My relationship with the “grimdark” is troubled; I dislike the conflation of pragmatism and necessary evil with realism, the belief that something gains value in its pessimism about human nature. On the other hand I greatly like explorations of villainy, entrenched evil and indeed the maintenance of an “evil empire” of the sort genre fiction loves. Not, per se, a world where there is no good and goodness is doomed to fail – but a world where there is evil, and people live it by choice or by inability to escape.
I have recently been reading the Locke Lamora novels; they depict a truly grotesque world of the excess of the rich from the perspective of a criminal determined to bring them down. Ordinarily the excesses of, say, the second novel’s Amusement Wars (a gladiatorial games de trop) would have been the thing to turn me away from the novels – but rather than being presented as some logical gritty endpoint giving credibility to the world they are shown as a sick, contemptible display of excess.
Setting this in the context of other “dark” media I have enjoyed far more than I expected to – the lore of the Dark Souls games and the unashamedly trashy steampunk zombie slasher Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress drove me to try and write my own depiction of some hopeless world ruled by a perverse logic. I applied it to super-robot fiction, by means of the “serious” pragmatism of the hardline ace squadron. In my previous story Achelois I covered similar ground in a science-fiction setting, so this is in many ways another take on the idea of a look within the paranoid, unpleasant life of a super-robot villain group.
The sun’s only access to the audience chamber was by long narrow windows set high in the walls, painting strips of white light on the dark blue tiles but leaving so much in cold shadow. The darkness was by design, intended to make the room appear as if by moonlight during the day, and too dark to navigate even on the brightest moonlit night. The chevrons of baffled sunlight illuminated the wrought-iron complexity of a staircase up to the dais far above the ground, a cold, isolated place on which a misstep – on polished tiles that seemed to be slick with condensed water even in the height of summer – would be fatal.
Performing any actual work in this perpetual cycle of twilight to absolute blackness was, of course, impossible. This was not a place for work – although below the dais scribes did write under candlelight that turned the abyss below into a nest of fireflies and rustling paper. However, there were places enough in the castle for that to be done. This chamber, set in a high tower at the centre of the building, was purely for making an impression. Nothing so crass as simple fear – there were the dark cells underground for that, the looming spectre of the King’s judgement – but awe. The reminder that in this cold, dark eyrie one was in the presence of true power. It was not as simple as mere power behind the throne; this was not the sequestered haunt of conspirators and traitors in deep gloom. This was the mailed fist lurking to strike without warning.
“My prince, my- your- your majesty, I swear I- this is not my fault, this is-”
“Alden, Cordelia, do you share my view that our good companion here is rapidly disgracing both himself and what we stand for?” A hand twitched on the arm of a throne of black wood. “Not only does he come late when summoned, he refuses to account for his actions with anything but pitiful crying.”
“It is unfitting.” From somewhere nestled between two pillars a woman’s voice responded to the question.
“It is unworthy.” A man’s voice, from the deepest darkness.
“I feel he should pay a visit to the Devoted.”
This provoked a fresh round of wailing from the unfortunate, his boots skidding on the tiles such that he stumbled to the ground, sliding inexorably towards the gap perhaps eighteen inches tall between the sharp-looking wrought-iron railings and the floor of the dais. Frantically, he found purchase, some scrap of grouting between the tiles, and used his newfound prostration as a chance to debase himself still further.
“Galen. You once served as one of the Wings of the Prince. You were once destined for greater things than crying like a child at my feet. And yet with a single motion I could now have you cast down to never see the sun again. Do you see now how precarious the wings on which I raised you up are?”
“Precarious… yes. Your highness.”
“Precarious like your grasp on reality. You believe, I think, comradeship to be something it is not. Some magic word which will extricate you from your own misfortunes. Cordelia, you saved this unfortunate when he needed it. Why?”
“Because were he to die, it would have been a great disservice to the name of the First Flight. Were he to die as he was about to, it would have meant our foes would never have taken us seriously again. Were I not acutely aware of what I fight for – the crown and all it represents – I would have let this whelp die.”
“Alden, would you have done the same?”
“Either of you, would you ever save one in need?”
“Of course. Simply not this one.”
“You are monsters!” Galen had turned onto his back and was edging back towards the stairs. “I served! Have I ever served with anything less than pure loyalty to you, your highness?”
