And we were on the tree proper, and there was nothing more to be said. A set of stairs had been carved by ages and hands and fire, spiralling down into the depths of the trunk. Quen paused at the entrance to the stairs.
“The Regent awaits,” he gestured ahead.
Jay stepped onto the stairs, and Quen threw out a wing. “Let the Warden go the rest of the way,” Quen demanded.
“Why?” I asked.
“The Regent may not see your dalliance with Outcasts and Beasts as favorably as many of the people here have. There are many who have not been introduced to you, after all. I have deliberately kept your story on the low, so that the Regent may make better decisions with the information.”
Jay sighed. “If she gets hurt, I’m tearing your throat out,” he said, not playfully.
Quen took an uncomfortable looking seat at the top of the stairs, then gave up on even that, dispersing into a cloud of birds. They took up positions on various branches, staring down.
Jay sat down at the top of the stair well. “Go on,” he said.
I stepped down into the dark below.
I had a leader to meet. He’d be more able to use the information I’d gathered than I could.
But I didn’t know how much to tell him that was proper.
The spiral went down into the heart of the tree. Windows studded, casting lights across the dark surfaces, left cracked open for birds to scramble inside. The structure had been designed for human use only in aesthetics, it was still a creation for birds, by birds.
Words started to bubble up from the depths. Angry words.
I couldn’t make them out until I was only a few steps away from a roughly hewn door.
“-not come in here and demand things from me!” rough voice, feminine. Didn’t recognize it.
“We have a damn mission,” The Elder crowed, voice not half as rough. I hesitated by the door. “We have always had a mission to pick up the filth of the world.”
“We did that,” The other voice contested. “We’ve done that since the death of mankind. We don’t have to do that anymore!”
“The mission is never over,” The elder intoned, grimly. “And that fact you think otherwise is naive.”
“When,” the voice said. “Exactly, are we supposed to get a break? It’s been five thousand years. It’s not right that we create Crows and tell them that their lives are dedicated to a dead man, Elder! No matter how notable he was!”
“Zack was a saint,” The elder hissed.
“Zack is dead,” The voice contested. “The Crows remain.”
A moment of tense silence. My fist rested inches from the door.
“I’d like you to think for a long moment on what you’re suggesting,” The Elder snipped. “There’s quite a lot of work resting on your decision.”
“I am more than aware,” The other voice said.
“Good day,” The elder said. Then she dispelled into crows, as there was a great noise of fluttering birds and wings, and birds against glass.
A radio turned on, buzzed into static, and then sweet music started to play.
“Warden, you can come in now.”
I swallowed. Opened the door.
The Regent sat atop a makeshift throne. Once, the sterling silver it’d been crafted out of must’ve shone like the sun through the windows cut into the great tree. The room was well lit by them, though lamps were strewn around, connected to cables stretched in from other rooms.
In front of the throne was a wide cut window where the Graveyard of beasts stretched. With the sparse trees, I could only see the faint outlines of skeletons far below. Another window cut presented the wall of names below, reflected in a mirror bubbled with age.
The Regent herself had decided to present herself with white feathers muddled in the black. Sigils of protection, I dimly recognized them, sigils of memory, mixed up and muddled together. I doubted they held any power merely cast in a mix of feathers, but…
I appreciated it nonetheless.
“Warden,” The Regent greeted, bowing her head slightly. “My apologies for the conversation. The Elder is… antsy about the state of affairs here. And rather angry.”
I paused. Hesitated. How should I phrase any of my complaints? Should I phrase them at all? After all, I was hardly equivalent to the leaders of Crows here.
Though they were treating me as a messiah, I knew full well that the average Crow was my equal in a fight, much less my equal in life span and a dozen other factors.
I breathed out. “I heard you question her will,” I said, finally.
The Regent flicked her gaze off of me, and then down into the window pointed far below. The windows had an effect of casting the Regent’s chamber as if it were a floating platform, with portals to see various parts of the city.
