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The Listener’s Lament
By P. S. Hoffman
Like all the xenos who lived at the bottom of this backwater city, the corvani sitting before him had a special talent for making Prochullan’s life difficult. In fact, the more this savage bird-thing tried to “help,” the less helpful he was.
Optioch Prochullan wasn’t sure if the corvani was stupid, hostile, or both. Both, he decided. It’s always both with these damn birds.
The Empire conquered the Cauldron five years ago.
Prochullan wasn’t there when it happened. He came through the gate in one of the many relief groups, not long ago, and he was led to believe the xenos here had been beaten into willing subjects.
This was supposed to be an easy call on some pleasant, if humid, planet.
Instead, the Optioch spent his days patrolling ramshackle streets in a city whose people hated him, while trying—vainly—to enforce some sort of discipline into the rank and file, so they could hunt down the xeno criminals and would-be rebels.
But, five years later, the denizens of Lowtown continued to froth and boiled over, spilling their anti-imperial sentiments into the rest of the city. No wonder they call it the Cauldron.
Like an incurable disease, the avians simply refused to let the Empire civilize them. It didn’t seem to matter how many houses the army burned, or how many locals they tortured. The cries of crucified criminals once sounded like the music of victory; now, they grated on Prochullan. Put him on edge, because these savage xenos were a little too fond of revenge.
Prochullan longed for the day when he could leave this planet. The bugs were a constant nuisance, and when they weren’t buzzing around the air, they were crawling over his clothes while he slept. Too many tropical plants grew here, competing for light and choking each other out, and that decaying stench stung his nostrils every time he stepped outside.
Not to mention the humidity. Gods, save me from this sweat. But it seemed the gods were determined to delight in his misery.
Today’s work brought him to the dungeons which Prochullan had hoped would be, if not dryer, then at least cooler than the rest of the Cauldron. Down here, though, the humidity was somehow worse. His clothes stuck to his scales and the air was heavy, like it hadn’t moved in a thousand years. Instead of gas lanterns, some bright mind installed torches along the heavy stone walls, so every breath was half-filled with smoke.
Prochullan sat with his elbows on the table, and massaged at his temples as if he could press away the growing headache. Across the table, the guttering torchlight cast the corvani in flickering shadows, somehow making the wiry thief look larger than he had out in the daylight. All those blue-black feathers shone like spikes of some ancient armor.
Prochullan leaned back in his chair. Trying not to breathe the smoke in too deeply. He wanted to cover his mouth, and walk out of this dank, awful place, but he was the Optioch here. He was in command.
“Once more,” Prochullan said, trying to keep his voice even. “And this time, don’t leave anything out.”
The corvani thief sighed, as if he was begrudging Prochullan some great favor.
“All right. But if I get interrupted one more time by your pet over there-”
Before the corvani could finish his sentence, the other cyran at the table had his knife out and brandished it at the avian. “What did you call me, bird?”
That was Corporal Carant. A dullscale soldier with a temper hotter than the Cauldron at midday. He had been on Gaiam longer than Prochullan, a fact which certainly fed into his surly disposition.
“Nice knife,” the avian said, “Your owner let you play with it?”
Carant snarled and started to rise from his chair.
“Corporal Carant,” Prochullan warned. “Sit down.”
The dullscale soldier stopped halfway across the table, still seething. Meanwhile, the avian leaned back in his three-legged stool, his chains clinking softly as he gave Carant a half-cocked smile that only touched the soft corner of his beak.
Carant, still standing, said, “Let me cut him, Sir. I know how to make these savages sing.”
Carant grumbled, but sat down. The dullscale soldier might have been on Gaiam for too many months, but he still knew how to obey his superior. Good.
“That’s a good pet,” the corvani taunted. “What other tricks do you know?”
“You’re a piss poor excuse for a thief,” Carant said.
“You think so?”
“Silence,” Prochullan said, using the voice they taught him back at the Academy.
Nobody listened to him.
“Got caught, didn’t you?” Carant said.
“I’ve been in worse spots.”
