The Queen of Smiles is a full-length novel set in the same world as The Murder of Crows. It takes place several years after the final book in that trilogy, One Tin Soldier.
I WAS BORN full-grown in the middle of a highway, standing six feet, two inches tall from the top of my helmet to the soles of my riding boots. No mother and no father, unless you count the bastard who dreamed me into existence from a thousand miles away.
I died, seconds later, when an eighteen-wheeler hit me going eighty-five. Its driver was one of those unlucky thousands who had just found themselves with powers thanks to that same bastard’s shitty dream. Turns out it’s hard to focus on the road when every creepy crawly that’s ever lived in your truck is coming to pay you a visit. He lost his life in the resulting wreck but taught me two lessons in the process.
First, that this shell I was born in, this body that means so much to the world, is just a container for the storm within. Cut me and the world bleeds.
And second, that nothing—nothing at all—lasts forever.
I’m reminded of both lessons as I see thick plumes of smoke in the sky above the only town I’ve ever called home.
When I first encountered Eclipse, it was a nothing little town in the broken remnants of a nothing state, notable only for how far it was from damn near fucking everything. In the years since the dream and the Break that followed, the hundred or so inhabitants had turned it into a walled outpost, a trading hub that existed in an uneasy no-man’s land between the nomad clans to the north and the few remaining outcrops of so-called civilization to the east and south.
It’s not somewhere I would have ever stopped if my ride hadn’t been out of juice. In fact, I’d already been pushing my motorcycle for miles before their wall came into sight. Eclipse was a nothing little town in the middle of nowhere, yeah, but damned if they didn’t have two solar panels on the roof of their tallest building, gleaming like black gold in the summer sun.
I stayed overnight to get a full charge and then an extra week to do a job for Eclipse’s then-mayor that paid off my debt. Because that was the third lesson I’d learned, not long after my birth: existence is transactional. Especially mine. Every job requires a payment. I could no more accept charity than I could give it, and once again, it was the asshole who dreamed me into existence who was responsible.
When that job was done, I’d gone on to the next one, crossing the continent like I’d been doing since my first death. Looking for truth. Hunting for that dreaming bastard, for the man who was the closest thing I had to a dad. Dr. Nowhere, who had broken the world and dreamed me into existence in the same damn night.
Decades of searching. Decades of doing the worst kind of jobs in exchange for scraps of information that would bring me closer to the only person who had real answers for me. Who and what I was, yeah, but more importantly why.
When I finally found him, those answers were every bit as disappointing as the man himself. And soon afterwards, he, like so many other people, was dust on the wind, a casualty of his own actions.
But I was talking about Eclipse.
Turns out Nebraska’s damn near the center of what used to be the United States, and over the decades, I’d come back through Eclipse more than once. Get a charge, do a job, bump uglies with a new sweaty townie happy to make sure the sexual giving equaled the getting… and then rinse and repeat over a span of thirty or forty years.
When Dr. Nowhere died, when I lost my reason for doing what I did, somehow Eclipse was the first place that came to mind. A nothing little town in the broken remnants of a nothing state, but also a place to hole up in. A place to figure out who I was and what came next.
And now, almost three years later, someone had answered that second question for me.
By the time I made it into the burning town, the crows were as thick as the smoke. A gate that had been strong enough to give a howler pause now lay in pieces across the dirt road. Inside that gate, the town’s only inn was a shell of itself, a single wall somehow still standing, empty windows looking out and in upon destruction.
As for the streets? Bodies. Bodies everywhere. Burned and stabbed. Broken and torn. Every one of them a face I knew, a face I had come to recognize over the past years. Whoever had done this had taken their own dead with them, had possessed enough manpower to not only destroy a town, but to then clean up afterward.
Numbers and discipline. Even that much was a clue, though I wasn’t sure what to do with it yet. My search for Dr. Nowhere had started out like that: gathering data, narrowing my search. Put enough pieces together and you start to understand the puzzle. Understand the puzzle and maybe then you can solve it.
The mayor’s house, just off the town square, had mostly fallen inward, those two precious solar panels nowhere to be seen. I waved aside a crow as large as my bike and ducked through the half-standing entryway to find the mayor’s body, sprawled atop that of his wife and child. Nathan, Mina, and their son, Duke, who’d been too young to fear me, who’d pouted for days when I told him that, as a queen, I outranked his scrawny little ass.
I looked down at their bodies and the storm inside me howled and gnashed its metal teeth.
Mina’s thirtieth birthday had been just a week away, and in the Badlands, that meant something, so Nathan had found me on one of my infrequent trips into town and asked a favor. I didn’t do favors. I couldn’t do favors, but I could accept something equivalent in trade—another charge for a bike I rarely rode anymore, and a home-cooked meal that I’d secretly dump out in the plains, because eating was something other people did. A deal was struck and then I was gone.
And while I was away… this.
I took the bolt of silk from my saddlebag. Five yards of emerald green, purchased down in Wichita. Enough to make a dress fit for the mother of a duke. The nicest thing Mina would have ever owned. Now, just a burial shroud.
Maybe a true mercenary would have kept it. The ones I’d ridden with certainly would have. But I’d taken payment for this job, and I would finish it. I wrapped the family in the silk of Nathan’s gift, in the dress that would never be. I kicked down the last wall of their house and built a makeshift pyre atop their silk-wrapped remains. And then, when one last fire was burning bright, adding its smoke to the greater mass, to angry clouds that blotted out both sun and moon, I took up my saddlebags. I headed back to the bike I’d left on the outskirts, brushed ash from its frame, reformed my shell so that both riding leathers and helmet gleamed free of blood and soot, and peeled off into the darkness.
A town was gone. My adopted home was gone.
Balance in all things, in the giving and the taking.
And that meant someone had to pay.
Take another trip into the Badlands for a journey of revenge and redemption!