The antibiotics rattled in the pill bottle with each step. Tane and I waited in the elevator. The music had changed to something a bit more sweeping. Distorted lyrics. Someone was having fun with whatever software they were using to edit. More power to them, I looked forward to seeing what genres they could conjure up when divorced from everything.
Up the many floors it crawled, and then we stepped out. The bridge to the Regent’s makeshift palace was just as unwieldy as before, so I snagged Tane’s hand. She looked down at it, then back at me. “Something the matter?”
“I don’t like heights,” I admitted.
Tane squeezed my hand and stepped forward. I trailed behind her.
This time, I managed to look over the edge of the bridge to the world below. Atlanta had never looked so green. This time, I could see the hint of green structures up on roofs, where Crows had decided to grow trees in order to take advantage of their new homes.
They’d been here a while. Maybe, like the Regent wanted, there’d be enough who stayed here to make something of Crow Kind.
But thinking of the Swan House, I couldn’t help but think that there was something to the urge to run from this city, where nobody was responsible for figuring out mental illnesses or cutting out corruption.
Perhaps, if I were a Crow, I’d be running the risk of finding something that could finally end me.
And then I’d wish for the mental knives to remove it from my gestalt.
But I wasn’t a Crow, so who was I to pretend I understood the dilemma.
Tane hummed under her breath as she crossed, sturdy, firm.
“I thought Jay was supposed to be protecting me,” I joked, flicking my eyes away from the tops of skyscrapers over to the scout.
“He’s the best fighter among our ranks,” Tane said. “Perhaps excluding Boss,” She clarified.
“Boss doesn’t use a gun,” I said.
Tane shrugged. “I’m more than a match for most things. So long as we don’t get taken off guard again.”
I could picture her thoughts. The foundry, the moment of weakness. Just a moment gone, and then I was taken. I could’ve been dead.
She knew it. I knew it. Thinking about it didn’t make it any better.
A flock of birds blocked out path. They coagulated into the form of Quen. “The Regent is not currently available for visitors,” The war-leader intoned.
“Fresh from a briefing?” Tane asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Quen said. “She was most certain she needed time to gather her thoughts. Then, in a day or so… or perhaps a week, she’ll call for me, and we can have a final discussion.”
“I’m afraid we need to talk now,” Tane said, flicking her eyes back to me.
I clenched my teeth. It wasn’t that urgent.
But I was a Warden, and perhaps that was a privilege to my station. I should take advantage of it. Besides, getting the nodule scanned could tell me everything I needed to know about the Fey.
No matter how uncomfortable I felt with Quen staring at me.
“Is that so, Warden?”
“It is,” I said.
Quen stared at me. His eyes dug into mine. He broke eye contact, seemingly satisfied, then nodded. “Fine. Convince her that she needs to talk to you.”
Then he exploded into his flock and flew away.
I let the breath I’d been holding leave my lips. Tane shook her head. “It’s too tense around here.”
“She just got back from interrogating Irri,” I said. “Perhaps we should wait after all?”
“And let Quen be right?” Tane asked. “Come on, we’re already up here, lets get what we need and then get out.”
“Fine,” I said. We stepped into the narrow staircase winding down, carved by too many Crows.
I hesitated at the door. I could hear the radio buzzing. Guitars, flutes, and a strange instrument I’d never heard before.
“I’m not up for talking,” The Regent said from inside. “Come back in another day.”
I gritted my teeth. She was just the leader of the entire race of Crows. She could definitely pause what she was doing to hear me out.
Tane cleared her throat. “Actually, she needs to talk to you.”
Silence from the other room. A bizarre silence, as it meant that radio had been turned off. “Tane’s there?”
“I am, Regent.”
Talons on wood. Clicking towards the door. The Regent opened it and stared at Tane. “Is this a reckoning?” her tone was teasing.
Tane’s eyes softened. “Of course not. Jess-The Warden, she wants to go into the USEC base underneath of this tree.”
The Regent’s eyes flicked over to mine, then back to Tane. “Is that so?”