“And what about all your little feathered friends?” Carant said. The Corporal’s grin was all teeth. “Gods, you should’ve heard the way they screamed. Oh, right. You did. You were standing right there when we shot them…”
Their prisoner went darkly quiet, but the Corporal continued to pointlessly goad the avian. Gods damned dullscales. We already have the damn bird, threatening him will only make it worse.
Prochullan dug his knuckles into his temples, letting out a sigh. Wishing that this assignment would just end. After all, what did he care about the stolen relic?
Prochullan pulled extra hours, getting his hands dirty and putting his soldiers’ necks on the line, to find a human artifact so rare… and even if he did find it, he would have to turn it over to the Magistrate. For what? For the Magistrate to take all the credit? Meanwhile, the Magistrate would give Prochullan some puffed-up speech about duty, and a couple extra coins of pay. If even that.
No. Prochullan was long past seeing through the facade of honor, long past dreaming about climbing the ranks on this gods-forsaken planet.
Really, the only thing in the balance here was the avian’s life. If the avian came clean, Prochullan would let him live. Sure, that life might be spent in the work camps, but wasn’t that better than being tied up to a stake, where he would be fed and watered for weeks—maybe months—before his fragile bones finally gave way and he begged for death?
“…so I’m telling you now, bird. Your last prayers. You better start saying them.”
Corporal Carant was standing up again, leaning over the table, waving that knife too close to the prisoner.
“What prayer should I say then?” The corvani’s voice was dripping with sarcasm. “Are the gods going to suddenly start listening? Oh, great old ones! I am your humble vessel. I am filled with your glorious divinity!”
Filled with glorious divinity? Prochullan frowned. This was no prayer he’d ever heard before. What in the eight hells was this avian doing?
But Carant was up and waving that knife around again. “Shut your beak and tell us where you hid the relic!”
“Which is it? Shut my beak, or tell you where it is?”
“That’s it-” Carant said, leaning forward.
Prochullan kicked his own chair back, and shouted at the top of his lungs, “SIT DOWN! Gods, beyond, soldier, how are we supposed to get answersfrom a dead bird? Put that knife away and sit down.”
Slowly, Carant obeyed.
The corvani watched him, smirking the whole time. “You’re not a very good listener, are you? Listen well, cyran. If you interrupt me one more time, I will kill you.”
Not smart, Prochullan thought. And here, I almost believed this was one of the smarter savages.
“Oh, I cannot wait to cut you open, you feathered-”
“Shut up, both of you,” Prochullan said. “Corvani, tell us how it went down.”
The corvani nodded at Prochullan. Cleared his throat, as if he were at some noble’s dinner party, and opened his beak to speak. Carant cut him off, “And no lies, this time, bird.”
The corvani stared at the Corporal. He did not blink.
Along the back of the dungeon wall, the torches guttered, and smoke curled to the low-slung ceiling, creating a haze that drifted around the avian. Despite his dumb arrogance, the Corporal fidgeted uncomfortably beneath the gaze of those dead, cold eyes.
Even Prochullan felt unsettled. Felt a growing pressure fill the room.
“Go on, corvani,” Prochullan said, more to clear away that feeling than anything else.
The avian leaned back, his chains clinking as he pulled his feathered hands off the table. He began his tale…
Eolh watched Ingeri cut the glass. She had a specialized blade made for drawing perfect, straight lines through the thick windowpanes of the temple.
Her red-feathered hands moved with expert confidence, but Eolh still cringed at the slow, grating sound her knife made as she dragged it steadily down the glass.
“One more,” she said.
“And then?” Eolh asked.
“And then you don’t touch it until I say so. A stiff breeze could pop it out.”
“Ingeri,” Eolh said, “Remember who you’re talking to.”
“Right,” she sighed. “I’m used to working with novices these days. You know how it is.”
These days, it seemed all the old hands were gone. Nothing but fledgling featherhands and upstart burglars, with no subtly, and no experience. To them, everything was a smash and grab.
