Conceived in July, this story comes to you less than half-formed. I am still unsure of its ultimate direction, though I have some hopes and dreams for it. It’s not-quite-fantasy, like Tundra of Heroes. It’s also kind of … well, I can’t say too much. But it is, or will be, a (hopefully intriguing) mix of politics, adventure, romance, and atmosphere. Currently I have some six or seven installments written. I’ll be releasing them every two weeks, as stated in my last post. I don’t have much to say, for fear of doing too much priming. Please respond, critique, etc.. I look forward to discussing with you :) (Future updates will have release notes.)
First Watch: The City Has Walls
Citadel loomed high above the Three-Four watchwall, casting a grotesque shadow across the parapets and flagstones as the sun burned its way toward the horizon. A horn-blast rang through the air, resonating off the twisted spires and disfigured walls. Heavy footsteps responded. Speartips glinted orange as men in black leather suits rearranged themselves, shuffling up and down the wall. The fifth watch had begun.
Private Gregg Orres stumbled into position, his legs still sleepy. He squinted into the sunset, then turned his gaze to the gully thirty feet below. It was hot and dry, as it usually was in summer. The brief spring rains had left it stinking of rotting plant matter, and only today after weeks of ripe wafting had Watch put up resources to deal with it. Two men in plain gray tunics scraped at the earth, periodically flinging blackened vegetation into a wheelbarrow. Gregg didn’t envy the men their task, but he didn’t sympathize, either. He remembered doing similar work his first year in Watch and it was only fair that this year’s fresh meat shoulder the tradition. Besides, as the captain always said, scrubbing shit builds character. Scrub a floor, scrub a suit of armor, scrub the sludge from the gully below the wall.
The gully was three miles long, running along the watchwall from Citadel to Shell. The two men had a long night ahead of them.
A small crowd had gathered to watch them work. The audience, comprised entirely of the quaint elderly folk who resided in Sector Three, offered the workers words of encouragement. Occasionally one of them would present a towel, or a waterskin. For reasons beyond Gregg, Three’s inhabitants respected Watch, bowed to the guards, greeted them politely. It was an entirely different story on the other side of the watchwall, but that was trouble for a different guard tonight. Gregg was stationed facing west, and west was Three. So he watched the men toil away in the gully and he watched the crowd of commoners disperse gradually as the sun finished setting. An officer exited the wall on the ground floor, handed a lantern to one of the workers, and then disappeared again.
Shadows grew longer and blended into each other. Eventually torchlight and lantern glows flared up throughout Three. The bustle of the day began to die down. Gregg stood motionless, scanning the sector in silence. After years on the wall, his spear fit his hand like a well-worn glove and his boots rooted his feet to his post. He was one of the Watch; he was one with the wall.
Time passed slowly, the city growing ever more lethargic, until Citadel emitted another wail. Suddenly the city was still. The only noises Gregg could hear were the two men in the gully, the oppressive summer air rattling shutters across Three, the sound of his own breathing, and a soft shuffling on the wall. The sixth watch was starting, and that meant she would be there.
Gregg turned his head slowly, the loose chinstrap of his helm grazing his shoulder. Moonlight danced on her face and gleaming black leather armor; a breeze caught her navy sleeves and billowed them. Gregg thought she was beautiful. A white songbird in the blackened nest of the city.
Not that there was any place better suited for her.
Beyond Shell lay the dustlands. Barely capable of sustaining the barbarians who ranged them, the dustlands couldn’t possibly be a suitable home for a creature of such beauty.
So Liley was here, standing on the Three-Four watchwall, beautiful against the dark city. At least here she was elevated, thirty feet above the masses, shining beneath the starry void of the sky.
It took Gregg a moment to realize that Liley, too, had turned her head. Then her gaze pierced his contemplation and he snapped back into position. He was one of the Watch; he was one with the wall. His duty right now was observation. Observation of the city, not of the beauty stationed ten yards down the wall. Below, the new recruits toiled on. Gregg buried his thoughts in the rules and mottos of Watch, buried his gaze in the silent streets of Three. He imagined, in his mind’s eye, patrolling those streets, looking every which way, policing the sector from the ground. He walked every visible block of Three five times before Citadel finally trumpeted the third hour, bringing an end to the sixth watch.
Only then did Gregg turn back to Liley, and Liley was looking at Gregg, and she smiled a little, and he smiled a little, and the two, relieved of their posts by fellow guardsmen, walked to the nearest stairwell into the wall.
Gregg and Liley sat in the guardhouse changing room unstrapping their leathers. It was the dead of night, and their only light source was a dim lantern hanging from the low ceiling. There were only two things to do at this time: sleep or patronize the pleasure haunts of Sector Five. Gregg had second, fifth, and sixth watch, and because the nightcity’s silence was magical he’d opted to become nocturnal when he received his schedule. So he slept during third and fourth watch, and spent first, which was now—
“Grub’n’girls?” asked Liley.
“Meat’n’men?” asked Gregg.
She laughed. “Every night.” She sighed. “Nothing changes.”
“Something changed at some point,” said Gregg. “Meateries in Two used to have real meat.”
“Oh, well, yeah. Now it’s just Citadel with quality, and Two gets slop like the rest of us.” Liley slid off her boots, dropped her pants, and stepped into a long green skirt. Gregg in the meantime had arranged his armor on one of the free racks and donned the somber tunic of off-duty Watch. “You really don’t have anything beyond uniform…”
Gregg checked his locker.
“Let’s see, gray, gray, gray—”
“We have an important job,” he said.
“Yeah, without us, old folks could see their grandkids.” Liley removed her skullcap and her pale brown hair rushed to cover her ears. “We’re so damn important.”
“Duty is duty.”
