Authors: Barbara J. Webb
CITY OF BURNING SHADOWS
by Barbara J. Webb
For my parents,
Who surrounded me with books
Day by Day
It’s amazing how little anything changes after the end of the world. Coffee from the corner stand still costs more than it should. The motley huddle of kids on the corner of East and Ouliria still look like they might pull a knife if you stare at them too long. And it remains impossible to find a seat on the early morning train to downtown.
They used to call Miroc the city where even the gods wouldn’t walk alone after dark. Now the gods are gone, I don’t know what they toss around to scare the tourists, but the sentiment remains true. During the day, it’s safe enough, long as you don’t look too small or smell too weak, but you learn to keep your valuables under several layers and try not to push anyone who’s bigger than you. Easier said than done on the crowded blue line. Especially what with me being human and most of the other folks riding in from this side of town being…not.
Giants and lizards and boneheads. Most places, those weren’t the sort of people who’d pose a threat, but the ones who chose to slum in Miroc trended towards mean. Especially nowadays, now everything’s fallen apart.
Anyone who thinks that riding the train in together every morning we’d find some sort of camaraderie has obviously never set foot on the blue line.
This morning, either the train was early or I was late. I had no choice but to jump on the closest car right before the doors slid shut, choking my way through the reeking cloud of stale sweat and exhaust. I slid myself between two lizards—the only space I could fit. Their armored bodies desensitized them to a bit of jostling, as long as you kept clear of their tails, making my spot uncomfortable, but safe.
The taller, green one looked down. He was at least a foot taller than me, and by human standards, I’m not a guy anyone would call short. I held eye contact just long enough to show I wasn’t afraid of him, without staring so long it was a threat. It was a skill one developed quickly in this city if one wanted to survive.
I tried to ignore the way his elbow-spike dug into my back and checked the news on my NetPad as the train jerked along. I flipped through headlines of water protests, break-ins, assaults, and news of a hidden pocket of Ziflan priests that had been discovered by one of the gangs and dragged out into the street and murdered. The last story was more than I’d wanted to see. I slid the device back into my bag and spent the rest of the ride trying not to think about it.
Miroc was falling apart, and every single one of us on this train was locked in some level of denial. We were still going through the motions, commuting to jobs and friends and lives that on the surface looked little different than what they’d been before. Underneath, our city—our world—was crumbling. And if there was a way to stop it, it was going to take a better person than me to figure out how.
The lizards got off at my stop, and I hung back to let them get well ahead of me. Which gave me the perfect view of the ragged, half-starved teenager who darted out of a shadowy alcove between two long-dead vending machines and angled his path to intercept my big green friend.
Plenty of kids like this in Miroc. Plenty of wretched people of all ages. They were invisible to most of the folks who still had places to go and lives to live. I hadn’t yet mastered the trick of blindness.
The kid wasn’t subtle. He must have been desperate. He needled his hand into the lizard’s robe, sacrificing finesse for speed, but the lizard had better reflexes than his bulk implied.
The lizard grabbed the boy by one arm and lifted him effortlessly into the air. I heard the boy’s shoulder pop. Struggling like a fresh-caught fish, the boy scraped at the arm holding him, but it was soft fingers against scales and plates and there was nothing he could do. The few other people who had gotten off the train with us split around them and hurried on. Just another attempted robbery. Nothing to see.
“Little thief.” The lizard leaned in and the thrashing boy banged his head against the horn’s curling out from the lizard’s forehead. “You know what we do with thieves?”
I couldn’t watch this. I couldn’t look away. Sudden bursts of violence were the new way of life in Miroc, and I should have been inured by now. I certainly knew better than to get involved.
The lizard switched his grip, and now his thick, clawed fingers were wrapped around the kid’s throat.
There were two lizards, and they were armed. Swords on one hip, guns on the other. They were bigger than me, stronger than me, and the smartest thing I could do was to keep walking. It wasn’t like this would be the first murder I’d witnessed in this station.
“Put him down,” I said.
The second lizard—this one bronze with a faint pattern of stripes along his scales I might have found pretty in a different situation—flicked his hand at me. “Keep walking. This doesn’t concern you.”