But Ingeri had come up with this part of the plan, which was probably why Eolh liked it so much. Ingeri would cut the escape route before they stole anything. When they were ready to run, all they had to do was push the glass out and fly away. Easy. And hopping out of a hole in a window was far better than the way they had come in: up the temple’s well, from the sewers. That had been Gawati’s idea, their third accomplice. After hours of hiking through rivers of unspeakable foulness, Eolh swore that nothing would ever make him go back.
The smell of the sewers still clung to his feathers. Gawati had already run off, looking for their prize. No subtly, Eolh thought. No experience. You always stick together.
Outside, in the lush courtyard of the temple, the priests and nobles were hosting a party… for the cyrans. Gods damned traitors. When he pressed his ear hole to the glass, he could hear them. Laughter. Dancing. The clinking of dishes. They were celebrating—actually celebrating—the fifth year of the Empire’s occupation. The fifth year since Lowtown had burned.
I reckon the Coward Queen herself is out there right now, licking the Magistrate’s boots. Throwing feasts, while our people starve.
That was why Eolh and his two accomplices had decided to pull off a heist in broad daylight. Eolh told himself he was doing it as a favor. Ingeri needed this. She was looking far thinner these days, and her feathers were turning pale. Nothing like the vibrant red she was so proud of, back when they ran with Jouri’s crew. Back when there was still a crew to run with.
But the truth was Eolh needed this, too. Too many nights these last months, he’d gone to sleep on an empty stomach. And every time that gods-damned gate opens, more imperials pour in to take our food. Save the nobles and priests, everyone in the Cauldron was feeling the squeeze. Which meant, it was getting harder to steal, and the jobs were getting smaller. More risk, less reward.
“They won’t be expecting us,” Gawati had said. “It’s perfect. Even the guards will be drunk.”
Well, Eolh thought, she was right about the guards. He didn’t have to listen hard to hear the drunken peels of laughter echoing in the courtyard. But still…
Gawati was young, hungry, and confident, the three worst traits you could have in a thief. Supposedly, she ran with the Gray Clutch before her boss was hung by the Empire, which did give her a smidgen of credit.
“You sure we can trust her?” Eolh asked.
Ingeri was too focused to answer. She finished the final slice of the glass and blew off the dust, revealing a square-shaped indent on the window pane, large enough for an avian to slip through.
“Gawati’s just as hungry as we are, Eolh.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“She was right about the entrance under the well. And about the guards, too.”
“Yeah,” Eolh said. He knew he should’ve aired his doubts earlier. Maybe it was all that sunlight, streaming into the temple. Illuminating every speck of falling dust. Everything about this felt too exposed. Too easy.
“Oh, I know that look,” Ingeri said. “You think this is going to be another Calian situation? You think she’s going to cut and run?”
“It’s getting bad out there, Ingeri. Money’s sparse. Trust, sparser.”
The red-feathered avian shook her head. She tucked her tools back into their satchel, saying, “I’ve worked with Gawati on three jobs. Nothing went south. She’s all right, Eolh.”
“Three jobs isn’t much.”
“What? You don’t trust me anymore?” She said, smiling up at him.
“Ingeri,” Eolh said, suddenly very serious, “I will never forget.”
Her smile faltered. “Nor will I.”
Eolh could still smell the burning wood. Still hear the screams, as the Empire marched through the streets, torching the lowest tier of the city. Ingeri had come back for him, risking life and limb to pull him from the ashes. She had found him curled into a ball, cowering in some dark alley with his hands over his ears, trying to drown out the sound of a world on fire.
“And if I recall,” Ingeri said, “You still owe me for that one.”
Eolh crowed a laugh. He extended a hand to help her up, and her smile returned.
“Besides,” Ingeri said, as Eolh pulled her to her feet, “without Gawati, we wouldn’t have found this job. And this job is special.”
“It’s just an old twig.”
“It’s called the Bough, Eolh. The Bough of Glass. Didn’t you ever listen to the priests? Oh, never mind. Look who I’m talking to.”
“You’re sure we’ll get a fair price for it?”
“Eolh,” she bobbed her red-feathered head at him, her eyes wide with disbelief, “it was made by the gods. The Bough is priceless. There’s no way in all the hells we’ll get a fair price for one of the city’s holiest relics. It’s unthinkable. It’s- It’s-”
Ingeri blew out a sigh. Her slender form seemed to deflate even further.
