I tapped the side of my Omoi and drifted into a radio station.
“-e Regent remains out of her tower, although a large body of Crows are waiting outside of it for her to emerge and judge the gathered evidence. The Warleader stands in front of the wall, silent, watching the crowd.”
I tuned to another channel. Music, harried music. I closed my eyes. Breathed in again.
“War’s about to break out and everyone’s rioting about whether or not I’m a traitor,” I said.
“Crow logic,” Boss said, dismissively. “Always worried about purity of form instead of compromise.”
“Are the beasts any better?”
“You have to punch them first,” Boss said, rubbing the knuckles of her right hand with the palm of the left. “Gonna be a rough one.”
“It won’t be,” I said. Swallowed, checked my messages. Flicked over them. Found Teri again. Sent my message.
We still friends?
I checked the radio while I waited, and Boss gently escorted me out of the building. It wasn’t until we were down the street that I got the reply.
I saw you kill the last Queen’s guard we met, Teri posted. That’s all I need to know.
Send a message to Tane to catch up with me, I replied.
She’s on a scouting mission. She thinks she knows where they’re camped, and it’s closer than we thought.
On it, Teri replied. He’s already looking for you.
And make sure there’s enough of the long guns spread around to protect the city.
She sent me a picture of the production line. A half a dozen of the longer rifles stood in various stages of construction.
“Any luck?” Boss asked.
“Jay’s going to find us.” I said.
“Is that supposed to keep you safe?”
“Better than not having him,” I replied, looking over at her. “I don’t know how many bullets you can fit in your body.”
Boss sniffed, offended, and we kept walking through the night dark city, navigating by the gleam of the stars and the occasional working street light. If I made it to the Morrigan, I’d be safe.
But that was nearly on the opposite side of town.
I knew we weren’t going to make it.
The first flock of crows settled on the street light above us and stared at us. The second perched on a window sill.
The third stood in front of us, and I walked through it rather than stop.
They followed us like a swarm of fleas, settling down. A few carried the weapons of soldiers.
A caw here.
A caw there.
They grew louder, accusing.
It wasn’t a good look, having made the weapon that might kill them all. It wasn’t a good look, keeping it a secret.
We were at a park when we had to stop. The Inquisition stood in front of a statue of the King, humanoid forms staring at me.
I swallowed. Stared at them. They already unnerved me, and that was from before the worst of my secrets had been thrown out.
I’d been an alarmingly bad person in a previous life.
Or particularly thoughtless. Or who knew what else.
They stood at the back of the statue, and one shot me a friendly smile.
“Halt. We’ll protect you from here,” One said.
I stared at the white feathers. “You’re on my side?” I asked.
“There’ll be no justice done until the Regent returns,” The inquisitor said. “All trials must pass through her.”
“Get out of my way,” a voice hissed, shoving through the white Crows. Jay stepped into view, and stood at my side.
“You made it,” I said, half breathless. “Thank god.”
“Which one?” Jay asked, half snark. “We’ll talk after this, alright?”
“But you’re on my side?”
“I’m your guardian,” Jay repeated. “And we’ve both done bad things in our past. I’m not going to abandon you because your coworkers turned into genocidal warlords.”
“That’s a relief.”
“Tane?” Jay asked.
“That is her job,” Boss said, sniffing the air. “Ah, puritanical panic. I haven’t smelt this in decades.”
The Caws and calls grew louder and louder. More birds settled in from the skies. More and more bore the gleam of military paint on their wings talons and beaks.
I could feel their hearts thrumming like a nest of bees.
Dean emerged from a cloud of Crows.
“Where’s your mob?” Boss asked. “Don’t you have to wait for your leader?”
Dean’s beak clicked angrily. “Curiously, she doesn’t seem to be in.” His eyes flashed like a knife and glared at me. “Would you know what happened to her? It’s hard for a proper trial to take place when the authorities won’t answer my knocks.”
I couldn’t say what I knew, that she was buried deep in a heretical ritual to keep the city protected and safe. Dean’s eyes flashed with heated anger. The other crows weren’t too far from it.
They were scared. They were emotional. The drums of war were beating far in the distance, and here they were, an angry mob surrounding me.
That wouldn’t go over well here.
“Give her up,” Dean said, turning to glare at Jay. “I’ve got the archivists on my side, and everyone that’s hesitating over this stupid war. We’ll hear her out and do the trial ourselves, if the Regent isn’t going to show up.”
“Fuck you,” Jay said.
“We can figure this out,” Dean said. “We don’t need the Regent’s rule for this.”
His talons clicked together, his vision locked on mine.”
“You’re talking about the Warden,” Jay pointed out. “We’re supposed to protect them.”
“Name one Warden, in the last thousand years, who had been worth a damn. They get vomited out, we give them everything they need, and they fuck off and die,” Dean spat. “That’s what happens to them. They take from us, and then they die.”
I was starting to see where Joli got it from. There were quite a few Crows who were pissed off about the Wardens.
Pissed off at the Fey, pissed off at everyone who was telling them what to do, and what to think. Who had fought an entire war without support from their guardians, and were tired of having to work in their shadow.