“Duty, duty.” Liley ran a hand through her hair and made for the door. “Let me know if you ever want something else besides duty, okay? You eye me every time we change, but your duty puts you inside a meatery every night instead of me.”
“Watch is a broth—”
“Brotherhood. Right. I know, Gregg. See you at second watch.”
With that, Liley was gone, and Gregg alone once again with silence and the oath he’d sworn to Watch raging in his head. No one would know if he broke his vows. No one would know except for him and Liley. They were the only two who used this particular changing room at this particular time. They knew the ins and outs of the watchwall better than they knew their own families. They could sneak out together. No one would know. There were secluded places in Three or Four; they knew them from watching the city twelve hours a day. They could find those places, they could stay there in secrecy. And when Citadel called second watch they would already be in the guardhouse, faces stern when their peers looked, flush with giggly contentment behind their peers’ backs. No one else would know.
But Gregg would know.
He sank onto his haunches in the changing room, staring up at the hand-drawn propaganda posters between the lockers. Some displayed Chief Alchemist Grace Valence winking and asking the city to “eat up,” but most proclaimed the glory of Watch’s job, the importance of adhesion to Watch’s regulations. The regulations were few but specific and strict. They all boiled down to “obey the commander’s orders.” And the commander’s orders included where to sleep, how to talk, whom to avoid.
Gregg couldn’t figure out why trips to meateries—an industry whose slogan was “stuff your face while you stuff wenches”—were allowed, but romantic relationships between guards were not. No matter the reason, he was going to stick to the rules. His father had been Watch before him, and his grandfather before him; the position was a matter of pride in his family. Every organization had its rules, Gregg knew, like them or not. He’d discerned as much from talking to guards who had previously worked trading posts in Five, from overhearing the conversations of merchants and guild musicians in Four, and from intercourse with meatery girls.
Sometimes Gregg wished Liley hadn’t joined Watch, that she had become a common weaver or schoolteacher in Sector Four. He could have struck something up with her, perhaps taken her as his wife. After finishing his service he would have been able to retire to Four to live with her.
But these fantasies were few and far between. Watch was the best place for her, for anyone. Telling himself this, Gregg nightly pushed thoughts of rules-breaking away and settled for Five’s Meatery Row.
Nightly, that is, save for this night. Before he could leave the changing room, countless footsteps began to echo through the interior of the watchwall. Guards rushed past in a blur of black and navy. Gregg managed to stop one and ask him what was going on; the man simply replied that Shell had reported company and all available hands were being summoned to Citadel.
Gregg was off-duty, but relaxing in Five was out of the question now.
“Shell had company.”
The dustfolk were paying the city a visit.
Gregg suited up as his brethren dashed past him, sliding black leather over his tunic and fastening the chinstrap of his helm. He belted a sword to his hip and joined the flow of Watch inward through the watchwall toward Citadel.
Manning Shell, the tremendous basalt wall around the city, was considered easy work. Guards on the watchwalls between sectors scoffed at the lazy lifestyles of guards on Shell. Dustfolk hadn’t been seen from Shell’s parapets in over ten years, and for the most part Shell guards did jack. Watch’s commander wanted to hear none of the issue—”Watch was formed to keep the dustfolk out, and manning Shell is a sacred duty”—but when officers weren’t listening, complaints were issued and sometimes became violent.
Gregg never partook in the fights, but his disdain for Watch on Shell was strong as anyone’s. The last time dustfolk had been to the city, Gregg had been a kid playing guard with brooms for spears. More than ten years and nothing had knocked at Shell’s doors. Despite being off-duty, he joined his brothers as they ran toward Citadel. He wanted to see the dustfolk bogeymen himself, to vindicate his disdain for the soft layabouts on Shell.
The dustman was tall and quiet. He wore a rough black coat and carried a large basket on his back. His clothes looked tired from the road, but there was an eagerness to his eyes that told Gregg the man wasn’t sleepy. He walked forward under the watch of three hundred guards, rows of spears blocking the tapestries and portraits of the grand hall from the intruder’s sight. Above the forest of steel were curtained balconies from which Citadel’s nobles spectated, and at the end of the hall was the dais. Seated there, upon the black throne, was Neith, Lord Ruler of Citadel and rightful King of the Dustlands.
Neith beckoned the stranger to approach. The king was a fat man, accustomed to the fine foods and wines of Citadel. His weight spilled over his armrests and buckled the seat beneath him. Sweaty jowls quivered as he scrunched up his nose.
“What business do you have in the city, dustman?” asked the king.
The dustman sized up the king, the surrounding guards, the nobles on their noble balconies. He didn’t answer, merely sweeping his gaze around the grand hall, invading every nook and cranny with piercing green eyes. As his eyes darted everywhere, all other eyes were fixed singularly on him. Gregg traced the contour of his strong jaw, wondered at the size of the muscles beneath his coat. He was not alone. Such a strong specimen of masculinity was unheard of in the city.
“Why don’t you say anything?” Neith leaned as far forward as his bulk afforded. “Do you not speak the civil tongue, dirt-farmer?”
The dustfolk were barbarians in the stories. Wild men who grazed the earth as animals do, lived and died in a span of ten years like dogs, quarreled over blades of grass. Gregg was glad to have skipped his break. The stories were obviously false. The dustman was slow to speak but he was calculating something. A sage lay hidden beneath the dirt-matted black mane, beneath the grim face and coarse clothing.
And the dustman clearly understood Neith’s question.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath. Shrugged the basket off his back and onto the rich scarlet carpet. Swung it around to rest at his feet. Pushed up his sleeves.
In the space of a second that felt like minutes, Gregg saw the blue and red ink on the man’s forearms, the pulsating patterns. The air wavered around the basket, a trick of the light or Gregg’s tired eyes, and then the grand hall filled with the sound of a million thunders and Gregg saw and felt nothing.