Of Rooks & Ravens, by Nathan Crowder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The door to the Old Peculiar was heavy, fire-hardened oak bound in iron, and the soot-stained windows were charmed to cancel noise. I leaned against the wall of a cobbler’s across the street and watched the door, fingering the coins in my belt. I could afford dinner and maybe a watered down drink or two, but each coin spent took me further from making rent. I couldn’t afford to linger overlong waiting for Mac to show up, especially if she or her friends don’t have my money.

Life would be a lot easier in some ways if I’d given in and pursued necromancy. At least then I wouldn’t have to freelance, which felt like asking people for money whether I’d earned it or not. Like begging. Intellectualizing it never helped shore up my resolve for long, either. “You were promised payment for your taxonomy work,” I whispered under my breath. “Your time—your skills—are valuable.”

A knot of people approached from around the corner and cut straight for the door of Timur & Darke’s. It took a few moments to recognize them, as one of the girls had changed her hair color to a vibrant pink. I couldn’t remember her name, but it had been pale blue last time. She was Mac’s friend, the one who I had sometimes seen around the college. Her dramatic and fairly common hair color change was thanks to a magical charm. That kind of idle vanity wasn’t cheap, which hinted at a healthy student stipend.

Ok. You can do this. I pushed off from the cold stone wall and tried to remember the name of Mac’s friend but kept coming up blank. Good going, Preston. I could identify close to a hundred species of bird I’d never seen in the wild, even the deadly blood thrush, which was almost certainly a myth. But a real person I’d actually met several times was just a blank spot and an indistinct face.

I threw open the door and found myself buffeted by the smells of smoked meats, spilled sour wine, and sweat. After hours in Darwing Square and the nighttime chill of the streets, the bustling tavern felt like a crowded furnace. I pulled off my scholar’s robe in the elevated foyer, eyes scanning the bustling tavern for Mac, her friends, or even a place to sit where I could watch the room. This many people made my palms sweaty. I didn’t much care for people. Perhaps I was too much like my father in that way. Two skeletal bouncers watched me impassively, their ebon-black forms bracketing the way deeper into the proper dining area. Distracted, I muttered to myself as much as to the pair of skeletons, distracted by the sheer volume of people. “Hell of a crowd tonight.”

The skeletal guards were largely for show. Only the greenest of potential troublemakers would be deterred by something as simple as a pair of weaponless skeletons. Visitors had more reason to fear getting caught with incorrect or out-of-date papers: black visas for students, red for diplomats, or yellow ones issued to skilled labor from the Caliphate plying their trade in Ravensgate. A violation of immigration law had far more serious consequences than being shoved around by magically reanimated bones. A foreigner with expired papers was considered a spy, and even Aleph himself could not protect them.

A trio of bards were at the front of the room beneath a stuffed and mounted red eagle. The bard in the middle was tragically handsome, with dark hair that fell limply across his piercing eyes. His high cheekbones complemented a shy smile that flickered across his pale face. I could understand why the tables were so full at the front of the house. Sweat trickled down my forehead and I began to regret the heavy woolen sweater. I considered trying to hurry back home to change into something more comfortable, but finding a seat when I got back would be even more difficult.

A space opened up at the bar and I swept in before anyone else noticed the gap. Mind on scarcity of the coins rubbing against each other in my belt, I resolved myself to only the cheapest wine. A server passed by with a tray of meat skewers and rabbit with gravy, and my stomach grumbled with envy at the smell. If I managed to get paid tonight, I could reward myself with rabbit and save the rest for rent. If not, I’d make do some other way. There was no other reasonable choice.

The bartender, a tired-looking man with thin, black hair got my attention with a hard rap of his knuckles on the bar in front of me. “What can I get for you, sir?”

I smiled inwardly at being called sir and almost forgot my order. “Cup of the Craver’s red and some brown bread.” I pushed a copper rose across the counter. The bartender swept it up, replacing it with a wedge of nutty brown bread before sulking off to find the wine.

