The Green Tower

Chapter 1

I love airships.

There's something serene about them. Riding a carriage--there're about half a dozen different things constantly reminding you of the road despite how wonderfully-built imperial roads are supposed to be, but an airship's smooth enough that you can close your eyes and forget you're even moving. To add the feathers to the falcon, so to speak, this particular airship was almost completely silent, running on the new energy converters House Dorst had come up with not too long ago. There's a story in that, one which includes me, but you can stick around later if you want to hear that as well.

"It doesn't fly any smoother than I do, chum," Kale said, and ruffled his feathers before turning his attention to the sparrow carcass he'd been pecking at. To see the size he is now, I wouldn't have believed he was this tiny falcon chick all those years ago. Probably the constant eating that did it.

"Oh, come on. Don't ruin our first vacation."

"My vacation is already ruined. You're not supposed to have to hunt your own food while on vacation. People are supposed to bring it to you on covered plates. On a stick."

"Oh, quiet you. You're making me hungry."

Kale giggled. There's just no saving someone like him; I closed the porthole and lay back on the bed in my cabin. Some vacation this was turning out to be. All right, the first day on the airship had been fair enough, what with the novelty of being up in the air and all that other stuff. Day two, Kale started complaining he was bored, and since I don't gamble--which is one of the main attractions since games up in the air aren't taxed--there really wasn't much for me to do. Now it was day four, my arms and legs were cramping up from being in my cabin all the time save for mealtimes, and really, I couldn't wait for the bloody thing to land so I--

The boards under my feet shuddered, and I had the very distinct sensation of down, like I sometimes have when Kale goes into a stoop while hunting.

All right, maybe I don't like airships as much as I may have led you to believe.

"Uh…chum…you're not going to like this."

I opened the porthole and let him in, bloodstained beak and all. "It's going down, isn't it?"

"Well…in not so many words…yeah."

All right. All right, Lianne Stracker. Deep breath. Deep breath. Remind self that while Kale can fly perfectly well, you can't.

All right, now panic.

For some strange reason, the other passengers seemed to have the same idea; when I burst out of my cabin, Kale in tow on my shoulder, they were already running down the hallways and up the stairs to the deck. They were just shoving, pushing and squeezing, one thick mass like rice paste out of a tube, and it was only with a few well-placed elbows and heels that I managed to work my way to the deck.

"Figures this sort of nonsense would happen on our first vacation," Kale said.

"And I was so looking forward to the string mushrooms at lunch, too. Let's go see what this is about."

The deck wasn't much better, despite the efforts of the airship's crew to calm down the passengers, although it really wasn't their fault. I mean, they had uniforms with gold frogging on, and if that doesn't make you look like an idiot, nothing will. One of the airship's officers--the first mate or something, I think--was trying to sort out the frightened mass of humanity crowding the deck rails.

"There is no need to panic, ladies and gentlemen! The captain has already initiated an emergency landing; the glide-boats do not have to be launched. We are in no danger at the moment; please keep calm and return to your cabins so the crew can prepare for landing unobstructed--"

As I expected, they ignored her.

"You know, Kale, at times like these I feel ashamed of my species."

"If you ask me, chum, I'm ashamed of ourselves for wasting good money on a ticket for this thing. However did you people survive long enough to invent tools?"

"Bah." All right, mongrel or not, Kale was a falcon and I was a falconer. Time to do something. Kale set up a screeching to which I added the pounding of my boots, and a rather impressive "silence!", if I may say so. All right, that got their attention just fine. Now I had a frightened mass of humanity looking up to an easily recognisable authority figure in the hulking black-feathered form of Kale.

"What now?"

"How should I know, chum? I mean, it was you guys who built the whole bloody Empire from scratch. It was you guys who demonstrated to the common idiot that falconers were naturally fitter to rule. I'm sure you can think of something."

"Firstly, it wasn't us, and secondly, if you want to go down that road you guys helped too."

Kale ruffled his feathers lazily. "You know what I mean, chum."

Fine. "People, please do as the…um…officer says and retire to your cabins belowdecks. If she says the situation is under control, it is under control. Flapping about here like pigeons isn't quite going to help anyone." Seriously. I hadn't said anything the first mate hadn't said already went over, but all it took was the fact that I was a falconer to get them shuffling on their way, if a bit sheepishly. It really reflects on the way things are, doesn't it? Then again, if not for it, I'd have been out of a job long ago.

So there I was, Kale humming a jolly tune straight into my mind, and I watched as the first mate approached me and saluted.

"You have my thanks, milady."

"Just Lianne will do. I'm not of a House. Not officially, anyway."

"Aristocrat or not, I'm glad you got the job done. People can be reluctant to move sometimes."

I nodded. "We aren't really in any immediate danger, are we?"

