the aviatrix orders. It wasn’t typical for her to be so dominant with her playmates, but something about May Bell’s plucky demeanor practically begged for a bit of abuse, a little tickle and a lot of slap. They climaxed to the point of stupor and lay together afterward, mute and tangled. Some time later, Lee was roused from a feather-light sleep by a light pinch on her left nipple. Drowsily she kissed May Bell’s full lips, their tongues darting back and forth, before Lee pulled away.
“Ma’am,” May Bell said, “that has to be just about the most fun I’ve had in bed.”
“Just about?” Lee frowned, baiting the trap.
“Well…” she began to blush. “Some experiences can’t be compared…”
“What kinds of experiences are those?”
“Oh, I’m just a lucky gal.” She turned on her side and Lee took a moment to admire the tattoos that populated the skin on her back. Engines, gears, flames, and feathers. “Lucky and greedy. I got to give it up to both you and the king.” She giggled.
“Hm. What was that like?”
May Bell smiled at her.
“Like ya don’t already know.”
“I don’t know a thing about it, girl. He and I never even kissed.”
“Has he told you something?”
“No. No, ma’am. It’s just the way ya dance and carry on with each other, all clever and knowing-like. I just figured.”
“Well you figured wrong.”
“So what do ya wanna know for?”
“I’m just curious to hear what kind of lay rivals one of mine. You brought it up so you could tease, but I think it was really to tease yourself.”
“Oh, I can’t.”
Lee bit her where her shoulder met her neck, very careful not to break the skin. May Bell trembled in some combination of fear and pleasure.
“Now you have to,” Lee told her.
“He never takes off his clothes. He tugs down his trousers a little, just far enough so they don’t even bunch up. He, he likes to be in charge, but there’s something about the way he does it. Like he wants to take control by making me feel good. Making me feel so fucking good that I totally surrender.” Lee moved a hand down to May Bell’s inner thighs, feeling how damp they already were. “When he was kissing me down there, he started laughing like a maniac, like he was making fun of me for enjoying it, like he was, was teasing me for how wet it made me. When he’s a man he likes me to lay on my belly while he takes me from behind, and he likes to play with me, ah, like you’re doing now, mmm, while he d-d-does it.”
“When he’s a man?”
May Bell was fighting to speak, biting back her cries.
“Sssometimes he c-c-comes to me as smoke. Swirls all around me. A th-thousand e-e-electric kisses on my skin, like singing. Feels so, so good. I see things. I feel things. A bright, ah, a light, g-getting brighter and brighter, and h-he’s a sh-shadow holding me down, oh, while, oh my, the light fills me up, e-erases me, until I’m about to, oh my, oh my, ohhhhh!”
Lee collapsed against her, tasting the sheen of sweat on her back, withdrawing her fingers while the aviatrix shuddered and blinked, helpless as a newborn.
“This has been fun and informative,” Lee said.
“W-what?” May Bell said, her voice like it was coming from far away. “Did you say something, m’lady?”
“Naw, gorgeous. You just savor the afterglow. I’m gwine to close my eyes now. I’ll see you in the morning.”
When May Bell woke up, Lee was already dressed.
“This isn’t going to happen again for a while,” she said by way of explanation.
“Ya just gonna use, abuse, and lose, huh?”
“Don’t goddamn pout at me. And don’t take it personal. It’s just my make-up. I’ve been using a lot of it lately, trying to pull off this mad caper of ours. It makes my body an unsafe thing to touch or taste.” It was true but she likely would have claimed it even if it weren’t. “Last night I took precautions but any day now even they won’t be effective.”
“Shit. How bad does it get?”
“At my worst? Just a kiss would be enough to turn your blood to jelly.”
“That’s a damn steep price.”
“And it was my choice to pay it. Listen, I still want to see plenty of you, gorgeous. It’ll help keep my spirit bright in the dark days to come. But no more hanky-panky. For now.”
Lee ordered her, as captain now, to be off and see to the recruits. The sound of the door closing behind her made Lee smile. Sometimes one of her favorite parts was when they left, that sweet, freeing stab of abandonment. She had a busy day of her own ahead so she took a moment to luxuriate, stretching, cracking her joints. She reflected on what she’d learned, besides the sensual joys of electricity. If it came down to war between Esper and her, she had a weapon to wield against him. May Bell had said it herself. He believed with mortal certainty that the world could be his, that his power and intellect and ability to delight put him in control. If she wished to see him fall, all she needed to do would be to show him how little control anyone really has.
She wired the kitchen for coffee and fried duck eggs with runny yokes. As she ate and slurped down the delicious brew, she mentally reviewed the first five meetings she had on her schedule. She inventoried who had to be threatened, who had to be bribed, who got to live and who had to die.
She left the ship in May Bell’s command with instructions to take her down below the dust. There was a platoon of workers down in the calm who needed to be relieved and replaced. They labored in twelve-hour shifts, the maximum amount of time that Esper would allow them to be exposed to the malign whispers of the dead colossi. The workers often came up squabbling, on the verge of fistfights, or pale and trembling, and there was usually one who would just stare at people like he wanted to eat them alive. A long rest usually brought them back to themselves. There had only been two suicides so far.
As she traversed her way up the tiers, Lee noted the unusually large, dark wisps beginning to form above the city along with the pressure and dampness in the air. Heavy rain was an unpredictable rarity. While microbursts of localized precipitation were common and the city was studded with rain catchers to make use of them, sustained storms occurred no more than a handful of times and sometimes not even once a year. The electrostatically infused atmosphere around Bastion and lack of large, evaporating bodies of water presumably anywhere else in the world made such events nearly impossible to predict, which meant that the science of meteorology was accorded about as much respect as divination. Rainstorms were joyful events on the highest tiers, greeted with celebration and immodest frolicking, but they were hell for those that lived below. Once the rain catchers overflowed, the water would wash down through the tiers, purging accumulated dust, rust, and waste from every surface as it went. It sluiced over corroded struts, ruptured ill-maintained pipe-work, and swept the litter along the streets, so that the liquid grew progressively filthier as it descended. The fouled water made a mess of homes, ruined clothes, tainted food, killed plants, brought illness and starvation. Lee reminded herself to retrieve an umbrella from Hoi Polloi’s studio when one of the errands brought her close to it.
It didn’t rain that day, nor did she hear from Esper. No encrypted telegrams. No secret messages left at any of their drop-points around the city. No messengers with lavish gifts or rare liquors. The wisps above the city had coalesced into clouds. The next day it was the same, no contact and the thunderheads grew darker and more expectant. Esper was backing off, just like she had wanted, although the success wasn’t as satisfying as she thought it would be. After the third day without word from him, she began to get seriously irked, on a purely professional level, of course. How could they properly commit the greatest crime in the history of Bastion if they didn’t coordinate with one another? There was no need to sulk or punish her or whatever he thought this silence was accomplishing. The tense atmosphere brought on by the massive, pregnant clouds did nothing to calm her. High winds kept people indoors, their windows shut tight, huddling in their crowded apartments, battening down for the deluge. Those who did venture out were frantically gathering supplies. Lee decided to take the palace by storm that night and to bring her umbrella with her.
She came in, dressed to the nines in one of her more potent get-ups: a black and white chevron dress that flattered her figure, severe lines drawn along her eyes and the ridge of her nose that gave her face a hawk-like quality, and an ornate ring on each finger. She was equally prepared for a party or a brawl.
The crowd at the club was even larger than usual, not just the standard hooligans and petty crooks but newcomers from nearby tiers uncomfortably packing themselves in to avoid being outside when the rain inevitably broke, partying away the tension pressing its crushing weight down on the city. Esper’s presence stood out in any crowd and she quickly spotted him, his suit having assumed a subtly radiant hue of gold. He was standing at the bar with his back to her, chatting up one of his madam employees, Ivah Salke, the silk lady. Lee knew her in passing from her own days as a profiteer in the flesh trade, although Salome Skull never had much cause to see her as a rival. The silk lady ran high-class girls (whom she fancifully dubbed ‘her courtesans’) to high-tier citizens of considerable influence, then doubled her profits by selling their secrets to Esper. The girls were educated, knew music and poetry and the art of conversation, and were all of course stunningly beautiful. Ivah was a looker herself, a foot taller than Lee, with unusually light skin, dark curls, and full possession of a surprisingly ample ass for a woman of her slender frame.
Lee moved up behind Esper and snatched his drink off the bar. After a long sip of the finest smoked whiskey in the city, Lee threw an arm over Esper’s shoulder as she came up beside him.
“Darling, I ought to have known I’d find you in the presence of true beauty.”
“Doubly so now, it would seem.”
If he was uncomfortable in any way with her arrival, he did not show it. The pair of them made amiable conversation with the silk lady. Esper and Lee assumed one side of the conversation, leaving her on the other. They responded to her in tandem, built off one another’s comments, followed up one another’s questions, to the point where Ivah must have felt she was addressing one being with two heads. Eventually the madam excused herself; she had business to attend to, dispatching her girls to sooth the jangled nerves of the city’s elite. She winked suggestively at Esper before making her exit.
“Lovely woman,” Lee said. “Does she play you the lyre after she’s finished blowing you?” Esper laughed.
“The mandolin, actually. She’s quite accomplished. Although I try to avoid such dalliances after the ladies become my employees, no matter how abundant their talents, as a matter of policy.”
Lee suspected he had recently made an exception for the silk lady, although she had no reason to care, only absently noting that the more exceptions you made to a policy, the less of a policy it became.
“And what’s your line on dancing with them, boss man?”
“My father would say, ‘A man of station doesn’t dance with his employees.’ In this one regard, I have to agree with him. Dancing’s for partners.” He extended his hand. She took it, having completely forgotten that she’d come here on business and in a rage.
After nearly a week free of peril, the partygoers had cautiously returned to the dance floor, where they hopped and jigged around the potholes and craters. Within minutes there were screams and several were nearly crushed in the stampede. It had become widely known that there were few forces within the walls of Bastion more destructive than when Lee and Esper danced together.
The evening was going swimmingly, neither of them making or seeming to feel the slightest trace of recrimination. If anything, he was swinging her around with more comfortable abandon than he had before, trusting her to look out for herself, his moves free of hostility but no less dangerous. She was having the most marvelous fun until, without warning, a wave of nausea swept over her and she nearly doubled over. At first she thought it was all the liquor and spinning about but then a wave of painful spasms gripped her midsection. She knew this feeling, although she’d only experienced it a few of times previous. She stumbled off the dance floor, leaning on a table to support herself.
“What’s wrong?” Esper was beside her. He did not touch her but held his arms up in the air around her protectively.
“Too much poison… disrupts the system. So embarrassing. It’ll pass soon.”
“Can I get you anything? Purifying gin? Blasphemous water?”
“Just fresh air and space.”
“There’s a private alley through yon backdoor. You’ll find an ample supply of both there.” He offered her his arm and Lee batted it away like a sickly kitten. She attempted to stand, stumbled for the first time in years, and he caught her, held her by the arm until she steadied herself. “Let me just walk with you now,” he said gently. They made their halting way across the club as everyone cleared a path for them.
He held the door open for her but did not cross the threshold after her. “I’ll leave you to it. Just bang on the door if you require anything else.” It swung shut with a metallic clang and Lee was by herself in the alley. She rested her sweaty forehead against the door’s pleasantly cool steel for several minutes while she focused on taking slow, deep breathes. Then she heard a scratching noise behind her and whirled around to see Misty and Knife.
They both had their welding goggles down over their eyes, which made it hard to tell them apart when they were standing still. One was squatting close to the ground cradling a big stray cat, stroking it lovingly, and behind her the other one stood stock-still, her face coolly inscrutable as she stared at Lee. The sky above them that could be seen through domed struts of the judicial district was pitch-black.
“Found you,” said the one with the cat.
“Finally,” the other one said. “Took us days. Figured if we camped here by his digs for long enough, you’d turn up.”
Sometimes Lee went so long without talking with her sisters that it seemed as if she was hearing their voices for the first time.
“Well,” Lee threw up her arms. “Here I am.”
“Having a dance,” said the one with the cat.
“Having a fancy little time,” said the other one. “Twirling around with her fancy new man in his fancy club. Like in a story.”
“Remember how we used to make you read us stories, sis?”
“I remember how you gals used to be real chatter boxes,” Lee said. “We ended up having to make some rules about that.”
“We need to talk,” said the one with the cat.
“We need to talk,” the other one echoed and when she walked forward there was a hitch in her step: Knife. Misty set the cat down as she stood up next to her twin. The cat made as if it was going to leave but when it got to the end of the alley it turned and stared at the three of them so that the whole scene was reflected in its eyes.
“It’s about your new boy,” Knife said.
“He’s not my—”
“Your new boy, the Wraith,” Misty said. “We ain’t never cared who you spread ‘em for.”
“Ain’t never,” Knife said. “Too many to keep track of, anyway.”
“Look at you two slatterns,” Lee hissed. “Forgetting yourselves.”
“We ain’t forget nothin’,” Knife said, patting her maimed leg. “Not where we came from.”
“Not mom down in the dust an’ the mess you left her with.”
“Not dad, sawing his own self open to save your ass.”
“That he had to do it on account of you screwin’ up. You the one who forgets, sis. You forgot what matters cuz of some boy you were fuckin’ then. An’ you forgot what matters with this new boy you fuckin’ now.”
Lee stood straight up. Anger burnt through her blood, restoring her equilibrium. She flexed her hands, felt the weight of her rings.
“You have ten goddamn seconds to get to your point before I beat you both inside-out.”
“We wanna know,” Misty said, “if you remember that your new boy’s daddy killed ours.”
“Cuz we remember,” Knife said. “His hand that signed the order. Blood for blood.”
“And you traipsing around with him like you ain’t every bit a dust rat as us. You disgracin’ the family. You a Garnet, little sis, and you owe them high-tier cocksucks a debt.”
It wasn’t that Lee had forgotten, exactly. It just hadn’t occurred to her that it mattered. The families of her enemies had never been out of bounds before, but Esper was so apart from his father in her mind that she hadn’t even entertained thoughts of revenge.
“How the hell do you idiots know who the Wraith is?”
“Mumma told us,” Knife said. “Mumma sees right through your smoky man.”
“Mumma sees right through the both of you,” Misty said.
The cat yowled at the end of the alley, sprang upon a pile of trash, and came up with a rat in its teeth.
“You two have been spending too much time around the hag.” Lee checked herself, thought of her mother, and decided to give the twins a way out. “You don’t understand. Esper and me, we cooked up a plan that’s gwine to take ‘em all down. He wants his own pap against the wall with the rest just as much as we do. The two of us are set to make the city ours. You oughta get in on this with me. We’d tear it all down and never have to worry about getting locked in the tor or having anyone else tell our family how to live again.”
“So we take one Esper off the perch and put the other one on?” Misty asked.
“Then what? You marry him? Be queen of the city?” Knife asked. “Let him spray his fancy high-tier jizz in your fallow womb? He ain’t gonna squeeze any heirs out of you, sis, an’ that’s all his kind cares about.”
As if in response to Knife’s words, another spasm of cramps shot through her. Involuntarily she laid a hand over her belly.
“We stuck with you through a lot of shit,” Misty said. “Cuz you’re family an’ you took care of us.”
“Wasn’t that a mistake,” Lee said, as much to herself as to them.
“We’re done. Until you get your head on right and both Espers lay cold with their cocks lopped off, we ain’t want to know you, Lee.”
“You don’t know me, big sisters. You never have. I tried to show you all them years ago, but you didn’t see.” Lee kicked Knife, hard, grinding the tip of her high-heel into her bad knee. She fell, curling into a snarling, cursing ball. Lee spun at Misty to slap her in the face, lifting on her toes to reach. Misty caught her hand before it could connect.
“You dare?” Lee reached forward with her free hand, grabbed Misty’s goggles, and yanked them forward at an angle. “You think you get to say when we’re done?” She released her hold so the elastic snapped them back into Misty’s remaining eye and its neighboring socket. “You are mine, sisters.” Both hands available now for working mischief, Lee grabbed Misty by the great tangled mass of her hair and forced her head down so it connected with Lee’s knee on the upswing. Lee felt her kneecap crush against Misty’s nose, heard a pop, felt a hot squirt of blood. “And believe me when I say: I am never going to let you go!”
Lee pulled her sister up to look her in the eye. Misty spat a thick glob of blood right in her face. Lee ignored it. “Cuz there ain’t enough suffering in all the rest of forever to pay you back for what you done to me.”
