Outside of the light of the street lantern

Madeleine looked hesitant when she opened the door. She had never hesitated before, no matter what he did. Adalbert made sure the coat was covering his knife. His sister looked pale in the light of the street lantern standing in front of the house. Was it getting to her at last?

“Come in,” she whispered at last.

He stepped into the modest town house they had grown up in, no different than any others in the quarter except for his presence.

“Would you like some tea?” she asked, her voice still thin. She still looked pale here, too, outside of the light of the street lantern.

“Please,” he said, his own voice thin as well. Perhaps it was getting to him, too. If even his sister couldn’t stomach it anymore, there was nothing left. There was nothing left at all. He sat down and found his hands were shaking, when they hadn’t all evening. When they should have, were he a decent man. He stared down at his shaking hands and waited.


With the tea came her frail voice: “You can’t come here anymore.”

His insides clenched together, like when – no, not now. The thought went away, but the sensation wouldn’t. “Can’t…“ His voice was strained. “Maybe I could…”

She shook her head. “It’s not about you. I’ve always stood by your side.” She sat down, away from him.

But why now? Was it some circumstance in her life? Was there a suitor who wasn’t to get involved? “I can change, if there’s anything…” Adalbert wondered if he could. He hadn’t considered it seriously. He hadn’t had to.

“It’s not about you,” she repeated in a thin, urgent voice. “I’m… It’s for your own good.”

“I’ll change, I’ll… I only have you.”

She looked down. And now he didn’t anymore. Was this how things went? He had always thought it wasn’t. But now…

“The drowning cough. I caught it.”

And the world went cold.

“You can’t come back here. I’m afraid for you. I’ll… You’ll find someone when I’m gone. It doesn’t have to be me. Look, we got over mother’s and father’s deaths, and you’ll get over it… You could still marry, nobody knows what you…”


The rain was cold, even on this body of his that felt frozen all over. He couldn’t think. He had to do something, but his thoughts were frozen, too. There was a cure, but it might as well not exist for how rare it was. The upper classes had it, occasionally, and one barely heard of it because they couldn’t let it slip out which among them had the disease. It would be their families’ social death, along with their own literal one. So what to do?


“That bloke with the knife’s out and about again,” said the bartender.

Adalbert listened from a table in the corner.

“Again?” a man at the counter asked. “Doesn’t he get enough? You’d think it gets old.”

Did it get old? But that wasn’t his problem now.

“I swear, at the rate he’s going he’s gonna kill more than the drowning cough,” said the bartender.

“Wouldn’t mind if he offed some nobles, too,” said the other man.

There was his entrance. “Like the drowning cough does,” Adalbert said.

They looked over to him and turned back to their conversation.

“Don’t say that aloud though,” the bartender said.

“I’ve been telling my wife,” the other man said. “You can’t let Prunia out like that. But you know my wife, she says…”

Adalbert clenched his teeth.


“Another?” said the bartender of another bar.

“Another,” said the man standing next to him at the counter. “The guards are looking into it, but I tell you they won’t find anything. ‘cept a lot of blood.”

Adalbert silently drank his ale. Why did they all have to talk about him when he wanted information on something else? Could the topic be swayed around like in the other bar? He acutely felt the shame rising again at how they’d just turned back around and ignored him. Why was he so bad at this?

“Are they sure it’s the same one?” asked the bartender.

The man shrugged. “Who knows? But if there’s more of them running around…”

“I swear,” Adalbert said, “that bloke has killed more people than the drowning cough.”

“That’s not funny,” another man said.

“Least he stays away from the nobles,” the bartender said.

“Is that a blessing or a curse?” said Adalbert.

The man next to him snorted. “Bet you some of them would rather have the killer do it. Least they wouldn’t have to admit it’s that cough.”


He sat on the low canal wall next to the bridge, waiting for someone to take the bait he had scattered across Duke’s Lane and Highfield. It was dark except for the street lanterns. Barely any moon either. What was he to do if Madeleine left him alone in this city? At least she hadn’t turned him out of her own free will. At least this he still had a chance of fixing. Low as it might be.