She shook her head. "As far as I understand things, milady, the engines just cut off for no reason, and we can't restart them. The captain has put forward the emergency gear and pulled us into a glide, so while it won't be a smooth landing, we'll touch down just fine." She looked askance. "Um, I don't mean to impose upon you, but if there's a way you could--"

"I don't have that kind of power, if that's what you mean. I can catch and throw anything, if that'll help, but--"

"It's all right, milady." The first mate sighed. "Give me a good stable aerium engine any day, I said, but--just--they wanted to show off the new technology, and--I shouldn't be complaining to you. Not now." Without another word, she hurried off in the direction of a group of airmen, leaving Kale and I pretty much alone.

"You know, chum, I don't like airships any more."

The clouds were rising above us, the ground was rising to meet us. I chanced a glance over the rails, sucked in a breath, and thinned my lips at what I saw. "You know what? I think I'll agree with you on that."

#

Generations ago, the gyrfalcons, sakers and kestrels swept out across the known world from what we know today as Aerie, and through conquest, negotiation and more than a bit of subversion united the lands known to them and assimilated the local falconers--hobbies, lanners, moons, aplomados and so forth--and their people into their political structure. Once the Empire was officially formed, everyone was pretty much happy, mostly because those who weren't were either dead or enslaved. We don't have slaves today; we have bondservants, which some say is just a fancy term for the same thing, but not quite. I should know, because I was one.

You see, Kale's a mongrel falcon; contrary to popular belief, it doesn't necessarily mean a falcon that has parents from two different species, but any falcon not listed in the Book of Annals is considered a mongrel. They don't allow that to happen in the official rookeries, but it does happen amongst wild--and consequently dumb as hell--falcons; gyrs and sakers have been observed while…uh…getting intimate, if you know what I mean. Judging by his size, especially for a male, Kale probably has some gyr blood in him; I'm not quite sure about the rest, and neither is he. To make a long story short, one fine morning the brancher that was Kale found himself thinking and talking, and the girl that I was found myself saddled with a large ball of fluff who was always hungry, and eventually grew into this huge black monster of a falcon with talons so long and spread out they might as well have been called tentacles.

Don't look at me like that. I know you've been raised to think of falconers as some sort of demigods or something and imperial court attire doesn't help, what with the mysterious falcon masks and all, but really. I'm here. I'm human. Well, mostly. Because mongrel falcons tend to grant their humans out-of-the-way powers that aren't recorded rightly in the Book of Annals, I was sold as a bondservant to House Escobar by my parents when I was a girl--it was that or have my head lopped off, and believe me, I like my head right where it is on my shoulders--and it wasn't too long ago that I'd had my bond-debt gotten out of the way, as payment for services rendered to the Empire.

Now, damn it, I was on my first ever proper vacation as a free woman, and it'd already gotten off to a terrible start.

#

As it turned out, we ended up landing on a mountain meadow, the sort tourist agencies put on billboards to lure us unsuspecting mudders from the coast into wasting our money on pointless guided tours. It wasn't as if I'd never seen one before, but you know how things are when one's travelling on business, never any time to appreciate the scenery. The passengers had disembarked and were milling amongst the mountain grass and wildflowers like idiots; I, on the other hand, was more interested in why the engines had stalled. Old habits die hard, even when one's supposed to be on vacation.

"Everything's all right now," one of the airmen below me said. The small group didn't seem to notice me lurking in the shadows of the engine room above them, and I preferred it that way. He pushed a button, and a panel on the engine's side lit up. "We could take off again right away, if we cared to."

"The passengers won't care for that," another said.

"Screw the passengers. Still no reason that the engines should have gone out."

"Gibbs said there was some sort of glowing blue ooze gumming up the turbines, but when I went back with him, there wasn't anything. Heck, they weren't even so much as sticky."

"Think he made it up? Or maybe sabotage?"

I considered that. I could name a number of Houses that would stand to gain if House Dorst's new energy converters were discredited, and perhaps…no. A facilitator like me would have made sure the airship was lost with all hands on board. He or she would have been thorough. And while I know facilitators are supposed to be unconventional in their methods, vanishing blue ooze just sounded…unprofessional.

"You getting all this down?"

"Yeah, chum."

"I wouldn't know what I'd do with another head to remember all the stuff that might be useful later."

"You can thank me with a pigeon, chum. For now…we're clear." Kale flapped aside as I opened the hatch and emerged into the sunlight, then landed on the thick leather of my shoulderpads and began to preen himself. "What now?"

"We proceed with our planned vacation, damn it. Didn't you say you wanted to visit a quaint mountain town?"

"I meant one in a certain province near the Roof of the World--"

"Well, we're not there, and you can just wrap your mind about that fact."

Thankfully, the airship had touched down not too far away from a road, and in the distance I could see a few carriages in House colours, complete with a line of passengers making a beeline for it with their luggage. Well, I'd planned to take a carriage from the city's helioport out into the country, and here I was. Still, I couldn't help quite wonder why the airship had--

--No. I was here on holiday. That meant good food, lazing about, and above all, not doing any work. I might be a facilitator down to my feathers, but if the Houses of the Empire were up to playing their usual games, I wasn't going to be any part of it this time.

"Don't forget the manly mountain men," Kale said with a mental giggle, which is really a strange thing to experience if you've never been the recipient of one before. "Broad-shouldered, square-jawed, and with hard muscles…and other hard things…"

"Oh, quiet you."