There was an enormous crack of thunder directly overhead. The slow roar of a million raindrops descending through the metal latticework of the city.
The backdoor of the club swung open. Esper stepped out. He was holding a hand-rolled cigarette. He had her umbrella tucked under his arm.
“Am I interrupting?”
“Go away, Esper,” Lee said through clenched teeth. “This is a private conversation between my sisters and I.” She tossed Misty on the ground, then gave them both a kick.
“I’m afraid this is my club, Miss Lee, and I won’t have any violence here without my, eh, supervision.” Esper leaned forward and stuck the cigarette in his mouth. “Huh. Sisters. I never would have guessed. They don’t look very much like you.”
“They favor my father.”
“And you’re your mother’s child, through and through.” He held up his index finger and the tip became a tiny eddy of mist. It spun faster and faster, ginning itself into a miniature vortex. A spark crackled inside it. Esper used it to light his cigarette, then shook his hand back into solidity. “I had the most unaccountable craving for tobacco. Only happens when I have more than a dozen whiskies.”
“I told you to go, man.”
“I don’t like when you call me that. Woman. See, I don’t even like the taste of that.”
“I even prefer when you call me ‘boy’. Like ‘Boy, what the hell!?’” he laughed. “Then at least I know you’re angry with me.”
“I don’t want to talk with you right now. I don’t even want to see you.”
“Isn’t it really that you don’t want me to see you?”
Lee screamed. No words, just an adrenal howl. Water came down all around them in filthy torrents. Misty and Knife were quivering on the ground, puddles rapidly forming around them.
“I’m sure whatever it is, they have it coming,” Esper said. “Just remember, their shadows only loom as large as the light you throw on them.”
“You’re not fucking helping. You don’t know a fucking thing about it.”
Lee looked down at the twins. She launched a few kicks at their backsides, although not as hard as she would have a moment ago. “Get out of here!” They began to scrabble up on their hands and knees. “I’ll find you later, no matter where you crawl to, and we’ll finish this conversation.” Misty regained her feet first and helped Knife as she struggled to stand. Supporting one another, they staggered into the torrent where they rapidly became indistinct shadows.
“Pleasure meeting you, ladies,” Esper called after them. “I hope next time it’s under more convivial circumstances.”
He was standing next to Lee.
“Here, you’ll ruin your dress.” He lifted her umbrella up and made to open it. It was one of her favorite possessions, a cupola of scarlet and golden fabric crowned by an ornate pagoda. She snatched it out of his hand, brought it down against the same knee that had pulverized her sister’s face, and snapped it in half.
“None of this was any of your business!”
Esper tossed out his already extinguished cigarette and gestured vaguely at the club behind him. “My business.”
“Fuck you, Esper! Fuck you! Fuck you! FUCK you! If there was anywhere else in the world I’d move there just to be away from you.”
“I’m not trying to upset you.”
“You know, I don’t think a single goddamn thing that comes out of your mouth is true.”
“Is that what you want, Lee? The truth?”
“What the fuck do you want from me?” she shouted at him, then caught herself before he could answer. “Never mind, I already know what you want from me.”
They were both soaked in the grimy deluge, standing centimeters apart but still struggling to make out one another’s faces. She couldn’t even apprehend the color of his suit.
“Let me tell you right now, I ain’t gwine to keep your house or give you an heir or stroke your damn hair when it grays!”
“That all sounds frightfully domestic. I mean, an heir? Have you been paying any attention to me? To who and what I am?” His calm affect shook, a tremor of genuine feeling filling his voice. “I thought you said you knew what I wanted. I was expecting better from someone with your remarkable powers of observation.”
“Yeah, I get to be a character in your story.” If his denials were genuine, and she wasn’t even sure they were, it just suggested a host of other possibilities that seemed equally abhorrent to her. “I ain’t ever gwine to be your mol or laugh at all your jokes or look for you first every time we’re in a crowded room. And I ain’t ever gwine to call out your name all dramatic like you’re the only thing in the damn world to me.”
“When did I ever ask it of you?”
“But you do! You look at me. You look at me and it’s there, behind everything! Behind your words. Behind your eyes. I see it: gimme, gimme, gimme, please, love, please, all your fucking need!” He was a phantom in the rain and at that moment it seemed that if she yelled the right words at him loud enough he would evaporate into nothing. “What do you think is happening here, Esper? If I say no, you just gwine to force me? What happens after we take the city and you get to rule all of us just like you want?”
Esper made a bark of anxious laughter.
“I don’t want to rule Bastion. If that’s what I coveted, it could’ve been mine by now. And I want to rule you least of all, Lee.”
“Then what do you want?”
“Adventures, of course, adventures and freedom.”
“You only say that because you want me to think we want the same thing. You can’t just lift my dream like it’s your own and use it to tie me to you.”
“You may have inspired me back when we were children, your example showed me another way I could be, illuminated a path I hadn’t even known I could choose, but it’s become my dream too, a part of me, woven in and joined to my pattern. Once the Hero of the Day is gone for good, my first act as king will be to abdicate the crown, give the people a constitution, let them who are called to do the drudgework of actually governing form a parliament while we, we get to do whatever we fancy, party and play wherever we please, shape art and fashion, get this dingy place telling proper stories again. I’d be your companion if you’d be mine and have our partnership unbroken. Then when the new government turns corrupt, we can tear that one down too, the greatest villains of all, together.” He reached out, meaning to take her by the hand.
She pulled back. She hated how helpless he was making her feel, like all her choices were being washed away. He had seen her, just like her parents had, standing over her cowed and beaten sisters, had truly seen her and now here he was trying to hold her hand. What impediment did she have left to throw in the path of his unflappable certainty?
“It’s all in your head,” she said. “This whole idea of who I am. Whatever you think you feel I conned you into it, because you’re nothing to me and if I ever thought any different I was just conning myself. You’re just another boy with a crush, same as any other, nothing special. Just another mark.”
“Even if it is only a delusion,” Esper said, anger shook in his voice and Lee realized she had never seen him this way before, “I’d rather know what I want and do anything in my power to make it mine than be a cowardly little run-away like you, Lee Garnet. Running from one life to another, running from herself and anyone who might know her, away from how inseparable love is from pain. Look at her fuck boring morons and depressed housewives because she knows it can never become anything real, running and running.”
“I’ll do what I want when I please and never be accountable to your jealousy or your needy, prying eyes. No matter how you garb yourself in every quality that you estimate could attract me, except a single drop of humanity that is, it ain’t ever gwine to work because you’re just like those two, just like everyone else: you don’t know me.”
“I know you. I know who you are. I know you’re mean and angry and small and craven and everything I’ve ever wanted,” he said. Then he paused, pulling in his breath like a man about to take a leap. “I know how your father died, you by his side. I was there. I know about your librarian and how he died, your poison stopping his breath while you slept next to him. I was there too.” Through the watery blur, she saw his eyes glint and, for the first time, she believed everything he was saying. “Ah tabarnak. I even know about your son.”
Hammurabi Esper hurt all over. The arthritic aches in his joints and hands, the teeth rotting out of their gums, the excruciating knots around his moldering backbone, the perpetual throb between his temples, and his heart most of all. Since his son’s death he had not allowed even the most skilled sarxomancer physicians in Bastion to lay a finger on him. He was fast approaching the end of his life and he had neither wife nor heir. No family, no love, only his duty to his city; that which he had put before all else would be the last thing to leave him.
“We must take action,” said Yehoash Montes the Elder, barely keeping his hysterical tone in check.
The twenty-three councilors of the Sanhedrin were gathered around the table of prosperity. They were convened in emergency session in the Temple of the Continuance, surrounded by a dozen armed constables with fifteen-score more stationed in a perimeter around the building. Esper the Elder had not said a single word so far. He knew many of the others thought he was mad, unwashed and bug-eyed, and he was not of an inclination to dissuade them. He bobbed on the surface of a sea of aches, discomforts, and infirmities, listening as the others gabbled.
“Are these reports credible?” asked Milka Wagner the Elder. She gestured at the small stack of scrolls piled to her left. “Have we lost communication with the alderman of every tier below the fifth?”
“Don’t be thick, woman!” cried fat, red-nosed Jehoshaphat Conrad the Elder. He was drunker than usual. “How could anyone misreport a lack of contact? Silence is silence.”
“This silence speaks volumes,” said Jubal Sachs from behind steepled fingers. He sat directly to Esper the Elder’s left, as he had for the last forty-three years. Sachs had no direct heir, his commitment to the business of government never having allowed him the luxury of a wife—although he might have simply been dead below the waist. His seat on the Sanhedrin would be inherited by whichever of his nephews proved out. “They’ve shifted their allegiance from the authority of the Continuance to the lawlessness of the Wraith’s criminal army. My network informs me that the few who didn’t fall in line met… unfortunate ends.”
“What good’s your ‘network’, Sachs, if it couldn’t anticipate this threat and protect our citizens? Facts after the fact are useless,” said Conrad. “I could tell you I took a watery shit this morning but it won’t make my asshole any less sore.”
“Some respect for this table and the order it represents, please,” said Baruch Stoker, the youngest of the council, having ascended only five years ago after the murder of his father. Stoker the Elder had been a close friend and confidante of Esper the Elder’s. This boy reminded him a bit of his own son, both possessed by an air of premature authority, although Esper had worn his with far more dignity and comfort. One of the few things Esper the Elder regretted about how soon he would die was that it meant leaving the city in the hands of young people.
“My sources also tell me,” Sachs continued, “That the Wraith may have some sort of satellite base in Gehenna.”
Several of the council members laughed nervously.
“What in the world could anyone hope to accomplish in that dust bogged rat’s nest?” Wagner the Elder said haughtily.
“Unknown,” Sachs replied. “My man in the slums stopped reporting some months ago. Originally I suspected he’d gone native, found Jesus. It happens sometimes. I now have cause to suspect that the Wraith disappeared him. Gehenna would be an ideal hiding place if he wished to keep particular aspects of his operation a secret from us. We must therefore accept that he has a further advantage on us. Whatever he’s concealing down there, we have neither eyes nor ears left to uncover it.”
“This is impossible,” said Habakkuk Collings the Elder. “How’d the Wraith turn so many of our own people—the whole blasted city it seems—against us?”
“We didn’t exactly make it difficult for him,” said Lemuel Xing the Elder, the eternal contrarian. “The way this council has behaved lately, the barbaric manner in which we instituted the population control law—”
“The Resource Conservation Act,” Stoker interjected officiously.
“Population control,” Xing the Elder continued. “That deplorable scene with the low-tier baby and its mother. I still see fresh graffiti about it when I take my wife to market. The people have not forgotten and when there is no forgetting, there is no forgiveness. I never thought I’d have to remind any of you of this, but our government does not have the right to take the lives of its citizens, even the most unrepentant of criminals, let alone a newborn infant.”
“You said it yourself, Xing. That protection is offered only to citizens of Bastion,” Sachs responded coolly. “Children born in excess of the population limit are not extended the right of citizenship and are no more than chattel in the eyes of the law. That ‘deplorable’ scene, as you call it, was a necessary message. The act was mandated by the Hero of the Day. All we have done is in service to his supreme will and the survival of humanity. More to the point, despite what some of the malcontents among us might say, this council discharging its responsibilities is not the cause of our present troubles. The people and their representatives are loyal in their hearts to the Continuance, but they have been forcibly suborned by a criminal capable of twisting the will of others to her own abominable ends. I have reliable information that the Wraith is working with Lee Garnet.”
“She’s emerged at last?” said Alcibiades Tarring, a supercilious smirk sliding across his goateed face. He had sworn more than once that he would fuck Lee Garnet before she died. “I told all of you that she was still alive, contrary to the rumors these past several years, that she was only biding her time. Make sure our people are given strict orders to bring her in alive. I’ll make sure she, heh, answers for her crimes against this sacred body.”
“There will come a day when we can get through a single session without you acting like a repellent sybarite, Tarring,” said Abilene Petit, the only other lady councilor.
“Clearly, I struggle with a lack of discipline,” he replied with a wink. “Won’t you help me, my stern Abilene?”
“Uck, vile,” she said, although she was accustomed to comments of this nature and pressed on. “I think the rest of us can readily agree that the Garnet woman is too dangerous to live. We’re at war. The conventional rules don’t apply.”
“She stole my pig!” Asehel Kristof the Elder grumbled.
“Yes, Kristof, yes she did,” Petit said. “She’s taken something precious from just about all of us.” She glanced at Stoker, a sparkle of tenderness briefly crossing her face. Esper the Elder didn’t care for the coddling treatment, mentally enumerating it as one more example of why women didn’t belong in politics. If it weren’t for the Hero of the Day’s decree regarding diversity on the council, he would have exempted the weaker sex from the burden of leadership all together.
“I’m afraid other recent reports have even more disturbing implications,” Sachs said. His face was especially somber, even by his usual standard.
“Are you referring to the vanishing buildings?” Petit asked.
“Did you say ‘vanishing buildings’?” Conrad the Elder said.
“Whole structures,” Sachs said, “gone in a night. Torn down to their foundations without a trace. No witnesses, not a scrap of material left. This past week alone: A foundry in the industrial district. A hot house and irrigation system from the hanging gardens. A warehouse on tier thirty-one. The homes of three prominent citizens, all of whom are now themselves missing, including Magister Wai.”
“Wonderful,” Tarring said. “Wai’s house was an offensive monstrosity, bought by graft. It was even bigger than mine!”
“Who knows how many other buildings and citizens have vanished on the lower tiers without word getting back to us,” Xing the Elder said. Great man of the people, always going on about the overlooked citizens of the lower tiers. Esper the Elder recalled that Xing’s wife was of lowborn ancestry. Disgusting.
“If we assume that these buildings aren’t just floating off on their own,” Petit said, “then it’s the Wraith taking them.”
“He must have more resources than we expected,” Stoker said.
“I’d say resources are the whole damn point of stealing the buildings,” Conrad the Elder said.
“No, I mean, to vanish them in the first place, to do it in a single night. That’d take a team of skilled alchemists, welders, laborers, automatons, all highly organized. Not to mention some form of transportation that would allow a crew like that to move unseen with everything they’ve taken. I thought the Wraith’s army was made up of criminals.”
“Well assessed, Stoker,” Petite said, trying to hide her surprise. “Clearly this conspiracy is more widespread than we’d first believed.”
“Or hoped,” Wagner the Elder said.
“We have to face reality,” Xing the Elder said. “The Wraith and Garnet have decapitated this government. Turned our citizens and local leadership against us. What we need to consider now is compromise—”
There was a general uproar that Xing had to shout over.
“If we come to them with terms! Find out what they want and how to give it to them.”
“We sued for peace once,” Sachs said. “We offered to sell him the palace of justice, one of the very pillars of our social order, that he has unlawfully occupied.”
“He slapped our hand away,” Stoker said. “Trying to humiliate us by insisting on that ridiculous phrasing: ‘cede this territory to our sovereign Crime King’ indeed!”
“I like this notion of offering terms,” Tarring said. “We can use it to a lay a trap and kill them.”
“Have you heard what the Wraith can do?” Montes the Elder said. He’d always been a weakling. Still, Esper the Elder had often appreciated his presence on the Sanhedrin. It was usually a simple matter to cow his vote. “He’s already killed the Hero of the Night. How do we fight against that? He could be in this chamber now, watching us, and we wouldn’t even know it.”
“Unsubstantiated rumor,” Sachs said.
“We found a corpse! At least, what was left of one after the Wraith’s goons were done playing with it.”
“It could have been staged. There was no mask or hydra o’ nine tails. We know what a cunning propagandist Lee Garnet is. We cannot weaken in the face of this challenge to our authority.”
“Some of us want to keep our bones inside our body,” Montes the Elder said. “We need to either make peace or find a way to wipe them out.”
“Brilliantly stated as usual, Montes, but the problem as I see it,” Tarring said, “is essentially a lack of leadership. This council is in discord, unable to act even under these dire circumstances. The Hero of the Day has withdrawn further than ever from the quotidian affairs of leading or protecting this government, leaving us to determine our own fates. But did he not at one time intend to appoint a supreme councilor? Of course, the office’s original purpose was to give our dear savior some relief, so he could foreswear himself from indulging in the, shall we say ‘necessary ablutions’ that keep his mind solvent. He was, in all his daffy wisdom, prepared to leave Bastion in the hands of Esper’s child. Now just because the boy di—was tragically taken before his time,” he paused there, as if making some polite gesture to Esper the Elder, “does not mean we have to abandon the notion entirely. With a bit of re-contextualization, it would be perfectly in keeping with the Hero’s original order to appoint one of us to take that power, temporarily and for the greater good. We needn’t even waste his precious time by informing him.”