Timid steps approached him. He turned his head to face a young lady in mourning dress. He tipped his hat.

She hesitated. Then she nodded slightly. “Are you the gentleman that is looking to help out?”

Adalbert smiled a bitter smile. “Always ready to help.”

She nodded again. “Our family. It’s… It’s a problem. First my father, but now my aunt, too, and people are starting to talk…” She looked around. “Could we get out of the light? I can’t be seen, I…”

They moved into an unlit alley.

Now or never. “I heard there’s a cure,” Adalbert said.

Her brows furrowed. Wrong?

“I meant to ask… before we do anything rash, of course,” he said.

She stood still, then, with a sob, she buried her face in her hands. “We can’t afford it! Uncle Joseph has lost too much with his… We’re ruined, and if word comes out… I can’t pay you much, but I’ll try to… try to compensate, I have some jewels, I…”

Adalbert sighed. “I’ll help out.”


“Did you hear? It’s a rich lady this time,” said a man at the counter.

“He’s moving up,” said the bartender.

“Sure it’s the same one?” asked another man at the counter.

“You can’t be sure,” said the first. “And no one knows who he is. The niece is under shock. Can’t remember anything.”

“Who wouldn’t be?” said the second. “Poor girl.”

“Least it hits us all equally now,” said the bartender. “That makes me feel better. Never got why it was just folks like us.”

“You’re all sick bastards,” said a man sitting in another corner.

The bartender shrugged, looking guilty.


Over his notices, new ones had been posted.

There is another way. Come to Market Street Chapel at dusk. Bring funds.

So Adalbert visited Market Street Chapel, with the meagre funds he had saved up, and another way.

Outside of the light of the street lantern stood a cloaked figure staring into space under a large hat. It took him a moment to make out that it was a woman. He approached her. “I’m here for the other way.”

She looked up. “You don’t look like you could afford it.”

“You don’t know that,” he said.

Her look was sceptical.

“Perhaps I don’t want to be recognised,” Adalbert said. “It’s a problem. For the reputation.”

She rolled her eyes. “If you’re a guard, just say so. I’m not doing anything forbidden. It’s medicine, no more.”

So it was. Adalbert smiled. “I’m not a guard.” The smile fell. “I have a sister.”

The woman frowned, seemingly considering his words. “Name?”

“You wouldn’t know.”

She sighed. “Of course not. Look, I’m not wasting my time with low offers. It was hard enough getting this. I’m sorry about your sister, but get lost, I’ve got real business.”

Adalbert felt at his sides, where his coat was covering his hips. “Of course.”

“How did you see my notice anyway? You don’t look like you’d be in the area normally. Are you staff, or…”

His hand slid under the flap of his coat. “It was posted over mine. Business was slow lately.”

It was hard to tell if she went pale. She stepped back as if to creep into the wall behind her. She was definitely pale. He didn’t like that look anymore.

“Should we negotiate?” he asked.

She nodded silently.

It felt good to do good. Perhaps he could change after all.


Madeleine’s cheeks were rosy when she opened the door. The street lantern was not yet burning. “Come in,” she said, her voice lively. “I’ve made a cake.” She looked him over. “You look better.”

“Thank you.” Adalbert was still unsure about that, but it was good to hear from her. He went inside and sat down in his usual spot.

Madeleine brought tea and cake and sat down in her usual spot. “You wanted to discuss something?”

He nodded. “As you know, I’ve… quit.”

“So I know! And I’m really glad of it. Is it working?”

“That… yes. But there is a complication. I’ve had to make some waves before this, and I found it better to lay low for a while. Do you think… Do you think I could…”

“Oh don’t even worry about it, silly!” Her smile warmed his heart. “I’ve always told you to come home, and now you don’t have your problem anymore.” She looked down. “And I don’t have mine.”

“It can happen to anyone,” he said.