"And the local falcons, I'm sure the ladies are all quite lean from the mountain food and flying about, mm? Thick, robust figures with sharp feathers and clear eyes; I'm sure they need a little respite from the cool mountain air."

I sighed and tromped over to the other side of the stalled airship. "That's it. I give up. You're incorrigible."

"But of course."

I must have looked terribly sour at the moment, for before I knew it, the first mate was beside me. "Need some help finding your luggage, milady?"

"No, thanks. Not as if I have any; I'm used to travelling light." I pointed at Kale on my shoulder. "You can blame him for my sour face."

"Ah." She said it as if she understood everything. "Is there any other way I can help?"

I considered that a moment. "You can tell me the way to Barajov. I know it's in the area somewhere, but I'd like to be there before dark."

"You're in luck." She pointed down the road. "It's just over that next hill, right by the crossroads. Keep on going down the road; you can't miss it."

"Mm. Thanks."

"You're welcome." The first mate turned round to shout at a group of nearby airmen, but stopped and turned back to me. "Oh, and thank you for flying with House Doskar. Have a nice day."

"Too late," I replied, and took in the road once more. It stretched on forever into the distance; most of the other passengers had already departed in the carriages, and I almost got into one of them myself. Walking was bad. Walking would be too much like work.

"Think about it, chum. Berries full to bursting with juice. Fresh mountain pears, their golden skin still wet from the morning dew. All sorts of roast birds with unmentionable mountain herbs stuffed up their bums, all just waiting for you across the next hill. You want it. You know you want it."

"All right, all right." I waved a tired hand at Kale and began plodding forward. "Let's go."

The Green Tower

Chapter 2

I'm not lying when I say I travel light. It's just something that comes along with the job; I know some others in the trade who say they can't look at a building without trying to figure a way of breaking in, that they can't go on holiday and not ply the locals for gossip that might come in useful later in setting up a job. As my mentor Mistress Yarrick used to say, if it won't fit into your cloak, belt or boots, you should stop and think whether it's really necessary. There are some people who use spring-loaded wrist sheaths and the like, but if you want my opinion, they're just gimmicks to compensate for your own incompetence.

But in any case, it was a good thing I didn't have much on me, otherwise I'd have died before I reached Barajov. Oh, the first mate had been right; it was just around the next hill, only she forgot to mention how far away and how big the next hill was. I'm perfectly fine with traipsing around the countryside, but not with three or four suitcases in tow like some of the other passengers on the airship had. What luck, eh?

"You need to be more optimistic, chum."

"Optimistic? Optimistic! The airship we were on crashed, I'm plodding along this road like a mule while you sit on my shoulder and make small talk, and above all, I'm hungry. And you want my poor old self to be optimistic?"

Kale held up his head and tried to look dignified. I didn't have to see him doing it, I knew he would do it. "Gryphus the Elder said that the formidable soul can find a smile in the darkest of times."

"Well, screw Gryphus the Elder; I'm no philosopher." Still, I raised a hand to my mouth and pulled up my lips in the best impression of a smile I could manage at the moment. "There, a smile just for the great and wonderful Kale. Happy? Now be quiet."

Kale made a disgusted noise into my mind. Well, I can't please everyone.

Eventually, though, we did make it to Barajov. It didn't look too bad; the friend of mine who'd recommended it to me, a sorcerer by the name of Arus, hadn't been exaggerating when he'd said it was a nice place. Situated at a junction of the imperial roads, yet not too busy, modern enough to be comfortable yet not lose its quiet charm…I know it's a bit hard to swallow, especially when all you have is my word for it, but really. All right, it was a small town in the mountains under House Doskar, bunch of buildings clustered together on the small piece of relatively flat land, supposed beauty and crap all around. There, I don't sound like a pamphlet any more. Arus had helpfully provided me with a list: hostels and guesthouses, spots of interest, local cuisine, that sort of stuff. My list at the moment involved me finding a nice, comfortable bed.

"Hey, chum."

"What is it this time?"

"No need to get snappy, but…have you ever seen anything like it, chum?"

I looked in the direction Kale sent me, and frowned. Lit against the evening light was a tower--not a very tall one, maybe about three or four stories tall--tucked away in the foothills, although it wasn't too far from the town, maybe an hour's walk, perhaps. Slightly out of the way, but not so much that one couldn't go there if one had the mind to. From the looks of it, it could have been an old watchtower from the days when the Empire was a bit wilder, but the colour of it settled that.

It was green. I don't mean that it was covered in plants and the like which tends to happen to the older buildings in the Dysis near the southern coast, but the stone itself was green. Even today civil engineers use solid, sensible stone when they want to do masonry, and oddly enough, most sensible stone tends to be dull and boring, too. A small fence surrounded the tower, and within it were a few shrubs and flower beds, far too prim and proper to be remnants from absent occupants, as were the staked-out vegetables and a fruit tree or two; someone had to be living in it. A serviceable dirt track stretching from the tower to the main road completed the view, and pretty much confirmed my suspicions about the place. There were birds in the garden, too, I think--I couldn't quite see well enough to be sure.