While I waited for the battered tin cup of sour coastal wine, I picked at the bread and looked closely around the smoky room for familiar faces. I finally caught a glimpse of pink hair hunkered down at a table against the wall. By the time my wine arrived, I had spotted the monk of Domuat seated at the same table, his tanned, bald head bowed close to the pink hair. There was enough space around the table, I figured I could squeeze my big shoulders into their company if I was willing to be forward. “Like we practiced,” I whispered, taking the cup and bread to join the others.

Pink Hair was the first to spot me. Her deep green eyes registered first suspicion then a glimmer of recognition. She poked the monk in the shoulder, and his curious, round face followed Pink Hair’s gaze in confusion until he saw me.

“Star rat girl!” he exclaimed.

At least I wasn’t the only one who had a hard time remembering names.

“Preston?” said a somewhat familiar voice from behind.

I turned to find Mac standing behind me, eyes narrowed upon her perfectly freckled face as if she doubted her own sight. The hood of her cloak was bunched up around her neck, and tousled, light brown hair almost covered slightly pointed ears that suggested someone in her family tree had been touched by the child-snatching doonda sidhe bogies of the deep country. It took me a second to notice that she was armed with an oil-blackened short sword at her waist and slender daggers in a leather sash across her chest.

I motioned towards the assortment of blades with the cup of wine and narrowed my own eyes. “Are you expecting trouble?”

“Always,” Mac answered with a cryptic smile. “Join us. Xevien, Clara, move over and let our naturalist friend in.”

The usually smiling death monk and the pink-haired girl scooted closer together, sliding the stool from another table in next to Xevien’s left. Taking the offered seat I realized the other two were armed as well. The jeweled hilt of a sabre protruded from Clara’s belt beneath her cloak, and I almost tripped over Xevien’s long, oddly flexible staff capped with balls of cold iron on both ends as it lay on the ground at his feet. I felt like an intruder in a war council.

I looked around the table, trying my damnedest to keep my tone light. “Why do I feel you’re not here for the music?”

Clara rolled her eyes. “This murder ballad thing? Artificial and over-wrought anguish. As if that flop-haired pretender ever suffered a bad day in his life. If Valmorris wasn’t so blessed pretty he’d be playing in Darwing Square for roses.” Two girls sitting next to her along the long table huffed and stared daggers at her before turning their attention back to the bards. One of them whispered something cutting to her friend, eliciting a laugh. Clara didn’t dignify them with her attention.

Leaning across the table, her voice barely above a conspiratorial whisper, Mac tapped my hand. “Do you remember Brunn?”

I stared blankly, surprised enough by the question that it took me a second to place the name—the only member of their group that I was aware of but not at the table with us. The mole-person was not easily forgotten. There couldn’t be more than a dozen of them in Ravensgate, working as reapers or some other kind of municipal pest control.

Mac continued as if to jog my memory. “A molekin, black fur with a tan stripe in the middle of his head. A reaper?”

“Yes. I remember Brunn.” I found my voice to be a little louder than intended. I couldn’t understand why Mac felt the need to dance around knowing a reaper. Charged with dealing with undead that slipped their master’s control or generated spontaneously from corpses left undiscovered for a number of days thanks to proximity to Gods Eye Lake, reapers were merely civil servants doing an unpleasant job. For those who grew up here, they were as common as street sweepers. So much so that many locals barely noticed them.

Mac looked around the surrounding tables for any who might be eavesdropping. The pub’s attention was solely on the bards. Even the two girls who had been whispering about Clara were otherwise invested. “He’s gone missing with no explanation.”

“As completely as if he owed us money,” Clara added ruefully. “Which is not like him.”