“You’re not feeling guilty, are you?” Eolh asked.
Of all of Jouri’s old crew, Ingeri had always been the most devout. She was from the Midcity, and before the war—before she fell in with the gangs—she had dedicated her life to the temples. She might’ve been a priest by now, had things gone a different way. She might be right here, taking care of the relic, instead of stealing it.
“No,” Ingeri said, furrowing her brow feathers in anger, “The Bough is better in our talons, than in theirs.”
A voice whispered hoarsely from the floor of the temple. “All clear!”
Eolh leaned over the stone railing. Gawati was standing in the middle of the pews, waving them down. Not even bothering to hide herself. Amateur.
Eolh held a hand up, motioning for Ingeri to pause. She waited, and Eolh liked to think it was because she trusted his opinion more than some upstart featherhand. Eolh scanned the belly of the temple. He could hear the flickering of braziers. The sigh of wind through the high rafters. Some tiny creature scampering in the old, stone bones of this place. And the muffled noise of music and laughter coming from outside.
And nothing else.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”
Eolh hopped off the railing, and Ingeri followed. They crept through the shadowed aisles on the far side of the pews, taking the longer, safer route to Gawati.
A small, wooden chapel sat in the back of the temple. Normally, this place would be guarded, but now the only thing that kept them out was a flimsy lock. Eolh put his head next to the keyhole, gently twisting his picks and listening for that tell-tale sound.
There it was.
The door swung open on well-oiled hinges.
“After you,” Eolh whispered.
Ingeri smiled, and ducked inside. Gawati didn’t look at Eolh as she followed. That was fine. It made it easier for Eolh to keep an eye on her, so he could watch for any sign that she was going to grab the relic and run.
But first, they had to find the damned thing.
The room was littered with sacred junk. His eyes passed over unlit candles stacked on tablecloths, or stuck in bronze candleholders, vestments and fine silks folded and stored (some of these looked like they’d never been worn), and pucks of incense and glass jars filled with ointments. I reckon those would fetch a fair price on the Midcity markets.
Eolh couldn’t help himself. He opened one, unleashing a fierce, pungent, scent that reminded him a little much of when he ran that job for the herbalist. He pocketed that jar, and a couple of others.
In the center of the room, there was an enormous brass trunk, with huge, mahogany legs elegantly carved, and a lock to match. Even the metal was worked into a beautiful pattern that Eolh couldn’t tear his eyes away from.
It’s got to be in there.
He was about to start messing with the lock, when Gawati said, “Found it!”
Instead of the trunk, the relic was tucked away in the darkest corner of the chapel. A simple wooden jewelry box, covered with a thick, regal cloth. Eolh probably wouldn’t have noticed it, probably would’ve gone through every other item in the room first, but apparently Gawati had an eye for these things. Ingeri looked at Eolh, as if to say, See? I told you.
“How do you know that’s the relic?” Eolh started to say, but he stopped mid-sentenceas Gawati cracked open the box, and a strange light flashed out into the unlit chapel.
The three of them leaned in to look at it.
“My gods,” Ingeri whispered. Eolh saw something dazzling in her eyes. Something so much more than basic greed. A kind of utter wonderment. And hope. In that moment, to see that look on her face, somehow it felt like this whole heist was already worth it.
Gawati snapped the case shut, making a sound that echoed out of the chapel and into the temple. Both Eolh and Ingeri sucked in their breath. Gawati seemed blissfully unaware. Gods damned amateurs.
“OK,” Gawati said, “Let’s get out of here.”
She tucked the case under her wing. Eolh caught her.
“Nope,” he said.
“What is this?” Gawati glared up at him, ready to pull her arm away.
“Hand it over.”
“Are you crossing me?”
“I’m not crossing anyone. But the box goes with Ingeri.”
Gawati’s eyes narrowed. Eolh didn’t let go.
“Don’t worry,” Ingeri said softly, holding her hand out for the box, “He’s just being careful. He doesn’t know you like I do, Gawati. I’ll make sure you get your cut.”