Tarring had several cronies and thralls on the council who voiced their agreement. Petit and Xing argued loudly against the blatant power grab and then there was general, incomprehensible bedlam around the table. It made Esper the Elder’s ears hurt. How had the blood of so many noble lines congealed into this embarrassment?
“Codswallop!” Esper the Elder called, his voice carrying above all the rest. “Unadulterated codswallop!” He bent his knees to stand. It took an agonizing amount of effort and he knocked his chair to the floor in the process. The councilors fell silent. “The Wraith will have no peace with us. Even now he and the termagant Garnet are preparing for the killing blow. He’s isolated us and pillaged the city’s resources without any of you bright, young people even noticing. Now you sit here, arguing over trivialities while they come to make corpses of us all.” His bloodshot eyes flicked across their slack faces. He thought about reminding them that their power derived from divine authority whose will above all was the preservation of humankind; that no matter how degraded and stripped of comfort or dignity it became, what was essential was that it continue. Then he decided not to waste his breath. He turned and began to shuffle out of the chamber.
“Where do you think you’re going, old man?” Tarring called after him.
“To request an audience with the Hero of the Day,” Esper the Elder said, signaling for his personal contingent of guards. “We need his sanction to unlock the armory and we’ll soon have precious need of its contents. Perhaps while I’m there I can persuade him to intervene personally. We continue by his will. We trust him to guide us and place absolute faith in his wisdom, as we always have.”
“Knowing what we know, do any of you ever stop to think just how insane that is?” Xing the Elder asked. In all the time it took Esper the Elder to haul his decaying body out of the chamber, not a single one of the other councilors answered.
Even though the Temple and the Stronghold were only separated by the length of Daylight Square, Esper the Elder elected to ride his litter there. As his servants and guards jostled him aboard, he exchanged a few words with his captain, Samson. He had retained the man, even after his failure to prevent Esper’s death (a failure that Esper the Elder privately admitted he himself had shared in) because no man was more respected for his devotion to duty or military prowess.
“Sir, do you believe that the Wraith’s attack is imminent?”
“Very much so, Samson, yes.”
“In that case, it’s vitally important that we ensure that you and the other members of the Sanhedrin are secured within the Temple. The armory—”
“Must be opened, yes. The very errand upon which I now embark.”
“And the great cannons must be looked over by the engineering corps. They haven’t been fired in over a century. Once we have access to proper weaponry, I’ll begin dividing our forces into regiments based on how best they can each be armed and put to use. I’ll place myself on the frontline and personally meet the Wraith head-on.”
“No, Samson. I do not think so.”
“Sir, my place is with the men.”
“Your place is where your orders dictate. Once you have the constables properly organized, I have another task for you. Once the battle is joined, you are to observe from concealment. Locate Lee Garnet. If, and only if you spy an opportunity in which you are absolutely certain to succeed, kill her. Otherwise, do nothing but watch. If you see your men fall, do nothing. If you see the Temple taken and the Sanhedrin fall, do nothing. Follow the Garnet woman from a distance. Wait as long as it takes until she lets her guard down. Then end her. Burn her alive, if possible, but your only responsibility is to assure her death by any means. There is no one else I trust do this thing.”
“I-I’m no assassin, sir.”
“Assassins, soldiers. Two names but only one function: to kill. Do we have a problem, Samson?”
“Then carry on.”
They parted as the litter bearers trudged forward. Esper the Elder took the ride to reflect on how satisfying it would be to die knowing that Lee Garnet’s life had ended by his order. It wouldn’t do to leave the blood-debt between them unresolved. Esper the Elder had long believed that she had had a hand in his son’s demise as a reprisal for her traitor father’s arrest. The patriarch of the Bradley family had confessed, during a particularly brutal round with the inquisitors which Esper the Elder had personally supervised, that his eldest son, Esper’s suspected killer, had formed a scandalous connection with the Garnet girl. They must have conspired together to end the life of Bastion’s noblest son. Elihue Bradley had never been found, even after his family perished in the Tor. Lee Garnet had either disposed of him once he was no longer useful or they were still working together. Perhaps, Esper the Elder considered, Bradley himself was the Wraith, although he doubted a man of that crude bloodline could be capable of what the Wraith was doing to the city.
Lee Garnet’s demolition of the Gavirel Esper Memorial Fountain only further confirmed her complicity in Esper the Elder’s mind. He suddenly recalled the night of Chatham Garnet’s arrest, when Esper had spoken so insistently in the girl’s defense. Esper the Elder shook his head. Esper had been such a good boy, everything a man could want from his heir, but even he had possessed a fatal flaw: he was, at heart, a romantic. Esper the Elder was not blind, even if his milky eyes had never been less serviceable, and he had seen his son’s restlessness, his occasional preoccupation with sentimental notions utterly inessential to survival. When he had been little, Esper the Elder had discovered in Esper’s possession some kind of book, pages filled with colors and shapes. The boy had prized it as some kind of treasure. He had wept when Esper the Elder took it from him, pitching a tantrum as he never had before or since. Esper the Elder had tried to do his best as a father, fortifying the child, preparing him for the painful realities of responsibility, for the sacrifices that came with protecting the Continuance.
Looking back across the story of his life, as close as he was to reaching the final period that would demarcate its end, Esper the Elder was able to discern a similar flaw within himself. He remembered those many years ago, seeing Hecuba Delarue at the solstice cotillion, a maiden of sixteen years to his thirty-four. He had wanted her more than anything he had ever previously beheld, could not get her out of his mind. But she did not have eyes for him. She had taken to young, dashing Eutychus Browne and danced the evening away with him. Browne was gentle, kind, and the scion of one of the most influential founding families next to the Espers; a reformer who was well liked even by his political enemies. His courtship of Hecuba was the talk of the upper-tiers, a rare love-match among the interweaving bloodlines of Bastion’s elite, especially between two who possessed such beauty and pure-heartedness. It had taken considerable work on Hammurabi Esper’s part to falsify the evidence of high treason that sent Browne to a cell in the tor, even more to arrange a fatal, accidental fall as his guards escorted him across an exposed walkway for his daily meal. After that, he had to ensure that the rest of the Brownes were dealt with, the whole family tree blasted out root and stem before public accusations and reprisals could jeopardize his future.
After the dust settled, he had gone to Hecuba’s parents, convinced them that he was their daughter’s best option. He had already made a name for himself on the council, especially after his thorough prosecution of the various treasons committed by the Browne family. The others were all awed by his political savvy and terrified that he might do the same to them, an opinion shared by Hecuba’s parents, who promptly ordered their daughter to consent to the marriage.
She had done her duty and they’d been wed, although Esper the Elder had been unprepared for the realities of domestic life with this sad, dreamy girl. She liked stories and poetry and all manner of things that he had no time for. She had friends he disapproved of, was inclined to take long moonlight walks for no purpose he could understand, and she seemed to resent his devotion to the sacred order of the Continuance when any proper lady of high birth would have unconditionally supported him in his work.
She used every method at her disposal to prevent him from taking his due as her husband, claiming a host of maladies, indigestion, fatigue, and the appearance of her monthly blood that she knew would repel him. He was often tempted to take her by force (she was his, after all, by right) but Hecuba was popular in prominent circles and crossing that line would have put him in a difficult position with several of his key allies on the council. Instead he employed manipulation, appealing to her loneliness, their obligation to carry on his family name, and the vows they had made to one another, a tactic with a low success rate. It had taken him three decades to put a child in her that survived to term, and that was only after he had dismissed the entire household staff and her personal physician, swapping them for replacements who were loyal to him.
She had loved that baby, though, her precious Gavirel. She had sung to him (Esper the Elder had never heard her sing before, did not even know that she could), nursed him herself much to her husband’s disgust, taken him for long strolls through Hareth, had read to him at night, held him and stroked his hair whenever possible, made him giggle, disliked giving him over to the domestic servants. At first, the shock of seeing his wife genuinely happy for the first time in their years together had made Esper the Elder more permissive with this behavior than he should have been. He was, of course, gravely concerned about the effect this sort of care might have on his son. Once Esper reached the age of reason, Esper the Elder did everything in his power to limit his and Hecuba’s time together, filled every available moment of Esper’s time that might have been given over to softhearted mother-love with tutors, combat training, hunting, blood, and knowledge. At the same time, he was unusually encouraging of all of Hecuba’s peculiar hobbies: supporting the arts, charities, gardens, and aide to the lower tiers. By placing their schedules in conflict whenever he could, he saw that his son’s care was left more and more to au pairs and instructors; shaping him into an ideal young citizen while giving his heart the hardening his mother would have denied it. Esper the Elder loved his son too. For all their differences, Hecuba and him had had that much in common. He just had a different and, in his opinion, far more useful way of showing it. His wife’s final revenge had been to quietly lose her mind, leaving him as alone as he had always been years before her body died, alone and solely responsible for grieving for her and the beautiful son they had made together.
Annihilating his rival for Hecuba’s affections, wiping out an entire founding family in the process, had been the one time in all his long life when Hammurabi Esper had broken the rules, put his own needs before his duty to Bastion. It was this same dangerous tendency toward romanticism that had likely destroyed his son. Esper had been clever and strong, easily capable of defending himself from the likes of Elihue Bradley. Only the wiles of a villain like Lee Garnet could have seduced Esper away from the grand destiny and ultimate responsibility that had been prepared for him. If only Esper the Elder had been harder on the boy, less indulgent of his mother’s foolishness, he might still be alive today. Esper the Elder blinked back tears and realized that his litter was motionless, resting before the grand entrance to the Stronghold.
With the help of his wranglers, Esper the Elder was on his feet, which that day felt as if they were packed with especially sharp glass. He placed a hand at the door’s center, over the sun sigil, felt the soft warmth radiating from the walls and said the thirty-nine secret words. Then he waited. And waited.
No family. No peace. Only the habit of duty, unanimated by belief or love. He would do this last thing for the city he had served, body and soul, and then perhaps it would let him rest.
The doors swung open. In moments, without perceiving movement or the attendant pain it brought him, Esper the Elder stood in a softly glowing corridor in the presence of the Hero of the Day.
“Why hello there,” said the Hero. “So pleasant to have a guest. Thank you for your company.”
“…You are… quite welcome, sir.”
“No need for that. I have no titles or even a proper name. Never had a need for either.”
Esper the Elder had heard him repeat this phrase at least several thousand times in his life. He would always say it only once, then quietly accept whatever honorifics were lavished upon him.
“Shall we retire to the inner sanctum for refreshment?” the Hero asked.
“I would be honored, mighty one. E-except that I come here on a highly urgent matter that requires your immediate attention.”
The Hero rubbed the side of his head.
“What matter would that be?”
“It’s the Wraith. He’s preparing an assault on the Temple. At least, we have good reason to believe that…” Esper the Elder frowned. He had been ready to be so direct, steeled by his impending mortality, able to take risks he wouldn’t have before dared. Yet here he was, reverting to same deferential fearfulness with which he had always approached the Hero.
“The Wraith?” the Hero said, clearly puzzled. “And it’s assaulting the Temple?”
“The Wraith, eminence. An arch-criminal, an enemy of Bastion.” Esper the Elder had already reported this information to the Hero several times at several previous audiences and the Hero always excitedly asked that he be apprised of any further developments. Sometimes he needed to be reminded multiple times within the same report, the conversation growing more circular the longer it went on. Esper the Elder had never seen him deteriorate to this point. It reminded him so much of being with Hecuba in her last year.
“If he’s a criminal then the Hero of the Night will dispense justice to him.”
“He’s already slain the Hero of the Night.”
“The mask and the hydra o’ nine tails are both missing, although we… recovered a body, badly mutilated but recognizable.”
“Poor soul. Still, I don’t see how it could be. Criminals never kill the Hero of the Night. Not ever.”
“The Wraith’s rumored to wield substantial thaumaturgic power. If half the reports we’ve received about him are true, he may well be a genuine sorcerer.”
“All the sorcerers are gone from this world. I defeated the last of them in one of the greatest battles of my life. Now you make due with fragmented remnants of the Major Arcana, a pale, perverse shade of the miracles your kind were once able to work. I wish you could have seen the world then, Nicodemo. It was so full of, of possibilities; possibilities that could be great or terrible, but there was a real sense that anything could happen. It was a truly wonderful time to be alive.”
“It-it’s Hammurabi, mighty one. Nicodemo was my ancestor. You always speak so highly of him.”
“It doesn’t matter. I need to talk to you about the Wraith. Whatever he’s rumored to be capable of, the fact is that he’s managed to amass a substantial force of ne’er-do-wells that follow his every order. I blame the incompetence of my peers on the Sanhedrin for letting the matter get this far out of hand.”
“I’m sure they’re doing their best.”
“In any event, sir, he has cut off all our communication with local administrations across the tiers, subverted the guilds, and overridden or corrupted the majority of the city constabulary. The last of our forces are gathered here. He’s taken over one of the palaces of justice. We’ve also received intelligence that he’s basing some part of his operation out of Gehenna, as unfathomable a notion as that is.”
“Gehenna, what a wretched name,” the Hero said. “You know we all lived there once?”
“In… in Gehenna?”
“It’s the ruins of the village that was originally atop this mesa. We lived there, the founding families and myself. Then I commenced bringing what survivors I could find to it, more and more each day, then less and less, and the city began to rise around us. Only when the village fell to squalor and overcrowding did the first of you elevate yourselves and christen your former homes with that cruel moniker. I should have done something about it but it, it escaped me, somehow. Gehenna. All these biblical names, my fault as well. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to allow religion here. I wanted this to be a new world for all of you. I didn’t want the pain that came from trying too much to hold onto the previous one. It was the same with all the books they brought with them. I was trepidatious in general about stories from what used to be. In the end, though, I didn’t have the heart to deny them. I said, at least strip off the names of the authors, replace them with the names of their preservers, although thinking back I can’t for the life of me remember why that seemed like a good idea. I suppose I was still in mourning myself. And I said, keep your bible if you want, I’ll not deny a man his god but, personally, I think the best use for it is picking out names for your children. People took my words so literally back then. Interpretation has become a little more… abstract in recent years.”
Esper the Elder recognized that, in spite of his rambling, the Hero had entered a slightly more lucid mindset and chose this moment to drive his point home.
“Sir. The Wraith. He will come for us any day and he means to smash the order that you established to keep this city whole and alive.”
“What, what do you want me to do?”
“About your problem.”
“Respectfully, it’s the city’s problem. The city you built. It’s in terrible danger.”
“I believe it’s best, whenever possible, to let you humans solve your own problems. There’s a, a greatness in your spirit. You can do anything so long as you strive for it. I believe in you.”
“And we believe in you, mighty one. We believe that you can help us, save us, as you save those who fall to what would otherwise be their doom.”
“I like to catch them,” the Hero said absently. “It reminds me of… it reminds me of me, how I was. How I was before… with my friends.”
“Have you considered,” Esper the Elder never knew the right words to broach this topic, “refreshing yourself? I’ve never seen you go so long without it.”
“I-I don’t like to,” the Hero said. He suddenly reminded Esper the Elder of a child, a thought that made him quake with existential dread. “The last one I took the panacea from was such a nice man. His mind was full of poetry. He chose to find the beauty in the horror of this place and the horror in the beauty others blandly accept. He saw the best in his fellow creatures and in his thoughts I could see so much compassion. I burnt that all away and s-snorted the ashes.”
“That was nearly two years ago. You’re not, not well, and we need you.”
“I don’t want to anymore. It isn’t… good.”
“I know it’s distasteful, mighty one, and I understand that it is difficult for you to feel your are compromising your peerless morality, but it’s for the good of your city, your people. Life consumes life in order to sustain the body. That is the way of the world.”
“Gavirel was supposed to lead. He was supposed to so I wouldn’t have to anymore. So I wouldn’t need to do it anymore. He would rule, then choose his successor as I chose him, a chain of mortals, finally back in command of their own destiny. But Gavirel died. I saw him fall. His face. What was wrong with his face? But it was him, had to be him. I got so close but I couldn’t catch him. Oh. Oh my. He was your son, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. He was my son.”
