Nat strolled across the rooftops of the twilight city as if they were a shopping promenade, though she did not pay for the goods she picked up here. No, they served as offerings to the dark god of the streets, protector of the desperate. She was not the god, but a servant; a priestess that dealt in shadows and threats, ensuring her master received his reverence.
The work was grim but these nights were peaceful. She savored the emptiness of this rooftop world, overlooking the city with only birds and feral cats for company. Gas lamps did not shine bright enough to banish the shadows up here, the stars too often hidden by the smog of overworked factories.
Her boots scraped across brick as she skulked over the flat topped apartment building. A jagged hole behind the exhaust pipe hid an offering. The pouch felt over-light when she picked it up. Nat frowned, contemplating her options. The god did not like to be cheated for his protection. All too often lately Nat had carried out his wrath. The factory workers thought they no longer needed the god, but had they forgotten how he had stood for them when politicians and nobility had turned a blind eye to the awful conditions of these neighborhoods?
The new unions promised these men a voice in the government, but the god and Nat knew better. The factory workers were distracted by empty shinies while the politicians and nobles robbed the other pocket. At least her god was honest.
An owl hooted distantly, and she tucked the offering away in her satchel. Tonight she would be merciful. She started for the next building over when a cough sounded behind her. She whirled, knife at the ready and all thoughts of mercy gone.
She was met with a jester’s grin. The young man leaned against the edge of their rooftop, dressed in black as she was and a cap pulled low on his forehead making it difficult to distinguish his features.
“So you’re the angel of death in this city,” he drawled. As if her knife meant nothing. He stood slowly, stretched so she could see the multiple knives strapped to his own belt.
“You should not be wandering around on rooftops at this time of night.” She stalked closer, shoulders squared for a fight.
“I like to know my competition.” He winked.
Her blood boiled at the insolence. “Crossing my master is not a wise idea.”
“Oh I’m sure, but I am not a wise man,” he did not hide how his eyes locked onto her satchel, the cache of offerings she had gathered that evening.
Nat drew a second knife and widened her stance, but the man merely threw his head back and laughed. “What a loyal little servant you are! But surely someone with your skills need not serve another master when she could be one herself?”
“Unlike you I am wise enough not to invite death unwarranted,” she spat. She dared not show how ice slipped down her spine and set her hands to trembling. He spoke sacrilege so flippantly. Was he truly so idiotic or was he perhaps a test from her god, judging her faithfulness?
“Has he leashed you so tightly?” The man still did not move to attack, weapons forgotten at his waist. “Don’t you see you’re as crushed beneath his heel as the men you’re sent to visit?”
“I make no offerings!”
“You’re life is your offering,” he shook his head as if she were the fool.
To the east, the sky was beginning to lighten. Nat was losing the night, her bag not nearly full. Frustration welled up in her. “What is it that you want?”
“To bring down a god.” He turned and vaulted over the edge of the roof before Nat could fully comprehend his words. She did not hear him touch the ground below.
She stood frozen on that rooftop until the sky brightened from indigo to lilac, then shook herself from her stupor and continued with her job. If any of the evening’s other offerings were light, she took no notice.
As morning at last touched the city, Nat made her way to her god’s abode, tucked away in the shadows from which he watched over his flock.
“How do my people fare today?” the god asked from his throne of burgundy velvet. Smoke swirled around his scarred face as he drew a deep puff from a cigar. The spicy scent enveloped the room.
Nat bowed her head and set the satchel on the desk between them. “None missed a payment.”
“Very good.” The god hummed, a tone that managed to sound both pleased and brooding simultaneously. “But I am wondering why you failed to report on the new thief in town immediately.”
The blood drained from Nat’s face. “Merely an annoyance. Not worth our trouble, my lord.” She hoped he did not hear the squeak in her voice.
The god rose from his chair and stepped up to her, tilting her head up with a calloused finger. “Then why hide it from me?”
“Because he’s not even worth your notice. Should he truly become a problem, I will take care of him as I’ve taken care of all the others,” she swallowed thickly, locking her eyes with his. She dared not show even a hint of doubt.
“Very well,” he finally pulled his hand back and returned to his chair. “I suppose my angel deserves some faith of her own after all she’s done for me.”
“Thank you, my lord,” she bowed deeply, anxious to be free of the smoky, cavernous room. “I would not fail you.”
With a wave of his bejeweled hand, the god dismissed her back to the world above. The ladder creaked beneath her weight and the grate was cold and damp against her fingers as she slid it aside. The sounds of the street cascaded over her; hooves and wheels clambering against cobblestones, hawkers crying out the day’s wares, workers trudging to another backbreaking day in the factories.
It was only when she was clear of the alleyway and sunlight brushed her cheeks that Nat allowed herself to breath deep once more and let her thoughts flow free. Maybe the thief and the god were both wrong.
She did not want to serve or rule.
She just wanted to live.