The Regent and Tane were silent, and awkward in the way that only family can be. Kindlings were, from what I gathered, more neutral affairs than pulling out aspects of yourself and shoving them into other birds for safe keeping.
“Are you her guard?” The Regent asked.
“I am now,” Tane said.
“You were always good at getting what you wanted,” The Regent said. “Like how you got away from me.”
“That was a blessing more than a curse, I’ll admit,” Tane replied. “I promised the Warden that I’d help her on her quest.”
“Her quest?” The Regent quirked her head to the side. “Since when did she have a quest?”
“She wants to figure out the past,” Tane said. “And the Fey for that matter.”
The Regent flicked her eyes over to me. “You still hold a grudge over Isaac, don’t you?”
“You shouldn’t’ve turned him away like that,” Tane said.
The Regent’s eyes closed. Her beak fell open, exposing the inky black of her throat. Uncontextualized in the gestalt. How strange to see that laziness.
“She doesn’t need a guard in my company,” The Regent said. “I’ll talk to her alone.”
I opened my mouth to protect, and Tane shrugged. “Be that way. You know where I rest when you want to talk about it.”
The Regent laughed, short and clipped. “Believe me, I know that.”
Tane scattered and left the two of us alone.
The Regent sighed. “Shall we?” She gestured inside.
A half finished game of chess stretched across a table. Given that Quen had been in before, I could only assume it was a long form game of there’s. An additional two rows sat on the board, pieces added on.
Crows had thousands of years to figure out games. Someone had decided to get creative with the rules.
She sat down at her throne, and gestured at me across the board. I sat down.
“Do you play?” She asked.
“Not this variant,” I said.
“He has me in checkmate in four turns,” The Regent drawled. “But he’ll never take it, because if he does, he loses the game as an excuse to talk to me.”
“He’s your war-leader. Can’t he talk to you anyway?”
“He’s not my war-leader,” The Regent laughed. “I didn’t appoint him. He controls the military. If he wanted, he could oust me.”
“But he doesn’t,” I said.
“He can’t,” The Regent replied. “I have medicine and knowledge of how to deal with injuries. I have the rightful control over the city… and more importantly of all, he’s nervous. A tiny bit of a coward in that way. He was very close to becoming an outcast, just like your…” The Regent thought for a moment. “Your Jay, I think you called him.”
“Yeah.” I leaned back into the chair. For a moment, it was perfect. I felt like I fit there, across from the bird.
“I’m sorry about Tane,” The Regent said. “It seems like I’m just alienating everyone lately.”
“You’re in a rough spot,” I said. But I knew she knew about Irri. But I didn’t know what she had learned. “The traitor… has it been handled?”
“It has,” The Regent said. “Sadly, we couldn’t save her.”
Dead then. It was within the role of the state to act as executioner, and yet, it still felt like a murder.
I bit my lip. She deserved it.
Did anyone deserve to die?
“It was enlightening,” The Regent said. “To hear about just how long their con had been going. Seven Crows were lost,” She leaned back in her chair. “Seven gestalts were disrupted and fed to the bugs.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that.
“Thank you for putting a stop to that,” The Regent said. “Though I’ve heard it was at great cost to yourself.”
“I found a nodule in there,” I said. “The Queen’s Guard had stolen it from USEC and had been using it.”
Her eyes glinted. “Did they?”
“Did they scream when you killed them?” The Regent asked. “I remember the Fey. They always cried out, even the mindless ones, in death. Some flicker of self preservation, or more likely, the last dying gasp of whatever poor creature they had in their grasp. Did the Queen’s Guard scream?”
I remember Prince’s face, and shuddered. “He did.”
“Good,” The Regent snipped. “I only wish I could’ve done it myself. Does it hover in your thoughts, how you ended him?”
It did. It was all I could think of sometimes.
“So… on to business. I haven’t found any information on the god you made,” She paused, looking slightly ashamed. “There’s quite a lot of data I have to go through, you understand. I’ll continue the search. In the mean time… the Nodule you have, the archivists can’t handle it?”
“Correct. Dean was unwilling to go into the base.”
“Well,” The Regent said. “Then you need inside.”
