I had too many questions about the Swan House. Ultimately, I didn’t ask many of them. Just the most pressing of them.
“Do you use real knives?”
“Sometimes,” the surgeon reported. “You look rather uncomfortable, Warden, are you alright?”
“The Warden only has one mind,” Tane reminded, gently. “I imagine the thought of something happening to it is rather…”
Her eyes settled on mine.
“Ah,” the surgeon said. “Let’s get this handled.”
Irri again, shrieking in the distance. Did she deserve that, I wondered?
“Can you… extract anything with surgery?”
“We can extract almost anything, if we know what we’re doing,” the surgeon replied. “I remember at one point, I was looking on a surgery as they extracted love out of a mind.”
My face twitched.
“Don’t look so alarmed,” the surgeon said. “It was a fake love. Anomalous; that was centuries ago, and farther up north.”
“What did it look like?” I asked, a horrified curiosity on my mind.
“It was green,” The surgeon said. “Green, and beautiful.”
They opened the store room and waved us inside.
When the door clicked, the screams and various scuffling noises of patients and illnesses were muffled. I wiped sweat off of the back of my neck.
I could finally see why Isaac had left this place quickly. I’d had the (mis)fortune to encounter some of the things far worse than Crows in this world.
If this was one of my first interactions with them, I’d have run away just as quickly. I took a breath.
“Are you alright?” Tane asked. She shot a quick look at the surgeon. “Go away?”
The surgeon blinked their red eyes. “Away?”
Tane shooed the bird. When the surgeon hesitated, Tane’s eyes narrowed.
“Alright. I’ll come around when the medicine is ready. We have a lab set to the side for agricultural usage.”
Then we were left alone.
“Have a seat,” Tane suggested. I looked around. There was a table in the center of the room, and no chairs, so I slid up onto the table.
My heart was pounding.
“It’s a bit disturbing,” Tane admitted, hauling herself up next to me.
I breathed, letting it hiss in between my teeth, and looked around the room. Less obvious supplies stretched across it; bandages, the occasional pain pill. For once, Crow society was too dissimilar to my own.
“A bit,” I said.
“What part is bothering you?” Tane asked.
I swallowed. How could I put it? The thought of having my mind cut at with knives was… Well, it was uncomfortable at the best of times. And the screams?
I shook my head. “It’s… fine. I just need to not be here.”
“Is it Irri?” Tane asked.
I closed my eyes. That wasn’t something I needed to think about for too terribly long. That way was madness.
“She killed a bunch of Crows,” I said. “And she tried to kill us.”
“She did,” Tane said. “Does that justify her being tortured?”
My eyes snapped open and I stared at her.
“What?” Tane asked, her voice slightly bitter. “Do you think I can’t see it as it is?”
I swallowed. Watched her feathers ruffle up.
“I was sent away from the Capital for being a bit unruly,” Tane said, dry. “And questioning.”
My eyes flicked to the door.
“She won’t be back for a bit,” Tane said. “I have a reputation. Come on, let’s get a kit together, we can talk over this.”
She gently patted me on the back. It wasn’t quite the weighted blanket I wanted, or the chocolate cake I wanted to stuff down my throat, or the blissful blessing of sleep, but it worked for now.
Bandages were in scarce supply, but digging through the shelves and cabinets I found a few rolls of them. Tane put together a box, dumping out dozens of pill bottles. A few had com-locks attached to them, meant to interface with Omoi. They’d been busy in the Usec base at some point, regardless of how sacred it was.
“So, you have a murderer,” Tane said.
“Right,” My hands clenched at the edge of a pill bottle, and I squinted, trying to read the label.
“And she has information that is very important,” Tane continued.
I bobbed my head. Did I really want to listen?
It was Tane. She was… important to me. In so far as a few weeks could make her important to me. I should listen.
What had Lani said about Jay? That it wasn’t that I thought he was a traitor or a murderer… that I was mixing up the indignation of not knowing everything about him with…
It didn’t matter. Tane was important to me. I didn’t need a heuristical model for that. This wasn’t a lab, I wasn’t tackling hard to grasp concepts. This was just an ethical quandary.
“Very important,” I agreed.
“So important that it could save many lives,” Tane said.
There was a muffled caw from the other room, and my eyes twitched to the wall.
“But she won’t tell,” Tane said. “She’s corrupted; all things that associate with the Fey are corrupted.”
Tane shrugged. “I imagine they were going to try and turn her into a Hound, given enough time. You’ve seen those bones in the graveyard, haven’t you?”
There were more of those creatures. Were they all infested with burrowing corpse beetles? Did they think, feel pain, or had the beetle long since eaten all of those?
I was silent.
“So you look at the cost of an immortal life,” Tane said. “And weight it against the cost of everyone else.”
“And you have a method, however painful, of removing the relevant thoughts and information you need,” Tane continued. “So you think, in this case, it is justified.”
I nodded my head.
“But then it happens again,” Tane said, flicking her eyes to the door. “And you don’t hesitate quite as long to resort to extraction.”
My fingers were white knuckled as I carried over antiseptic. My head throbbed.