"Yep. Cute little white songbirds; if you asked me, I'd say they were mynahs. Wonder how they taste."

"Interesting." I pulled out a few folded sheets of paper from my leggings and looked over them once more. "Nope. Arus' notes didn't mention anything about a green tower."

"Hmm…"

"Well, at best, it's another bloody tourist attraction. At worst, we won't have to even go close. Come on. I really do want dinner before bed."

"I know, chum, but I just can't decide whether it's just hunger or a bad feeling wiggling about in my crop."

#

The issue of energy has always been…well, an issue.

Long, long ago, or so I'm told, people were content to train animals to pull their ploughs and light candles and lanterns when they needed to get around after dark. You know, that sort of primitive thing. Thankfully, those days are long gone like the feathers in a gap-winged falcon, and today even the most rustic of settlers remember to take along a generator when setting up somewhere, if only to power their water pumps.

As the pace of magic improved, though, more and more people started discarding their fireplaces and oil lanterns for heaters and glow-orbs. That wouldn't have been a problem, save for the fact that while people wanted to enjoy all the benefits of progress they could get their grubby little hands on, they didn't want to fry their brains in the process of doing so. I've fried my brains once--not enough to do permanent damage, thankfully--and believe me, it's not a pleasant experience, even if the shock doesn't outright kill you. Even the sorcerers and their moon falcons were hard-pressed to meet the demand for their services; there were a few back then who got very, very rich and today they number amongst the Empire's great Houses.

The solution was simple: if trying to act as a conduit for too much magical energy from the surroundings fried one's brains, then find something that didn't have a brain to fry and use that. What amazing geniuses our forefathers were, eh? Somewhere around our grandfathers' grandfather's time, people started digging magicite from the ground--do you know that most people still don't know where magicite comes from? It boggles the mind, doesn't it? The charged quartz sand and crystals you see being sold by the featherweight in markets usually isn't its original form, but the energy within usually has been derived from something else, to prevent people from growing another leg, having their eyeballs melt in their sockets and other such piddling inconveniences. Industries…I've seen them use everything, from petrified wood to gemstones to granite straight off the quarry. In that field, as long as it's a rock with accumulated magical energy, it's magicite. Me, I don't really care about the distinction, although there've been times I've been paid to do so.

Before long, though, more people started asking inconvenient questions like "how do you know charged quartz is really safe?" and "what's going to happen when all of it runs out?" You know, questions that get in the way of progress. The Houses that dealt in energy couldn't hire enough facilitators to take out every single naysayer, and so they did something which surprised most: they actually took the peasantry seriously, although in retrospect I think it was just a no-brainer business decision. After all, the first House to figure out an alternative would make a killing in the field, and not just because the Empress then--our current Emperor's predecessor--announced a prize of a hundred thousand golden falcons straight from the Imperial Treasury to the person or House that made it. A lot of this particular struggle went on in the background; the only reason I'm in the know was because I was hired out to do some routine work for the Houses in the field. You know, stuff like sabotage, infiltration, inciting dissent in the workforce, stealing House secrets, that sort of work that's a facilitator's daily pigeon, to use the falconer's term. For a long time it seemed that these efforts were going nowhere; I didn't mind and neither did the lord of my House, considering it meant more income for us.

And then someone won.

I don't need to tell you about the details of the release; it was all over the notice boards and newsprints of the Empire. What's important is that everyone wanted to try out the new energy converters and get away from nasty, dangerous and above all, horribly old-fashioned magicite. Carriages were rewired to accommodate them. Airship owners were only too happy to avoid having to hire airmen just to watch and stoke the old magicite engines. Look at the rest of the restaurant about us. The glow-orbs on the walls. The runes carved into the table to keep it clean, hygienic and looking good. Hard to think it wasn't so long ago that their linking spells were completely different, eh?

Oh, I assure you, it's not hard at all.

#

"I'm so tired, chum. Tired and hungry. Can't…think…straight…going to eat useless human's ear in a maddened fit of hunger."

"You? Tired? I'm the one who's been walking all this time."

"And who do you think is keeping you from feeling half as tired as you should be, chum?"

"Think about it, my dear Kale. Free-range chickens with plenty of lean meat on their bones, just waiting to be torn to bits. Field mice out in the grasses that've never touched a single scrap of rubbish in their lives. Songbirds bursting with song and juicy bits."

"Ha. Ha. Very funny."

"Turnabout is fair play, my friend."

One step at a time, the inn my friend had recommended to me drew closer. Not a bad place, really; at the very least, there was a large magicite generator running out back, so Kale and I wouldn't be deprived of basic creature comforts. Seemed reasonably full-up, too, if the carriages lined up in the courtyard were anything to go by.

"Think they're going to have a spare room?"

