My nest was empty when I arrived. Which was alarming, since it meant Boss had gone somewhere else. Nevertheless, while I stared at her empty room, and the mound of bedding she’d scrounged up, Tane fluttered down behind me.
“Jess!” She greeted.
I turned and gave her a smile. “There you are. How’s adjusting to the military here?”
“It’s decent,” Tane admitted. “Quen’s not exactly a slave driver, and there’s not that much to figure out except chain of command and codes. The com systems here use a rotating series of codes, so we’re figuring that out.”
“Is it going well?”
“Well enough,” Tane said. “Enough about that. How’re you standing up?”
“The Regent couldn’t see me today,” I said.
“That’s to be expected. I imagine you’ve made quite a few gears turn in this city,” Tane said.
“Anything you know?”
Tane clicked her beak. “Not yet, but trust me, I’ll tell you when I do know.”
I smiled slightly less. “They don’t want me walking around without company.”
“Can you blame them?” Tane asked. “You’re visibly wounded; you look like someone hit you with a truck. You’re covered in healing bruises, and you’re bleeding. To a Crow, you look like you’re dying!”
“Injuries rarely bother your lot,” I noted, dimly.
“We lose crows, we don’t get injured, not really,” Tane said. “We scatter if something hits us hard enough.”
She crossed the distance and then walked around me. I got the impression she was making sure I was still intact.
“Speaking of that,” I said. “Can you take me to the Swan House?”
Tane stopped behind me, a feather gently pressing against a bruise that just barely pushed above the collar of the coat. It didn’t hurt, but it did tickle. I stifled a snort.
“Why for?” There was a lilt to her voice. Half amused, half suspicious.
“Antibiotics,” I said. “And, I guess, I want to meet the inquisition.”
Tane stepped out in front of me. “I’m probably the best person for that. Among our little group at least.”
“Well, the Elder would raise a fuss,” Tane said. “She’s busy taking stock of the various pits and neutralization areas we’ve set up. It wasn’t that long ago that we were at war, and a lot of the wreckage was corrupted. Jay, obviously, can’t go near the inquisition. They’ll try to excise him, no matter if he’s a guest or not.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Hanging around the Elder,” Tane replied.
Tane shrugged. “She’s a big beast, she’s fine.”
“So it’s just me who needs watched?”
“The point is,” Tane said, dryly, ignoring my protests. “I’m the most normal of the bunch, and a lot of the Crows still remember me. It should get us through their paces. So let’s go!”
The Agricultural districts sprouted out of what had been a massive park. We passed it on the way in. A few ducks quacked against a drawn up pool, and Crows watched animals. Pigs, more like Boars than what I remembered, and even the occasional stranger domesticated creature; like what had to be a giant Porcupine that was being harvested, delicately, by a Crow nimbly snipping away.
“That’s where the eggs came from?” I asked, remember the meals.
Tane nodded. “Not much use in farming, really, but it saves time from scavenging. I’m signed up for the next hunting party; the herds are moving in soon, so we want to catch a few cows before they wise up.”
I laughed. “I need more lessons, I think. I still can’t hit the broadside of a building.”
“You think too much,” Tane suggested.
I sighed, pausing to stare at the ponds. The Crows were, at any rate, replicating a basic standard of living here. Sedentary population meant they could spend more time on their passions rather than ensuring survival. Perhaps that was why the archivists had conclaves, compared to the average Crow. A duck fluttered into the mess, disturbing the placid reflection of the buildings. “You’re not the first person to suggest that.”
“It’s not a bad thing,” Tane corrected herself. “I’m sure it benefitted you in science or whatever,” Tane said. She wasn’t dismissive, just, searching for the right words. “But you get caught up on consequences and worries.”
“You weren’t there in the base,” I said. But she was right. “Why do you know me so well?”
“I’ve watched you sit still and think for hours on end,” Tane said, dryly. “You look so guilty about, well, everything.”
I was guilty, in a way. Pretending I wasn’t wouldn’t get me anywhere.
But maybe I could stop overthinking things, just a little. Just for a moment.
“So we’ll work on that,” Tane said. “After this.”
“Shooting practice?” I asked.
“Sure. We’ll even get Jay involved. We’ll make a day of it. Maybe Boss will want to show up too.”
I smiled. That sounded nice.
We passed under the shadow of other buildings. Some had Crow structures crowning them. Others chirped with the sounds of birds.
Others had been left to other, more feral creatures. It was a city, afterall; a prime habitat for adventurous animals and the ecosystems growing out of the forest floor below.
Swan’s House had been, for lack of better terms, Exalted. The building had been beautiful in my time, but now it was covered in paintings. Paintings of Crows. A great gleaming bird took up most of the designs.
Despite the ubiquity and lack of variation among Crows (I’d mostly only figured out who was who through voices, and the fact that Jay didn’t have wings, he had arms, and the Elder’s variations) this one was unique in representation. His feathers spread wide, and in the pit of his eyes the sun and moon reflected. Clutched in his talons was the symbols of the Kind Lord, and Usec, and various other words.
