The Great Detonations of the twenty-first age killed half the world. And yet more: it mutated we who survived. Our eyes don’t quite work properly, anymore, though our other senses are far greater. The average human will experience the perfect culmination of light and color to see the world properly roughly once every few years.
It’s not all bad, though. In the dark, you see, everything is anything it should be.
* * *
I found myself praying to Nailed God when I learned that my title of Lordess was balanced on a blade’s breadth. It wasn’t a rank bestowed by the Crown. I was, rather, the Lordess of a gang: the Murder of Crows.
I needed the Nailed God’s help.
A fortnight before my praying began, I’d found trouble with a Crown-approved gang: The Fangs; who lived down on Sandpiper Quarter, where the monsters dwelt.
My Murder reported one of the Fangs was selling thaumaturgical artifacts in my district of Elysium. So I assembled my Murder and set out to treat with him. Only to treat. Nothing more.
My Murder was wreathed in their own darknesses, and followed my orders to stay put while I approached. Halfway down the road, I’d heard the jangle of jewels against leather—a sack that held them, most like (In Morgad, you see, a keen ear keeps you safe—the ability to hear all the intricacies of sound and then translate them into sight is vital to survival in the blind city).
“What is your business in Elysium?” I asked.
The monster’s voice was raspy. It probably had teeth grinding in the back of its throat. I kept my distance, my hand holding the grip of my sharpwand. “What’s it to you?” he asked.
“You encroach on my district,” I’d told him.
“I can sell what I like where I like.”
“Why?” I asked him, “Because you belong to a Crown-approved gang?”
“Because I’m a prince of the Fangs!”
“A prince of the Fangs,” I had to admit, the words flowed well enough. And yet: “How high, truly, is a prince of the gutters? Is that not unlike being king of the ashes?”
At his hip was a rattling–a scraping. He was unholstering his sharpwand, I realized. So I mimicked the draw, though quicker than him, and cut off the hand that held his weapon.
He did not bother to scream—from shock or because the monster had no nerves to feel pain I’ll not profess to know. Nevertheless, he fled, hooves pounding down the stone street.
I followed him.
The street was empty, save us two and my Murder. I’d whistled across the way and heard one of my Crows whistle in return. I needed to keep track of where they all were. It was too easy to get lost in the dark city.
More and more of my Crows whistled, closing in on all sides.
And the next day, the minor prince from the Fangs was discovered in the gutter with his throat opened wide.
The Fangs didn’t like that. And having the Crown on their side gave them some authority to settle the dispute.
* * *
I finished my prayer to the Nailed God and sighed, hands falling to my sides and feeling the granite steps overlooking the battle-yard. Few dared to venture there, which was why I had—wearing a cloak of three layers of interwoven crow-feathers; and with fingers bedecked with rings of lapis lazuli. I’d chosen my favorite sharpwand—the one with the good-luck wolf on the end.
I let out a low whistle. Far off in the darkness, someone matched my note. So I tried three notes, interchanging. Thrice-over the same notes returned. Then came the footsteps—three pairs, and the sound of canes clacking toward me.
It’s a trick everyone in Morgad learns sooner or later—to separate the rhythm of a man’s cane. To know the difference between one man’s click clack click clack from another’s clackity click clackity click.
I whistled again and more whistles returned. Five, then seven, then ten. I continued this way until my Murder was assembled.
They were wordless for they knew what awaited us. Soft hands and rough hands helped me out of my cloak and removed my hauberk. They rubbed oils and ointments on my arms and torso. “Relax, Isora.” It was Retcha’s voice. The one who spoke a quarter-octave above me, but softer. “Now isn’t the time for fear.”
“No,” I agreed. “That comes later.”
Another Crow spoke, then. I think it was Azoc, my chief lieutenant. His thrice broken nose made his voice sound all squishy. “Your cloak—It’s scratchy. What’s it made from?”
“Crow feathers,” I said. “It cost me a high price.”
“If you lose, can I keep it?”
Azoc would gain Lordship over the Murder of Crows if I lost. I might’ve given him the cloak, too, except that he asked.
So I snorted a laugh and turned to face him. “You want it?”
“I’d love tha—”
I threw my fist toward his voice and felt his nose crack on my knuckles. In less than a second there was a whump on the ground. I didn’t hear Azoc speak or move. There was only his breathing.