“I’m sure that’s a rarity for you,” The Regent noted, clicking her beak. She reclined on the throne. “Does the radio bother you?”
“Not at all,” I said. “Music’s a sweet relief from the outer cities.”
“I’ve meant to extend the radio signal,” The Regent said, sighing. “It’d make communication easier… but when you have enemies listening, it’s often not worth it.”
“They’re also using radio,” I said. “Coded communications.”
“I know,” The Regent said. “Have a seat. I’m sure you’re tired from walking over here.”
I was slightly tired, and the seat she gestured at was good enough for me. I took a breath, held it, and tried to relax. The world outside was very far away (and we were still very far up) so that was a tad difficult.
The radio switched to sweet guitars, a rasping voice crooning of quiet places and of jobs left unfilled, and I met the Regent’s gaze again.
“I wasn’t expecting another Warden for a few years,” The Regent said. “Much less one that’s caused such a stir.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. And meant it.
“When Isaac was here- and I imagine you know him, given he talked about his lab partner when he sat in that chair,” the Regent intoned her head.
I listened. Isaac. That was something I needed to know.
“He wasn’t quite nearly as loud as you’ve been. Prime-nest has fallen in your wake. One of our Forge-nests has fallen in your wake.”
I opened my mouth. The Regent lifted a hand. “No, I’m not blaming you,” The Regent laughed. “I’m just pointing out that you’ve brought trouble to this city. It’s not your fault. You represent a mess of the world.”
Then I was silent.
“A big mess. Our newest enemies are moving, starting to snip at our outer layers again,” The Regent sighed, rubbing her hands across her forehead. “And now I have to considered how many of us may be… sympathetic to their monstrous cause.”
“Can’t be that many,” I said.
“You’d be correct,” The Regent said. “Except there are many in this city that don’t want to be here.”
Silence again. The radio continued to hum and buzz, and I shot it a look. “This is the greatest Crow city, right?”
“Numbers over a thousand different gestalts,” The Regent confirmed. “The greatest concentration of our kind in the whole continent.”
How strange to hear a thousand people described as a great city. But, I supposed, to Crows, that was a great number of people. How they must detest death, if a single gestalt dying visible diminished the percentage of Crows left alive by that great a change..
“I’m sorry the Fey are rising.”
“It’s not your fault,” The Regent said. “Unless it is. It isn’t, right?”
I shook my head. “They’re after me, but I didn’t do anything to cause it.”
The Regent closed her eyes, leaned back. “My sources have told me that Joli, the Crow I put in charge of scavenging metal, had been double dealing with the Fey. Made several workers disappear.”
I was silent.
“I’d known they were disappearing,” The Regent said.
“Why didn’t you do anything?” I asked.
“Crows are always disappearing,” The Regent sighed. “We have wings, Warden.”
“Jess, if you would,” I said. “And what do you mean?”
“We have wings, Jess,” The Regent said. “If we become… dissatisfied with our arrangements, we can just fly off. No structures or obligations can keep us somewhere we don’t want to be. There’s thousands of places for a Crow to go where nobody will bother them.”
They could always just fly away. How strange.
Jobs were immaterial; the wasteland was a paradise for a stubborn gestalt. Wild cows and beasts were plentiful prey, there was never a shortage of building and materials for nests…
“Only the threat of the Fey keeps them here,” I said, clicking my teeth. The Regent looked amused at the mimicked mannerism. “It’s safety that keeps them here.”
“They have been here a long time,” The Regent said. “But Crows can leave whenever they want. A strange paradox. This is the greatest city the Crows have ever built, and all most of them think about it how desperately they want to leave it. The Elder speaks of returning to the old ways of hunting anomalies. The archivists speak of their limited sample sets, of needed to find more USEC graves to pilfer from.”
The Regent slid back into her chair and sighed. “And I’ve been placed in charge of this fortress, waiting for the King to arrive again.”
I was silent again. It was starting to make a bit more sense.
“At least your War-leader is on your side?” I asked.