“I do not know.”
“Had Cordelia not interceded in my duel-”
“Say that louder.” Cordelia, the Dancer of the Night Sky, was a woman whose presence was terrifying. She was freakishly tall, yet not muscle-bound, broad and stout and tanned, but simply long of limb and thin of body. Her movement gave the impression of a mannequin being folded and unfolded by a novice puppeteer, and now she was bringing herself upright. “Say again what I did.”
“I had won the duel fairly, and was claiming satisfaction, and you interceded on behalf of the foe!”
“I was killing the one you were hesistating over. And then I killed the one who would have killed you while you gloated.”
Dry laughter came from the half-shaded throne. “Cruelty is a skill, Galen. It takes so much practice to make it effortless. Otherwise one dies like a penny-theatre villain, like a rogue whose luck runs out. Maybe when you can see past your own ego to perceive the present threats, maybe when you can actually fight, you can learn to torture. Alden, Cordelia, are we base, theatrical villains? Are we the sort who get stabbed in the back as they crow their imminent victory?”
“No, my prince.”
“Indeed we are not. What you did not learn, Galen, was that one should only celebrate once one has won. Now, unless someone will intercede for you, and from the way you have thrown mud upon Cordelia’s good name I doubt she is going to, I will be sending you downwards. Alden? Will you speak for this boy?”
No words. Only the scratching of Galen’s boots against the tiles as he tried to get away from his interrogators, and the prince’s fingers against the arm of the throne.
“I will.” The woman spoke. “I will have satisfaction for his slight upon me, and then I will see him humbled, but I will not see him dead. We will fight a touch here and now, and then he will be cast out of the Wings of the Prince and dwell within the Flight of the Gilded Lance, with the others of no import or breeding. Does that please your highness?”
“By all means.”
Galen was handed a sword from the darkness, and left to struggle to his feet. He barely fought against Cordelia, simply letting his weak, terrified guard be knocked away and her point scrape a line from cheek to jaw.
“Satisfaction has been granted. Now get out of my sight, Galen the Disgraced.”
One could not run down the stairs from the dais without inevitably tripping and seeing ones life end in a sudden rush of cold air. One could, however, take them with terrified haste and burst, gasping for breath, into the pillared hall below where great armours stood idle. The fourth, currently a deep auburn red and adorned with the crest of what should have been a noble name, would before long be removed. It would be stripped of title and adornment, stripped of its elegance and identity, and sent to the halls of the Third Flight to remain blunt and practical. No longer a display of the King’s power, simply a sledgehammer to be applied to obstacles.
That one could not give it to another with its dignity intact was the one thing that would save some of Galen’s past. These armours, creations of magic, could be used only by one person. If the rider died, then it would be melted down. Efforts had been made to keep a frame intact and pass the mantle on, but there had been no success. One could reshape, but never reassign.
The floor of the Hall of Arms was a grille, and one could look down through its holes to see the dungeons. In a fit of grotesque symbolism, the Prince had insisted his picked men should stand upon the backs of fallen enemies. And within the dungeon, crawling and moving with sinuous warped limbs between the cells, one could see the stalking shape of The Devoted. Below that, deep within the cliffs on which the Castle of Wings resided, was a cave. It had not needed to be mentioned and still fear of it had not left Galen’s mind the whole time he had been on the dais.
An armour, it was known, bonded itself to its pilot by some unknown means. As part of experiments to determine how and why, the Prince had requested certain atrocities in the name of scientific enquiry. One of them, half-mad and atrophied, was chained within that cave. Talos, the Crippled Executioner. Prisoners sentenced to die would be sent into the cave a dozen at a time, and then one simply waited until there was a final scraping of metal on stone.
The Castle of Wings sat high on a rocky bluff and from its great gates over oblivion the shining armours of the Three Flights of Angels would sally forth to defeat those who threatened the people. It was safely remote, inhabited by great scholars and heroic knights. The Third Flight, the Gilded Lance, was a place for those with great skill but no titles. Everything else – the Devoted, the Crippled Executioner, the exquisite mental torture of the high dais of the Hall of Armours – remained a secret from the people. The Castle represented the Crown’s power. Displaying the fear needed to maintain its inviolability as openly as the great Armours showed its force of arms would have been nothing if not crass.