No wonder the Morrigan had been drifting away from the capital. This wasn’t only the capital’s doing, there was an entire legion of disaffected Crows just waiting for someone to strike the match.
No wonder the mob was staring at me. One by one, the flocks gathered together into their Crows.
“You’re going to do this?” Jay asked. “You’ll split the city.”
“The inquisitors have nothing to do with this,” Dean said. “They can take whatever we need out of her skull if need be.”
“My brain doesn’t work that way,” I squeaked. I hoped it didn’t.
Jay gestured at the gathered forces. The remnants of Forge-nest, Prime-nest, and the capital’s forces, each were represented.
I had Forge-nest and Prime-nest among the Inquisitors behind me. In front of me?
The veterans, the tired, the angry. Everyone who was about to be dragged into the conflict of their nightmares. Searching for someone to blame, someone to destroy, looking for some way out of it.
I took a step in front of Jay. To hell with this. “I’m not your martyr,” I said.
A thousand eyes on me.
“I don’t want you to be a martyr.” Dean said, truthfully, stepping forward. “We want the truth. What are we fighting for? What did USEC do? What did our gods do? Who are we fighting?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“That’s not good enough.”
Jay took a step forward. “It’ll have to be good enough.”
“I think we’re about even,” Dean said, gesturing at the mobs. “We’ll scatter each other over this if we have to. Let her speak. She knows.”
I swallowed back the fear, and swallowed back the nervous laugh brewing in my throat. Wiped sweat off of my forehead. Omoi hummed, whispering about my vitals being a bit out, and played soothing classical music.
“Where should I begin?”
“How’re you related to the fey?”
“Louder,” Dean interrupted. I’d been talking in a half throaty whisper.
“I don’t know all the details,” I said, swallowing. Dean took a step back, and many many pairs of eyes settled on me. “But what I do know is…”
I swallowed. Words stuck in my throat. For a moment, I was back defending my thesis, the subject incomprehensible and stars dancing in my throat.
“I was a part of a team. A big team, far bigger than most of the projects USEC ran,” and while I didn’t know it for sure, it rang true. “And we knew the world was going to end.”
There was a silence, and my eyes drifted to the craters, the green life around us, the reclaimed spaces.
“We knew the world was going to end, and we-” I swallowed. “We broke USEC protocol, or maybe it had been broken for a while then, and used the things we had requisitioned, killed, dissected.”
“And we came up with a fail safe, to try and fix things.”
I gestured at the world around us. “The fey are going to come after that,” I said. “That’s why they want me.”
I closed my eyes. I could still feel them looking at me. “And…” words stuck in my throat, a sudden mass of indecision. Paralysis. My heart throbbed like an open wound, ribs were suddenly too constricting.
“That fail safe will kill everyone in this city. Everyone except me.”
I opened my eyes. They were silent. “USEC never imagined that life like you would come around. Or, perhaps, they thought they would use the failsafe soon after the end. Soon enough it wouldn’t matter.”
My hands were shaking now, because here it was. On one hand, a shot at my world existing again, and on the other hand, the Crows in front of me, the flesh and blood creatures I had grown to enjoy, the ones who had looked upon my work with such high regard.
Birds moved. The tension increased.
Here it was. I hadn’t wanted to think about it, had stopped myself from thinking it. What really mattered? The life of the new world, or restoring the old?
Did I trust myself to have done a good enough job to bring everyone back? The fey were willing to kill everyone for the opportunity to try. Was it wrong for me to-
Should I be on their side? And yet
“The Fey will kill every single one of you to make that happen. Because that’s what activating the fail safe will do,” I said. “And I don’t know the specifics,” I continued. “I don’t know exactly what it’ll do. But they don’t care about your lives, beyond a vague scientific curiosity, because when they win you will cease to exist.”
“That’s what USEC would’ve done. We would restore life to the way we had always wanted it to be. Safer, less dangerous.”
My eyes settled on the Morrigan, finally arriving, and I saw tears in her eyes. How long had she known USEC would’ve… She’d fought for thousands of years for the same effect, and now…
“And in that world, there would be no room for your kind.”
I breathed in, breathed out.
“It’d be a genocide on a level that’s unimaginable,” I said.
Why had the bombs fallen? What had we— it didn’t matter. The end result was the same.
USEC and the Crows were incompatible, under the lens that I would’ve made the device under. The thought of the Crows existing would’ve been antithema. A sign that I’d lost.
If I were the one to make the device, they’d all be dead.
“That’s what USEC would’ve wanted. The Fey, or at least, Bismarck, is an extension of that.”
My eyes were watering, my throat was dry, and the eyes were still on me. “And I was a part of the project that made the failsafe. I don’t know where it is. But I do know it’s in Crow territory, and they’re going to kill everyone here to get at it.”
A swollen, solemn silence.
It wasn’t broken for over a minute. A minute where the Crows, who had sworn by USEC’s code, who had believed they were the caretakers of the world, inheriting it from the battle sworn angels of myth, stared at me. A minute where nothing of any sort happened.
I broke it.