“I… I’m sorry I couldn’t catch him. I like to catch them. It reminds me…”
“Mighty one, you have a chance to save us all. What you couldn’t do for Es—for Gavirel, you could do for all of Bastion.”
“Help us. Do what you must to regain command of your mind, then stop the Wraith. If you must take someone, take me. I’m ready for endless rest.”
“You’re too old. That doesn’t always preclude me, you know, but your mind is so limited, inflexible, so fenced in by itself, cut off from its own possibility by fear and repression.”
“…Oh. I didn’t know that,” said Esper the Elder, although now that he heard it out loud, it was as if he had always known.
“It seems like just a blink ago you were a young man. Now here you stand, bearded and dying and asking for my help with… something. Every time a Speranza comes to me, I keep hoping for another Nicodemo. There was a man unafraid of his own mind. I almost had him again. Not with you, of course. With Gavirel.”
“Fine. Fine! Here’s the key to the armory.” The Hero placed a hand against his belt and, from a two dimensional panel in the side, pulled forth a cube of radiant circuitry. He handed it to Esper the Elder, who strained to hold it up. The key fit in the palm of his hand but was far heavier than it appeared. “Ah, the Hero of the Night will hate this. Unleashing guns and even more terrible weapons into our city.”
“The Hero of the Night is dead. The Wraith killed him.”
“As you say. I will bring this to the council. With it, we might just stand a chance, but please don’t forget us, sir. Bastion needs its hero.”
“Do what you can on your own. If you really need it, then I will come to help. Maybe if this Wraith is the villain you say he is, perhaps doing battle with him would make me feel like my old self.”
“That’s the spirit, sir. We know you watch over us. We know you love us as only one with all-seeing eyes could.”
“I do? Yes, of course, I do.”
“Thank you, mighty one.”
Esper the Elder turned to leave, the weight of the key practically dragging his arm out of its socket.
He could barely believe that the Hero had actually remembered his given name. Even at his most lucid, it was a matter beneath his attention.
“Yes?” Esper the Elder looked back, hope glinting in his eyes.
“Please tell your son I’m looking forward to our next meeting. He always keeps me guessing with that keen mind of his. Such a fine, good young man, so much potential. I can barely wait to see him again.”
“Mamma Lee! Mamma Lee! What’s my name?”
“It’s Auntie Lee. I keep telling you, Lazy. Auntie. If you don’t call me by my proper name, I’ll never tell you yours.”
“Why do you call me Lazy?”
“When you were born, I thought you’d never be much use to anyone.”
“That’s a lie.”
“It’s them kind of incisive observations make me question if I might’ve been wrong about you.”
“So what’s my real name?”
“If you’re smart enough to figure it out then you’re smart enough to know.”
“Lazy, your reading is, well frankly it’s embarrassing. When you were a baby I used to throw down some of my favorite books in front of you, practical treasure troves of gorgeous words and thoughts and stories, and you couldn’t make a bit of sense out of them. It made your auntie start to reconsider having stolen you in the first place. And! And I know for a fact that you’re hopeless with numbers!”
“I’m getting better! Besides, I don’ need no maths, I’m tough!”
“We’ll just see about that, you snaggletoothed little creep! Now c’mere so I can eat you!”
The boy did, in fact, have an especially pronounced snaggletooth. He was proud of his little fang and would brag about it constantly except when he was cursing it for all the cuts it gave the inside of his mouth. He was her little dummy and she pinned him to the floor with one hand and tickled him with the other. She hadn’t seen him in almost eight months and was discouraged when she felt his ribs through his shirt, saw how little weight he had gained. It wasn’t that he was going hungry. Lee’s mother made him stuff his face at every meal, no matter how much he complained that he didn’t want to eat, but his body had always been stunted and resisted all attempts to nourish it.
“Look at you, wriggling like a worm. I think we can both see you ain’t tough at all, Lazy, so you’re gwine to have to learn to be smart.”
She let him up and brushed him off.
“Why do you always say ‘gwine’ when you mean ‘going’, mamma Lee? I never heard any people say that. Do they talk that way in the other parts of the city you go to?”
“I’ll tell you a secret, Lazy. Can I trust you to keep it?”
“I’d die before I’d blab!”
“That’s my little animal. Alright, here it is. When I was a little older than you are now, I went to this real old building that used to be around here. No one in their right mind ever went there, it was set to collapse, like the slightest little breeze might blow it down. I think it used to be a schoolhouse a long, long time ago. I found a little metal box there and I figured it must be a treasure chest. I took it with me and eventually I got it open after a few weeks of smashing it with rocks and finding high places to drop it off. It turned out I was right. There was a treasure in there.”
“Was it gold? Iridium? A colossus tooth?”
“More valuable than that, Lazy, at least to a growing mind like mine. It was books, m’boy. Before that, I’d only ever read your gran’mamma’s bible and the little scraps your other aunts would bring me to read to them. There weren’t good schools or such here when I was growing up but I loved myself a story, even back then. Most of those pages were too old and dusty to read but I tried real hard and one of them ended up being the best story I’d ever read. It was about this boy, a really lazy one like you, Lazy, but also really clever. He did what he wanted and they tried to punish him by making him paint a fence. What do you think he did?”
“Put the fence on fire!”
“I like where your head’s at, kid, but it was actually even better than that. He tricked his friends into doing it for him. He acted like it was the most fun a body could ever have and that they should even pay him for the enjoyment they’d get from doing his chore.”
“That’s so smart!”
“I know! It was such an important lesson for me that I wanted to always keep it in mind. I noticed that some of the characters in the book said ‘gwine’ and I decided I ought to as well. I stuck with it because it trips people up, makes them question what they expect of you. The people up there think I learned it down here and the people down here think I learned it up there. They don’t talk to one another, you see, so they just make assumptions. Learn that word, ‘assumptions’, Lazy, because it’s a huge weakness that almost everyone has and if you know how to play it, it’s easy to trick folk into painting your fences for you.”
“Yes mamma, I’m a… gwine to learn to be smart. I promise.”
The kid made her grin like not much else but Lee still tended to avoid these little trips to the Christer reservation in Gehenna. They were difficult for her. She was only here because it was the eve of battle and she might well die tomorrow. If anything happened to her, she had prepared emergency identities for her mother and Lazy to escape into: comfortable, modest lives in the mid-tiers. She didn’t anticipate failure but these days Lee was especially careful to take the precautions necessary to protect her people.
Even though she had expected it, it was startling for her to walk back into Gehenna proper and see just how much Esper had changed it. The air was breathable, even fresh. The walls had been completely repaired and retrofitted with fans, filters, and purification systems. The ancient stone houses and slapdash shanties were made habitable once more. The Christers had a big church right at the center of their reservation. People walked the streets without fear of violence. Men in suits distributed food and fresh water. It bore so little resemblance to the slum of her childhood that it was almost uncomfortable to see it like this, although even she was not so cynical as to dismiss what her darling had accomplished.
Her mother was preparing dinner for the three of them. Lazy was playing with the new toys she had brought for him, smashing them together enthusiastically, simulating the noises of combat; he did a good shrieks of the dying. While they were both occupied, Lee stepped out of the kitchen and into the side-room, no bigger than a closet, where they stored the telegraph. Lee had the device installed in her mother’s house some time ago to make it easier for Collette to reach her. Although Lee occasionally received requests for different, hard-to-come-by foodstuffs, clothes or books for the boy, mostly her mother used it to transmit affectionate but pointless messages to her, requests that she visit more often, updates about Lazy’s weight or his schooling or how they both missed her. Occasionally Lee received a barely comprehensible message from Lazy himself and she would keep the text on her for at least a week so she could laugh at it, then she would slip the paper inside a book in her collection, sometimes happily rediscovering it later.
Recently, on her order, Rake and Hooks had sent a man to wire the telegraph so that it could connect with the one behind Esper’s desk in the party palace. It had been a week since she had last seen him. They had been in daily communication through secret messages and other clandestine means. She tapped her message out on the key and transmitted it:
AT MOMS STOP AFTER DINNER WILL PREP CREW FOR TOMORROW STOP ALL TEAMS REPORT READY TO GO ON MY END STOP THE DAMNED WILL PICK YOU UP AT SUNRISE ON OUR WAY UP STOP MISS YOU STOP
Lee should have gone back into the kitchen but she stayed in her seat instead, fingers drumming on her leg. A moment later, to her sudden relief, the telegraph began to whir and click, receiving a transmission of its own.
MISS YOU TOO STOP GIVE FAMILY MY BEST STOP HAVE COMPLETE FAITH IN YOU STOP WILL BE READY TOMORROW STOP VICTORY WILL BE OURS STOP
She smiled uncontrollably and sent her reply.
WAS MADE FOR YOU DARLING STOP LETS DANCE THEM INTO OBLIVION STOP REALLY HAVE TO GO NOW STOP KISSES AND KICKS STOP
She was in the frame of mind where exchanging sweet words with Esper made her giddy. Even thinking about him gave her a warm, dreamy feeling, as if her thoughts alone could summon his presence to quietly comfort her. It had been almost three months since the rainstorm. Since that morning when the clouds cleared and the city began the long process of purging itself of fouled water and mold, she had gone back and forth between feelings of intense affection and unease towards the man in the suit. She was not conscious of these shifts, not actively. Rather, when one mood would overtake the other it seemed to completely rewrite her and she would become convinced that she had always felt that way. No other person she had known had ever torn her in two like this.
Lee went in for dinner with Collette and the boy.
“Y’all wanna say grace?” Lee said to make her mother happy.
“No!” Lazy said. “I don’ even believe in God and I never met the Jesus!”
“You let him talk like that?” Lee asked her mother.
“If that’s what he chooses,” she replied.
“Some defender of the faith you are. Ain’t you supposed to be a fisher of men?”
Lee’s mother shrugged, evidencing her long-held belief that no one had ever been press-ganged into grace.
Without further theological discussion, Collette began to fill their plates. Lee had brought the makings for all of Lazy’s favorites: rice noodles, fried gull wings, and sugar with strawberries for dessert. It was not hard to convince him to eat which seemed to make Lee’s mother happy. It helped that Lee repeatedly and sincerely threatened to eat all the food before he could and not leave any for him.
“What are we gon’ do after dinner?” Lazy said, bouncing in his chair.
“Probably spank you a lot and put you to bed,” Lee said.
“That sounds piteous!”
“Then calm down, little man, and we won’t have to. I liked you so much before you learned to talk.”
“Then you shouldn’t of teached me to!”
“Or at least I should’ve done a better job of it.”
When they were done eating and Collette was cleaning the dishes, Lee had fun chasing Lazy around the house, swooping down on him like a great bird, grabbing him up, and spinning him around. Even though he tried to pretend otherwise, these activities tired him out considerably. When a moment presented itself where he would not take offense at the suggestion, Lee said it was time to wash him up and put him down with a story. He made a few protests for the sake of it, then yawned and nodded.
When Lee read to him, she did voices for all the characters and did her best to make the stories come alive for him. Lazy had some disadvantages when it came to his learning and so it was best for her to use her tone to exaggerate the meaning of the words and imbue them with excitement. She could hardly fault the kid for it. Neither of his biological parents had been the brightest rays of sunshine, he’d been born prematurely from a mother in the process of dying from an overdose, had himself died within minutes of his first breath and been resuscitated, spending the next several weeks fighting for every subsequent heartbeat. It hadn’t helped that he’d been addicted to Nepenthe since his conception. All the hallucinogens he’d absorbed in utero, including the one Lee had forced into his mother’s veins, had stunted his body and permanently altered his mind. The veil between the real world and his dreams was so thin. He would often stare at things no one else could see. He would describe with utter conviction events that hadn’t actually happened. Sometimes Lee suspected that the past, present, and future were all the same to him. As she read to him, she saw his eyes ticking back and forth in fascination, but there was no way to know if it was the story playing out before him like a private show or something else entirely within his own mind.
Eventually he fell asleep and Lee went to have a drink with her mother. They shared the decanter of high-grade gin Lee kept here for her visits. Collette never touched it except when her daughter came to call, although it was very easy for Lee to convince her to indulge.
“Well, just one.”
“And then another?”
For all the differences between the way they led their lives, Lee and her mother had similar dispositions, both were survivors, and they kept very easy company with one another. Flush with drink, Collette shared some long laughs and pithy observations with her daughter. Lee had been worried that she might be on the receiving end of a lecture about her recent treatment of her sisters, but Misty and Knife hadn’t visited Gehenna since the beating—Lee hadn’t made good on her promise to follow up with them or track their movements (wherever they were, they could rot there for all she cared). Instead, Collette began talking about Lazy’s education, a topic that tickled Lee for reasons unknown to her mother.
“His reading is so, so much better. He knows you’re the one sending him the books and that makes him much more interested in fighting to understand them.”
“How are his numbers?”
“You know those have always been such an especial struggle for him. He looks at them like they’re floating off the page. Maybe to him they are. But a few months ago,” she paused and leveled her gaze at Lee, allowing the amount of time since her last visit to emphasize itself, “we found the most wonderful tutor for him, this charming young man who put up an advert at the church. He’s so polite and he takes the job so seriously. Lazy actually looks forward to their lessons together. He does that thing when he gets excited, like there’s springs in his shoes. They get along famously and Lazy’s counting all the way to twelve and he can do some small adding now.”
“That tutor sounds like a hot commodity, ma. You got a crush?”
“I do not know how I reared such an improper daughter.” Suddenly, she made a wicked grin. “But don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind.”
“It gets lonely down here and without your father around, a lady needs to take what solace she can find. That young man’s so polite and sometimes he takes my hand while he’s talking to me…”
“Alright, enough, enough.”
Lee took a gulp of gin.
“He a snappy dresser?” she asked her mother.
“Mr. Speranza? I suppose you could say that. He wears the same type of suit as all those other helpful young men whom the patron sent to make things better for us bottom-dwellers.”
Speranza? Esper hadn’t shared with her the actual pseudonym of his false identity. Only now did Lee realize that the preserver of some of the best literature in Bastion and the originator of Esper’s family-line were one and the same. It made a perverse kind of sense.
“Your brilliant young tutor is actually a friend of mine.”
“Is that so? Well, I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t have mentioned that to me.”
“He’s… cagey like that. Sometimes the way he does these sorts of things gives me a chill, but I try to look past it to the part where he cared enough about getting to know you and Lazy… and me through you guys, I suppose. We’re still negotiating one another’s boundaries. I am glad that Lazy likes him so much. It’s easy for me to imagine them getting along. I did tell him he missed his calling as a teacher.”
“Are you two close?”
“We partnered up some months ago, although technically we first ran into each other a long time back. You know, it’s funny, ma. In a lot of ways he’s the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“That’s just fine, treasure. When your father first came courting, I felt the same way about him. He was so different then.”
“It’s not like that. Not exactly, anyway.”
“Well, what is it like?”
“I don’t know.”
They nearly made their way through the whole decanter before Collette began harping on her to visit more.
“I’ve told you before, mom, it’s not safe. There are plenty of people in this city who’d hurt Lazy and you if they knew you existed, including the whole damn government. Half the point of me calling my old gang the orphans was to help everyone forget I had a surviving parent.”
“You choose the life you want, daughter, but I don’t see much point in one where you don’t get to be with your family.”
“I’m trying to change that mom. Really, I am. And if I succeed, it’s going to be a whole lot easier for me to come visit. Out of the shadows and dust for our family, I promise. There’s only one thing…”
Lee opened her purse and brought out the two sets of false lashes, slid them across the table to her mother.
“Well I think Lazy would look awfully silly in these…”
“I don’t think I’m going to fail but anything can happen. There’s going to be quite a fracas tomorrow. I want you to keep your eyes glued to that telegraph. If you don’t get a message from me by sundown, you put this one on yourself and this one on the kid and you take him to tier fifty-nine. There’ll be an apartment there for you, block C, number three-four-four. I left a note there with all the relevant details of your new lives. It won’t be an easy transition for either of you but it’ll keep you safe and alive.”
Collette nodded, her face set. She’d learned a long time ago to accept what she could not change, a necessary philosophy for life with her youngest daughter.
“Even if you hear from me, you have to keep your guard up. There’s no telling what kind of blowback there’ll be. You get the slightest sense that anything’s wrong, you drop everything and get out of here. As long as I’m alive, I’ll be able to find you. You understand?”
Collette nodded and took the lashes.
“I’m going to get to bed,” Lee’s mother said. “Maybe you ought to do the same, treasure. It sounds like you have an important day tomorrow.”
“I love you, mom. I love you and the kid.”