Rimming his head were birds, tiny crows, scattered gestalts dappling the rest of the painting like stars. The front doors were the sigils and Usec regalia.
The Headquarters of the inquisition. And probably the best place to find medication.
If I wanted to beat out the pain for my head, and also figure out where to get supplies for a medkit, that’d be the place to go.
So I walked up to the door, Tane clicking behind me, talons on steps, and rapped once on the door.
A fluttering of birds on the other side, and then a Crow opened the door.
Red Eyes, White feathers. Albino. We locked eyes if only for a second.
“Warden,” The white Crow bowed, and gestured us inside. “Come inside. We weren’t expecting you today.”
“But you were expecting her?” Tane asked.
“Of course,” the Crow replied. “It’s only natural that our work would attract her attention. It attracted the last Warden’s attention, and the Warden before’s attention.”
“And you work in?” I asked.
“I’m a secretary,” The Crow said, laughing. “But I’m a physical surgeon in my spare time. For pets and farm animals mostly, though I’ve treated a bird or two, I’m not certified for mental work, like most of the inquisitors here.”
A physical surgeon?
Tane slid inside, and in front of me, body blocking the white Crow. I slid in behind her.
“The inquisition is marked by white feathers,” Tane explained. “So that Crows know not to interfere when they arrive at a residence.”
“You don’t have to phrase it like that,” The Crow said, gesturing me on. “What can we do for you? Do you want a tour?”
I wasn’t getting good vibes from this, but… I wasn’t willing to get myself thrown out yet.
“Perhaps. I mostly want an examination.” I thought about it for a moment. “If anyone knows anything about human anatomy.”
The surgeon looked me over, taking notes with their eyes. “I’ll admit I’ve never taken a Warden to the operating table. Is it bad?”
I shook my head, taking a step back. The surgeon laughed. “No-no, I don’t need surgery,” I chuckled. Nervously. “I just want to see if you have any antibiotics.”
“I’ll see if we have some formulas lying around; I’m sure that we have records of hospital and human medicine in storage, we can just use those.”
I breathed out. Hospitals would be lousy with information; they were just starting to implement nodule technology in the newer buildings. I didn’t have to worry.
“And can I have some supplies for a first aid kit?” I asked.
“I’ll take you to our store room, too.” The surgeon stepped over to their desk and tapped at a com lying there. It let out a brief caw, probably custom recorded, and she looked up. “I sent in a request for someone to find a human antibiotic. For a skin wound, right?” Her eyes flicked up to my head.
Tane shifted next to me, and stepped in front of me again, blocking the other bird’s vision. “Correct.”
“No need to be so protective,” The other Crow suggested. “I’m only trying to do my job.”
My eyes flicked to Tane’s, or the one eye I could see. She was tense.
I didn’t like Tane being tense. It meant there was more to this place.
“Shall I take you to the store room?” they asked.
“Yes,” Tane said, clicking.
The hallways had been painted as well. Spiralling images, nested displays of algorithmic content. Diagrams of philosophical concepts, intertwined with ideologic insignias. I recognized a few of them, and vaguely pieced together that it was a heuristical model to determine corruption and suss out the source.
“Useful,” Tane said. “If a bit savage.”
“You were never fond of it,” the Crow said. “But yes, very useful. More useful in the past, when the world was still full of things to hide.”
Tane shrugged. “They keep you around anyway. What are you treating now?”
A bird screeched down the hall. It was joined by half a dozen other birds, screaming out in agony and pain. The Crow in front of us turned to look at the door it came from. “Post Traumatic Stress, mostly. Immortals can accrue mental wounds infinitely, Warden.”
I kept walking straight ahead, though a line of sweat was starting down my spine. There were strange squabbles coming from those rooms. “So what are you inquisiting?”
“Corruption and disease,” The Crow said. “Then we seize it with our blades and cut it free.”
I didn’t want to look at the doors. Bizarre bird noises came from inside of their halls. Sitting rooms turned into mental operating chambers.
“We use a few sigils in our work,” the Crow kept walking. “Heretical, I suppose, but necessary as well.”
“No Command tongue?” I guessed.
“By Zack no. Crows are largely incompatible with it. We’ve culled a few afflicted with such knowledge,” The Crow tutted. At the end of the hall was a store room.
Irri screamed. The traitorous bird that we’d brought with us from Forge-Nest, who’d set me up to die and tried to frame Jay for murder. She was screaming.
I swallowed hard.
Tane gently took my shoulder in her hand and squeezed it. I couldn’t pretend this was neutral anymore. I had never pretended it was neutral, this was…
How was this any different from what Omoi did to me? It prevented corruption from taking root. Omoi helped to treat mental ailments, keep agents stable.
It was a preventative measure.
The Crows had developed a curative measure that we never had managed.
It just sounded like they were torturing animals.
(I wondered exactly how much I was willing to justify. If it worked, if the means of it worked…? Would I have given the same to treat the diseases of the past?)