“Yes… yes. That is true.” She looked back up. “Oh, did you hear? There are nobles killing each other for the cure now! It was in the afternoon paper. They think they’ve found the killer, too!”

“The killer? Which… You mean…”

Her bright smile was back. “Yes! They caught a man who killed a medicine peddler, one that dealt with nobles and rich people. And get this, they think the killer is the same one as the other cases.”

Adalbert silently sipped his tea. After a while, he nodded. “That’s good. Then the killings are going to stop now.”

His sister snickered.

In the falling dusk outside, the street lantern’s light flickered on.

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Burnt

The smell of burnt meat smothered the air in the newly assigned apartment in the Southern district. “So they got rid of both of us.” Yurtoril tried not to use too much of his voice lest it devolve into coughing.

“Good, isn’t it?” His co-worker’s already raspy voice coming from the kitchen knew no such concerns. “Shouldn’t be…” The rest of his speech was drowned out by a sharp sizzling sound.

“What was that?” Yurtoril asked when the sound faded, still keeping his voice down.

Gevuyn stepped out of the kitchen. “Shouldn’t be as happy about this, right? It’s just more work I hate, and they were trying to get rid of us, like you said.”

“Well, now the Southern district gets to deal with it. It’s better. They don’t know us yet. We’ve got more time.”

“Yeah, but that’s all rational.” Gevuyn made a discontent gesture. “What I mean is…”

“It’s almost like we’re the ones with the messed up perceptions.”

“Yeah. So who are we actually doing anything for? I mean, us, others; that changes things.”

There was another sound from the kitchen and a new wave of dark smoke creeping around the corner.

“Never mind that for now,” Yurtoril suggested.

“Right.” His co-worker disappeared in the kitchen again to salvage something that was already beyond saving, on the off-chance that it could be dissected and consumed after all.

 

Watchers

“You’re going to get wet,” said the man in the pristine Watcher’s uniform, who had been watching him for a while now.

Gevuyn grinned up at him from his crouching position. “Doesn’t make a difference.”

“Figured.” The man stepped closer but never sat down or even leaned against the wall.

They stayed that way, looking down the levels of supportive structures, with staircases leading further and further down into the mud, people crawling along the surfaces, downstairs, into the filthy canal down below, or pretending to retain some shred of their dignity by staying a few levels above.

“So what are you doing here,” the uniformed man asked at last, “if you’re not looking for the same as them?”

Gevuyn blew a strand of hair from his face. “Reminding myself why I did what I did.”

“Ah.”

“And you?”

The man stayed still, and Gevuyn figured he wouldn’t get an answer. Then it came at last. “Reminding myself I did anything at all.”

“Ah. You’re the type that can’t be content, no matter what, huh.”

“And are you content?”

“No.” Gevuyn pressed his lips together. “Trying to be. You know how they’re always telling you you’re special and the others just can’t deal with being awake like this? But you can?” Why was he telling him all this? “I still wonder if I can deal with it myself. Sometimes I wish I’d never taken that step. If the rain just worked on me… Not like on them. Like on normal people. Just be content, you know?” He paused and let out a short laugh. “I guess I’m the type that can’t be content, too.”

The man stepped back and almost leaned against the wall, then caught himself and straightened his posture.

Gevuyn grinned.

“Did you just get out, too?” the man asked. Sure, don’t respond to all that soul-baring.

“Yeah. Early this morning. Northern branch.”

“Eastern. Just got done with the charade.” The man rubbed his forehead with two fingers. “I feel dirty.”

“And then you come here?”

“It’s different.”

Gevuyn laughed and fell silent again. “That it is. So what’s your deal?”

The man gestured at the scenery below them. “This isn’t the point. We always knew things were different for us, or we wouldn’t have joined the order. We’ve always been resilient against all this. They allowed us. That’s all. They put us on a leash, and now we’re supposed to help them keep it all up. Threat neutralised.”

Gevuyn let that sink in. His instincts wanted to strongly agree and latch onto this. Well, his instincts were his own, weren’t they? Wasn’t that the one thing he had bought for the price of years of struggle and never a good thing in his life? “And now?”