“We love you too, Lee.” There was a long pause.
“I’ll try not to make you regret it,” Lee thought.
Lee’s mother stood to excuse herself. Lee drank the rest of the gin in the dead quiet of the kitchen. She had several hours yet before her rendezvous with the Under Over. She began wiling away the time by emptying the bullets out of her purse. They clattered on the table around her, calibers for both her derringer and Esper’s revolver. She flicked open her pocketknife and pressed its point into the tips of the bullets, carving the jagged hex runes. Lee had seen Mumma Mumma use this sort of symbolic magic to augment the killing power of blades and other melee weapons. If you stole an idea and made it better, she reasoned, then you had every right to it. After she’d inscribed all the bullets and returned them to her bag, she tried to take her mother’s advice and bedded down on the couch. Sleep eluded her, though. Her gin-infused thoughts returned once again to Esper’s rainstorm confession, to the things she’d learned about him and about herself.
“The suit is alive. I assume you already deduced that, caught my one side of our conversations. It has a will of its own and it’s also very possessive of me. Consequently, as you can imagine, it hates you, a hatred that pales only in comparison to its hatred for the Hero of the Day. I keep telling it that it just doesn’t know you yet, but it won’t hear me. Even now it’s… screaming at me. It doesn’t want me to tell you any of this. It believed it could shame me into silence but I reject shame. I will tell you the truth now, even if it means you never speak to me again after tonight.
I told you I couldn’t escape from the colossi bone-yard because I was still trying to gain control of my new abilities. Actually, it was the suit keeping me there. It was wearing me in those days. I’ve gained the upper hand since then, but it took time. The longer we’re bonded, the less its own creature it becomes. I think it knew that and tried to get the better of me early on.
After it showed me what the Hero of the Day really was, it seemed as if it intended to restore me, but I was exhausted after all that time down among the mad spirits. I lost consciousness and in the darkness came my deepest dreams, my truest self. It saw my heart and what… who is within it. Do you take my meaning?
When I woke, the suit was in a jealous rage, flooding my thoughts with its venom, telling me that I’d betrayed it, put it on under false pretenses. I thought it meant to kill me. It could have. Turned me inside out, drunk my blood into its threads, spat out my bones, and waited for some other poor fool to put it on. But it loves me, you see. It says it cannot live without me. That did not stop it from devising a different way of punishing me.
I’m obsessed with you. I admit it. Obsession is in my nature. It’s rare for something to genuinely catch my attention but when it does, my thoughts take to it relentlessly. All my plans and my patterns… it’s not in me to take a passing interest. I don’t dabble. I consume and am consumed. Nothing in my life has benefited or harmed me more than my obsession with you, Lee. You were the first truly free and alive thing I ever saw and I wanted to be near you so I could become those things too. The suit decided to give me what I wanted, to drown me in it.”
Esper hadn’t just been a ghost. He had been Lee’s ghost. The suit had not permitted him to leave her side for months at a time, invisible, without eyelids to shut or a head to turn away, a floating consciousness deprived of its own agency. He’d haunted her, unwillingly, and thus witnessed some of the more eventful times of her life: from her father’s suicide through to her fractal retreat into a multitude of identities.
“That’s some damn funny thinking,” Lee remarked. “It was jealous so it made you spend all your time creeping around me?”
“The suit thinks it knows human beings well, the fears and desires that drive us. It thought I had you up on a pedestal in my mind. It believed that if I saw who you really were, it would knock you off and send me running back into its jacket arms.”
“You tryin’ to say you don’t have me up on a pedestal?”
“Just because you have a body like a sculpture of the perfect woman doesn’t mean that’s how you live in my mind. You’re my ideal, not an ideal. I’ve seen you when I couldn’t turn away. I see you now that I can. Through all your highs and lows. I am… undeterred.”
“What did it feel like for you? Being my stalker?”
“For so much of my life my feelings have seemed very far away from me. Not absent, just remote, always viewed through the other end of the telescope. I couldn’t be that way when it made me be near you, I had no choice but to feel it all. Helplessness, of course. Admiration, for all that you could accomplish. Fear that you might die before we ever properly knew one another. Envy. Anger and jealousy. Guilt for trespassing in your sacred privacy. There was some serenity in there too, all of it alloyed together. I would hover over you as you slept, watching your face change as your dreams troubled or delighted you.”
“Ick. Come on, boy.”
“I’d remind you that I was an involuntary participant. It didn’t feel right to be there without your permission.”
“And I’m sure you didn’t enjoy a second of it.”
“I enjoyed quite a bit of it, once I realized it would take me time to get the better of the suit and regain control of my form.”
“How’d you finally snap out of it?”
“It was a slow process but I was gradually able to regain my will. The first time was after the Hero of the Night burned you. You were laying in that old pulley-carriage, semiconscious and blind. I wanted so badly to help you. In all my time as a wisp, I’d never felt more powerless than when I had to watch you suffer. The rage bubbled up in me. You’d have been proud of that anger, Lee. It gave me power. For a moment, I had a hand with which to hold yours.”
“I… I remember that. I thought it might’ve been Misty or Knife, holding my hand in the dark, whispering peace to me, but afterward I realized it didn’t make any sense. They’d never do that, not for me. After I was well enough to think clear, I figured that I must’ve imagined it.”
“It was only for a few moments. The suit whisked me away. It announced we would take a break from my punishment while you convalesced. It bid me explore the city, learn its secrets. It brought me back to you once you were on your feet again. I saw you put on your false lashes, become a nurse at the tier four children’s hospital. I saw you steal the boy, spirit him to Gehenna. I saw you become Zidonia and Hoi and Cozby and Eunice and all the others.”
“Must’ve been quite a show for you. How’d you finally escape for real?”
“There was an… event. It gave me sufficient stake to finally take back control.”
“I— I’d rather not say. You understand enough. Knowing more would only make you lose respect for me.”
“You called me a coward earlier, now you’re tip-toeing like the shoe’s on the other foot. Look, you’ve told me this much and I’m pretty sure I don’t hate you yet. Go on. Please.”
“Alright… the suit had been losing patience, it’d been near-on two years of dragging me in your wake. I’m sure you remember that once you’d fully settled into your different identities, you went headfirst into a, uh, party frenzy?”
“I’m a full-on party girl, Esper. You’re the one who chose to be obsessed with me.”
“It’s funny that you call it a choice.”
“Whatever. So let me guess. You saw me fuck someone and you went into a jealous rage like a territorial only-child who can’t stand seeing someone else play with his toys. That it? Or was it that the suit won it’s little game, turned you into a genuine peeper and that got your body hard again?”
“Ha. You’re such a thin thread away from the truth and yet you still manage to misjudge me. Did I see you fuck someone? I saw you fuck all kinds of people. I saw you fuck men and women. Just as often, I saw you watch other people fuck, voyeuring on the voyeur. I don’t think they even have a name for that kind of situation. I’m not sure why it’s so difficult for me to admit that to you. It didn’t make me hate you or think less of you, quite the opposite. But it was still… uncomfortable. At first, the suit thought it had finally found a way to break me, make me see you in a light that would change the way I felt about you. But it didn’t and that’s when it really lost its temper with me…”
Esper had been in the top backroom of Salome Skull’s dirty little brothel. He had watched her snort a staggering amount of amphetamines and pull one of the clients up the stairs with her, some beefy idiot who she knew would be able to give her a proper throwing around. He was on top of her now, the two of them bumping and pumping away. She was making the noises she usually made when she enjoyed herself in this manner.
Esper had been given no choice these past several months other than to find ways to manage his jealousy. It was an ugly, exhausting, useless emotion. It made him feel even more insubstantial than his present, spectral nature, impotent. He had managed to come to a place within himself between meditative detachment and perverse enjoyment. His feelings were still occasionally mixed in a way he couldn’t control, but he tried to be happy that she was having a good time. It wasn’t the sex itself that upset him. The more apart Lee was from the strictures of custom and order, the more corrupt and counter to conventional morality he saw her become, the more he fell in love with her. It was his own inability to participate in anything he witnessed of her life—her joy or pain or fury or pleasure—that hurt him. That did not stop the suit from making its own observations.
Given her track record, that man mashing his genitals into the Garnet has a subnormal intellect and I am fairly certain he beats his children. Doesn’t that bother you, Esper?
“He’s making his contribution to the party. What he did before or goes on to do now is irrelevant to this moment of shared humanity.”
What a ridiculous line of thinking. How much do I have to show you before you accept that she’s nothing more than a whore?
Look at the Garnet. Look at what the Garnet is doing.
“She doesn’t sell her body. He’s not paying her. Ergo she’s not a whore. Choose your words more carefully, rag. She’s just having fun, the same kind I would be trying to have if you gave me back my damn body.”
How could you care for an abject thing like that? You deserve a better love, a love beyond the wayward flesh and inconstant hearts of your kind.
“Is that what you’re doing now by denying me my fucking freedom and will? Loving me?”
I thought I could make you see that the Garnet’s not worthy of you but all this time around her seems to have done little besides coarsen your vocabulary. You have to stop blinding yourself with romantic delusions, mon beau. The Garnet’s a broken creature.
“What’s your point? You know in all this time… nearly two years you’ve had me watching her, you know what’s one thing I’ve never felt? I haven’t been bored once. Not by her, anyway.”
I am the pattern unending. I could undrape grand mysteries; grant you the power to reshape the world in any way you please.
“I’d appreciate if you could get around to that because what you’re doing now is about as far from a grand mystery as we could get. It’s desperate and obvious and real damn dull.”
Stop talking like her!
“Furnish me with better profanity and I’ll consider it.”
…Was that really all the Garnet had to do to lay such an enormous claim on you? Not be boring?
“That’s what I care about most. Power for it’s own sake is a game no one ever wins. You’re right that I want to remake my world, but for the sole purpose of making it more interesting to me. If you could get over your hurt feelings about having to share me, you’d see the real truth in me, deeper even than what I feel for that one there: I just never want to be that boy again, hemmed in by goodness, bored as a ticking timepiece. I’d do anything to avoid that fate, no matter how awful or blood-soaked.”
If it’s blood you want, Esper, I’ll give it to you! I’m tired of trying to make you see reason. You say you’ve witnessed the Garnet’s ‘humanity’, as if it were virtue and not frailty. Humanity? You’re better than that imperfection, mon coeur; you just have yet to realize what it means to love what’s mortal. She’s just like any other wretched human. You’ve watched her piss and fornicate and bleed and lie and make ten thousand bad decisions. Now you can watch her die!
Esper could feel his body beginning to solidify, could feel the deadly will within the suit unfurling. Esper fought it with everything he had, all his rage and all his resolve and whatever was deeper within him than that. Their struggle sent the two of them spiraling out the window in a cloud of increasingly thick smoke. They spun down the alleys and sidestreets. With a scream that echoed across the tier, Esper transmuted into being once again. He could feel, he could move his limbs, blink his eyes. He staggered, taking his first steps as a free man. He felt like a beast, like something barely human. The suit had intended to kill and that desire burnt through both of them now. A group of sneering young men rounded the corner, some of them holding knives and chains. Esper’s lips peeled back in a lunatic grin.
“That outfit of yours is whole new kind of crazy,” Lee said. “I’ve seen what it can do. It would’ve ripped me into hash if you hadn’t managed to tame it.” The light beginning to peek through the parting storm clouds glinted off Esper’s sleeve, revealing the fabric to be dry, unsoiled and radiant. Lee looked down at it. “But even still, I think it’s very pretty.”
“Me too. It put me through hell but I still need it. I even love it, in my own warped way. I’ve extracted a promise from it never to attempt to harm you again. We’re learning as we go. I’m learning to command it. It’s learning to obey me.”
“So, does that mean that night was the last time you spied on me?”
“Mostly!? Fuck, Esper. I hate being peeped on.”
“Old habits, you know, but don’t be a hypocrite. We’re both liars and trespassers. We both go where we please and take whatever knowledge interests us, to hell with taboo for its own sake. Still, I’ll try to tell you the truth. I like telling you the truth. Here’s some of it that might comfort you: I never come to you unseen. I’m never there when you don’t know it.”
“Then what the goddamn hell constitutes ‘mostly’?”
“Well, you have a lovely mother, even if she’s something of a shameless flirt.”
Before she left in the quiet of night, Lee peaked in for one last look at Lazy. As nice as it was to see him laying there, sleeping soundly, it also reminded Lee why she came here so rarely. The boy’s face reminded her of too much. She had not survived this long by dwelling on the things she’d done. Regrets had to be shed before they killed you. But what did you do when those regrets took on a life outside of you, walked and talked and looked at you like you had a responsibility to them?
She sighed. It had been her choice to steal him, to don the first of her new generation of false identities, walk into the infant care ward, and snatch Bathsheba Collings’s nameless, dying bastard. She supposed guilt had been a part of it. Love had made her do some mad things before she learned how ardently it had to be avoided. She hadn’t meant for the kid to get caught in the crossfire, hadn’t even thought about it at the time, but that didn’t change the result. When her blood had finished boiling she had felt an implacable need to undo as much of the damage as possible. Now she had Lazy—who had his father’s face, his eyes and gap-toothed smile—whose presence in her life was unbearable and necessary in equal parts.
She made her way to the air-dock in the predawn stillness. Reflection was a messy business, she decided. Better to walk into the high when she felt it sweeping over her, that intoxicating force that filled her and would not let her stop moving. When Lee was moving with the high, she could stay ahead of her troubles, so she always embraced it when it came to her even if it made her reckless, oblivious to the harm she spread around herself, and was inevitably followed by a corresponding low. Lee cleared her mind of any remaining doubt, a mental action that came naturally to her. It was time to make war.
She strode through the metal corridors of the subterranean base, the bustle of workers, engineers, aviators, machinists, thaumaturges, and crew-bosses all parted to make a path for her. She barked orders at them as she walked.
“Teams of twenty to each tier! The local chiefs know to keep their folks in line but I want our people there to shore things up. Make no mistake, when the lights go out, there’s going to be panic, even more when they realize they’re not coming back on. It’s your goddamn jobs to contain it. I will not abide any fucking riots or unnecessary carnage during our revolution! Each team will bring five… no ten bricks of nepenthe-cut morphine with them in case any civilians need to be sedated.”
“Make sure to double-check the radio connection. All our crews need to be synchronized if we’re going to pull this off, just like we practiced. You, Esdras! Run ahead and tell Captain Swann to gin up the engines. Inform her that we depart in ten minutes. You, Lamech! Bring me today’s read-outs from the anemometer. You, Jehonathan, did I ever tell you that you have a stupid name? Go get me a cup of coffee, black as the inside o’ your momma’s hole. I have the most wonderful hangover today and I intend to do all manner of just righteous murders.”
She was caffeinated and on the bridge of the Under Over. She ordered Jehonathan to fetch her a cigar from her cabin. He was back in an instant, red-faced and sweating gouts from his sprint. When he made to hand it to her, Lee hissed at him and snatched it away. With a fluid motion of her index talon, she lopped the tip off. She struck a lucifer with her thumbnail, held up the bright flame to the end of her stogie, and inhaled luxuriantly. May Bell stepped away from the wheel and Lee took her rightful place there, puffing away as she one-handedly steered the ship out of the dock and into a steep ascent. They soared out of the dust as day broke, glinting bright against the hull as they climbed. No more hiding, no more limits on the altitude she could attain. To the citizens who glimpsed the airship as it sailed up through the new morning, it must have appeared as glorious as Lee felt while she piloted it. Air was her elemental home every bit as much as smoke was Esper’s.
He was waiting for them on tier ten, standing on the edge of a rolled steel joist that protruded from the exterior of the wall. He was resplendent in the light of the dawn, the wind lightly rippling the bright fabric of his suit and tousling his pompadour. He stepped off the edge of the beam, his body bursting into a puff that sailed the distance to the Under Over’s bridge. His smoke mingled with that of Lee’s cigar, drinking it up. When his body re-solidified by her side, he exhaled a thin stream of it, looking pleased with himself.
“Hello, my darling,” they said to one another. Lee nuzzled her head beneath his collarbone.
“Will they suffer?” she asked with a purr.
“Undoubtedly,” he replied, his fingertips lightly touching the skin behind her ear. “And when the time comes they will greet death as a welcome release.”
She felt the suit ripple uneasily against her cheek and pulled back to take the controls.
“Poor jealous cloth,” she thought. “The more you fight to hold on, the looser he shakes your grip.”
