“The Weight of Bliss” by A.M. Justice is the First Place-winning story in the science-fiction category of the 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the 13th Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Justice’s winning entry.
The Weight of Bliss by A.M. Justice
Stuttering exhalations infected Moralen’s ears. Snores and huffing sighs rippled through the eardrums, thrummed along the ossicles, and jiggered him toward wakefulness. Eyelids heavy, he dragged himself upright. A fumbling pass through his pockets exposed his flask; cheap harlolinde scalded his tonsils.
The bliss dive stank, though none of those sprawled on grimy mats minded black streaks on damp walls. The cloying scent of bliss twined amid the ranker smells, drawing Moralen to his feet. Ochre smoke billowed from a tattered chaise, its occupant’s face obscured by blond-gray tangles.
“No more ’til you got mullas,” the blissmonger warned. Eying the bandage wrapped round her forearm, he nodded.
“I’ll be back later to change the dressing.”
Lips split around yellow teeth. “No more without mullas—too good a job by you. I heal fast, and no bliss for barter.”
He swayed, mind searching for an adequate answer, feet wavering between staying to inhale leftover smoke or leaving to earn enough for a full dose. “If you have any other medical needs—”
“More split flesh down here, doc.” Cackling, she spread her knees and unlaced the waist of her pantaloons. “You tend it, and maybe you have more if I feel good.” A foul burp bloomed from her nethers, and a grin pulled toward her ears.
“I’ll be back later,” he repeated, backing toward the door. Outside, the sun bled orange into the bay as Moralen stumbled through fetid alleys. Passing out of the Roost, he wove through stevedores on the docks, turned onto cobbled streets that led toward richer districts. In the main square before the Commissar’s palace, dawn painted marble facades copper and gold, but the gibbet stood stark against the pink sky. Ropes creaking, four casualties of the Commissar’s purge swung in swampy dawn air. Moralen hurried up the steps of his Guildhouse, slipped inside and put the door between him and anguish. Knuckles between his teeth, he took slow, deliberate breaths to calm his heart and squash the longing for bliss. When he could no longer hear his own blood, he went to the call desk and asked for a case.
Raveena’s lip curled in distaste. “You crawled out of a sewer.”
“I’ll wash before I go,” he said. “Just give me a case before they’re all taken. Please.”
Crossing her arms, Reveena leaned back in her chair. “I can’t send you out—you’re a disgrace.”
“Just set aside one ticket—just one. I’ll wash, but please, set one by for me.”
The clerk pursed her lips, staring hard at him. A year ago, she would have shown him gleaming teeth as she handed him half a dozen tickets. Now she grudgingly thumbed through her call box, pulled a card from the back. “I’ll hang onto this one for quarter of an hour.”
He blinked at her, gulping protests, then hurried off to bathe.
Hidden inside his pocket, his fingers kneaded cut crystal mullas. How long since he’d felt the weight of a full pouch? Since the soft, grinding scrape of crystal had tickled his ears? A smile tugging at his lips, Moralen paused before entering the Roost. Twenty-three rusty iron birds peered down through filigree leaves and thorns, obsidian eyes glinting. Mythical creatures reviled by the Ancients, buzzards fed on corpses and could smell a carcass a hundred miles off, but the Buzzards who lived on the other side of this gate never went far to find death.
Or bliss. Mullas grinding in his pocket, Moralen hurried toward Emily’s dive, his mouth watering for the taste of ochre smoke. The mid-afternoon sun siphoned his sweat, staining clothing dark, but his appearance didn’t matter now he’d made his call and received his fee. His lips longed for the pipe’s singe, his nose for the sickly sweet scent, his blood for sublime ecstasy.
As he rounded a corner, a club struck his shin. He fell, fire racing along nerves, robbing breath. Something struck his kidney; he jerked his head away from a sharp-toed boot. A pair of urchins sprang on him, pinned his arms under their knees while a third dug through his pockets. Glee echoed off shanty walls as the thieves extracted his pouch and dashed off, bare feet and boots splashing through midden muck.
Biting his tongue to keep from howling, he watched the urchins dart down an alley. His shin throbbed. His heart lurched. He peered at the sun. By this time of day, Ravenna might have new call tickets. He had one more change of clothes in his chest, one more chance to make himself presentable and pass Raveena’s muster. Tears hot streaks, breath desperate gasps, he rocked amidst the sludge of chamber pots and felt his life draining through a gaping hole, through a grave, one he’d dug himself the day his beloved had fallen victim to the Commissar’s purge.
Rope creaking, Willem twists in the chill air. The soldier’s knife catches the sun, scatters it across the square. Moralen stands below the gibbet. Willem’s corpse hits his outstretched arms and knocks him to the cobbles. A crack snaps in his ears, and pain blooms around his ribs. Willem’s weight pressing down on Moralen’s shoulders and spine, the cracked rib screams. But Moralen stands. He moves. He carries Willem outside the city and buries him under the tree where they met.