“Find my cloak, please, Retcha,” I said, not unkindly. “That cost me a fortune. I’d rather not lose it.”
I felt a force on my shins like a raven had spattered into then. Hands grasped at my leg. The soft hands of my green boy. “I’ll always be your man!” It was Orym speaking now, squeaky as a rusty door hinge. I felt the boy’s soft hand on my cheek. “No matter what happens tonight, I’ll always be loyal to you.”
I reached out and clamped down on the boy’s wrist. “You will not,” I said. “If they kill me, you’ll flee and go kiss the feet of the first brigand with a sharpwand that you find on the road.”
“I cannot,” Orym said. “I will not! Don’t make me!”
I let the silence hang there. If he had anything more to say, he’d have filled it.
I could sense all ears on me, waiting for my voice. I laughed and then released Orym’s wrist. “You’re a fool,” I said. Though even I wasn’t sure if I meant it as an insult.
* * *
The Fangs arrived late to the battle-yard. Their steps were made heavy by what I assumed were royal-grade boots. I leaned forward from my seat on the steps. as they came stomping across the grass. There were seven rhythms to hail seven Fangs approaching. Seven cloaks snapped in the wind with a sound like war banners. Unless it was war banners, and they weren’t wearing cloaks. I could hear them mutter and hiss and growl guttural speeches to each other. The bootsteps fell silent, save one: their champion, who approached me.
“Are you ready, Lordess Isora?”
I spat on the ground in answer and then rose and reached out. “Who is this champion I’m speaking to? I would know your face.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean this.” I reached out to touch him. My hands found his face and I traced its outline. Crows rustled and Fangs fidgeted with their sharpwands as I measured the width of his shoulders; the size of his hauberk—where there was flesh there were soft, squishy bumps, even on his right eyelid. His flesh was slicked with a layer of pus and his hair felt damp as seaweed. I touched his teeth, solid and flat, though with some slick layered-coating for protection.
He was short enough that I could put my palm flat on his head without moving my arm over my shoulder.
“A boy,” I said. “You’ve sent me a boy. Do you think a trial by battle rewards a concave chest?”
A few of my Crows laughed at that. The boy slid out of my reach. “Blade!” He shrieked. “Bring me my blade!”
“Mine, too,” I said. My Crows returned to me my hauberk and cloak. “If I die, I might as well ruin my most costly possessions. I don’t want any of you looting my corpse Do you hear me?”
There were scattered yeses, so I unholstered my sharpwand and turned toward the Fangs’ champion.
Across the battle-yard was a sound like something unzipping. Then I heard the unmistakable vrrrung of his weapon.
For the first time, my confidence wavered. I tightened my grip on my sharpwand and steeled myself toward the task at hand.
“He’s got a buzzblade,” Retcha muttered. “Do you hear that? He’s got a buzzblade.”
“And he’ll need long arms to use it,” I said, though I wondered if these monsters weren’t smarter than I’d anticipated.
But I knew the rules for engaging a buzzblade. If I tried to parry against its edge my sharpwand would be cut in half. So as we crossed the yard toward each other I kept my sharpwand down and out of its path and hoped the boy would come to me.
His breathing was heavy before his first attack; his tongue, I assume, hanging out as he panted; his great slavering jaws dripping with saliva.
The pitch of his buzzblade changed as he hefted it. I followed the noise, retreating as it grew louder and moving in when the vrrrunging grew fainter.
That was the problem with buzzblades. They could kill you quicker than a sharpwand, but your opponent could hear your weapon, which made defense easier.
The vrrrung changed to vrrraang and, anticipating a thrust, I sidestepped its path, listening to the sparks spit from the device, their heat nearly spewing onto my face
The vrrrang turned to vrrrung and the sparks crackled on the ground a mere foot away. The buzzblade’s sparks lurched. The boy was stumbling, changing tactics. I could hear his breaths from across the yard as he worked some spell to sharpen his teeth and turn fingers to claws.
So I broke his concentration—I smacked him on the ear with the flat of my sharpwand.
“Come, Fangs!” shouted Azoc, who had regained consciousness, “Let’s hear a fight!” There was laughter at that.