She tossed Esper his share of the hex bullets and he smiled appreciatively. He unholstered his revolver, snapped the chamber open, and loaded it. Lee felt proud of how much mayhem he was going to cause with them. She took the Under Over higher, building speed as they overtook tiers four, three, two, and then shot up past tier one like an arrow, going further still, higher than any Bastion-born human had ever gone before. Lee glimpsed over two hundred armored constables assembled in squads across the tier, dozens craning their necks to behold the implausible sight, a few of the quicker ones leveling their harquebuses and firing at the ship, all their shots missing by dismal margins. They were out of range in no time. She leveled them off several hundred meters above the city.
Esper stretched his arms above his head and drifted casually to the bridge’s escape hatch. He could have easily smoked his way to the ground, but Lee knew he would take the privilege of a dramatic entrance. He opened the hatch, paused, and looked back at Lee.
“If I die,” he began. Lee shook her head.
“That’s not going to happen, darling. Not today. You know that, don’t you?”
“Nothing is guaranteed,” he said. “If I die, be sure that your next partner-in-crime is worthy of you… just as long as they aren’t better looking or dressed than me.”
“No other partners. Not even if you die.”
“Why, my lady, how sentimental of you.”
“Not sentiment.” She could barely talk. Why was that? “Just facing the facts…” She stared at him for what seemed a long time. His eyes ticked back and forth, momentarily uncomfortable, before they locked and held her gaze.
This was how it had been between them lately. Sometimes, she would find herself looking at him with so much love it was difficult for him to countenance it, like trying to stare down an oncoming dust storm, while other times she seemed to begrudge the very notion that he had eyes in his head with which to regard her. She was mercurial, inconstant. He was fixed, a lodestar of unwavering obsession. She felt taken prisoner and would find herself contemplating steering the ship into a fiery ruin or bidding him to cast himself into the earth never to return, just to free herself of his ruinous, exacting claim on her.
Even then, in these moments of pitch black hatred, she would think of how perfectly made they were for one another, of the inescapable gravity of their complementary natures, and she would ask herself what she was running toward or away from. As often happened when Lee confronted these imponderables head on, she had no answer that would satisfy her or anyone else. Better to hide, came the whisper from within, better to steal herself away from him and whatever he meant to her. Hate was so much easier to believe in anyway. She knew whom she hated and everyone she hated knew she hated them. Hate was real, unwavering, a solid presence in a human life while love was trembling, ephemeral, shaken out of place by the slightest tremor—a misspoken word, a misunderstood sentiment—and once its presence was suspect, it was so easy to believe it had never been there at all.
“…you are my only irreplaceable man.”
Esper smiled and they both knew what she said was true and why.
“Finally met your match, Lee Garnet?”
“Ask me that again at the end of the day.”
She blew him a kiss.
He put his hand over his heart as if mortally wounded. Then he leaned backwards and fell out of the hatch, plummeting towards the fracas that waited for him below.
“Why didn’t you plant one on him for real? That would’ve been so sweet,” May Bell said. “Going into combat and all, he could use the luck.”
“Had to leave him a little frustrated. Now he’ll go forth with enough war in his head to see it through and enough longing in his heart to come back.”
“I still say you should’ve kissed him.”
“Who asked you anyway, slut?” Lee said, pinching the aviatrix’s cheek. “Now wire the others and tell them to start hauling. As for us, commence a thirty-count. At its finish we follow the King down. Battle stations, y’all! Weapons free! Death from above! Any of you sons of bitches who manage to survive gets to drink on me!”
Esper grinned as he fell face first towards the scores of men who would soon try and fail to kill him. Irreplaceable. His whole body sang with the word. He didn’t know exactly what it meant for the two of them but he refused to die until he found out. He was coming down at Daylight Square. Some of the constables had torn their attention away from the Under Over long enough to notice him, gesturing apoplectically at their fellows, stupid astonishment on their faces.
He landed in the midst of a platoon, combusting into smoke that curled into their noses and mouths. Esper expanded within them, asphyxiating those closest to where he had made impact, choking and blinding the rest. They were armed with bladed harquebuses, flamethrowers, and automatic crossbows. A few of the bigger ones were armored in full plate and hefting lances. Some had grenades hanging from their belts. The Hero of the Day had allowed the Sandhedrin to open the armory, as Esper had assumed he would. What happened next, he knew, would be loud. Good. He wanted as much spectacle as possible.
Esper pulled his form together while the men around him were still choking and sputtering. The threndrils unspooled about his body. It would have been a simple thing to slaughter them all then and there but that would have lacked theatricality. He was not just risking his life for victory but for art as well. This battle was to be his opera and it would usher in a new age for the city. He had to do it right.
Lee brought the ship around so she had a full view of the mayhem. They were orbiting the circumference of the tier only a few dozen meters above the fray as it unfolded. She watched Esper as he started playing with them. One of the constables leveled his automatic crossbow and the piston within it let loose a score of bolts at high velocity. Esper’s form leapt into mist at the split-second of impact, so they struck the lancer who had been charging at his back, piercing his armor, making a screaming pincushion of him. More tried to close in around him, raising their blades. Through their bulk she glimpsed the suit flash some kind of horrific pattern and they all fell backward simultaneously, clawing at their own eyes, foaming at the mouth. The suit’s thread-appendages killed several more men with their own guns, pulling the harquebuses from their hands, reversing and entwining them, pulling taught the trigger and discharging bullets into their unbelieving faces.
She could see Esper take notice of the ship. From his delighted expression, she realized he knew that she was watching. He opened his jacket and brought out his revolver. He was going to field-test her hex bullets. One of the upshots of his obsessive nature, Lee mused, was a thoroughness in demonstrating his appreciation that she found gratifying. He pointed his gun at another of the huge, plate-male outfitted lancers, an officer attempting to call his soldiers to order. When the bullet struck him, his armor twisted inward in a tight spiral that contracted, then burst outward, vaporizing his entire upper body into a gory mist. The bullet did not stop there and killed the three men who had standing in a row behind the officer, tearing one cannonball-sized hole after another through them. Lee had to admit, her first foray into hex-smithing had gone even better than she had expected it to. Esper dramatically blew the smoke off the barrel and re-holstered his piece, saving the rest of the ammo for later when he would need it more.
The constables scrambled, trying to form up. They made the fatal mistake of clustering. Esper’s threads lifted one of the grenadiers off the ground, yanked all the pins out of his ordinance, and threw him down among his fellows. Lee inhaled sharply. She couldn’t help it. The cabin shook, even from this distance. The size of the explosion gave her the downstairs shivers. She wanted to make some noise of her own.
Another platoon, intact and organized, moved to support the one Esper was cutting a swath through. They charged towards the billows of soot and the reek of carbonized flesh. Lee signaled her gunners to open fire. The Under Over’s repeaters spat a hundred lethal flashes, mowing down line after line of the reinforcements. Lee banked the ship so the dying men could get a better view of its starboard side and yanked a lever by the helm, sending a volley of missiles to annihilate them. The remaining soldiers charging towards the killing field now had their attention divided between the death dealt by Esper and the death dealt by Lee’s airship. She decided to divide it even further and gave an order through the intercom. Three of the satellite balloons un-tethered from the ship’s main body and accelerated towards the fighting. The phalanx nearest them had begun firing at the airship, their bullets pinging against her armor. They didn’t know what to make of the smaller balloons until Lee’s crewmembers stood up from their hiding spots in the nacelle baskets, bazookas in hand, and gave the men below just enough time to be further perplexed before the concussive blast-waves shook their bodies apart. It had been Lee’s idea to use the Under Over’s supplemental balloons for offensive deployment. They bobbed in the air like big, round colorful tits; who would expect them to rain down fiery death?
“Poor bastards,” May Bell said.
“They’d do the same to us,” Lee said. “We just have better toys.”
It was barely taking any time to route the Sanhedrin’s forces, which was understandable. They had been taken completely by surprise even though they’d been anticipating an attack for days. They had expected an army of thugs, not one man in the deadliest suit ever tailored and a war-machine that hadn’t existed for a millennium. They thought they had their hands on the most powerful weapons in the city, unable to anticipate the technology Esper had resurrected.
Still, the plan depended on them drawing this scene out, kicking up as much chaos as possible. Esper had begun butchering them too fast. He had abandoned the creative subtlety with which he had begun the attack. His filaments spun out, seizing armored men and crushing them, winding into nooses that yanked off heads, wrapping about bodies and julienning them into slabs like razor wire through clay. The threads formed a pattern in the air around him, shifting from spirals into a rigid grid, impaling limbs, hauling up soldiers like flies twisting in a web, its lines dripping with thick daubs of crimson.
The survivors fell back around the Temple. The great cannons were raised on either side of the stone stairway that led to its gate, each over ten meters long, originally designed to repel attacking colossi. Teams of engineers and laborers were scrambling around them, making adjustments, arguing and making terror-stricken gesticulations, officers issuing orders and counter-orders. At first, Lee thought they intended to aim them at the Under Over, a laughable notion considering how maneuverable she was especially compared to the clunky ancient weapons. Then Lee realized the artillerymen had a different target in mind. Esper was advancing at the Temple head-on, killing as he went, the battlefield growing thicker with blood around him. He did nothing to alter his course, even though both huge barrels were pointed directly at him. Lee flicked open her telescope and focused it on him. His suit was strobing pattern and she had to squint past it to make out his face, which was even more expressionless than usual; his lips parted and slack, his eyes glazed over.
“Snap out of it,” Lee murmured.
The first cannon fired at him.
For a moment, Lee was shaken. Not by the thunderous blast but by the demonic smile that sprang onto Esper’s face.
The ball of solid iron hurtling towards Esper was easily three times the size of his body. He was extremely pleased. He had just been wondering, idly, how he could kill even more of them and here they had given him the means to do just that. The threndrils were gossamer, so fast and fine they were difficult to see, but hundreds of them had unspooled to swarm the air around him and they encircled the cannonball and snatched it off its intended trajectory. Esper spun his body and the threndrils spun with him, swinging the great mass of iron around him in a wide arc, using it like a gigantic flail to smash flat all the remaining fighters within its radius. Then he commanded the filaments to release it. The momentum sent the ball sailing back in the direction of the Temple. It bowled through the crowd of constables until, slowed by the accumulated viscera and bone fragments, it slammed into an ornately carved wall and lodged there.
In their panic, the artillery crew operating the second cannon fired on Esper with much the same result. This time, when he sent the ball flying back it struck its origin directly, colliding with the cannon so that it came unmoored from the stone and metal that held it, the huge iron shaft flipping straight up so it teetered like a drunken chimney before crashing down to crush those caught beneath it.
Yes, the suit cried rapturously. YES! Chef d’oeuvre! Forget the pipe, forget the drum. Your true music is carnage. Kill more. MORE. Kill them all! You want to. I can feel it. This is what we were meant for. You and I. Absolute power. Complete control. Is there anything else you could ever want more than this?
“No,” Esper whispered back. He was hovering on the threshold of a blood fugue. Giving into it completely was a primal, even carnal urge. Then he caught himself. “NO! …the plan, the plan. Besides, some survivors are more useful to me than none. The rest of Bastion has to hear what happened today. We need tales of our ferocity to spread, yes, but also our mercy.”
Grumbling, the suit obeyed him, taking a moment to shake the gore off its fibers. Its patterns slowed their frenzy, finally settling into a regal, pinstripe navy blue.
There were less than fifty constables left and most of them were cowering like frightened animals. Esper reached out with the threndrils and pulled the weapons out of their hands, slamming them together two meters above his head. He spun a threndril-cocoon around the various instruments of death and crushed them, creating an unexpectedly appealing modern sculpture that he carefully set out of the way so that later he could either give it to Lee or use it to memorialize their triumph.
“I’ll make you gentlemen just a single offer of clemency. Fall on your bellies in the next ten seconds and a place will be found for you in the new order. Or choose to stay on your feet and I will kill you in whatever fashion I think will most amuse the lady in yon fire-spitting airship. My business is with the robed swine behind those gates who would sacrifice all of you to extend their worthless lives by a matter of moments.”
They fell before him in postures of submission, only a few at first but that was enough to give the others permission to succumb, the last vestiges of their training and indoctrination giving way to the sweet release of self-preservation. Esper walked to the wrought-iron gateway of the Temple. He raised his hand to open it but the gates burst outwards with such force and suddenness that their hinges warped. Esper fall back, nearly stumbling.
An enormous automaton, an eight-meter tall chimera with humanoid legs and the upper body of a great, trashing centipede, lumbered through the open doorway. It took Esper a moment but he recognized it from the history texts: a dybbuk-class guardian, a model used for riot suppression in the early centuries of Bastion, illegalized due to its astronomic incidental kill-count, the last of them locked away in the armory for centuries. Esper raised an eyebrow. Apparently they’d be kept in working order. Even as it raised one of its dozen weapon-limbs, a second guardian appeared behind it, smashing the twisted remains of the gates off their hinges to accommodate its girth.
The first automaton slashed downward at Esper with an arm like a cleaver. It was fast for its size and he barely had time to leap back, smoke pluming off his body as he floated out of its range. The second guardian fired a rocket-propelled chain at him. Not yet completely insubstantial, the mace at its tip caught him by the shoulder and sent him careening back even further, grimacing in pain and struggling to find his footing on the stair. A blow like that would have easily killed an ordinary man but the suit’s dense, living threads were the finest armor and had absorbed the brunt of it. He could feel the fibers working into his flesh to repair the injury.
Some of the constables were regaining their feet, most attempting to flee although several spontaneously decided to bum rush Esper now that he’d been taken off guard. As they leapt at him, Esper began to spin, the threndrils tightening in a protective dervish around him so he became a whirling, man-sized top that sent his attackers flying away in every direction. A missile whizzed by overhead, catching the guardian nearest him dead center—Lee had taken the Under Over in close to provide him with air-support. The explosion ripped the guardian’s metallic chest-cavity open, revealing the turning gear-work that powered its automata processor. Barely pausing, it advanced at Esper, bringing up a pair of scythes to bisect him. At the center of his gyre, Esper communed with the suit.
“I think it’s time we got a closer look. Form a more thorough assessment of our opponent.”
Agreed. The Garnet’s attack has already provided us with an opening.
“Shall we, then?”
Threndrils whipped forth from the gyre, wrapping themselves around the damaged guardian’s limbs, anchoring and twisting tight. Esper whirled backwards, then—with a snap like a slingshot—rocketed towards the automaton, the narrow base of the threndril dervish striking its opened chest like the tip of a drill. Esper bore his way through the machine’s innards, carefully studying everything he saw before he burst through its back, landing gracefully amid a shower of cogs and debris at the top of the stairs as the filaments loosened and retracted back into his jacket and trousers.
The first guardian crumpled behind him, inoperative scrap metal. The second one was directly in front of him. It brought its multitude of slicing, crushing, mincing, and piercing implements down at him where they passed through a burst of smoke and sparked against the stone. Esper gusted up to the automaton’s chest, a phantasm in more or less the shape of a man and, with an insubstantial hand, reached into it, found what he was looking for, and jerked back. He coalesced into solidity and opened his fist to reveal a tiny gear. The guardian trembled like an old man and collapsed, its limbs unable to coordinate with one another. Esper flipped the driver-gear as if it were a coin and caught it in his pocket.
Esper dusted off his lapels, stepped over the wreck, and entered the Temple of the Continuance. It had been too long since he paid his father a visit.
Lee used the pause in the battle to blow up the homes of some of her favorite government officials. Esper had asked her to preserve as many of the tier one structures as possible for later use, but asking Lee not to do something had a way of making her want to do it even more. She spared the houses that had irises in their gardens and the ones she knew had libraries in them. Then she steered the Under Over on a short downward dive. She hovered just out of sight on the opposite end of tier one from the Hero of the Day’s glowing fortress.
“What now?” May Bell asked.
“Now we wait and hope all this mayhem will coax the big man out of his hidey-hole.”
“Couldn’t we just launch some missiles through his front door?”
“Plan doesn’t work if he doesn’t come out. That Stronghold of his spends all day drinking up sunlight. Without it, he’d be totally vulnerable at night. Everything’s got some kind of poison that kills it. His is darkness. We have to cut him off from all the light, which means getting him to drag his big, shiny ass out of his gaudy little castle.”
“You and the king just leveled half the tier and killed like ten-thousand people in ways I didn’t even think were physically possible. He’s still holed up in there.”
“That was just foreplay. Our man’s in the Temple and he’s set to seal the deal.”