“If only,” The Regent said, melancholic. “He seeks war. The People are tired of fighting. He seeks to push the advantage. We don’t need more soldiers. He wants to make more…”
The Crows could just… make more. I didn’t…
“I see it in your eyes you don’t understand,” The Regent said. “To make a life… just for one purpose, and one purpose only… that’s wasteful to me. To make a life for combat means that after the battle, their purpose is discarded. It’s cruel to give and take like that. And…” The Regent said, gesturing at the city below. “It means that none of the Crows have to take responsibility for their defence. They can just make other Crows to do it for them. That’s not something I want to support. We can’t have a perpetual system of moving the debt along, generation to generation. We’d get nothing done at all.”
That made a great deal more sense.
“The Elder wants us to return to the old ways,” The Regent said. “The Crows want us to scatter. The Warriors want us to fight.” The Regent turned, and gave me a long look.
“What would you have us do for you, Warden?”
And suddenly, asking the Crows if they could help me seemed stupid. They had their own problems. Their society wasn’t nearly as stable as I’d imagined.
To ask them to assist in finding Isaac… in finding my past, in doing anything other than fighting their own battles and deciding their own fates. That seemed stupid now.
“We stand at a great divide,” The Regent noted. “On one hand, we have our balancing elements. The Capital provides stability. For that, we have the Inquisitors, who can scour corruption out of minds. We have warriors, fit and strong. We have scientists, we can discover new things! On the other hand, those very elements prevent Crows from being their most free.”
The ruler of the Capital sighed and ignored the windows. “And now you bring me news the old enemies are awake and moving. The Crows may have to go back to War yet. So the question becomes, what would you have us do?”
“Survive, mostly,” I admitted. “Do whatever you want to do. I don’t have any right to decide for you.”
“There is no shock at our debates? No spectacle at our hideous and anomalistic forms?” The regent had a strange quirk to her voice. Was she quoting someone?
I couldn’t focus on that now.
Humanity was dead. Our standards no longer mattered. I’d…. I’d accepted that.
I’d accepted it. I didn’t know what to make of that.
“Not at all,” I said.
“No demands of purging?” The Regent said, cocking her head to the side. “What do you think of us?”
“I think… how odd your society is,” I admitted. “But I see where it comes from. I don’t think I have any demands of Crow Kind, except that you don’t leave me alone.”
My fingers tapped against one another. How strange that I was willing to bare myself like that.
“I’m scared that I might be one of the last humans alive,” I said, finally.
“We have not heard from Isaac in quite some time,” The Regent said. “He went chasing for other survivors. Looking for military bases in the like. He didn’t find what he wanted in the local bases around here.” The Regent was quiet. We both listened to the radio.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“What do you have to apologize for?”
And I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell her that the Fey were being guided by human beings, that they’d corrupted the Wardens.
But I couldn’t do it. Her life was already hard enough. Crow Kind was already fragmented, barely holding onto the one city they’d devoted themselves to.
How would knowing their enemy and their Wardens were one and the same?
I didn’t want to find out, I didn’t want to tell them here. It’d be disingenuous for it to spread, not when they were preparing to go to war again.
“That I can’t win you this war,” I said. “But I can help,”
The Regent leaned forward in her throne. “Oh?”
“Their leaders,” I said. “They aren’t one mind. There are factions in their ranks.”
The Regent smiled, despite the beak. A slight raise and twitch to the inhuman face, perhaps, just a suggestion of it. “The individuals factions aren’t unanimous,” she marvelled. “We don’t face the same army of old, our enemy has fractured as much as we have.”
“And I know what they’re seeking,” said I.
The Regent leaned forward, and her grin increased. “Now that,” she said. “Is the best news I’ve heard in months.”
“They’re looking for humanity’s god,” I said. Her eyes lit up. Her beak clicked closed.
“Well. That changes everything.”
I hoped against hope I hadn’t made a wrong decision.
But I could swing the war for the Capital, if it was the right decision. I could save a lot of lives, effort, and time, if we could cut down their options.
But why did I feel so nervous?