There was a small smile, but it faded again immediately. “I don’t know yet,” the man said. “But something.”

Gevuyn stood up and brushed off his pants. “I think I’m in for something. You need a partner?”

“Wouldn’t hurt.”

Gevuyn grinned again. “Oh it’ll hurt. But that’s this life, right? We can’t turn back, so might as well.”

That small smile was back. “You’re just looking for some kind of escape, aren’t you?”

“Aren’t you? I’m Gevuyn.” He held out his hand.

The man shook it. “Yurtoril.” His eyes wandered down the gutter. “Might as well.”

Delile’s Story Time: The Legend of General Ra’dzeot

Alright, I’ll try to be more coherent this time. But you guys have to listen! Don’t fall asleep again, Bryn, that was charming only one time.

So. We’re talking about Ra’dzeot’phra, or General Ra’dzeot for you plebs. Alright Simeon, two plebs out of three.

So we’re on Karmee. It’s in the old times. The really, really old times. When the fire was covering the ground. Should I get into the origins of the fire…? No, okay. I still think it’s better for the theme, though. Like it makes the story loop around and gives it a kind of cosmic coherence… Alright. Alright. So there’s fire on the ground.

But the Meldeen could take it, cause they have that flame-proof carapace and a flame-proof… skeleton… endoskeleton, that. Yeah. Still, unpleasant, right? Nobody likes fire.

And there’s also war. Lots of war. Like, worse than what our ancestors put up with before coming to the solar. Sure, some of our ancestors. Sorry Siph.

Anyway, it’s a massive-scale war. Not a chance at peace. And they say it’s all that anger and that wrath – and maybe some of their weapons, too – that got the fire started in the first place. There, I put it in. And then along came a general. Not Ra’dzeot yet. He was alive, but he was young and insignificant then.

Now Lera’ha, he was young and insignificant, too, but not for long. He was one of those super generals, those genius leaders that just take over everything within a short time, and the world’s theirs. That’s what he did. And everyone was so tired of all that war…

No, they couldn’t just stop. They were too far gone. But… No, I don’t know why they didn’t. Why didn’t they on Earth back in the day? Nobody knows. Cause you can’t, without… some kind of… some kind of… The kind of thing that Lera’ha gave them. There. They didn’t have that before. He just simply didn’t give them a chance, and so they were all conquered, and there was peace.

But he wasn’t good at maintaining that. I mean, he made sure they stayed conquered. For a while. But he was a bad ruler, and he didn’t really care about what you have to do for people so they feel good and don’t wage war.

And there was still fire on the ground, can’t forget that. So life was uncomfortable, and there was no enemy and no greater cause, so everybody really minded it all of a sudden.

Yeah Siph, that’s simplified. You want an economic breakdown of a myth or… Good.

So, they start to rebel. They think to themselves, more and more… You know, if life’s gonna suck, and there’s fire everywhere, and we’re starving and whatever, you know, war wasn’t so bad, was it? And this tyrant Lera’ha, it’d be good if he was gone, too. So let’s go for that.

So there were little cells of rebellion all over the world, and they became big cells of rebellion, and no matter what Lera’ha did, he couldn’t suppress them any longer. But they couldn’t get at him either. So it was massive civil war once more. But they’d had a taste of someone winning and ruling, right? So they thought, if only I was the one to do it, it’d be better for sure. But everyone thought that, so that didn’t help any.

And along came a small local military man. Stumbled into the general’s position by everyone else dying. Nearly got his people extinct cause he was so unprepared. And then a miracle happened, and the Meldeen say it was the gods interfering. Either cause they loved their species and wanted to protect them from self-destruction or because they were just sick of their shit. So this general starts winning. And people start flocking to him. And he gains power in the region, and then beyond the region, and somehow his people aren’t starving either.

So he gets it into his head to conquer everything himself, cause it’s clear the world actually would be better off if he ruled it.