Willem’s family had dared not claim the body and risk the Commissar’s attention, but Moralen could not let him be dumped in the bay, like the others who decorated the Commissar’s gibbet. The next day, Moralen’s patients began canceling appointments. His cases dwindled, and his quarters migrated from the top floor to the Guildhouse basement. He sought patients where people didn’t fear a besmirched reputation: the Roost. There he found few able to pay the Guild fees, but he did find the solace of bliss.
At Emily’s he changed the dressing on her wound and begged a toke from her pipe. The blissmonger taunted him, offering to trade her pleasure for his. Weeping for his stolen pouch, lost love, and shattered pride, Moralen swallowed disgust, held his breath, and let Emily pinch his ears and steer his tongue where she willed.
He woke, mouth and throat dry as paper. Coughing, he pushed up from a filthy, frayed blanket. A burning swallow from his flask quenched nothing, yet muted the rumbling in his stomach. Emily pushed his shoulder with her toe, cackling. “Another go, doc? You my own Healer, make me like Citizen.”
Memory gripped his temples.
Willem raises his glass, crystal facets snagging the red glow of sunset. “My dear Moralen took his Healer’s Oath today. Healers swear to help all those in need, and we Storunds need this man as our family Healer. We need him to remind us that kindness buys loyalty, that loyalty buys love, and with love, we can purchase salvation.”
“Eh, doc,” Emily gripped him by the hair. “You want another blow?”
He did. He wanted to forget the weight of Willem’s corpse, the shame of begging for a case ticket, for a toke. He wanted to forget the stink of Emily’s nethers, but the price of forgetting would be another memory.
“Not now,” he muttered, fumbling at her wrist, pulling her fingers from his hair.
The blissmonger hooted a sly laugh but let him go. Outside, candlelight flickered through oiled paper and the gaps in shanty walls. Shanties turned to hovels; hovels turned to row houses, townhouses, mansions, and palazzos as he climbed from the docks to the Citizens Circle. He’d first climbed these slopes as a boy of ten, from squalid alleys to broad lanes fragrant with fruit and flowers peaking over palazzo walls. His father had guided him in silence, touching his left or right shoulder until they reached the city wall. Passing through the gate, they’d met a stern-faced woman who handed his father a bag bulging with crystals.
The pouch settles into Dad’s hands, not so full as they’d hoped. Dad juts his chin at the shirtless boys milling near the starting line. “Do well in the race, and maybe you’ll land yourself an easy life.”
Moralen returns his father’s fierce embrace. “I’ll find a way to get word to you, when I’m placed. Tell Patrice I won, no matter how I do, will you?”
Dad sniffs and brushes his cheeks, then slips the pouch into his culottes. For a week, Patrice has lain in bed with fever. Moralen prays the mullas will cover the Healer’s fee, then strips off his shirt and jogs to the other bond boys.
He reached the city gate as the sun sank into the coastal range. The guards sneered and snorted but let him out. In the fading light, Moralen retraced the race course, wandering past contoured ponds and pruned groves. The parklands were open to all, but only Citizens lived close enough and freely enough to take their pleasure along the groomed paths. Feet aching, knees shaking, Moralen sank down under the tree where he’d collapsed at the end of the race. After a middling performance, he had expected to get a bed in the stable or the scullery. He had not expected the young man with the bright teeth and dark eyes to stop and declare he’d found his new bugger boy.
I came in tenth, my lord,” Moralen says, eyes wide.
“I don’t want a winner.” The young man offers his hand. “I want a striver, and I like the look of you. Come along and don’t make trouble, and I promise you an easy life.”
Every child of the docks who went up the hill into the Citizens Circle hoped for silk sheets and good food—it didn’t matter what the Citizens required of them. What mattered were the pouches full of mullas to pay the Healer, keep a roof over the family’s head, or fill the larder. Moralen had gone up the hill ready to comply with every demand of his new master. He had known what mattered and known what to expect. He did not expect to find someone to whom he mattered. Yet for twenty years, Willem had loved Moralen and cared for him. He educated him, released him from his bond, and saw him enter and rise in the Healers Guild as no child of the docks ever had. For twenty years, Moralen had been cherished and cherished in return, buoyed by love and pride and ambition. But the weight of Willem’s ambition had knocked them both down.
There was a weight of bliss that would allow him to permanently forget Willem’s fall, but oblivion cost more than Moralen had. Liquor a poor substitute for bliss, Moralen sucked on his flask and crawled under a bush to dream of Willem’s hands, lifting him.
A cry pierced the night. Ears pricked, Moralen blinked his eyes open. A moan drifted across the lawn, followed by a curse.
He rolled over and shook the last drops from his flask; his tongue swallowed the texture of sand.
Another curse, another groaning cry. A young voice, a boy, close by. Clawing his way out of the bush, Moralen blinked at the spike of ice stabbing his left eye. Clouds shredded starlight. A breeze rattled leaves.
In the meager light, pale silk glimmered, and a figure rose up on elbows. “You there, skulker. Help me.” A command delivered in a patrician accent strained with pain but firm with expectation.
Jagged bone pierced skin below the boy’s knee; blood black as the sky painted his calf. Cinching a cravat around his thigh, the boy hissed each breath though clenched teeth.
