Quen wasn’t there when I mounted the stairs. Instead, Tane sat there, sitting across from Jay. A small deck of cards between them. Tane looked up first.
“There she is. Everything alright?”
I shrugged. “I’m hoping so. I gave her the word that the Fey are still split up.”
“That took a load off of her shoulders, I suspect,” Tane said.
“It better,” Jay said, collecting the cards. He shuffled them, made sure they were all facing the right way, and slipped them back into his outfit. “Quen had to leave to go debrief everyone else,” Jay said, helpfully.
“You two getting along yet?” Tane asked.
“We’ve made our rounds,” Jay said, sighing. “But we’ve gotta help Jess down from here.”
The wind whistled across the skeletal branches of the tree, making it sway, however slightly. I froze in place, staring out over the city below.
Jay gently tugged me back, and Tane slipped under my shoulder. Between the two of them, I got across the bridge.
“You’re in luck,” Tane said, as we slipped into the elevator and my hackles finally started to slack. “I found the Regent’s band, and they’re willing to play for us tonight.”
“Us including…?” I asked.
“The scouts,” Tane said. “And the rest of us, too. Elder included, and Jay.”
“Really?” Jay asked, looking up. “I’m included?”
“You’re part of the Warden’s entourage,” Tane pointed out. “And there are a few people yet who remember you from before.
Jay managed a slight ruffle of his feathers, and looked positively pleased.
“Besides, I needed to pay you back for ripping out that fucker’s throat,” Tane said, pleasantly. I turned, startled, and stared at her. She shrugged. “He deserved it.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I said.
I just hadn’t been expecting her to react that violently. She didn’t appreciate traitors.
Speaking of which;
I hadn’t told the Regent about the threat of Wardens.
I’d wanted to, but…
Things were already in chaos. I didn’t want to test how much unrest that sort of revelation would cause. There was experimenting, and then there was suicide.
And I was already on the fine line for quite a few of those things.
We walked through the graveyard of beasts, Tane waxing on a few of the places around. A restaurant or two had popped up since she’d last been around, and a few new spices had been grown at the city’s farm. I hadn’t heard of any of the ones she’d mentioned, but she said steaks of all sorts were on the menu, so I was all for it.
We stopped by it on the way to the aquarium (the Crows didn’t precisely have a system of money, since most everyone was largely doing things voluntarily and only staying with one another for safety) so we took home a mostly raw pieces for Boss, and got something more appropriate for us.
I could smell the steak winding from the box we’d gotten to place it in the entire way back home.
Boss snapped into hers lazily when we got there.
Dean hadn’t gotten back to me on the nodes yet by the time evening fell, but we were all gathered in the central cafeteria when the sun’s last rays died, blood light falling dimly on a stage set up where a fountain had once rested.
The usual crew was strewn around me. Jay, sitting, for once, with the rest of us. The Elder sitting at the front, watching the stage. Tane, carefully looking over her Com, reading messages and various updates from her scouts. Boss, laying on her back, eyeing the growing night’s sky.
The musicians arrived in short order. They didn’t descend from the open skylight, but rather walked in on two legs, carrying their instruments. A guitar, electric. A drum set. A violin. A cello, other stranger instruments that I didn’t have names for; probably Crow derived. One looked like a set of marimbas, and once they were set up, was played by a flock of Crows rather than a unified body.
They set up on stage, their black eyes reflecting the glow of the dying sun. Tane held up a wing, and the mild chatter slowly fell silent among the scouts.
Then the music started. A drum beat, a violin gently tugging across a heart, the first few notes of a guitar tuned out of anything I’d heard before, and then the chords picked up, warped, discordant. But the crows around me were transfixed, so what could I do but enjoy it?
Boss quizzically looked at me, then up at the stage, watching the birds move.
Then a flurry of birds from above, descending and forming all at once, taking the mic. There weren’t words so much as tones, nonsense syllables and warped phrases. I didn’t recognize most of them, but they sounded like the chittering of mindless birds, but spattered out to set the tones and chords and notations on fire.
Crows scattered and flew through the air. Scouts disintegrated into elegant rhythmic swarms overhead, swooping in and out. Clouds of bird thickened and swam, transfixed and elegant.