Then a lot of war happens, you don’t want the details, do you? Mixed vote? Alright, no details. So. As you can guess, this guy is Ra’dzeot’phra. General Ra’dzeot. And he’s the perfect guy to go head-to-head with Lera’ha in the end, when they’ve both amassed enough power and influence and… Well, really Lera’ha’s was waning, but he had amassed it before, and there was enough left. But now there’s this new guy.

But the gods are shaking their heads at all this, and why does it always happen, and are they really all that stupid? They are. They’re living beings, we’re all like that.

So as a result, the conquering doesn’t go so well anymore for Ra’dzeot. Nor for Lera’ha. Cause they were both declared colossal idiots by the gods and dropped. So instead of victory and peace and prosperity, or even victory and tyranny like with Lera’ha last time, we get a long, bitter war of attrition. And it drags. And it’s hell. And there are still flames everywhere, can’t forget that for the atmosphere.

And somewhere in the darkest hour – only lit up by the flames everywhere – Ra’dzeot decided it was enough. And he was a colossal idiot. And the Meldeen gods listened up at that.

And Ra’dzeot decided to end the war, and the bloodshed, and the flames.

See, aren’t you glad I put in the flames part earlier?

And he thought he couldn’t appeal to the gods cause of what he’d done, so he appealed to the Forces in the Deep. They believe that’s part of Karmee itself. A power within the planet, and you shouldn’t trifle with it. But Ra’dzeot thought it’s not trifling when everyone’s dying and it’s partly his fault. So he made a pact. He had himself transformed into… “something that extinguishes the flames and the war”. That became his new purpose of existence. And he gained that power in return.

And he went and extinguished the flames covering the planet. And that led to peace because that was a miracle, and they’d had those flames for many generations. There was nobody alive that remembered a time without the fire. And then it was gone. So that’s the side you stick to, right? And he went and fought Lera’ha, one on one. And won.

Now – I know I said he wanted to get rid of the wrath and the war and all that, but he still killed him. It was the time, you know? And he could have been the next leader just like he’d planned, but he couldn’t actually, because of the pact. Cause his purpose was the extinguisher of the flames and the war, and there was nothing left to extinguish. So he perished.

The people made a huge fuss, and turned against the Forces in the Deep. Cause they’d done that. And if you have any decency, you let that kind of deal go when the world was just saved by it and the guy’s a hero. But the Forces in the Deep don’t have that kind of decency.

And there, they say the gods found that window of opportunity to gain ground, and intervened once more. They changed Ra’dzeot back into their own creature and let him into the afterlife after all, and he got the title of the Deep Redeemer, so the people could keep him as a folk hero. But they had to seal off the Forces in the Deep. The people thought that deal was alright.

So from then on, generation after generation, the Meldeen worked on covering the surface of the planet, and becoming less and less dependent on it. Now they’re so far they don’t even depend on natural climate anymore. And there’s prosperity, and more or less peace, apart from a bit of strife here and there.

And so the Meldeen were saved. And maybe something was lost. Some people say it wasn’t worth it. Some people say the Forces in the Deep will wait for their time and retaliate. Or they’re the real victims here. But I say fuck those guys. Ra’dzeot was too cool and had to be saved. And there’s peace, too. Happy end.

Promises

We are placing great responsibility on your shoulders, the chairmen said.

I know, Yurtoril said, gravely, with honest eyes.

You are now one of only very few people, they said.

He nodded.

It is not for many, and most are not ready to face what lies out there, they said.

He agreed.

Do you swear to act in the best interest of the king, the country, and – here they put on a knowing smile – most of all the order?

Yes, and yes – and here he gave the knowing smile back to them – and yes.

In that case, we declare you–

Gravity and sincerity again–

A Free Watcher.

Nod. Sincere goodwill. More motions to go through.

So this was freedom?

Outside on his own, Yurtoril saw the options spread out before him.

He headed for the black market area, where people bought and sold what wasn’t poisoning them enough for their liking, then down the steps to the city’s underside. Where the rain he was declared free from pooled and collected for the most desperate.

