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Such Was Charn, That Great City

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There were never any animals hurt by it, that they saw. Uriah supposed it had been quite a specific cataclysm then, for of course there ought to have been. By all rights, they should have run across a herd of a hundred horses shut up in stables and now-bare paddocks, who’d starved with no human to feed or free them; a pack of little lap dogs curled up still in closed rooms; a school of goldfish bobbing belly-up in their bowls and a flightless flock caged birds, shriveled on their perches like fruit rotted on the vine. The city should have reeked with the spoliation of all the creatures that had been involved in the business of, dependent upon and subject to human masters. But there never were any such corpses, somehow. The stable wall seemed always to have been kicked down. Even the frailest old dog had pawed the door open, and like miracles were everywhere evident. These loose animals got into scraps, certainly, and he and his companion had to look at a fair bit of carnage from nature carrying on in its accustomed fashion there, but so far as Uriah could tell it was never a matter of initial death. That was part of how Uriah knew it was an unnatural happening after all, and that nothing else had done it: the sheer luck this implied, in a world he’d never known to be particularly lucky.

They traveled around—why not? London was theirs, once they’d made their way to it from Canterbury. They were two Dick Whittingtons come to town, two young Lord Mayors, and every rich, splendid house opened to them, when Uriah could work the bolt cutters or kick the doors in (providing for his companion in princely fashion). There were, of course, never any occupants. As far as Uriah could tell, he and the boy it pleased him to call ‘the partner of his fate’ were the only two human creatures left in the world.

This presented him with something of a problem, for his companion David Copperfield was a sociable creature, and was going a little mad around the edges without the whole of a teeming, human sphere to balance him.

“You're all I have in the world,” David had said in an almost uncomprehending panic, through sobs, on one of the early nights. He’d broken down after a handful of brisk, practical days. Uriah had expected this outburst, had seen it coming. For David had borne up, but he had not taken the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of all other people with particular equanimity. Not, at any rate, so well as Uriah had.

Uriah had worried about that difference in their characters and what it might result in for a while, but now he was fairly confident that he could manage the situation handily, with a little sharp practice. David was his ally, there. He had a resilience that a person could overlook, but underneath David’s soft, amenable expressions he was surprisingly hardy. And he was adaptable, too. Besides, Uriah thought his own social powers equal to the task: in his loneliness David clung desperately to Uriah, giving that young man of twenty-one every opportunity to work upon him.

It served David right, Uriah had thought with a bitter thread of triumphant satisfaction as he’d held the sobbing David the first night he’d broken down, crooning soothing nonsense and rubbing David’s back. Back when the world had been full of people, David had seemed hardly to deign to notice Uriah existed, and to Uriah’s mind this particular profession ought to have been true even then. No, back in the old days, David had never condescended to Uriah as much as Uriah could have wished. He had never liked Uriah as Uriah had liked him.

There was no such distance between them anymore, and no difference of status, neither: both were paupers and both were emperors. They lived in a series of fine houses and palaces, possessing everything and nothing, and no one held dominion over them. With one thing and another, there was plenty of food. There were larders with preserved cheeses, jams, hams and the like, which David sorted upon their arrival at a new abode with housewifely precision. Uriah learned to thwack flour, where they found it, into bread, and so they managed well, in terms of their provisioning. Better, in fact, than Uriah ever had as a child. Uriah also now studied medical texts with more dedication even than he’d once given to the law, for the one thing he feared was illness or injury befalling either he or David. Oh it would eventually, he knew, but they were both young and relatively hale, and Uriah thought they might put it off a good few years.

It was a quiet life. Sometimes David erupted in fury with Uriah for not seeming sufficiently devastated by their situation—Uriah called such an outbreak ‘one of ‘is turns’. David’s accusations weren’t entirely unfounded: Uriah had seemed to flower, here at the end of the world. He bounded over the rubble with energy and enthusiasm, and even with cheer. But all Uriah had to do in response to David’s railing was purse his lips and then smile, and say something along the lines of, ‘I think I might take a little air—I won’t be long!’

David, who could hardly bear ten minutes’ separation, and who feared being abandoned above all things (and who, what’s more, suspected Uriah capable of doing it), caved quickly. He was all stumbling apologies and soft pleas, willing to make any little accommodation. And Uriah, freed of the onerous burden of debasing himself before the whole of mankind in a show of humility, freed as nothing else could have freed him, did (with unmistakable relish he hardly bothered to conceal) ask certain accommodations of him, now. Uriah wanted David to sit quiescent and even grateful under his compliments, rather than struggling against them as he had done. Uriah wanted David to read to him, wanted the dinner he preferred, wanted to know anything and everything David had ever kept back from him. And thus reminded of his danger, David gave Uriah anything he had to give, and fell over himself to agree with Uriah in any dispute they’d had about their plans.