“Fine,” Gawati said. She shoved the box into Ingeri’s hand, almost hard enough to make her drop it. Then, Gawati yanked her arm out of Eolh’s grip. “And if youtry to cut me out, remember, I know people who can find anyone.”
She eyed Eolh one more time, before whipping out of the chapel, her talons clacking loud enough for the whole city to hear. She let go way too easy. But before he could puzzle it out, Ingeri touched his arm, pulling him back to the relic.
“Eolh,” she said breathlessly. “Eolh, listen.”
She held the box up to him.
Eolh was right: the relic was too small to call a branch, or a bough, or whatever Ingeri called it. Barely as long as his smallest finger. But it was made of glass, all cracked and pock-marked where stems and leaves might’ve once grown. If the relic was real, that is.The Glass Bough was infused with some kind of blue fire. The reflections of its self-made light danced over the walls, clearing away the shadows and sparkling like clearest water.
And there was something else…
At first, it played at the very edge of hearing: a soft, whispering song that began as a single note sang by the most awesome voice he’d ever heard. A god? Is this what they sounded like?
“This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard,” Ingeri whispered. Her eyes were brimming, and all the light from the Bough twinkled in her tears. She cupped the relic between her hands, cradling it as if it were her own egg.
Even Eolh had to admit, it was beautiful. But it looked small, in her hands. Fragile. And, if he was being honest, rather useless for old tech.
“What is it supposed to do?”
“Do? It isn’t supposed to do anything, Eolh. The priests say that the gods grew trees made of glass, taller than the highest kapok. But they never said the trees could sing.”
“Ah,” Eolh said.
“What? Were you hoping it would be some kind of weapon?”
“Well, no. Cyrans would’ve taken it if it was.”
“Look at it, Eolh. This is a symbol of their eternal divinity. Imagine the gods who could’ve made such a thing grow in the very ground on which we now stand.”
Eolh stared at it. He couldn’t see it. The relic was pretty, for a twig. But he couldn’t see it. What was so special about a broken piece of some long-dead tree?
“If they were so divine, then how come they’re dead? How come this is all we have left of them?”
Ingeri glared at him. Her face was hard, her eyes, full of passion. “They’re coming back, Eolh. One day, they’re coming back.”
Gods damn it, Eolh thought. How many times had he fallen into this trap? He his hands up, trying to back out of this conversation, but Ingeri was already pressing the issue.
“It’s in the scriptures. The prophecy is written.”
“Written by whom?”
“You may not like them, Eolh, but the priests tell the truth. Salvation is coming-”
“The priests? You mean the ones we’re stealing from right now?”
Ingeri’s beak clapped shut. Her face fell, and she closed her feathered hands over the Bough, and all the light in the chapel went out.
Suddenly, everything in the chapel felt colorless. The wooden tables, the copper candleholders. The shelves, covered with dust. It was like all the life of the world had been muted.
“Don’t.” She pulled away.
He was about to say, “I’m sorry,” when a scuffing sound caught his ear.
Eolh froze. Slowly, he turned his head, looking out into the temple. Careful not to show his beak.
“Ingeri. It’s gone south,” he whispered as softly as he could, “They’re here.”
There were four—no, five of them. And two more on the balconies above with their muskets aimed down at the pews.
“They don’t know we’re in here, yet.”
“Where’s Gawati?” Ingeri whispered. Her crest feathers prickled with worry.
“Forget her. We need a distraction.”
Eolh looked down at Ingeri’s cupped hands, at the tiny fragment of light escaping between her feathers.
She gave a frantic shake of her head.
“You want to die?”
“No, Eolh. No.”
“It’s bright. They’ll focus on it. Throw it out and we’ll get just one moment to fly past them.”
“There must be another way. I can’t let it go.”
“You have no idea what this means to me, Eolh.”
A familiar voice rang out from the balcony. Gawati. “They’re in the chapel!” she cried. “They’ve got the relic!”
The imperials were nothing if not well trained. Eolh barely had time to duck as the imperials lifted their rifles, aimed at the chapel, and blindly fired. The chapel exploded before he could pull Ingeri down with him. Wooden struts shredded into splinters. Glass crashed and broken bullets thunked into the silks and books and gold. And into flesh.