“And that’s fine, because you get information out of it, and you get a Crow that can rejoin society.” Tane said. “It’s not the Crow’s fault, it was the part of them that you removed.”
“That’s… Fallacious,” I said.
“In a way,” Tane shrugged. “In another way, it’s how we’ve come down on ourselves. We can remove parts of ourselves, we can replicate our memories to other Crows. We are more than the sum of our meat, and we can modify our brains.”
“But modifying your brains to remove evil…” I said. “Doesn’t that reduce your own culpability? Doesn’t that give the inquisitors power over what can happen?”
Tane clicked her beak. “Precisely.”
I was silent. “And when you can extract information from unwilling Crows… doesn’t that mean you don’t have to see if they’re willing?”
A spot of pain flashed across Tane’s face. “It’s hard to get someone to be willing for the procedure,” she said, soft. “It’s quite painful.”
I breathed out. “Does it work if they’re unwilling?”
“The softer procedure?” Tane asked. “No.”
“If it’s hard to see if someone is willing or not, and you’re after a certain degree of purity, then it would fall on them to use the harder procedure almost all the time,” I said. “In order to ensure it works.”
Tane looked down. “Yes. It would.”
My eyes slowly flicked back to the door.
“What all do they remove?” I asked again, now that the surgeon wasn’t in the room.
“Corruption and mental illness,” Tane said. “There are some Crows that were so twisted by the war that they lashed out against others. Refused to reproduce their gestalt, and fled.” Tane’s talons clicked against the table. “Wouldn’t we have an obligation to fix them, if they’re suffering?”
A classical ethical conundrum. Can you force treatment on someone in pain?
“That’s where Jay comes in, doesn’t it?” I asked.
Tane laughed softly. “You really are a smart one, aren’t you?”
I did get a doctorate. It wasn’t that useful in this world, but I did have one. “You’ve got strong opinions on this, don’t you? But you ended up head of the scouts back at Prime-nest.”
“I came from leather workers, as I said before,” Tane drawled. “But… I, particularly, have roots at the Capital.”
Tane leaned back, tilting her head up. She was watching me to see if I could figure out her puzzle.
Then I came to a realization. I flicked my eyes back to her. “You can remove… things from Crows, right?”
“You can,” Tane said.
“But you don’t have to kill the Crow that holds them,” I said.
Tane chuckled. “You don’t.”
I looked back at the door out of the storeroom. The surgeon had obeyed her orders. She’d found herself in a position of power. So… maybe… “Who are you? Or, I guess, who were you a part of?”
“I’m part of the Regent,” Tane said. “She removed parts of herself to make herself a better fighter, but she couldn’t kill them. So she gave them to families. I was her doubt for authority.”
“Useful when one wants to lead.”
“Exactly,” Tane grinned. “The Regent was kindled to a family of leather workers. I was kindled so she could rid herself of doubts. In a way, I’ve become most of what she isn’t. But she’s almost like a mother.”
“Is that bad?” I asked.
Tane shrugged, rolling her shoulders. “I still exist, and I am my own person now. Like a cutting from a plant, grown in a far off field.”
I stared at the wall again, imagining the surgeries done to cure and extract. “Is that common, you think?”
“Fairly uncommon,” Tane said. “She’s always regretted it since then. Creating life like that leads to a bad precedent.”
“She said as much to me,” I said. “I asked her why she didn’t just make more soldiers,” I clarified.
“I bet that got under her skin.” Tane laughed, sliding off of the table. Pill bottles rattled in her claws as she dug through more drawers. We had a decent stash of supplies between the lot of us.
“So people recognize you as part of the Regent?” I asked.
“Not particularly,” Tane said. “They recognize me because I’m a trouble maker, and I know most of her lessons in how to get people to listen to me.”
“So why did she…?” I gestured at the inquisition proper.
“That,” Tane said, lightly shoving the box over to my side. “Happened after we split from each other. I can’t speak on why she decided it was so important to figure this all out. The Inquisition didn’t use to be so powerful, you understand.”
But the Regent didn’t want to shape people’s opinions by force. She had the tools to do so, but she hadn’t used them for anything other than extraction and healing.
What was she so worried about?
The Capital was just getting more and more confusing. I didn’t like it. There would always be more.
And my own secrets wouldn’t be safe for much longer, if I wasn’t careful.
“So yeah,” Tane said. “That’s me.” She looked faintly worried.
I squeezed her shoulder.
“You don’t think less of me?” Tane asked, curious.
“Of course not,” I said. “I barely know the Regent. As far as I’m concerned, you’re her best features.”
Tane laughed and picked up the box. “Let’s track down those antibiotics, alright?”
I’d been keeping the wound clean. But now, for once, I felt like I’d ripped off a bandage on the Crows. There were things about them that didn’t mesh with me. There were many Crows who didn’t even agree with each other.
“I need to talk to the Regent,” I said. “But I think she might try to avoid me after she interrogates Irri.”
Her eyes were sharp. “Oh? Is she going to learn anything?”
“She might,” I admitted. “I’d like to talk to her before anything too tragic happens.”
Tane sighed. “Well. I’ve been wanting to talk to her myself for a long time,” the scout-master walked over to the door. “Might as well make it now.”