He was right and I should have listened. Instead I raised my hand, called symbols of motion, force, and energy to my mind, and
Lizard number one staggered. Startled, he dropped the boy. The kid wasted no time. He ran.
I should have done the same.
In two strides, the big green lizard crossed the space between us and grabbed at me, his claws digging into my robe and the shirt beneath. He swung me around and slammed me back against the station wall. His amber eyes were inches from my own. “Do it,” I choked out.
Another slam against the wall. My head cracked hard against the concrete, and for a moment, my vision grayed. I tried to push against his arms, the solid mass of his chest, but it was like trying to move a mountain.
The other lizard elbowed his friend. My captor’s gaze twitched down, and he snarled in the back of his throat. “Priest,” he spat, and dropped me.
They turned their backs and left me there. I pressed back against the wall, rubbed at my aching shoulder. My fingers traced across the rough patch of skin on my collarbone that had just saved my life.
Symbol of the Dark God. Usually it started more fights than it ended, so I tried to keep it covered. But my shirt collar had gaped open to reveal the tattoo, and I guess these two still held respect—or fear—for those of us who used to serve. Lucky me.
All the same, I was ready to get out of here. I stumbled through the turnstiles, up the stairs, and out into the bright desert sun.
Huddled clumps of beggars lined the early-morning street, accosting commuters, trying to scrape together enough cash for the day’s water and shelter before the sun cleared the rooftops and the city became a furnace. Most of the beggars were human. We’re not the most colorful inhabitants of Miroc, but what we lack in exoticism we make up for in numbers.
Without the temples and priesthoods, there was no place for people to go, no charity but that which they could scrounge up themselves. And the ranks of the desperate grew day by day.
As I shuffled through sand drifts that every day won ground against the sidewalks, I scanned faces I passed for anyone I recognized. Anyone from before. But strangers filled the street this morning. A small comfort, if only because I had no help to offer anyone if I had seen a friendly face.
My workplace wasn’t far from the tube station—a building that had wanted to be a skyscraper in its youth, but like everyone else in this city had settled for something less. It was a good fifty years shy of modern, but it was clean and climate-controlled, and I was grateful for both.
I waved at the security guard and made for the elevator. The thirty-third floor had only one business listed on the wall directory: Price & Breckenridge, Legal and Investigative Services. My employers. The ones who had been good enough to take me in.
I wasn’t first to the office this morning. The smell of coffee brewing welcomed me as the elevator door slid open. Talk about your comfort smells. Society might be disintegrating like a body rotting in the sun, but for one more morning, at least, we still had coffee and the water to brew it. I tried not to wonder how long that would last.
Iris was in the reception area, staring at the dripping machine as though trying to speed the brew with the heat of her impatience. Iris was like me, another displaced priest. Amelia Price collected us like strays.
This morning Iris’s hair was magenta and her eyes were violet. Her nose looked longer than it had yesterday, her skin a more reddish brown. For good reason, Amelia requested Iris pass for human, but that didn’t mean Iris had to be the same human every single day. And maybe Iris never managed what most people would call normal, but, shit, who does?
“Hey, Ash.” Like all shifters, Iris managed somehow to smile with her entire body.
I joined her vigil by the coffee-maker. “You’re in early.”
I swear, the tilt of her lips didn’t change a bit, but her smile became a frown all the same. “More like I’m still here late. I haven’t been to sleep yet.”
I gave a sympathetic groan. “Out spying last night?”
“Investigating,” she corrected me.
“Another husband-thinks-his-wife-is-cheating case?” Tiresome and repetitive they might be, but these days, paranoid spouses were our bread and butter. Thicker on the ground than contract disputes. Less dangerous than other investigations. No one wanted to be the first to ask if these things still even mattered—if either love or money could hold their value as the world collapsed around us.
Old familiar patterns; people clinging to the past. As long as they kept paying us for our time, who was I to criticize? For most problems, we were still cheaper than the cops.
Iris didn’t answer. Which meant her investigation was secret, above my pay grade. There were a lot of things around here I wasn’t supposed to know.
The coffee finished dripping and I poured each of us a cup.
As I handed Iris hers, I caught her looking at me funny. “You okay?”