The boy was still stumbling—still changing, so I smacked him again. His transformation stopped and something fumped to the ground. I could hear sparks leaping into the air with fizzling cracks as the buzzblade chewed up the ground. The loose dirt sprayed my shins. Beyond the weapon I heard the boy huffing, but otherwise there was no sound of movement. He was regaining his strength to make ready for another attack, or spell.
I came forward, stepping around the buzzblade and I threw myself into a sustained, attack, swinging my sharpwand with well-practiced figures-of-eight.
The boy’s bootsteps were uneven in his retreat, distracting him from the attack he’d been readying. I heard a short, sharp shout and a sound like a box on the ear.
In my pursuit, I almost fell victim to the same trap—the hole that had no doubt turned his ankle. Treachery he planted that had been turned against him. If I had the breath I’d have laughed at the irony.
But I regained my balance and brought the sharpwand down hard, yet I sliced only through empty air. I whirled about, looking and listening for my opponent.
Then a line of pain panged the back of my shin. I fell to the dirt, spitting loose soil when a weight fell on my stomach, driving my breath from me. I reached up and seized pus-slicked wrists. “That’s not how you fight with a dagger, boy.”
“One of us is about to get stabbed,” he said, “You’re in no position to tell me how to use this.”
My arms burned with the exertion of holding his wrists. I didn’t reply. I just waited and calculated. One false move and his dagger would go through my throat.
“You killed one of our princes!” He grunted.
“He was in my district,” I said through my teeth.” I twisted his arms and my hips all at once. The boy and I toppled in a tangle of limbs. I pried the dagger from his hands as we struggled and threw one leg over his chest.
Our positions had changed as I pushed the knife toward his chin while boy pushed my hands back in an attempt to stave off the point. “He was making a profit off of my people!” I said. His pus mixed with my sweat, turning both our grips slick. “He was a monster, besides!”
I could feel his arms trembling, about to give way. The boy laughed, then, in spite of it all. “Is it too late to negotiate?”
“There’s no negotiation with monsters.” I said.
His arms collapsed and I drove the point up through his chin. I fell off of him and crawled across the battle-yard, retracing my steps to retrieve my sharpwand.
I remember the buzzblade vrrunging, the salty sweat that I blinked out of my eyes. I took up my sharpwand and stood, my knees trembling. “Fangs!” I shouted. “Our dispute is settled. Leave now and we can forget what has happened.”
As I spoke, the sun pierced the sky, turning the world brighter and brighter. I could feel my eyes adjusting as light and color made themselves known to me for the fourth time in my life. The Nailed God had no doubt heard my prayer. Sight was not known to stay longer than seconds. I shielded my eyes at first, raising a hand to protect from the light of the sun.
But then I saw the rings on my fingers—there were no stones of lapis lazuli. There were only rusted bands. The sun had stolen my jewels.
But it had taken more, too. For the sun had stolen my crow-feather cloak and exchanged it for one of mottled green wool, so weathered it was almost gray. My sharpwand had little shine to it, and the wolf on the end was nothing more than a chipped block of wood.
And then I saw the five other Fangs—children, down to the last. Then I turned to the boy and saw that there was no monster. There was no pus or monstrous bumps—only big white pimples and grease. He had yellow teeth but nothing that belonged to a whale. He was just a boy with a dagger shoved up through his chin; his mouth hanging open, revealing the blade.
I collapsed to my knees and vomited. “Just a boy,” I sputtered. “Just a boy…”
But as it was before and as it would be the world began to blur as my sight left me until I was in my own darkness again. I wondered what trick the sun had played on me. He was the Nailed God’s agent, truth be told.
So I checked my belongings to see if the sun had returned them. My rings felt the same as they had before my sight returned. It must have returned to me my lapis lazuli. My cloak and sharpwand, too, seemed no different than any other time I had felt them in the dark. The sun, in its power, had returned my belongings to me, safe and now sun-blessed.
But there was one last thing I needed to check.
With shaking hands, I felt the boy’s face. Felt the bumps, touched the teeth—careful of the blade in his mouth—I felt no difference between what my hands told me now and what my they had said before we’d dueled. The only difference was the sweat and the blood. To this day I’ve no idea why the sun played such a cruel trick on my eyes.
“It’s a monster,” I muttered, smiling. “It’s only a monster…”