I capitalized on the opening. “On the subject of money…”

“Oh no,” Xevien shook his head gravely, intensely missing the change of topic. “Brunn didn’t care about that. And he is well compensated by Lord Gaunt,” the monk added, referring to Ravensgate’s head of security by the nickname no one dared use in the administrator’s presence. Lord Palfrei was the uncle to the Ravensgate’s current Governor, Lucinda Palfrei. A rare wasting curse had shriveled his body into a pale husk kept alive solely by magical means. Despite a lifetime exposed to my father’s undead menagerie, meeting Lord Palfrei unexpectedly at a college function was still one of the most frightening experiences of my life.

I choked back my nerves and stared intently at the claret shadows in my tin cup, suddenly very aware of every dimple and ridge on the cheap barware. “That’s not quite what I meant.”

“I know what you meant,” Mac said. She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her devious ear, her eyes twinkling with deeper understanding. “Xevien has poor fiscal sense, as do many monks, I expect. And Clara, well, we don’t all have doting aunts living in Lakeside, do we? A student has expenses, especially when not supported by family.”

It shook me to realize she must know who my father is. It made me wonder what else she knew, even though I couldn’t think of a secret more scandalous to me than my parentage. Finding things out was why Lord Gaunt paid her. Ravensgate was a crossroads, and those raised here automatically assumed it was full of spies. The city had secrets for the taking that rivaled the excellent instruction in undead arts offered by the college.

“It’s not always easy to make ends meet as a student. Not as long as I want to live near the college,” I offered without elaboration. There was no value in pointing out any of the unsavory options one might have to resort to. Not all of the finer corpses delivered to Bonepicker Hall arrived there due to natural causes.

“Isn’t your father…” Clara began, and though Mac quickly cut her off. The knowing smile of triumph that manifested beneath the pink hair suggested Clara knew my secret as well.

“Not important,” Mac said as she snapped two gold coins down on the table between us. The three-quarter wreath design seemed to smile at me. The confidence to be carrying that much wealth on her person was unnerving. I’d rarely seen a single laurel coin, let alone two in one place.

The amount was considerably more than what I’d been promised. Enough that it made me question the authenticity of the coins. I’d learned to be suspicious of uncharacteristic generosity even from those I consider friendly. While even in my limited association I wouldn’t ever call Mac frugal, nor was she prone to casual extravagance. I kept one hand firm on my wine cup, and the other flat on the table, fighting the urge to sweep the coins up before they could be retracted, even though Mac’s own, perfect fingers, never strayed from the edge of the coins. I surprised myself with the steadiness of my voice was as I met Mac’s eyes.

“Why don’t you tell me what is important, Mac?”

“Brunn, the reaper,” she said slowly as if making sure there could be no confusion. “He’s important.”

“We’ve been introduced, but we don’t travel in the same circles.” My eyes never wavered from Mac’s. I waited a heartbeat, looking for some kind of reaction, and saw none. “I might have seen him around the city before, but nowhere helpful. Just out on the street.”

“Recently?” Mac pressed, fingers still pinning the coins to the table. “Say, in the past day or two?”

I closed my eyes and thought back. I had been busier than normal as of late, and this morning’s conversation with Professor Vostov and the resulting thoughts about my father had occupied what little idle time I had. As such, rather self-absorbed—a weakness I was well aware of. I felt certain that I had seen Brunn but was hard pressed to recall anything like helpful details. It had been dark. That was something at least, wasn’t it? For two gold laurels, I was willing to crack open some introspection. The wooden stool on which I perched was uncomfortable against the bruise on my hip. As I shifted, seeking a more comfortable position, it shook loose a memory from last night’s accident. “Wait. Yes. At least I think so. It was dark.”

Xevien and Clara suddenly focused acutely on the conversation, I tried to remember with as much detail as possible. “I had just fallen down some stairs near the south end of Little Crow Row and was sitting alongside the street, trying to determine if anything was broken.”

Mac leaned further over the table. “When was this?”

“Last night. The evening bell for soul bearing at the Temple of Qi had just finished ringing a few minutes earlier.”

“You’re positive?”