"If they don't, I'm going to collapse on the floor and pay them in the morning." To be honest, it did seem more than a little attractive at the time, but I dragged my sorry carcass across the courtyard, through the front door and into the lobby. My mentor once told me she remembered the times when most country inns, guesthouses, hostels and their like didn't actively try to imitate the style of the hotels in the big cities. I don't know about nostalgic value, but I'd rather have a nice lobby to plod through rather than a common room full of unhygienic, inebriated idiots. Then again, in a large city hotel I might have been able to make a reservation through saker, so…

There're a few guidelines facilitators tend to follow, guidelines that separate us from the average thug who'll club in anyone's head for a handful of copper feathers. Have a plan. Be polite. Be professional. Thankfully, I was on vacation, so I didn't have to do any of these and crashed through the entrance like a one-winged falcon. There was a nice-looking guy behind the front desk, and I dragged myself forward. "Room?"

He nodded. "Room. For how long?"

I told him.

He blinked. "That long?"

"Doesn't matter, so long as I can pay, right?" I rapped the counter with my knuckles. "Seems you're doing a good business here."

"Well, yes, but most people pass through, not stay…"

I let out a grunt and glared at him for a full half-minute; the poor sop kept on staring at Kale, who'd hopped off my shoulder and was playing with the bell on the counter. Falcons do tend to unsettle people who're not used to the idea of having either bird or the associated human around.

"Stop that." I reached out and reined Kale in, then turned to the poor sop behind the counter and drew out a couple of silver quills. "Enough for now?"

"Yes."

"Bed and breakfast?"

"Other meals included. Extra if you want something different from what everyone else's having, or if you want something between."

I sniffed the air. Ah, yes…hot oil, although it wasn't the oil I used back at home. Something starchy, and with more than a bit of meat in it…sometimes, I wonder if Kale has affected me more than I'm willing to admit. "And if you don't mind, I'd like to have raw chicken arranged for Kale…"

The poor sop eyed Kale again, as if he was worried Kale would jump up and claw his face off. Seriously. The whole point of falcons attaching themselves to humans is that they get brains and lifespans to match. Cheeky as he might be, Kale loves his head too much to go around randomly clawing people and proving he's a dangerous mongrel of a falcon that needs to be exterminated.

Much like me, really.

I know the whole mystique thing helps keep Aerie in power, but seriously, sometimes I think the Imperials lay it on a bit too thick. City folk see falconers every day and are used to the sight, but let things get a bit more rural, and people only see their lords and ladies when they come by to collect the tithes--and sometimes, not even then. So yeah, I could see where the poor fellow was coming from. Sitting behind the desk waiting for the carriage lines to come, and then there's this half-crazed woman with a monster of a falcon on her shoulder that you aren't even quite sure what it is--it tends to leave the wrong sort of impression on people, and I didn't want that. I sucked in a breath, straightened my back and tried to make myself look a little more presentable.

"Look, I'm sorry if I frightened you, but I've been walking a while. I'm a bit tired and he--" I reached up, scratched Kale on the head and heard him giggle-- "is not helping."

"It's fine, it's fine. Here, your room keys."

Now that was more like it. I pocketed them, and they jingled a little more than necessary in my leggings. "One last thing. I plan on doing a bit of sightseeing while I'm here--is there anything you can tell me about that green tower I saw on my way into town? Looks like a bit of a historical relic or something; any chance I might be able to get a closer look or even see the inside?"

"I don't know. You'll have to ask the young lady who lives there; she keeps to herself, though, and doesn't come to town that often."

Huh. Thought as much. "All right, thanks." The remaining steps up to my room passed in a bit of a blur; if I'd been on a job, I'd have sucked a little kelsh extract to keep me alert, but as things were I collapsed into the bed without even undressing and was asleep before I knew it.

The Green Tower

Chapter 3

I woke up to the sound of arguing. Well, more correctly, it was due to Kale hopping up and down on my chest, where he'd fallen asleep the previous night. Falcons might not build nests, but they still like to be comfortable.

"Chum! Hey! Come look out the window!"

I was already on my feet, hands halfway to my eating dagger, until I realised the commotion coming from outside wasn't directed at me and grogginess reclaimed my head. "Wh-what is it?"

Kale hopped up to the windowsill, then bowed his head and spread his tail. "Look! Look!"

I followed him, looked down at the courtyard, and saw. One of the coaches that'd been parked overnight was now sitting in a large puddle of glowing blue sludge, its rear wheels blown clean off, the entire engine housing just reduced to splinters. The only way the sludge could have been more vile was if it'd been bubbling and slopping all over the place; as it was, though, the stuff made my fingers and toes itch.

You didn't have to be a master alchemist to figure that getting close, let alone touching the stuff would be a really bad idea. By the looks of it, the tired-looking watchmen who'd formed a perimeter around the puddle had the same idea, and if that wasn't enough, one of the inn's stupid ducks had fallen headfirst into the pool. I mean, it's not as if I've never seen duck bones before, but there's still something about bleached and flesh-stripped bones still attached to half a bloody carcass that unsettles anyone's nerves. Well, anyone with a reasonable sense of self-preservation.

"Well,"I told Kale after a moment's thought, "this is interesting."

"Waste of a good duck if you ask me, chum. Then again, maybe not. Ducks are much worse than chickens."

I pulled on my boots. "Come on. Let's go see what this is about."