I nodded slightly.
She clicked her beak and slid off of her throne, peering down at the world below. “Look with me.”
She didn’t have to worry about falling, since she could scatter before she fell too far. I didn’t have the luxury, so I took my time approaching the edge of the great chamber.
Below, I could see a few skeletons poking up through the trees.
“Isaac wanted in as well,” The Regent said. She spreads her wings, ruffled them a bit, and then settled.
“Did you let him in?” I asked.
The Regent preened at a wing casually, baring her throat. A chain sat there. I flicked my eyes across it, then to where a small card hung from it, aged. “I did. And then he left to go searching in other places. Do you still want to go?”
“It’s not for me,” I said.
“Dean then?” The Regent guessed. “Is he still after USEC data bases? Greedy.”
“The world doesn’t need much more information on Usec,” The Regent said. “We have enough that we know that we should fight our enemy. Getting more than that might muddle it.”
She tilted her head and looked at me. “Most of my kind supposes that USEC was a unilateral force for good in the world.”
Her black eyes flicked across my head, then settled on my lab coat.
I swallowed. I didn’t want to be held for the sins of the past, but… I knew what she was talking about. After all, USEC had only been forced into the light after the situation in Russia had gone haywire.
A situation that had involved the slaughter of a small city.
“But it wasn’t just bad people who used anomalies,” The Regent said. “Correct? And USEC did bad things to get those anomalies in their possession.”
“You’re well read,” I said.
“I studied with the King,” The Regent said, dryly. “He was an archivist too, you know, and he was raised in a Warden’s Grave. He told me about military tactics and the art of politics. Old world knowledge, most of it, but there were still things that applied.”
“Were you a part of any of those operations, Jess?” The Regent asked. “Do you know what sorts of things a Crow might find in the darkness of that base?”
The card, which I could only assume was the key given to the head of a base, probably attached to a number of different coded entries and phrases, hung from her neck and swayed back and forth.
“I was a scientist,” I said. “I wasn’t a part of missions.”
“But you studied what they found,” The Regent said. “Much like Isaac. But you were his partner, weren’t you?”
I blinked. “So you talked with him?”
“Of course,” The Regent turned, walking away from the window, and sat back down. “A great while we spent. He told me many stories of the places he’d been and seen. Beautiful things. He told me about the shape of the world, and what he knew of pantheons, and I promised I’d teach the Crows about his work.”
She tilted her head down. “I didn’t, of course.”
“Of course,” I agreed. I could see her point. It suited the Crows to have a simpler view of Zack and USEC at large.
It was easier to believe in heroes when they were simple, when they founded your entire race. “There’s a very real feeling that we were born to continue on USEC’s work,” The Regent said. Her talons clicked at the edge of her throne. “Complicating that would be difficult. Especially with notions of corruption.”
“What is this corruption?” I asked. I knew of many kinds of corruptions. Symbolic dangers. Viral thought patterns. What did the Crows suffer from?
“There are anomalous things out in the world, and Crows are uniquely suited to carrying them,” the Regent said, leaning back. “Like our consciousness, for example. We shouldn’t mince words and pretend that the Crows fit in with a natural world. The Corruption is… well, it’s a shorthand for carrying forbidden knowledges. I’m sure you’ve encountered a few of them. Words of Command, exposure to anomalies that don’t work according to our view of reality. Thoughts that shouldn’t pass from Crow to Crow.” She clicked. “Also, if you carry the Words of Command around for too long, you die. That’s another reason to keep minds pruned.”
“You know them?”
“Of course I do,” The Regent said. “Words descending from Lord Knowledge himself are things to keep track of. The King knew of them as well.”
Then she was silent, sad.
I swallowed. I’d heard them spoken. The Queen’s guards were rather fond of using them.
She paused, and I waited, and then at some point, the pause and the wait changed into a steady silence, and we both listened to the tree around us. “I’ll take you there,” She said.
“You?” I asked.
“Me,” she replied. “Just the two of us. I have the key on my person, and you need my passwords to get in. Tell nobody else what you find in there, of course.”