To Protect and Serve

by GR "Maya" Cogman

He was standing in the circle of the streetlight as I came out to join him, his chin tucked into the collar of his trenchcoat, hands pushed into his pockets.

"Sir." I tipped a polite nod. I knew that I wasn't late: I'd taken great pains to be sure of that. The mist swirled at either end of the alley, slicing our little lit portion of street away from the rest of the world with a dull grey blade.

He grunted something, and nodded in return, stepping away from the streetlight and turning towards the far end of the alley. I hurried to catch up with him, then matched my pace to his, controlling the urge to glance towards him for approval or simple opinion, and staring ahead of us.

We turned the corner, heading away from the Station, and followed the line of streetlamps down the road: they burned with a ghostly light, small candles against the great buildings that reared above us. It was two more streets before he spoke. "You'll learn the City."

I wasn't sure what to answer, so I nodded again, and hoped that my face had the right expression on it.

"You'll learn it," he continued, "street by street. Every paving-stone, every cobble, every gutter and every stain of blood. Every footstep, every whisper, every face and every voice."

The wind came from the south, running down the street and carrying the mist before it in twisting, endless patterns. In the distance the sound of hopeless crying followed it. One of the new groups must have reached the Yards.

"Pay attention." His voice had the shadow of a growl to it.

I hadn't looked away from him, hadn't moved my attention away, I swear it. There was no argument, though. I kept my eyes on him, and nodded. "Sir."

He grunted. Our shadows marched before us in long dark menace, shortening as we came directly beneath the streetlamp, then running out behind us in mock pursuit as we moved away from it.

"Why?" he asked.

I gulped. "Why what, sir?"

"Why," his voice deepened, a thread of raw rusty iron in it, "do you think we are here."

I tried to think of an answer that did not sound stupidly idealistic, or merely futile. Eventually, I said, "To guard, sir."

We turned another corner. To our east lay the Pleasuredome, and the sounds drifted faintly towards us, a parody of the despairing voices on the wind.

"To guard." His stride was a smooth brisk thing, sparing of his energy, and his hands were still tucked into his trenchcoat pockets. "Who do we guard?"

I thought again. Fortunately, he didn't seem to expect me to rap out the answers at a moment's notice. A few paces later, I said, "The City, sir."

Three forms were visible through the mist in a turning to our right, punching and kicking at a fourth form who squirmed at their feet, whimpering faintly. They looked up sharply at our approach, the shadows washing round them thickly: one would have stayed, but the other two grabbed him, and they vanished together, running down the alley.

"We guard," he hissed, "against trash like that. Against our own people who don't remember why we are here. Against those who would weaken us, those who would destroy what we have built." The passion seemed to drain out of his voice, leaving it more deadly yet. "You're young. You don't know what it used to be like."

A woman ahead of us was leaning against the iron post of a streetlamp, short skirt and bandeau of black cotton, legs tilted so as to show off the muscles in her thighs. She cupped a cigarette in her hand as flame flickered, drawing a first long breath until the end glowed red.

His eyes turned to her, assessing her posture and the bracelets that clinked around her wrists. She glanced back at him, unrecognising, her posture shifting yet more towards the demonstrative as she parted her lips and let her eyes soften. "Hey, sweetie, you..."

"Recognise me." There was authority in his tone, and her face paled at it, and at the knowledge of what we were. I'd seen it in other suspects, but never so quickly, never so drastically. The cigarette tumbled from her fingers in a tiny helix of fire, landing on the pavement beside her and still burning.

"My..." She fought for words. "I didn't..."

"Go round the corner to the nearest Station." He watched her, slow-burning eyes on her face. "This is no place for your kind. This is my City. Turn yourself in for soliciting."

She was trembling as she turned to obey, her green flesh paled to the colour of spring leaves in the glow of the lamp, and her horns tiny points of ivory in the swirling masses of her dark hair.

He turned away and resumed his course, not looking back at me. I kept step.

"My City," he repeated. "We keep it safe."

"Sir." I retreated to the polite monosyllable, as the silence stretched until I had to fill it with something. Anything. Words, feelings, thoughts. The City spread around us in a cold web of stone, and yet I could feel its allure, know why he protected it. Something of possessiveness, something of duty.

We had come a wide circle, and the entrance to the Station was visible in the distance, a blue-shaded lamp burning above it and turning the swirls of mist to the waves of some sea that seemed to wash across the street.

"Do you know why I am here with you?" The question was sharp, unexpected, and this time his gaze was on me. I realised what the woman must have felt, to have that intense and particular scrutiny directed so personally and absolutely. It burned away layers of self, exposing core and secret.

And then, I had the answer. It was rooted in what he was. The words came with difficulty, but that was because of the blazing stare and its weight. "To... be sure that I keep the City safe. Sir."

He grunted, but he did not ask again, and we came to the Station door together. He waved me to stay where I was, as he paused on the step.

"Your first patrol." Each word was ground on some inner machinery, fed out to me grudgingly. "Do a good job."

I bowed my head. "Yes, Prince Asmodeus."


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