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A Bright Mourning

It was the twenty-third day of Dusk.

Lowly the dying sun clung to the eastern skies, a pale and bloody fist grasping at the jagged peaks of World’s Spine. Its light was the colour of blood and honey, beautiful to behold but empty of life’s warmth, silken, almost liquescent, spilling onto the world as in libation.

Beneath that bright mournful light, the earth, long since withdrawn from the dying sun, all its rooted children withered and drained of colour now, took on the appearance of something half-formed, not altogether real but still palpable, still and yet not altogether lifeless, like something the gods of creation might have dreamt of before setting out to their work.

But this half-world, too, Horace Shaw knew, standing atop a low country hill and leaning lightly on his walking stick, would soon vanish with the wayward sun. When the sun drowned in Sinner’s Gulf in less than a week’s time, when even this meek, beggarly light of Dusk ceased to be, Night would come and engulf the world. Surely as one lived and died.

He was a tall man heading into his fortieth year on earth, with wide shoulders and long, muscular limbs. His hair was coarse and black and cropped short. The beginnings of a mostly dark beard framed an angular face, high-cheeked and dark-eyed. He wore a fraying coat belted at the waist and a pair of worn leather boots. A large rucksack slumped from his shoulders.

Six days he had been on the road, coming from a small farm hidden in the depth of forests of Paletree Downs, and in those six days he had seen nary a soul. Only empty houses, empty villages, and deep tracks on the road of men, cattle, and wheels, like aged scars.

He had helped himself into the empty dwelling for shelter and whatever was left to eat and drink. It seemed, he’d thought more than once, that the world of men had simply disappeared and left him to inherit all that was left.

That wasn’t true, of course. Only an idle thought. He knew where people had gone. When the Vigil’s beacons sent up dark plumes to the sky to signal the beginning of Dusk, twenty-three days ago, all settlements outside of a Flame’s reach had been swiftly evacuated. All across Providence, hundreds upon thousands of people flocked to one of the eight cities that could shield them the coming Night. For Horace and all those whose dwellings he had gone past or into, it meant the city of Havertham: the bulging, twisted heart of Providence. The people hadn’t left him to live out his days alone—they had merely gone ahead. The leavings of the world of men were not for him. He was only the last sheep in timeless transhumance.

The knowledge did little to dispel his sense of utter solitude, however.

It had made him want to sing, the feeling that he was alone on God’s wide earth with no one to hear him but himself, but he’d shied away from the impulse. He was not a singing man, nor was he an impulsive one. He might have been the latter, once, perhaps, when he was young and unbloodied, ambition leaping in his veins like a wild horse, wanting to rise above the station of his birth and take what he wanted from life. Those days were long past. Another life, almost.

The problem was that he had been alone too long, he knew. He’d spent most of the long year in that forest in Paletree Downs, tending the farm, watching poppies grow even as his own life shrunk into a rigid pattern of sleep and work, work and sleep, except for a handful of visits to a nearby village to trade for supplies and hear news from the city. In such a life, crystallized by the combined weight of solitude and wilderness, thoughts had a way of getting loud in one’s head. Very loud, in fact, until they were almost entirely a voice not your own.

It always spoke of the past, that voice, the way ghosts might, dry and uncaring. Exhuming memories he had buried away, memories he would have preferred remain buried, and forcing him to scrutinize the makings of his own wretchedness. So many failures and deaths, where so little goodness could be found.

Presently, as he made his way down the hill and toward a turn in the road, the voice spoke of Antor of House Sirramark, a boy of nineteen years, who had died in his arms shortly before he left the city for the farm in Paletree Downs. Hands clutching at his throat, desperate and vain, soft hands, unmarred by a day of labour in all his days, blood leaking through the fingers. Mouth agape in horror, those immaculate teeth flashing red, trying to scream but only able to gurgle and hiss. He had told the boy, not ungently, who he was and why the boy was choking on his own blood in an alleyway not far from his father’s mansion. Sheer, utter disbelief in his eyes then. The boy could not believe what was happening to him even as the light departed from his eyes and crossed the threshold between life and death. Then he was just a body, rolled into the canal with an unceremonious plop to be carried into the river and found a day or two later, among a score of waterlogged bodies that washed up on the banks of Mother Forlorn each and every day.