Thankfully, Kale didn't make a snide comment about missing breakfast, and the two of us pushed our way downstairs and into the courtyard. By the time we'd got there, more curious onlookers had gathered on the scene, and the watchmen looked a bit worried. Considering they only had glorified big sticks instead of proper shields, wands or even a sword amongst them, I could see why that was the case. Perhaps Imperial authority would be interested to know how well House Doskar was funding their watchmen.

But there were other more pressing matters. Maybe it was a coincidence that the airship I'd been on had been stalled due to some sort of blue sludge as well. Maybe it wasn't. I couldn't be sure without concrete evidence, but--

"Chum, we're supposed to be on vacation. This is work."

"Can't be having a vacation when I'm worried that my boots might just explode into corrosive goop, can I?"

"You can't tell me you're not going to do anything about my coach!" the coach driver yelled at the watchman in front of him. "It's not just the passengers! The House just ordered these less than a month ago, and I'm already going to get it for having lost one, let alone tell them the watch is being useless--"

"Not a big surprise, really," another voice said just off to my right clearly directed at me. It belonged to a man, perhaps in late middle age or a bit younger, by the looks of him. Didn't seem too much of a threat; I was quite sure I could subdue or kill him outright if need be, and the glasses didn't help, either. A bit incongruous, perhaps, but his hands showed signs of wear.

I frowned. "What do you mean, it's not a big surprise?"

"Always bound to be a few kinks when something new comes out." He took off the beret he was wearing and tipped it in the direction of the carriage. "Of course, I wouldn't call that a kink, but you'd imagine the great Houses would test their work more thoroughly before putting them on the market, don't you think?"

Man. Carriage. Man. Carriage. Looking at the wreckage, I had to admit he had a rather compelling argument. "Yeah."

He smiled. "Do pardon me, falconer; I've forgotten to introduce myself. I'm Brodik."

"What do you think of him?"

"Dunno, chum. Doesn't hurt to be friendly."

Hmm. "Lianne. Lianne Stracker. I'm staying here for a while, enjoying the scenery and the food. One of my friends told me both were excellent."

"Ah. I'm doing the same too, albeit in a roundabout way. A lovely early retirement out in the country. People out in the country can usually handle their own carts and such--they have to, without a proper mechanic around most of the time--but with the sheer amount of people who pass through…"

I looked him up and down. "Let me guess, someone suggested you retire? You do look a little too young to be doing the whole retirement-in-my-twilight-years thing."

"That's not a very polite thing to ask. But yes, it is true, although I don't want to talk about it."

Yes. Definitely someone who was used to being around falconers, or at least, potential authority figures. That'd match up with his story. "Well, pleased to meet you. If I've any need of your services, I'll come to you before something like that--" I pointed at the glowing sludge-- "occurs."

Then it happened. The puddle of sludge shrank in upon itself with a faint hissing sound, vanishing within a matter of seconds. Kale bated on my shoulder, spreading his wings and tail, and even the grumpy-looking watchmen were more than a little surprised; Brodik simply took his beret off and held it in both hands, not taking his eyes off the spot where the sludge had been.

"Yes," he said. "Best to fix things before something terrible happens. By the time things start exploding, it's always too late."

#

When the both of us were younger, Kale would attack small objects for the heck of it; anything was fair game, from bracelets to bits of old armour to pretty much any old, unwanted thing that caught his fancy. I thought he was just messing around, but those in charge of raising me were of the mind that it was practice, and so let him claw and attempt to break the necks of straw dummies far too large for him to handle in addition to other less innocuous objects. He's always been a cheeky bastard from the start, but I'm not sure if by allowing that to continue, I only made things worse. Sometimes I wish he was a bit more disciplined--excuse me a moment while I prise my ear free from Kale's beak--as well as a little more self-restrained, but there're always extremes. The man who fostered me after I was sold into House Escobar's service had an ugly-looking falcon with one broken wing, and according to Kale, only spoke in one-syllable words and not more than ten of them at once. The way that bird carried himself so bloody stiffly, I could believe it.

Which brings me to the point. One of the most common questions asked of falconers is how it feels to be with a bird in your head all the time. I'm not going to presume to speak for every falconer in the Empire, because I know that just like people, each bird has their own personality. Heck, even dumb, humanless falcons that're kept in the eyries for breeding are their own bird. But let me try to sum it up: have you ever gone to a saker to have a message sent? Yes? All right, now do you remember how it felt when he or she was rummaging through the fore of your mind to get the message to be passed along? Personally, I think they do that just for show--I mean, you could have just written it down and let them telepathically contact their fellows, but--oh, I'm drifting from the point again.

All right. Now imagine having such a connection, maybe three or four times stronger than that, and there's no way of cutting it off. Not completely, at least; things still seep through. Think about it. Someone else always being aware if you were feeling upset, excited, terrified, and so forth--most people imagine that would be a great thing, but that depends on whether that someone is more inclined to comfort or tease you for it. Conversely, you're aware of that someone else, too, and while Kale doesn't like me listening in, so to speak, there've been times he was so loud I couldn't help but hear. Excuse me a moment, but let me just get this plate of cut chicken so he doesn't try to tear my face off again.