Uriah didn’t ask as many accommodations as he would do, though, given a little more time. Nine months in, Uriah pondered David in the moonlight that slipped through the windows of the grand bedroom they’d taken (David couldn’t stand to so much as sleep alone anymore). Uriah found David as handsome as he always had, since he’d first beheld that almost sickeningly beautiful childish face, high in the window of a pony-shay. Now David was on the cusp of manhood, and in the night Uriah made a leisurely study of the angles of his face, the soft curls of his hair, and the delicate tints of his flesh.

He’d ask, soon. When his David (oh he called him that already, to David’s very face, and David didn’t even bat an eye) was eighteen. ‘Of age’, as he would have been, if anyone had still been around to take account of that sort of thing. (Uriah took account of it: he wanted David a man, as far as that went, and he wanted him willing.) David would give him anything rather than be left: it was their situation and it was his nature. Uriah knew David even better, now, than he used to do. He’d pried every secret and recollection out of him, knew his mind and all his old fears. He knew David would do anything almost rather than see Uriah go, as his father and his mother had done, long before everyone else had. He would gladly submit to any indignity to avoid being solitary, as his step-father (now gone with the rest of them) had once left David in a room for a week when David was still a very child. Still, Uriah would leave it as the lightest proposal. He wouldn’t take advantage of that fear more than their situation made inevitable, oh no. He would be a little persistent, but he wouldn’t so much as threaten to depart for an hour.

In a way, Uriah could have almost anything he wanted, now that there wasn’t anyone to keep him down and keep him from it. Yet David still had perfect power to deny him a thing he wanted quite desperately. Uriah thought he would get it though, one way or another, in the end. David had a loving heart, and he would give it to someone. If Uriah was the only one going, well, then at last his jealousy of all the world, which David had looked at and loved, had its answer.

Uriah occasionally contemplated how his mother had lived a long while, anyway. She had been bone-tired of being trodden under foot by every man going, more exhausted by it than she could say. Didn’t he, her loving, sole son, know that much? It had been a bad old world, creaking at the joints as it was, and they (he and David and all the dead alike, in their separate ways) were well out of it. And so he only occasionally regretted the wish.

Even he, looking at what he’d wrought, might have liked to claim that he’d not thought it would work. But that wouldn’t have been the truth, would it? He’d glanced over the scrawled diary of that mad old monk, secreted away in a forgotten bit in the Canterbury ecclesiastical court’s records at some point before the Reformation, and he’d simply known. The monk had claimed to have made some journey to another world, and had written of his experiences there before being barred from his order for heresy and vanishing into the obscure depths of history. The monk had scrawled what he spoke of as dread words, which he said he’d seen writ upon a monument by the conqueror with her own fell and bloody hand. He claimed these words had slain all their utterer’s enemies, and had rendered the world he’d visited an unpeopled waste.

Uriah had looked upon that cramped, fevered writing and understood, with an absolute knowledge, that he could have his heart’s desire. He couldn’t pretend innocence or ignorance. He’d even known what that desire would be (or at least he’d known the general shape of it). Uriah held the world his enemy, with a sole exception. For though he’d always hated David, perhaps supremely, worse still, he’d always loved him terribly. As terribly as this.

Uriah had memorised the words, whispered them as he fell asleep, woken up to a silent day (no carts, no traffic, no voices, no hands at work) and laughed and laughed. He’d managed to calm himself, and to assume a severe, worried expression before he’d gone hunting for David--schooling the skip out of his step. He’d walked through the empty streets as lightly as a bridegroom going to the church, hearing David’s panicked shouts for anyone at all in the distance, on the air. Clear a long way off, with no other noise to muddle them.

Eventually, David would figure out that Uriah needed him pretty near as much as he needed Uriah, and the balance of power would shift between them. Uriah would deal with that when it came. That was all right, really. Uriah would be happy to get away with lording his power over David as long as it lasted, understanding that it couldn’t last forever.

No, it couldn’t! He knew it well enough. Because David was clever—in fact, David was too clever for his own good. If he didn’t suspect Uriah already, one day he would. His conscience might even make him force the issue. But David was too susceptible, and too in love with mankind. If there was only one representative of that race left, David would bestow his love on that lucky exemplar. He’d exercise all his great-hearted, Christian charity to forgive the man who’d sold the world. He would do it, if Uriah had to run after David as he forced himself to walk away, hounding David for a year and begging for his pity. Uriah would do that too, if it came to it, though he knew he’d never learn the trick of contrition for its own sake.

Now, before that storm broke (perhaps it might be a long way off yet), David stirred in his sleep. Having another of his nightmares, Uriah supposed. Uriah quieted him with a soothing hand, fond and sure of his dominion, at present. And, eventually, for always: for as long as they both should live. It was no small thing, to be King of the world. And to have his queen, too, and none of the bother of subjects.