I nodded. The tolling of the large, bronze bell signaling those with secrets to unburden themselves to Qi, God of Magic, Knowledge, and Secrets, spooked the birds I had been stalking. Chasing the birds in the dark and the unexpected appearance of the short flight of stairs was a distinct moment in time for me. “Of the time? I am positive. As to whether it was your friend, I don’t know. As I said, it was dark and he was traveling quickly without aid of a lantern. But there are not many molekin in the city. And he had the determined pace of a reaper with somewhere to be.”

Xevien tapped me on the arm to focus my attention on him. The all-but-perpetual smile had vanished from his moon face. He looked uncharacteristically concerned, and it made him look as if he might actually be much older than his youthful demeanor suggested.

“Was he acting…,” he looked at his companions for help, and finding none, continued, “Was he acting…odd? Like he was drugged or injured?”

“He wasn’t staggering. He wasn’t making any noise really. He was just walking swiftly towards Lakeside or maybe Gods Eye Lake itself. But it looked like he was trying to avoid attracting attention. He stuck to the shadows as much as I could see. I didn’t feel it was out of the ordinary at the time. Except that, well, I don’t think he had a coat on. I did think that was a bit strange. It was frosty out last night.”

Mac nodded grimly and slid the two coins another few inches across the table then retracted her hand. “That was him. He walked away from the table here last night. We figured it was reaper business and didn’t think anything about it until he failed to return. We checked his rooms and found his coat there, along with the rest of his belongings. It seems like he vanished with whatever he had on him at the time.”

Between the city’s undead and its rigorous prosecution of suspicious foreigners, there were a lot of bad things that could happen to a molekin reaper in this city. “Do you think he’s in trouble? Injured or maybe arrested?”

Clara shook her head tightly enough she scarcely disturbed her pink bangs. “His paperwork is up to date and he carries Lord Gaunt’s seal. The guards wouldn’t roust him without Mac knowing.”

“And if he overcommitted, wandered into a nest of ghouls or some other extreme danger and it killed him, that trouble would have spilled out into the city and we’d know about that, too,” Mac expanded. “None of which explains why he went off without telling us anything or without his coat.”

It made sense to me. It suggested someone who either thought they were coming right back or weren’t coming back at all. Under the circumstances, I could see why Brunn’s associates were concerned. “Do you think he left the city?”

The reaper’s three companions shared a guarded expression which made me regret asking almost immediately.

Not even the most accomplished reaper would dare pass out of Ravensgate by the south during the night. To do so would mean passing through the Grey Quarter which was active with disquieted spirits after sunset. It was a wasteland of burned out ruins haunted by hungry, incorporeal yet still deadly wraiths. Victims of a fire that ravaged the district long before my father’s time, the wraiths loathed even the thin mountain sunlight. They lay in wait, hiding the shadows behind the Burning Wall during the day when travelers were allowed to pass from the Bone Gate to the Brass Gate in safety.

If Brunn were to leave by the Iron Pass to the east, he would be forced to pass by the monastery of Domuat. Xevien’s brothers, ever vigilant in their struggles against the necromantic practices of Ravensgate, watched the pass closely. Xevien would have heard about the reaper’s passing if he had gone that way. Even if Brunn had managed to slip past unnoticed in the night, he would have been out of luck upon reaching the khal barricade at the end of the pass.

And if the reaper had tried to leave by way of the Thorn Gate to the north, Mac could likely have found out about it. Molekin were Caliphate citizens by default, permitted within the city’s borders only with current papers. Brunn was a reaper, specialized in eliminating undead who had slipped the yoke or ripened, undiscovered, until their proximity to the lake turned them into ghouls. Even with Lord Gaunt’s seal, it was still only a yellow visa which granted entry into Ravensgate, but no further into the Vale Lands. If he had tried to leave the city in the middle of the night, it would have raised alarms.

That left only one direction, which in all reality was no direction at all.