Too many strings, still. But down here, the strings of rain held their puppets in an even tighter grip than the one he was trying to shake off.

It helped to see the distance to these creatures. But it wasn’t enough. Distance still implied relation. A continuum. A scale they were all on. That scale had to be snapped, and it would.

It was the first promise today that he intended to keep.

Immunity

Slowly dripping into the gutter were their dreams, if they’d ever had any, washed down by the rain along with their regular dose of serenity.

Squatting on the wet floor, Gevuyn watched it all pour down the gutter, where they’d be scrambling to catch more of it, to make their reality bearable. And their reality was an augmented one already. None of that for the likes of him.

Metallic noises rang along the wires above.

So this was freedom. This was the pay-off for years and years.

To make it worth it again, he leaned forward to peer into the gutter below. Wretched figures drinking dirty water, baring their skin to it, defying the cold if not their minds.

He sat back.

Better.

A new world

The surface was light, dusty-light, scattering under her every step. Out there, it was dark, but this small piece of world was shining with warmth and hope for them all. To her it was, at least.

They were waiting for her up there, waiting for her verdict, waiting for her to confirm their hopes for the future, or dash them.

Sarah turned around on the small moon’s surface, almost pirouetting, letting herself be swept along by the feel of the world. She looked up at the shuttle, close-by but minuscule now that there was land. She raised her thumb.

Nothing happened.

She was supposed to examine it all further. Of course. Gotten swept away too much.

Even the hot, numb flush to her face felt lighter than usual. She turned back to the moon’s surface. Dust was playing around her feet.

She took some steps away from the place they’d let her down. And some more. Light, springing steps, almost floating, always having to remember not to float.

Of course it was dark here, too. It was cold here, too. But the future rested on it.

One step after another. Kick, slide, dust playing. Around a large rock. Now she was hidden.

Wind still. Almost. Sarah took out her test instruments.

It was routine now, only the dust shuffling around and making it difficult at times. Like the kitten George hat brought home, interfering with their daily tasks, messing up Clara’s model train, swatting her hands away when she was trying to knit. There would be a better home, perhaps not for them, but for Clara’s children, or her grandchildren. She would see to it that there would.

The measurements checked out. All fine. Sarah’s heart beat sped up. It was indeed true. Her hands were shaking. Calm. Try once more, just to be safe. It had taken so long to get here, another half hour wouldn’t hurt anyone. Only her own patience.

The dust played in the slight breeze as if to match her excitement.

The results were the same, minus a few insignificant differences. This moon was going to be their home.

Sarah turned on her communicator.

She didn’t have to say anything; Harry’s voice immediately jumped at her: “And? How’s it?”

Sarah smiled. “It all checks out. All regular, nothing toxic, nothing dangerous. We can stay.”

She heard the collective joy break through, and then Harry was back as the main voice: “Just stay there, we’re contacting home and then we’re coming down to set things up.”

The line went dead, and the air was silent again.

Sarah wanted to feel it. Now she knew she could. She tucked the communicator back into her jacket and undid the fasteners of her left glove. She’d feel the breeze, touch that novel surface that was welcoming her with its play. Somewhere behind her, the shuttle was landing, slowly, steadily. The glove came off.

The air was impossibly light, nothing harsh to it at all.

Was there even a breeze? Her hand was so numb still she did not feel anything.

Was there?

But the surface was being moved by it. She’d had to cover up her instruments.

Even now, the dust was moving in gentle curves. From her right to her left. Lapping up and jumping up her ankles, like the kitten at dinner time. But she felt nothing on the air, no movement.

She knelt down and touched the ground with her bare hand. It was moving, lightly, and then crawling up her wrist, on a breeze that wasn’t there. Like the rock snakes when they felt the sunlight and wanted to feed. Like a trench vine growing up a new host, when the air turned warm and life began anew. Like the lilting, buzzing life of the planet, stretching out and welcoming its new features. Like us all, every season, always.