Ingeri let out a sound, halfway between a croak and a moan. She fell back, as if someone had punched her. Her hands never let go of the relic.
“No!” Eolh squawked, scrambling over to her body. Trying to shield her.
Up in the balcony, Gawati was shouting, “Stop shooting! You’ll destroy the relic!” but Eolh couldn’t hear her. He was holding Ingeri, watching red blood drip over her red feathers.
“Don’t let them have it,” Ingeri said weakly.
“Stay with me, Ingeri. Please.”
Her head fell back. Her eyes stayed open. In them, the light from the Bough twinkled, cold and beautiful.
A black numbness threaded through Eolh’s veins, filling him from the tips of his fingers to the depths of his heart. He remembered doing something—something stupid—with the relic. And then, there were boots all around him. Shouting. A butt of a rifle, smashing into his chest. He went down.
They stood over his body as the light leached from the world.
“The red one doesn’t have it!” a cyran, an imperial officer shouted at Gawati, “Where is it?”
“Wait, wait. Check the corvani. He must have taken it.” Gawati, the traitor, was pleading with them.
“Optioch,” Another soldier had his hand around Gawati’s neck. “What should we do with her?”
“But-” Gawati started to say.
The crack of gunshot interrupted her.
Eolh saw her blood splatter the ruined wall of the chapel. It was as colorless and gray as everything else.
“And then, what?” Optioch Prochullan demanded.
The corvani shrugged in his chains, “And then, I woke up here.”
“That’s it?” he demanded.
“That’s it,” the corvani sank back into his chair, letting his hands fall into his lap with a clink.
Gods damn it, Prochullan thought. He pushed himself up, and stalked back and forth across the room, not taking his eyes off the bird.
“Then where is it? Where did you avians hide it?”
“You’ll have to ask Ingeri. She was the one holding it, when you shot her.”
“She was a thief. We had to shoot her!”
The corvani shook his head. His feathers were standing on end, and when he spoke, his voice was low and dangerous. “I never cared about your fucking relic.”
They were losing him. Prochullan could feel it. He was so close to getting the answer, and now the xeno was pulling back from them. This inconvenience was the last thing Prochullan needed right now.No, what he needed was a clear head, and a fresh lungful. But all this damned smoke made it impossible to breathe. Whose idea was it to put torches down here?
A change of tact, then. Just like the Academy taught.
“Right,” Prochullan said. He turned to his dullscale Corporal, “I’m going out for some air.”
“Sir?” Carant asked.
“While I’m gone, see if you can’t get the truth out of this one.”
Understanding dawned on Corporal Carant’s face, and his lips widened into a grin.
Sometimes, these dullscales are just as savage as—well—as the rest of the savages. Why couldn’t I get sent somewhere nice? Somewhere docile, like Menua or Opirache?
“I’ll be back in an hour, Corporal. Don’t forget to lock the door behind me. And,” Prochullan paused for emphasis, “Don’t work him too hard.”
Carant’s grin grew wider.
Corporal Carant kicked back his chair, sending it flying with a satisfying thwack against the wall. He cracked his knuckles and rolled his shoulders and tested the blade of his knife on the scale of his index finger. It sliced his scale in half, and blood started to seep up from his flesh.
“Did he say ‘an hour’” the corvani asked.
“Ah,” the corvani said. Nodding, as if that’s what he hoped he heard. “Plenty of time.”
“That’s right,” Carant narrowed his eyes at the avian, confused. Then, he shook his head. “I’ve got you for a whole hour, bird. Plenty of time to get the truth out of you.”
“Sorry, friend. The only one getting the truth out of me, is me. But fortunately for you, your incompetent little boss is gone.”
It wasn’t the words that gave Carant pause. No, it was the way the corvani said them. And the way he was sitting back in his chair. As if he was the one interrogating Carant.
“What are you talking about?” Carant asked.
“Between the two of you, it’s obvious who the real soldier is. I’ll bet you’ve been in the military longer than that runt.”