“You two ain’t been wrong so far. What are you gonna do when the Hero comes out to play with us?”
“I was thinking I might try to kill myself.”
Esper threw wide the door to the main chamber. The hallway behind him was littered with the crippled personal guard the Sanhedrin had kept in reserve. He found the collective gasp of the twenty-three fools seated around the table of prosperity extremely gratifying.
“Huh-huh-who are you?” one of the councilors stuttered, his jowls quivering. None of them recognized him, not while his pattern instantly erased his face from their minds.
“I’m the man in the magic suit,” Esper said. “Who the fuck are you?”
The threndrils darted forth, snatching each of them up from their seats and pressing them up against the vaulted ceiling. Most were too shocked to speak but a few of the councilors managed to muster haughty indignity even as they were pinned like insects in a collection.
“When the Hero of the Day—”
“Lords and ladies,” Esper said, “I’ll be with you in a moment. Until then, if you’ll kindly refrain from flapping your face meat.” The threads crept over their mouths, gagging them. “The next one of you who tries to speak so much as a syllable without my leave gets their lips sewn shut permanently.”
Esper crossed the chamber. He kicked the table of prosperity out of his way, the enormous piece of symbolic furniture sailing to the side like an oversized discus. He came to the great gear-work that activated the city’s evacuation protocol and sealed the walls. With twenty-three pairs of wide, disbelieving eyes on him, he pulled the lever. The gears turned. The alarums blared. Every tier beneath them would soon be sealed in darkness—the Wraith’s organization had been covertly repairing the shutters and panels throughout the city for weeks—and their citizens hustled into the shelters. All the banging and clanging from the upper tiers must have already braced them for the evacuation sirens. Once enough time had passed for every window, portal, and bulkhead to close and seal off the city’s interior, Esper snapped the lever off and jammed it into the gears, rendering it irreversible.
He turned back to the Sanhedrin. Smiling, he discontinued the subliminal pattern that concealed his identity. He wanted them all to see him, especially his father.
“Salutations,” he said cheerfully. “I have to say, seven years isn’t nearly long enough to avoid the company of you vapid wind bags.” He unbound their mouths but only one of them spoke.
“E-esper?” said Esper the Elder, pinned in a place of honor at the very center of the dome. “You’re alive. Thank the sun and stars. I never dreamed… How’s this possible? Where’s the Wraith? Is he making you do this?”
“One and the same,” Esper said, bowing with a flourish.
“Traitor! Criminal and traitor!”
“Enough of that, Hammurabi. We have work to do. We’re bringing real artistry back to the city and it starts here. Big smiles, everyone! You’re all going to help me put on a show.”
At the heart of his Stronghold, the Hero of the Day sat cross-legged beneath the radiance of his miniature artificial sun. He was hovering a meter off the ground, every cell in his body drinking in the light. It was important that he remain strong. He was fairly certain there were people depending on him. There always had been, as far back as he could remember.
He wanted desperately to ignore the commotion outside. If he intervened whenever the humans had a problem, how would they ever learn to take care of themselves? He wished he could see into their minds and know how urgent their need really was, but that level of insight was only granted him in the moments before he extracted the panacea from the ashes of an intellect. He shuddered at the thought.
His day had begun badly. In the predawn he had taken tea with the bad seed at the table in his sanctum, a degrading ritual he submitted to about once per decade. Both the tea and the vile company left equally rancid tastes in his mouth. The Hero normally longed for companionship, he missed all his old friends (the only one he had managed to bring to his city was forever out of his reach now) and at this point he would have wistfully greeted even his old enemies, but he could not find the slightest joy in these teatimes. Still, they had an arrangement and the bad seed had always held up its end.
The Hero of the Day closed his eyes and tried to set his mind to work on the problem. The problem of the closed system. The problem of entropy and the rot of time. Bastion was nearly spent. He knew it, could envision it in less than a century, even sooner if the humans behaved as recklessly as they were often wont to do. Yet the world out there wasn’t safe for the descendents of the species he had loved like his own children. How could he make everyone safe and happy? How could he stop the madness, stop himself, and rest knowing that they would continue without him? As it often had before, his concentration danced like a wind-borne feather along the surface of an answer, trying to catch onto its contours. He nearly had it when the sound of another explosion resounded in his ears.
He turned his head. He could hear everything happening outside perfectly. The screams, the gunfire, the hearts as they ceased beating, the desperate supplications of the terrified and the dying. He sighed. What had he just been thinking about? It must not have mattered very much if he couldn’t remember it. Then again, he couldn’t remember the voices of his own parents, not even what kind of people they were, and that sort of thing seemed important. He remembered his friends, sometimes, and he missed them, although at this point he missed the idea of them more than any of their individual characteristics. When they had been together, they had been an unstoppable force for peace and decency—although something must have stopped them at some point, obviously. There had been love too, hadn’t there? A woman’s hand on his? The tantalizing curve of a leg in a short skirt; he could see that clearly in his mind’s eye. Had there even been a time when such things had interested him? It made him happy to think that there had. He would have liked to further explore these unexpected notions but then there was all that damned racket outside.
Except, it was no longer the sound of combat disturbing his meditations. It was the high whine of the evacuation sirens. That shouldn’t have been possible. The alarums only sounded when he ordered the Sanhedrin to provide him with cover under which he could medicate himself. Had he succumbed to his disgusting appetite and simply forgotten? No, he had been trying so hard to be good, to keep himself away from temptation. The bad seed had mocked him about it that very morning.
He considered stepping out onto the Stronghold’s veranda to see what the commotion was about, but then he recalled that he could see through walls whenever he wished. It was nice when, even after a long life, you found you were still capable of surprising yourself. He narrowed his eyes and peered out at the aftermath of the battle. He felt nothing at the sight of the dismembered bodies, the burning buildings, the airship soaring through the sky—wait, no, that was interesting. The Hero was under the impression that those machines no longer existed. In the world that was, he had always considered them to be so adorable, such a fantastic example of humankind’s ingenuity, their ability to transmute their dreams into reality. He had thought about them a great deal after Bastion was first founded, but then he had lost his way and nearly forgotten their entire existence. The sight of it now nearly made his eyes well up.
Before he had time to give the matter further contemplation, he saw into the main chamber of the Temple of the Continuance. Was that some kind of squid holding the council members of the Sanhedrin against the ceiling? It bore an uncanny resemblance to suit of multitudinous patterns. Thankfully, that particular horror was safely locked away. At least, he thought so. In less than a second, the Hero was opening the display case, his eyes conducting a microscopic examination of the forgery.
If that was the suit, then who was wearing it? The Hero’s gaze focused back on the Temple, onto the face of a man he thought he would never see again. The light of judgment ignited before his pupils, scorching the duplicate suit and the mannequin into ash. His body became a golden comet that tore through the walls of the Stronghold and the Temple of the Continuance like they were paper.
The table of prosperity was embedded in the stone at the other end of the chamber. It was functioning now as a makeshift stage. The councilmembers of the Sanhedrin were dancing upon it, their synchronized movements prompted by the puppet strings bound to their arms and legs, none of them daring to cry out because of the nooses hanging just loose enough around their necks. They gave a jerky, exaggerated bow as he walked toward them over the debris, then they locked arms with their partners and began a jouncing waltz. The performance continued even as its director turned his huge, toothy smirk to face the Hero of the Day.
“You’re late to the show, handsome, but you haven’t missed the best part yet.”
I would have waited from one end of time to the other for this moment, the suit hissed in vicious satisfaction. Keep your promise, Esper. Make him pay for what he did to me. Make him pay for trying to keep us apart.
“If you’d be kind enough to give me a moment to collect myself,” said the Hero of the Day.
He flew forward. Esper bounced over him on threndril springs, landing near the hole where the Hero had torn through the wall. He was still connected to the strings that controlled his all-asshole marionette revue. He directed his father to center stage and forced him to make rude gestures at the Hero, who seemed concerned by neither the spectacle nor Esper himself. The demigod eyed the councilors, sniffed the air, and floated toward Lemuel Xing. He tore the man away from the strings and descended back to the ground holding him like an infant.
“Thank you, mighty Hero. Thank you, thank you,” Xing panted.
“Oh, none of that,” the Hero of the Day said. He brought his gaze closer to Xing’s. “There’s so much compassion in you. The others think you’re an insincere crank but deep down to the core of your being, you really do wish to use this government to make things better for all the people of Bastion. I can see it in your mind. It’s very beautiful.”
“I—I think I’ve waited all my life to hear you say that. I’ve always thought that we were alike in that way,” Xing said, tears wetting his wrinkled cheeks.
“Perhaps it was that way once,” the Hero sighed. “Unfortunately, it is no longer so.”
Twin flames sparked in the narrow gap between their faces. Xing screamed and screamed and then fell silent. Esper could not have stopped it if he tried. He dropped the rest of the councilors to the table, leaving their hands and feet bound, so they could witness the Hero of the Day consume one of their own. None of them had ever actually seen it happen firsthand. Esper doubted whether any of them had even bothered to look at the victims once he was done with them, packing them off to the asylum, out of sight, out of mind. They would look now though.
After a final, deeply satisfied snort, the Hero dropped Xing’s twitching, unoccupied vessel and faced Esper. His face was serene, his voice lucid.
“I misjudged you so badly, Gavirel. I believed you would be this city’s next great hero. Instead you’ve joined forces with that monster and become a monster yourself. You could have ruled Bastion as its protector. A singular gift for a singular man. You had power freely offered to you and you chose to steal it instead. Tell me this: why would you betray everything your family has stood for and vouchsafed for the past thousand years?”
“To punish you for your crime,” Esper replied without hesitation.
“It’s justice that brought you here today? Because you care so much about the lives of your fellow beings? Many people are dying right now because of the havoc you are causing. Burning debris just crushed the bunker on tier two. I can hear them now. Was it just for you to bring this chaos upon your city, for you to butcher all those men out there, to kill and take whatever you wanted?”
“It is just for slaves to rise up and kill their masters,” Esper replied “It’s the most perfect justice there is. But that’s not what this is about. Yes, you’re a sick fucking bastard with that habit of yours and these dancing bastards are even worse, covering it up just so they get to stay in charge. I’ll admit, it does rankle somewhat that you managed to pull one over on me, but even that is not the crime I speak of. You committed one of the few sins I can never forgive. You bored me. Now you’re going to pay for it.”
“Perhaps if I burn that magnificent mind away and inhale its panacea, I will finally obtain the insight I need to save this city. You will be the last one I take, Gavirel, and when I’m done with you I’m going to lock that wretched suit away for another millennium.”
Never, the suit said, betraying a momentary flicker of panic.
“You face a living death from which you will never awaken,” said the Hero of the Day.
“Mm, now if only you’d talked dirty like this before, maybe we would have gotten along better. While I would very much enjoy seeing you try, this script’s already written and I bet the future of Bastion that I know your next line.”
Esper and the Hero of the Day spoke the words at the same time:
Lee hollered like a mad woman as the air rushed around her. She had never been in freefall without a glider strapped to her back. It was positively exhilarating. If she died right now, it wouldn’t be so terrible.
Before leaping out of the escape hatch, she had ordered May Bell to wait a ten-count, then land by the Temple and take the Sanhedrin captive while the Hero was distracted. Esper and her wanted them alive, for now, to use as hostages in the short term and to torture to their satisfaction in the long one. Once the prisoners were secure, the Under Over would assume a holding pattern in the airspace above tier one.
She had jumped without hesitation and screamed with an exhilarating mix of joy and mortal terror. This sensation was a perfect distillation of what it meant to be free, the wind in your hair, danger and death nearby unchecked, the loss of self as the world opened up beneath you. Then powerful hands caught her and golden light warmed her skin.
Lee pressed her head against his armored chest.
“My hero!” she cried with a smile. The Hero actually grinned back at her. They floated back towards tier one, their only option now that every other level of the city was sealed shut. He was taking more time than she’d expected him to, as if he were luxuriating in the moment.
“How did a sensible woman like you part company with solid ground?” he asked, his tone game.
“Oh, you know, living too close to the edge.”
“You remind me of… someone. She was very beautiful too, but hard as a tack. She would give me attitude even after I saved her life,” he said. Lee hadn’t anticipated the depth of his nostalgia, but she never missed an opportunity for a good play when the angle presented itself.
“Oh, I bet you say that to all the girls you catch.” She batted her painted eyelids at him, her voice coy and brash at the same time, a combination she could instantly tell appealed to this creature and put him off-guard.
“It was the happiest time of my life, when I would float back to the ground, her teasing me all the way down.”
“Keep all his focus. Do not allow his attention to wander,” Lee thought.
“Maybe we could get dinner later on and you could tell me all about her?” she suggested, “Once you’re done with whatever this business is, of course.”
“I believe I would enjoy that,” he said.
They alighted on the surface of tier one.
“You run to safety. Try to make it to the bunker and hammer on the door until they let you in. There’s great danger here and I would not see you harmed.”
“Wait,” Lee said. She opened her purse and began to rummage through it. “I want you to have something, a gift for your trouble.”
“Oh, that’s not nece—”
Lee pulled out her derringer and shot him directly in his left eye, the hex rune grinding against his iris. The bullet bounced away but a blood vessel burst beneath the surface, a crimson muddle spider-webbing across his sclera. The Hero staggered back, gripping his face.
Esper appeared by her side. As she reloaded, her fingers dexterously slotting in another shot, Esper brought out his revolver. They fired together. The blasts dented his armor, sent ripples along the surface of his skin, made him grunt in pain. How long had it been since this little god felt true pain?
When the smoke cleared and their ammo was expended, the Hero of the Day drew himself up. The helm had been knocked off his head, revealing a mane of golden curls whose substance shimmered like fire. Mildly luminous blood dripped from the corner of his eye, from his nostrils, and side of his mouth. He wiped it away with the back of his hand.
“Is that it?” he asked with a growl. “Are you quite finished with this pointless display?”
“I don’t know,” Lee said. “Are we finished, Esper?”
“He certainly looks distracted to me, Lee.”
“Distracted from what?” the Hero said, his now mismatched eyes narrowing.
“I made dinner plans with him but I think I’m going to cancel.”
“If you’re free then, do you want to try that place on tier sixty-two that seasons its meat with ghost chilies?”
“I could do with something hot, then maybe a nightcap.”
“Distracted from WHAT?” The Hero of the Day swung a skull-detonating punch at Esper’s head, catching nothing but smoke. Esper reformed behind him. Lee used the moment to stow her pistol and bring out her compact. She set to work painting her face. This would have to be her masterpiece.
“You have the eyes of a god and you still don’t see,” Esper said. The Hero kept charging him, striking insubstantial mist each time. The air laughed around him. “You know, you made such an ugly city,” he said. “Layer upon layer of dismal brutalist architecture inside a giant soup can. It’s only been missing one thing all these years. Look over your shoulder, handsome. You’ll see what I’m talking about.”
The clouds parted to reveal a skull the size of a mountain rising up past tier one. It was borne aloft by eleven airships, the fleet that Lee and Esper had constructed in secret these past several months, tethered to the horned ridges of bone, all of them working in concert, utilizing their combined power to lift the massive load. Their workers had soldered industrial hooks across the surface of the skull where the ships attached their lines, and smelted iron sealant across the eye and nose holes so that its interior was completely dark. Its shadow began to eclipse the tier, no ordinary darkness but almost a living thing, not merely blocking the light but extinguishing it.
“Aka Manah!” cried the Hero of the Day, breaking off his attempts to engage Esper. “You don’t know what you’re doing!”
The flames lit before his eyes again, only this time they expanded into huge gouts of pure, white fire that shot up towards the fleet. Lee could feel the heat dry her skin even from a distance. As the shadow of the colossus king’s mortal remnant bore down on them, the flames began to dissipate, retracting and flickering out. Shaking his head in rage, the Hero of the Day flew upward at the airships as they began to position the colossus skull directly over the city. Esper’s threads lashed about the Hero’s limbs and dragged him down. Even though the shadow had already begun to weaken him, Esper would only be able to hold him for seconds before he tore his way free. He used that time to swing the Hero about so he was face to face with Lee.
“No more fires,” Lee told him softly. She felt the make-up pulse against her skin. The Hero’s trembling eyes locked with hers. In that moment, she felt that she understood him better than any person had in many long centuries. “No more fighting to hold on. No more victims. No more guilt.” His expression relaxed. His struggles quieted, then ceased. The threads twined tighter and thicker around him.