So where was I? Oh. I understand that as with many other things about falconers, this nonsense has been romanticised over and over again by both House and commoner. I won't deny that there've been both good and bad times with Kale, and sometimes when I tell him to shut up, I don't really mean it. But he knows that, anyway. Everything is just more…intense. If you get into an argument with your falcon--which is inevitable--you can't just walk away for a day or two and let tempers cool off. You have to make peace now. There will be times when you'll feel hungry although you just ate, when there's someone to laugh with you over an inside joke, when one of you can complain to the other and never have to let anyone else know you have a rotten attitude. When you have to stop to take care of someone else.

As my foster father once told me, it's not all about the powers, which would have gotten me killed by Imperial edict, or the wealth, which I never had to begin with, since I grew up in a rice field and my father spent almost all of the family's money buying a surname for us, something we couldn't eat.

It's about the responsibility of knowing that no matter what you do, someone is not only watching, but is invariably going to be deeply affected by your actions.

#

Kale flies like a god. Maybe it's just me being small-minded, since he is my falcon, but I'll be a bastard if he doesn't fly well. Kale pulled into a stoop, snatched a small bird out of the sky and brought it down to the middle of the grassy mountain field where I was standing.

"Need help?"

Kale looked up from the dull brown carcass, the black of his belly splashed with red, then began plucking at the hapless thing's feathers. "Nah. The local cuisine is exquisite, chum. It's the quality, not quantity that matters."

I thought back to the days of my childhood, of eating watery rice porridge with undercooked chunks of sweet potato in it. "Can't argue with you there, but you ought to have better table manners."

"Maybe when I wake up one day and find I've turned into a hairless ape."

Which was true. Kale is what he is. I sat down on the grass and leaned back. No, even though the scenery was a little less colourful than what I was used to back home, it was fairly pleasant. At least I could lie down on the grass, feel the sun on my face and feel cool at the same time. If I'd tried this back in Dysis, I'd have been sweating already. Heck, there wouldn't even be an open space--either that, or the ground would be too soft and soggy to lie down on.

"Hey, doesn't that feel good?"

"Mm. I was just thinking, really, shouldn't we send a report--"

"There were watchmen there, chum. They'll handle it. I know your head is all swollen, but you don't have to do everything personally. C'mon, there's so much open space here. Take a while to enjoy it, will you?"

What made it even worse was that I couldn't tell if he was making an innocent suggestion or just being cheeky again. I lay there for a while until Kale finished his food, then got to my feet and went over to pick him up.

"Enough?"

Kale sent a rather pleasant sensation of fullness my way. "I'm stuffed."

"Well, I'm not picking you up. Not like that. You get on yourself."

"I want a bath." He fluttered onto my shoulder, albeit a bit awkwardly, and tried his best to preen his blood-matted feathers.

"You'll have to wait till we get back. Now, though…" maybe I'd been too distracted with Kale's thoughts, but now that I'd walked a little way up the hilly meadow, the green tower itself wasn't too far from where we were standing. "How about we pop in and say hello?"

"I don't know, chum…"

"Oh, don't be a spoilsport. It isn't everyday that you see an old-fashioned building like that, much less one that's still occupied. Not when even the great Houses have already torn down their manors dating from that period."

"Well, other people aren't going to take kindly to your dropping in…"

"If you don't want to be bothered by tourists, go and live in a sensible home, then. I hear House Yarrick is putting out small houses that can be put together like a puzzle."

As the two of us approached the tower; I noticed that there were even more of those white mynahs clustered in the gardens. They were perched on the boughs of the fruit trees, peeking from between the berry hedges, clustered around feeders on which seeds and cut pears had been set out for them. What was interesting, though, wasn't the sheer number of them, although there were enough there to keep Kale fed for a month--all right, maybe three weeks. You'd expect that many birds in one place to at least make it stink a little or ruin the garden, but the plants had been left untouched.

To make a long story short, my fingers were itching. The moment they saw Kale, every single one of the mynahs screamed in their rush to get away from him, a huge flock of black-laced white rising from the tower gardens and out into the sky.

Kale twisted his head in their direction. "Gee, chum, some people have no manners."

"Now why would songbirds run away from a predator dripping in blood? The world may never know."

"Very funny." I reached up and scratched Kale on the top of his head where he was still relatively clean. "Who's a cute, feathery killing machine, then? Yes, you are!"

Kale giggled, and I stepped past the fence into the garden proper, mumbling a few words under my breath as I did so. There were spells, yes, a few basic locks on the door, and I had to remind myself not to rip them off with my hands out of sheer habit. Then there were others to make sure pests kept away from the plants, spells to help them grow well, and as for the tower itself…there was an immense presence about it that refused to register properly with my detection spell. That was something.

I cupped my hands to my mouth. "Hello? Is anyone home?"

There was no answer, but a faint rustling came from some nearby berry bushes. Living in the Dysis quickly taught children caution when parting vegetation or even turning over a rock, but I wasn't a child anymore. Hiding behind them was a young woman wearing a white dress, with hair to match. These things do happen.