Carant nodded, before he could stop himself. “Twice as long.”
“Then why in all the hells does he outrank you?”
“He’s a glitterskin.” One of the lucky ones, born into a bloodline with scales that shone. A true cyran, automatically granted citizenship and rank at birth.
“Ah, well,” the corvani shrugged. “He’s gone now, so I can drop the act.”
“What act?” Carant asked. His fingers wrapped unconsciously around the knife’s handle. He felt like he should be holding the tip against the corvani’s chest, but the corvani was chained up. He couldn’t possibly pose a threat now, could he?
“I know where the relic is,” the avian said.
“I knew it,” Carant said. “Where did you hide it?”
“Nah. We need to make a deal first.”
“Yeah. I’ll give you the relic, if you open that door.”
“And why would I do that?”
The avian gave a dramatic sigh and rolled his eyes. It made Carant feel like he was missing something that should’ve been obvious.
“The money, cyran. From when you sell the relic.”
“You think I’m going to sell it?”
“Why not? That’s what they’re going to do. Your officer there,” the corvani nodded disdainfully at the door, “he’s going to take all the credit, and he’ll get all the money. Why should you let him do that?”
Carant lowered his knife, thinking about it. The birds were savages, yes, but they were also tricky people. Trickier than most xenos.
On the other hand, this one was locked up. Carant had checked the chains himself, and the xeno wasn’t going anywhere.
“This relic is one of a kind. Nothing else like it in the whole Empire,” the corvani said. “Think about what you could get with all that money.”
The relic was human made. If nothing else, Carant could find a buyer back on Cyre. The Emperor’s priests would pay a fortune for the Bough. Probably enough to buy Carant full citizenship.
I’d be one of them, then. A true cyran.
“All I’m asking,” the corvani said, “is for you to open that door a tiny crack. Let some of that good air pour in, so I can smell freedom one last time.”
Carant’s mind worked for a long while. He didn’t know what “freedom” the corvani was expecting to smell. They were deep in the dungeons. No windows here, and the closest door only led to the steps, which led to more doors and more steps. There was no “good air” down here.
Wait, Carant thought. What if this bird is just leading me on?
Then I’ll crack his stupid beak. Carant grinned at the thought.
And then, an even better plan crept into his mind. And he started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing!” Carant said. “You got a deal. Now, tell me where the relic is.”
“The door, first.”
Carant’s grin slipped an inch. He thought about pulling his knife back up, and plunging it into the corvani’s chest right there. But Prochullan would yell at him, and who knows how long he’d be working the shit shift. Might even demote him. And for what? No relic?
“Fine,” Carant said. He pulled out his jailer’s ring, and thumbed through the dozens of keys. The corvani’s eyes watched his fingers too intently. Carant turned his back, hiding the keys from the bird. When he found the right one, he slotted it into the door, and turned it with a clunk. The rusty hinges refused to move. Carant shoved, earning him the shriek of metal on concrete. The curling smoke that lazily drifted around the ceiling suddenly rushed out the door.
“There,” Carant said. Not taking his hand off the handle.
“There,” the corvani agreed.
“Well? Where is it, bird?”
The corvani said nothing. Squinted at Carant, as if in deep focus, and made a little jerking motion with his head. It unsettled Carant. Made him mad.
“We had a deal, bird.”
But the avian wasn’t listening. Wasn’t even looking at Carant anymore. Instead, he was making a clucking noise in the back of his throat and bobbing his beak up and down.
Then, that beak opened, and a wet slop tumbled out. Bile and half-digested food and…
By the gods.
Even though it was covered in the avian’s sick, the relic still shone and sparkled. It made a sound, too, a bright note that seemed to fill the room with an ethereal, otherworldly music. Its song was growing louder.
“I told you,” the avian gasped, “the only one getting the truth out of me, is me.”
Carant ignored the bird and he almost—almost—forgot about his own devious plan. Carant slammed the dungeon door shut, before striding back to the table and picking up the Bough, still dripping from the savage’s stomach juices.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” the avian said, still gasping and heaving from the other side of the table. Leaning heavily to one side.