Tane looked up at them, laughing quietly under the tones and orchestrals. Nonsense words thumped like the beat of a heart, speakers round us like the wheels of a great series of wagons. Jay tapped a foot against the ground, but he was more mournful staring at the creatures overhead. The Elder sang along under her breath, just as quiet.
“They’re dancing,” I muttered. They should’ve sent a poet, because for all the world they looked like particles in computer interactions. I didn’t have the words to describe particular undulations, or the shared vocabulary to make sense of swarm intelligent interactions.
But I was still jealous of them flying above. The song stretched on longer than I thought it would, easily 12 minutes, and then beats slowed, the guitar drifted off into the meadow, and the violin let out a slow shuddering noise, and left us with only silence.
The birds fell from the sky without a noise, and reformed into their gestalts. Tane clicked her beak.
The Song-bird bowed politely to their audience, and waved at the other Crows and their instruments.
“Now, I’ve heard that we have a Warden among us,” The Song-bird said, staring at me.
I stared back at him. “So this next song is a warm welcome to her, the Elder, and everyone else who decided to tag along!”
This track had parts of it that resembled the classical music that Omoi favored for calming people the hell down, mixed in with a raucous clattering of bird beaks on instruments, and the guitar fuzzed out to the point of hostility. Chords and notes swang and swum together, tuned in and out of cacophony, until the air hummed and quivered in front of them.
I felt my heart beat in my chest, swung up from a few familiar chords; the pop song progression spun wildly out of tune into something incoherent, and then the guitar swung back into focus on top of the Crow-Marimba, tuned in tri-steps and complicated synchronies. Tane gently took my hand.
“You dance to this?” I asked, incredulous.
“If you want,” Tane laughed. “You can dance to anything, can’t you?”
I paused and thought about that for a moment, and the Singer swung in with words I didn’t recognize again, half warking Crow talk and half hidden languages. Boss’s ears perked up.
“That’s a bit of a War-Song in there.”
“They’re a bit experimental,” Tane said. “I don’t suppose you mind?”
“‘Course not. I kill the people who normally sing it,” Boss said, relaxing further. Her tail twitched. “It’s nice to hear it without having to get my fur gored up.”
“Yeah,” I decided. “You can dance to anything.”
Tane gently swept me away from the chairs, and a few other gestalts followed, dispersed or not.
Tane’s hands were odd; crudely fascime of human hands, but I’d never focused on their appendages for longer than necessary. With her hands in mine, she gently swung. “Match my steps.”
Quick flicks of her legs, v-shaped, left-left right, then a turn.
Then I mirrored her, left left right, then a turn.
She laughed, her beak parting, and then she erupted into a swarm of clothes, and I was no longer dancing with a single entity, but rather a swarm of them. Many crows joined together, and flew around me, a few birds taking my hand.
Left Left-Right, then a turn, and the flock buzzed, their wings disturbing the air. They flew around me in perfect synchrony, and if only for a moment, I forgot what had been brewing in the back of my head and just enjoyed the ludicrous nature of Crow Kind.
The music played longer than I thought it would, and by the time it stopped, sweat had beaded up and I’d worked my muscles sore again.
Jay watched me, the one Crow that hadn’t gotten up to dance, whether it be with their Warden or otherwise. We locked eyes.
He shrugged, looking away, and sat down back next to him.
“The drums,” Jay said. “Reminds me of other things,” He leaned back, kicking up his legs onto the chair in front of him. “And it’s not like anyone will dance with me.”
Well, hell, I’d danced with Tane.
I took his hand. His blinked his eyes at me.
“Come on, let’s dance,” I said.
“And this next one,” The singer said, “Is for all of the warriors among us! Rise up! For the King!”
And I spun Jay about, trying to guess most of the dance steps, but the last was hardly an ordained set, but instead a blast of string instruments, clashing metal noises, and the whirring call of sirens and pronunciations half drowned out by the rest of the band.
Jay hesitated at first, but I’d already done a bit of dancing, so I wasn’t going to let him stay out.
We were both guessing, but by the end of it, Jay had relaxed, and I’d gone from nervous and self conscious to enjoying myself.
The Concert ended after a few more songs, and the crows in the air settled back down. Some chose their humanoid forms, but others didn’t.
Nobody particularly cared about the preference.
It was nice.