I had seen him walking towards Gods Eye Lake.

“My brothers warned me to leave Ravensgate. Perhaps Brunn’s god, Ben’kono passed along a similar warning,” Xevien said. Clara and Preston snapped their eyes in his direction, but Mac didn’t react, she kept her gaze fixed on the table, deep in contemplation as the monk continued. “Most people in Ravensgate, they live in defiance of the covenant with Domuat, circumventing the cycle of death because they can. Because it’s convenient for them to do so. Brunn followed another god, but he did so piously. His clan called him Soothsayer. He once told me Ben’kono sent him here to bear witness. I dismissed it at the time. Drunken talk between friends bonding over theology. But now…”

A sudden chill prickled the hairs on the back of my neck despite the heat of the room. I swore I could smell that flat metal tang of the lake through the sweat and smoke and sour wine. Gods Eye Lake factored so heavily into the lives of everyone in the city, providing the waters that made raising the dead an industry rather than an arcane practice. But how much did we really know about it? Nothing. We knew nothing. Father cutting short a trip should be alarming enough, but with Brunn vanishing and now warnings from the Grey Brothers? What ill winds were bound for Ravensgate?

“They say…” Xevien stopped, noticed his hands were shaking slightly and laughed.

“Something’s happening.” Clara’s tone was flat, no room for argument.

“Possibly, but my brothers do not know what. Perhaps it is one of the secrets guarded by Qi. At least people in Ravensgate keep a strong covenant with him,” Xevien said. “The masters of my order only say that Domuat himself is frightened of the city now.”

“I don’t mean that,” Clara said, pointing towards the front door. “Something’s happening now. Here.”

She was right. A few of the other patrons had noticed it as well. I hadn’t been able to shake the smell of lake water, unusually strong for this far from the shore. As the crowd thinned enough between me and the front door, I could see why. The skeletons stationed there glistened. Water pooled inexplicably at their feet.

“What do you think is causing that?” Mac said, looking at me out of the corner of her eye.

“I don’t know.” I caught a sharp glance from Clara. “I don’t! I’ve never seen a skeleton do that before. I’m a naturalist, Mac, and that’s as far from nature as you get.”

“Brunn used to dream of Gods Eye Lake. If that’s the direction he was last headed, perhaps we should follow suit?” Xevien suggested weakly. He had collected his staff from the floor, the long, bound reeds of its body bowing lightly at the weight of the capped ends. Even the monk’s strange weapon seemed eager to leave.

The trio of bards still played, too busy to notice that fewer and fewer of the patrons of Timur and Darke’s were actually paying attention to them. Mac stood, prompting the rest of us to our feet. “We should find out. You’re coming with us, I hope?” Mac asked me.

“Why?” I sincerely hadn’t given the matter any thought. I had come here to see them, to get paid, and now that goal had been accomplished, I had no reason not to return home. Yet something in the monk’s manner, the assumption in Mac’s voice, the unmistakable water from Gods Eye Lake seeping from the skeletons all compelled me to reconsider. I hadn’t been completely honest with my companions, guilt stabbed at me. While I didn’t know specifically what was causing the blackened bones to expel the lake water, I was my father’s daughter. I’d seen more than a few skeletons, freshly procured from Bonepicker Hall, soaked in a trough of lake water as part of their ritual reawakening. Curiosity burned in my brain like a fever. Still I hesitated. There was an early class tomorrow, and I hadn’t gone to check in on my father yet to satisfy my own concerns for his well-being.

Mac shrugged and made ready to leave. “You’re under no obligation. But Clara is right. Something is happening.”

My thoughts turned to the short-hafted axe I had in the base of my wardrobe. I’d trained with it for two years at my father’s insistence when I was younger, saying there was never a reaper around when you needed one. It would be nice to have it now. Home did not feel so close as it did only a few moments ago. Envisioning the unlit streets between here and there made up my mind for me. “I’ll come with you.”