Above them, the fleet released their hold on Aka Manah’s skull. It plummeted downward, crashing into Bastion. The entire city shook with a great, thrumming gong. There was a shriek of tearing metal as colossal teeth scraped against the exterior of the wall. An osseous dome covered the top tiers completely; an obscene lid for the giant can, throwing the vertical metropolis into complete and utter darkness.
The only sources of illumination Lee could see were the dying flames of combat, the spotlights of the Under Over, the rapidly diminishing glow that came from the Hero’s skin, and the dimming radiance of the Stronghold.
The Hero began to moan softly. He fell to his knees and began crawling towards the Stronghold like a man dying of thirst.
“We do not think so,” Esper said, but there was another voice beneath his, cruel and sibilant. “No light, no life, no more of you.” The threads pulled taught, encasing the Hero’s body. They lifted him up, his back arching so that all he could see was the black epicenter of the monstrous cranium overhead. Then they shot outward, carrying him across the surface of tier one, dragging him up the stairs of the Temple of the Continuance, slamming his prone form along the hallways, and depositing him in the now deserted main chamber, which was not quite empty. Lee’s crew had taken the Sanhedrin but left behind two-dozen barrels of gunpowder.
Esper put his arm around Lee’s waist and leapt into the air. The threads from his shoulders grappled onto the Under Over and twisted open its airlock. They walked onto the bridge a moment later, the crew gaping at them. May Bell turned away from the controls to face them.
“Your orders, admiral?” she asked Lee.
“Fire everything we’ve got at the Temple. I want it leveled. Concentrate on the main chamber. Bury the golden bastard in the wreckage of his pitiful order.”
It was the most spectacular explosion of the day, briefly illuminating the whole interior of the Aka Manah’s skull. The Temple was reduced to a smoldering heap of shattered stone in minutes. There was no sign of the Hero of the Day.
“Is he dead?” she asked Esper quietly.
“The suit’s ten-thousand eyes are searching for him. It says that he’s been… dispersed, on a molecular level. Pieces of him are floating in the air around the wreckage, beneath it too. They’ll gradually scatter throughout the city, then beyond.”
“Is that the same as being dead for a thing like him?”
“The suit says no, not yet. Its former master, the Hero’s enemy, was once able to disperse him in this manner. Sunlight can still restore him, give him the power to reconstitute himself. We need to keep the city in this darkness until he has dissipated too far to reassemble himself.”
“How long will that take? People are going to start getting itchy behind their eyelids if we leave that old monster’s brain-box above it all for long.”
“It’s calculating… hm. The suit says a year should be adequate. If we bring the light back before, we’ll have the same problem to deal with all over again. Once the year’s done, we can open the sky back up and never have to worry about him again.”
“A year of darkness. With that thing psst-pssting madness to all and sundry. What’s going to keep the city from completely falling apart?”
“We will. Our men are already stationed on every tier. We can keep the madness hemmed in, control the panic, give them stability. We’ll make sure food, water, and drugs are all available for free. You already had the brilliant idea, giving our people narcotics to administer to the overwrought. We’ll set up comfortable… sedation stations for anyone who might be better off sleeping through this year.”
“You sound like you mean to rule.”
“I know it’s not what we planned, but it’s only temporary. It’s the price we must pay for our freedom. We uprooted the old order, just like we wanted. Should we now abandon the city to madness?”
Lee knew that he would, if she said it should be so. She sighed.
“A year without sunlight? Whole damn town’s gonna be just as pale as we are.”
“Pale but alive.”
“Most of them below have never done us any wrong. I want things to be safe for mom and Lazy. I promised them things were going to be better for our family.”
“They are. We’ll make sure of it.”
“We really are too sweet for our own good.”
“If you want to see sweet, come with me to the cargo hold. I think you’re going to enjoy this.”
A few minutes later they were standing before the councilors of the Sanhedrin, their wrists and ankles still bound by Esper’s colorful threads. They were sprawled on the floor of the hold among the onion peels and sawdust.
“Darling, would you look at these high and mighty bitches?” Lee laughed. “I think this might be the worst day of their lives.”
“This is intolerable!” cried Milka Wagner, trying desperately to hold on to some of her dignity even with her ass in the air.
“By the authority of the Continuance, we demand that you release us!” said Jubal Sachs, mustering all the icy authority that a man could manage while trying to keep rat shit out of his eyes.
One of Lee’s burlier crewmen kicked Sachs in the face. Some of his family had died in the tor; a common circumstance among the lowborn toughs Lee had staffed her ship with. Esper held up a hand to stay him.
“None of you have any authority now,” he explained.
“Where is the Hero of the Day?” Abilene Petit asked, forming her voice into a passing imitation of civility.
“Gone,” Esper said. “Gone forever.”
“No!” Esper the Elder screamed. He looked insane with grief. Esper walked over to his father and placed the tip of his shoe against the old man’s cheek.
“Not only that, but every citizen of Bastion is going to know what he really was. What you helped him do. I have a dozen airships at my disposal and they are going to shuttle anyone who cares to down below the storm so they can personally witness the disgusting lie upon which your precious order was founded.”
“What are you going to do with us?” Baruch Stoker asked, his voice cracking.
“Pass sentence on you, of course,” Esper said without even looking at the young councilor.
“Listen here, boy,” blustered fat, old Conrad the Elder, “by what right do you presume?”
“The right of conquest,” Lee said with a giggle. “Of course.”
“Sanhedrin of Bastion,” Esper pronounced. “I, your sovereign Crime King, hereby sentence you…” he paused, almost as if he honestly hadn’t thought about it until now, his eyes drinking in their fear, “to live. You are all to be presently relocated to Gehenna, to dwell among the Christers, under guard, of course. You will learn humility, mercy, and compassion from the people there. You will use your hands and minds, such as they are, to help improve life on the lower tiers. There are some lovely families down there willing to provide you with room and board in exchange for honest labor. If they can learn to forgive you, you may eventually be allowed to find your own paths. Some of you may rise once more on your own merits. Some of you were better suited to be refuse collectors than rulers and that will ever be your station.”
“G-gehenna?” squeaked Habakkuk Collings.
“That’s preposterous,” Sachs wheezed through his broken nose.
“Or I could just give you to her,” Esper said, stepping aside so Lee could take the fore.
“If it were up to me, all you thin-bloods would be moving into extra small gibbets in the tor—there’s certainly going to be plenty of space once we free them you locked away there—and I’d spend weeks of joy slow roasting each of you in turn. Luckily for you, the time I’ve spent in my other half’s company has gentled me to the point where I find it hilarious thinking of you lot down in the slums, answerable to the same folks you’ve spent your lives pissing on. Not that I couldn’t easily change my mind back if you give me cause.”
“We’ll be good,” Abilene Petit said.
There was general, panicked murmuring from all of them now. Except Alcibiades Tarring, who was nursing a small, obnoxious smirk and staring shamelessly at Lee. Perhaps it would be better just to chuck him into the storm. Maybe she would later.
“I’ll come to see you soon, father,” Esper said. “Once you’ve comfortably settled into your new life of prayer and piety.”
“Don’t bother,” Esper the Elder said, voice choked with hatred. “You are not my son. Take that whore you betrayed your birthright for and get out of my sight.” Esper gave him a thin smile and walked back to Lee.
“Let us away, my love. There’s a great deal of liquor at the palace waiting for us to drink it.”
“What about ruling and responsibility and all that?”
“The city’ll keep for a night. We won. Say it with me.”
“We won,” Lee said, excitedly jangling her head from side to side. “We were winning, then we won.”
“And now we get to celebrate.”
They joined hands and left their enemies bound and defeated on the dirty floor. Beneath the enormous, grinning death’s-head they had used to cap the city, an endless nighttime was waiting to be filled with their riotous carousing.
Lee had never seen Esper drink this much before. She was delighted and extremely curious to see what effect it would have on him. He would break from their dance, leap up on the bar, kick a bottle into his hand, and upend it into his mouth. Then he would slosh the liquor all over his suit, which beamed with happy resplendence, and its threads would soak up the rest. After hurling the emptied bottle against the far wall, he would rejoin her on the floor. She did not even try to keep up with him, although she was also getting quite drunk at her own speed. They were the victors of a great battle. They had changed the course of history. It was as good a reason to get nice and sloppy as she had ever heard.
That first night of the year of darkness was their wildest yet. The club was nearly deserted. The most unflappable bandleader in the city corralled his people with a pep talk about playing to beat the dark and they performed intensely and unhaultingly for the only two dancers left at the party. Nehemiah Kusik was slouched against the far wall, dazed and maimed amid the broken glass. He had made the mistake of trying to step between them as they danced while relaying some kind of report about the tier-by-tier progress of forcing open the bunker doors and letting the citizens out. It was hard to hear him over the music and neither Lee nor Esper had been paying particular attention. In an act of outright stupidity he had assumed that putting his body between theirs would interrupt their fun. He was lucky to still be alive, although his left leg seemed to have sustained a fairly nasty compound fracture.
Abiah Hooks and Eldad Rake were at the bar, settling in for a drink after delegating a number of responsibilities to their own subordinates. They rolled their eyes at one another as Kusik moaned in agony. Hooks downed a shot and went over to help Kusik up, all but carrying him out of the club to one of the ad hoc medical pavilions the Wraith’s organization had erected in the judicial plaza to treat the casualties of the day’s chaos. Rake was starry eyed with drink and stayed at the bar, his sleeves rolled up.
Esper sidestepped away from Lee and held up a hand in Rake’s direction. Rake reached behind the bar, found an unopened bottle of whiskey, and tossed it to his employer. Esper and the suit polished it off in less than a minute and then did something even more remarkable. Not long after resuming their dance, Esper stepped backward, made a deep bow, and allowed the suit to cut in. It unwound from around his body and reknitted itself before Lee. It held the rough shape of a man, albeit one without a head, hands, or feet. It capered upon its trouser legs and reached for her with its jacket sleeves. Apparently even drunker than Esper and glowing with victory, the jealous, beautiful monster was asking her to dance.
Lee accepted, although she did not allow it to put its sleeves around her back as Esper would with his hands, instead clasping it, open position, with their arms out to the side. The lady and the garment turned about the floor, intermittently changing who was leading whom. The suit, free of its inhabitant, had great fun with the elasticity of its form, flapping side to side unpredictably like a banner in the wind. Lee noticed that, without Esper in it, its interior lining seemed to be woven not of cloth but of the darkest shadow.
Esper was stark naked, save for his shoes and socks. He watched them in amusement for a time, leaning back with the muscular arches of his buttocks resting against a pool table. Lee glimpsed him as she and the suit swung one another about. She had never seen him without his clothes on before. He was lean tissue tightly encasing elongated bone. His high, semi-concave chest sported a few patches of supple black hair. She was, at heart, too prurient not to sneak a glance at the snake dangling between his thighs, noting amusedly that his organ was nearly as twisted as the man himself.
Not content to merely spectate, Esper swiveled around to Rake, extended his arm with his usual courtliness, and swept his subordinate up in a waltz that paralleled Lee and the suit’s. Much to Rake’s credit in Lee’s estimation, he seemed completely unperturbed by Esper’s nudity and participated in the surreal exhibition with an unforced smile on his face. She liked it when Esper treated the people he kept the closest as friends instead of employees. She liked it when he proved himself capable of showing affection to people besides her.
The band was struggling against exhaustion but rallied for a grand finale. The suit began swaying even more chaotically, stretching itself to absurd proportions until it practically encircled the entire dance floor. It was gold, then sapphire, then emerald, conjuring patterns so beautiful they were almost sickening. As a final, aching crescendo crashed to its climax, the suit flopped over, as if suddenly rendered inanimate as any common garment.
Lee peered down at it curiously. She tapped it with the tip of her shoe. She felt a soft resistance that reminded her of relaxed muscles. She looked up and Esper stood directly before her, sporting a wicked smile. The gleam in his dark eyes communicated everything to her. Her darling held his liquor better than his suit and he knew it. He had coaxed its high spirits past the point it could tolerate. He was free of it, albeit temporarily.
“You do that to it often?” she asked him.
“Every once in a while, when I need a reprieve from its constant… companionship. It just needs to sleep. It’ll be fine in a day, if slightly embarrassed by its conduct.”
“What’s to be embarrassed about?”
“Dancing with you and loving it.”
He was close. She could feel the warmth of from his skin. She had always assumed his alabaster flesh would be like ice to the touch but near to her now it was like a furnace.
“Have we been deserted?” Lee asked, her gaze darting about. She was suddenly aware of how rapidly her heart was beating. Rake had apparently used their distraction to slip off, likely signaling for the band to do the same in the process, displaying two admirable qualities at once: how to read a room and how to make a perfect silent exit. It was the first time Lee and Esper had ever been alone together, without even the suit to come between them.
She was about to clear her throat and suggest maybe they have a glass of cold water—water of all things!—when his arms slid around her waste. He lifted her up and set her on the bar, her legs encircling him so her feet rested on the backs of his calves. His lips brushed against her neck. She closed her eyes and made a tiny, shuddering sigh—the smallest sound she had made in her whole adult life. His hands were on her thighs, fingers pressing into the soft curves of her flesh just hard enough to bruise. They slid upward, slowly, deliberately, rolling up her skirt. He must have imagined this moment a thousand times. She hadn’t, not once, but now that it was upon her, crashing down like a wave, she felt no internal resistance to this shift in the boundaries between them. His fingers crept up beneath the band of her undergarments and, with his typical ruthlessness, he ripped them off her body and threw them aside, obliterating nearly every thought left in her head. His dark eyes met her violet ones. Their faces were so close, their lips nearly pressing together. He parted her knees and stepped forward so that their sexes were as close to touching as their lips.
“Let it be now,” he said. “Now. Please.”
They were at a fatal precipice. It took more effort than she cared to admit for Lee to step back from it. She clicked her teeth together, then turned her face to the side, breaking eye-contact.
“Darling, it’s… not a good time for me.”
“Oh. I don’t mind that.” If anything the prospect seemed to further enflame him, bloodthirsty. She put a hand on his cheek and gently pushed his face back. She smiled at him now. He was quite a man and beautiful in his own unique way. His face was boyish in its eagerness, more expressive than she’d ever seen it. She had no wish to be unkind to him.
“That’s not what I mean. My brilliant master planner. My stupid, stupid man. We’ve been overworking this body of mine, trying to bring off the impossible thing we did today. I will not kill you with a kiss on the very night of our victory.”
“…Maybe I’m immune,” he said, trying to remain optimistic, although he was already beginning to wilt. His desire seemed directly proportional to her willingness to reciprocate it, an unfortunately rare quality in men, even more so in powerful ones. “Some of your abilities don’t work on me. Some of mine don’t work on you. It could be the same with this?”
“The only way to find out is a risk I’m not willing to take. I mean, you don’t even have the suit on to protect you. Will you be alright, love? Have I broken your heart?” She was teasing him now and he smiled sheepishly back at her. Then he knelt down, picked the suit up off the floor, and laid it across the bar. In its stupor it seemed to have fused its disparate parts into a single bolt of semi-translucent cloth that spread out like a blanket. Esper climbed up on the bar himself, wrapped his arms around Lee’s shoulders, and together they lay back on the prone material.
“This is alright too,” she said dreamily. He murmured his agreement. A gentle weariness stole over her, sudden and complete. In spite of the cramped space and seeming thinness of the fabric beneath them, it was even more comfortable here than in her bed on Under Over. Her skirt was still hiked up around her waist. With her lower-back and bare ass she snuggled against him. Supremely subtle and deft, he pulled the front of her dress down, unhooked her brassiere, and tossed it onto the floor. He was not acting with amorous intent, merely trying to have as much skin-to-skin contact as possible, but the motions were sufficient to briefly re-rouse his cock. His breath came hard and quick as she felt him press against her. She was about to disengage before they both lost control, but then she felt his breathing slow and, as it did, his insistent flesh quieted once again. If he was frustrated in any way, it did not show in the tranquil manner in which he held her. One of his arms rested on her right hip, the other around her breasts. They slept like that, falling away almost immediately.
In that first night of the perpetual night that was to follow, Lee Garnet was the only citizen of Bastion who slept soundly, untroubled by nightmares. Her demons rested as completely as she did in the steady solace of Esper’s embrace. Peace was an unfamiliar sensation for her, especially when she wasn’t by herself. There was no harm though—she half-thought somewhere in the murky, anesthetic dark of her nearly still mind—in waiting until morning to rebel against it.