Moralen glanced up into the crisscross of branches, then knelt and examined the leg. “I can’t see. Have you a servant about?”
“Clearly not, or I wouldn’t need your help. Look for sticks to make a splint, and take me home.”
Moralen snorted softly. Growing up, he’d watched this boy’s ilk whip scullions for an impertinent tilt of the eyes. Willem never permitted such behavior from his own children, but most Citizens thought the world existed to lick their boots clean. “The groundskeepers will likely find you in the morning.”
“You wouldn’t dare leave me.”
Moralen turned. “Farewell, lordling.”
The boy’s breath wheezed softly. “I promise you a reward, a fair one, if you help me home.”
Healers swore an oath to help all those in need. The Guild charged high fees for that help, but ensuring payment was never the Healer’s task. Moralen would tell Ravenna after the call, and he’d have one more bag of mullas to take to Emily’s. He found a pair of stout sticks and used the boy’s cravat to bind them. The lad cried out when he released the tourniquet, then sucked each breath between clenched teeth while Moralen bound the cloth tight around the bone and broken skin. He did not admit his Guild, but the deftness of his fingers gave him away.
“You’re a Healer.”
“What were you doing out of the city at night, alone?” “Looking at Elesendar.” The boy looked up at the bright star that roved its own course across the star field thrice a night, and then pointed his chin at a dull gleam half hidden in the grass. His heartbeat loud, Moralen lifted a long tube. Glass shards tinkled out of the larger end; the lens in the narrow end turned the stars into pinpricks. But the weight of brass—bronze and copper smelted together—took his breath away. Metal of any kind was rare—the Citizens smelted their wealth and power from the iron mines in the Elgrion range—but copper and bronze were rarest of all. An ordinary spyglass would be made of wood or bone; one like this, made of brass—“Priceless,” Moralen whispered.
“Put it in my satchel, please,” the boy said, reverence erasing arrogance. “I know what I’d say, were I you,” he continued as Moralen found the leather bag. “Why climb a tree? It was foolish, and I’ve paid a fool’s price.”
Moralen dropped the instrument in the satchel, closed the flap, and clutched it to his chest. Would Emily take it? It might be wiser to melt it down first, but no smith in the city would touch it—the Commissar decorated his gallows with as many thieves as rivals. Yet the Buzzards lived so close to death the Commissar’s gibbet was a joke among them. Emily would know someone. Surely she’d take it. She’d have to take it and give Moralen enough bliss to end the memories of Willem.
He ran. “You’re a Healer. You’re sworn to help me!” The boy’s shouts scaled into screams, then faded toward silence as Moralen’s feet struck the turf. Breath huffing, heart pounding, he remembered the sweat beading the backs of the bond boys, the yearning to rise above squalor. Willem’s hand had stretched down and helped him to stand, helped him to become a man who could take his ease in this park instead of race through it amid a pack of boys exchanging their freedom for a bag of mullas. Yearning now only for bliss, Moralen ran as fast as he had that day.
Darkness hid the row of black stones, and he tripped, knee and shoulder crunching into gravel. The spyglass jammed into his ribs; a crack snapped his eardrums before pain bloomed beneath his sternum. Choking on the vacuum in his throat, Moralen wheezed and groaned until air rushed back into his lungs. Each breath stoking the furnace building in his chest, he stared at the stars, tears blurring all but the brightest: Elesendar. Some thought the wandering star was a god, some thought it the craft which had brought humans to this world. Moralen didn’t know and didn’t care. Yet he had sworn his Healer’s Oath to Elesendar, and Willem’s pride that day had buoyed his spirits as high as that star.
Willem raises his glass. “Healers help all those in need…kindness buys loyalty, loyalty buys love, and with love, we purchase salvation.”
Salvation, or oblivion? What would Willem choose, if he had borne Moralen’s weight up the hill to the tree where they met, if he had buried him in the earth, if the only bliss he knew afterward was that which he purchased? A sob twisted the rib, pain sparking through Moralen’s heart. Willem’s place on the gallows had not been bought with ambition alone: kindness and skill and honor had put him there as well. The qualities Willem valued in himself, and which he planted and nurtured in Moralen. The rib stabbed at his lungs, but he rolled onto his knees, staggered to his feet. Salvation might cost more than he had, but with the boy’s spyglass and his skill, he might make a down payment.
Not far from the tree where the race had ended, he found the boy hobbling toward the gate, using a fallen branch as a crutch.
“You had better have come back to kill me, skulker”—the boy brandished the crutch, balancing on his good leg—“because you’ll hang when I tell the Watch you’ve stolen from me.”
“You’ve lost a lot of blood, lordling. You’ll never reach the gate.” The boy swung the branch at him; he caught it and flung it away, then handed him the bag with the spyglass. “This will hurt us both, but it’s too far to carry you any other way.” Without waiting for the boy’s assent, he hoisted him onto a shoulder. The lad’s weight pressed down on Moralen’s shoulders and spine; the cracked rib screamed under the strain. But Moralen stood. He moved. He yearned for bliss and the oblivion it afforded, but salvation lay in another direction, and so he trudged away from longing and the grave of his beloved.