Carant was too focused to answer. Too focused, to hear the slithering clink of metal cuffs sliding off someone’s wrists. Carant wiped the relic off on his uniform, trying to see where its blue light came from. It was like a fire lived inside the Bough, burning with some kind of immortal energy, writhing and dancing and aching to get out.
Gods, it’s beautiful, Carant thought. In fact, he could probably trade it for citizenship for his whole family. Maybe even a villa, somewhere in the hills of Cyre. Maybe he’d be rich enough to join the Veneratian and become a tribune. But first, he had to get the relic out of here, without the Optioch noticing. Where should I hide it? Somewhere safe. Somewhere it won’t break-
A pressure drove into his spine and erupted out of his chest. He looked down to see a gleaming blade, covered in blood. What is that doing there? He thought. But the only word that came out was a mewling “What?”
The avian’s leathery beak slid next to his ear.
“What did I say would happen when you interrupted me?”
Carant tried to grab at the blade lodged in his chest. His hands slipped on his own blood.
The avian grunted and wrenched the knife free. It felt like a claw reached into Carant’s flesh, tearing his innards out through his back. The last words he heard?
“Nobody ever listens.”
There were blisters on Eolh’s hands, and he had broken more than a few feathers while shoveling.
Someone else’s bones were already at rest at the bottom of this grave and someone else’s name already marked the tombstone. While there wasn’t much he could do about the tombstone, the bones…
Eolh hopped down into the grave, and stuffed the bones into a sack. He would dump them in the sewers later. Who cares? They’re bones. While he worked, insects croaked and chirped, and made rattling waves in the thick night air. Clouds gathered overhead, blocking out most of the stars. Without a lantern, it was hard to see what he was doing, but this was the Midcity. There were guards here, and Eolh didn’t want one to walk by and see what he was doing.
Eolh climbed out, and lifted Ingeri’s body. It was a different kind of heavy. He slid her down into the dirt, dropping her into someone else’s grave.
She had no family. No one else came to the funeral. No one, but the insects buzzing in the trees.
“Jouri’s gone. Doran, too. And Alviso, and all the others. Just you and me, Ingeri. And now…”
Eolh lifted his beak. Searching for the stars, and not finding them.
“Why didn’t they listen to me?” He said to the heavens.
He tried to swallow his anger, but it burned all the hotter. Making him ache until he couldn’t hold it in. Eolh wrapped his wings around himself, trying to stop himself from shaking.
Anger. Misery. Hatred for how things had gone, and what the world had become.
“They died for nothing,” Eolh said, his face wet with tears, “And what about you, Ingeri? For salvation? It was never coming. There are no gods. They’re all dead.”
The insects sang in all the trees. Rattling and falling and rising again.
Eolh couldn’t tear his eyes away from her body, wrapped in a death shroud. She looked so small, just a crumpled shape of feathers and skin, stretched over bone. Not at all like herself. Not at all like how he wanted to remember her.
Eolh started shoveling the dirt back over her body. And stopped. He put his hand to the pouch hanging around his neck, the one that was humming with the song from another time. He wrapped his fingers around the pouch, feeling the sharp stiffness of the Bough. His throat still hurt from swallowing it. And from unswallowing it.
How much would it sell for? Sure, the chop shops would pay a pretty price, but the priests would pay more. He could sell it almost anywhere, and make a fortune.
“What’s the gods damned point?”
He should smash it. Find the nearest brick, and grind it into smithereens. A dead branch for the dead gods.
What’s the gods damned point.
Instead, he took it out of its pouch, and let it fall gently into the grave.
When he was done burying her, his body was shot. He wanted to collapse right there. But he had to get out of here, before the sun crept over the ridgeline of the Cauldron.
“Goodbye, old friend.”
There was no answer. There would never be again.
He turned to walk away. A sound caught his ear.
It was muffled by all that dirt, but Eolh really thought he could hear it: the music. The voice of the dead, singing still for Ingeri. And it would sing forevermore.
Thank you for reading this little story. I intended it as a companion piece, to be read before or immediately after The Last Human, mostly to shed light on Eolh’s earlier days.
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