He had thought about the subject often in the past year, in those pale hours between sleep and waking, about the unintended, unforeseen chain of events in the wake of the boy’s death that had led to open violence in the streets of Havertham and ended with the public beheading of one of the most powerful figures in all of Providence. And, of course, about the part that he had played in all of that, however unwittingly, in the labyrinthine schemes for power and influence among the Old Bloods.

But he had never, he realized, not once, actually thought about the killing itself. Until now. Well. He searched within—that was what the inner voice demanded, always, implicitly—and found, for once, that there wasn’t any regret, now as then. And why should there be? The boy had deserved to die for what he’d done to Abelia. One life for another. That was fair. Just. Perhaps, the voice pointed out then, he had acted in vengeance, not justice. But what did that matter, if he had? He’d served one by serving the other; they were two sides of the same coin, justice and vengeance, or had been, at least this once. One life for another, where law could not be counted on. Fair. Just. Righteous. Sometimes—and this was the hard truth of his existence—the end justified the means. Dictated it.

What had followed that death could not have been his responsibility. Not truly. Those deaths, those days of chaos and murder in the streets he had only heard about, that was not on his soul. He had ruminated on this point over and over during his exile, whenever his thoughts turned to Antor of House Sirramark or Abelia, the boy and the girl now linked forever in his mind by two acts of violence, because he had wanted, needed to know that he had arrived at this conclusion not through cowardice. And he was certain, as certain he could ever be in a matter such as this, that he hadn’t been manipulated to kill the boy. He had acted alone, and not impulsively. Had weighed the risks and accepted them, and then planned, carefully picking the right place and the right moment for the deed: halfway between the hippodrome and the Sirramark mansion, in the frenzied aftermath of the final race of the season. The only exposure he had risked was punching an elated Whites supporter to start a brawl outside the hippodrome, to separate the boy from his entourage, which, as it turned out, had hardly been necessary. If certain people had seized upon the boy’s death and altered the balance of power in the city and beyond, then the death must have been a serendipitous occasion for them, not an engineered one.

But there was something else now, in the place between the absence of regret and the hard, grim satisfaction of justice met. He remembered the boy’s blood on his own hands, hot as broth, and his own voice, steady and low, not unlike the one that had developed in his head of late, asking the boy if he recalled a young prostitute by the name of Abelia. Then he saw in his mind’s eye, looking into the boy’s mortal ones across the chasm of memory, a flicker of regret. It was gone almost instantly, swallowed up by the shock and disbelief and the agony of death, but Horace saw it now and was certain that it had been there when he took the boy’s life.

He was surprised to feel pity then, a great surge of it, which was not for the boy, or himself, or even for Abelia.

It overwhelmed him, that pity. Uprooted him from the hard place where he had resigned his soul all those years ago and left him on muddy grounds, confused and weak. Why, he demanded of himself, what was the point of this? He wanted to weep, wanted to scream. Had to stop in his tracks and fight to regain control. A deep breath, a curse under it, and a drink of water from his leather canteen.

When he began again, at length, it was with a slow, simmering anger dictating his steps past stony hills and empty fields toward the city of his birth, the capital of the known world, where he might drown out the voice in his head with those of a thousand others.

Only later, much later, he would look back on this moment on a dark road far from the bright Flame of that city, only a torchlight separating him and his charge from Night’s unfathomable darkness, and realize, suddenly and with a fierce joy that was also sadness, that he had forgiven himself, of himself, and of the imperfect, fractured world that had made and unmade him so, alone on that hillside under a bleeding sun on the twenty-third day of his final Dusk.

All the pretty

I am dying

Of all the pretty girls

all the pretty boys

all the pretty lips

and all the pretty hips

all the fit jeans

all the lit screens

all the lean meats

and all the thin eats

all the neat ads

all the chic fads

all the rad scenes

and all the mad memes

all the dim lights

all the grim sights

all the tight porn

and all the right corn

all that is wrong

all that is wrong

all that is sold & bought

for fuck’s sake

all that recklessness

all that heartlessness

all that disingenuous   

speaking in tongues

I love them all

I love them all

all the pretty things

all the pretty things

Dear Mr. Weatherman

We’re getting poorer

hungrier

and fatter all of the time.

I think Heaven is a mouth that does not speak

and this city has no ears, no eyes.

Dear Mr. Weatherman, please;

Tell us what the sky holds

and for whom the rain falls—

Falling forth,

falling

forth,

we hear its music

and do not understand.