"Hello? I'm sorry, but might I inquire as to--"

She looked at me. She looked at Kale. Then she wailed and fled, just like the birds.

The Green Tower

Chapter 4

"Wait! I only wanted to ask if--" I began, but the young woman was already out of my reach, and I had to consciously restrain the impulse to grab at her.

"Flighty little thing, isn't she?" Kale said, and watched the young woman tear across the neatly cut grass, her dress and hair billowing out behind her like an airship's trail. "Maybe all those birds have rubbed off on her."

"You've rubbed off on me, that much I know." I turned back to the young woman. "Excuse me, miss, but--"

"What's going on here?" someone said from behind me. I whipped around, but it was just Brodik in a mechanic's apron, a large bag of groceries in his arms. Something about the way he stood and his lips were pressed together, though, suggested he was less than happy.

I shrugged. "I was just about to ask the young lady over there for permission to have a closer look at the tower, but apparently there's something horribly terrifying about me."

Brodik looked me up and down, then at Kale, who was still preening himself in a bid to get the last bits of gore out of his feathers. "I can see why. It's not unreasonable, since the tower is a local curiosity, but…" he pointed at Kale. "It's still quite impolite to go visiting with blood dripping down your front."

"Most people aren't bothered by bloody falcons. Well, not to the point they run away screaming."

"Most people in the cities, that is. Here--" he nodded at the young woman, who'd been creeping closer while we were speaking-- "people are a bit different." He held out the groceries to the young woman, who simpered and hugged the bag like a bolster, not taking her eyes off Kale. "There's more in the cart, Elpe."

I blinked. "Does she talk?"

"I do. And I--I'm sorry for what just happened. I don't know what came over me…" she looked at Kale again, and looked just about ready to wail and take off once more.

"Kale…would you mind getting yourself a bath?"

"Eh…I guess it couldn't hurt, chum, I feel icky all over anyway. Fill me in on the good stuff when I get back?"

"Of course." I felt Kale's weight leave my shoulder, and before too long he was just a receding black dot in the distance. Elpe still looked a little tense, but at least she was much better now that Kale wasn't around.

"Now that we're a little more sensible," I said, "I was going to ask you for permission to look around your home. It's quite fascinating, and well, I am supposed to be here on vacation and see new and interesting sights…"

She gave me a small, nervous smile. "I'm sorry for what happened just now. I don't know what came over me."

"Don't apologise over and over again. People can find it annoying."

"Oh." She looked down at her hands, still in wrist-length gardening gloves, then back at Brodik, who'd returned to moving in paper bags from his cart and into the tower's main entrance. "Brodik says I should go out more, make more friends. But some days when I try to, it just feels uncomfortable. He's so nice to come and visit me."

Huh. You know, I've met some hobbies who acted this way--playing the simpering, shy little fledgling in court, just waiting for someone to let their guard down so they can sink their talons into the unlucky bastard's back. It also happens at most social gatherings such as the sort my Lord and Lady used to hold, but Imperial court is the worst. If Elpe had been a falconer, there wouldn't have been any doubt that she was faking it to wrap Brodik around her little finger, something he seemed more than happy to go along with.

"Kale?"

A distinctly damp sensation in the fore of my mind. "Yeah, chum?"

"Care to give your input?"

"Will I get a pigeon out of having my bath disturbed?"

"You're going to get one anyway." I gave him a mental push. "Well?"

"Annoying as heck, I'd say. Either that, or she has a brain smaller than mine. Even if the magic in the tower seems to be mostly inert, she'd have to be an idiot to not notice it, what with sitting on a whole pile of the stuff day and night. That, or someone is deliberately hooding her. I know I'm not going to be able to tell you to back off, so chum…just be careful, okay?"

Elpe was still there, looking expectantly at me despite the fact that I'd been ignoring her for the past minute, unless she'd been wafting around the place when I'd been speaking to Kale. Heck, with that dress and hair of hers added to that frail-looking figure, she was practically built for wafting. Probably would blow away in a strong gale, too. One way or another, there was something odd about this. I hadn't really expected this to be a working vacation, but things seemed to be going pigeon-shaped all of a sudden.

I reached out for Kale again. "Why am I such a busybody?"

"You know, chum, we could give this all up. We could move away, register and get a practicing alchemist's license, and live happily ever after."

"What, and you'd actually give up this life?"

Kale sniggered. "Nah. I like it. And so do you."

I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned to find Elpe giving me another of those small smiles. "Well, shall I show you around? It's so good to have someone else here to talk to."

#

Not too long ago, I had the chance to have dinner with the Emperor. Considering that he's as close to untouchable as anyone can get, you can imagine how much of an honour that was. Surprisingly, the food wasn't amazing. I know people are dying to know what the Emperor has for dinner, and I can say from firsthand experience it wasn't anything special. Some flatbread, a little highland tea, a roast dove and plenty of little fruits on sticks, as well as raw, properly butchered dove for the falcons.

Oh, it had style and class, but the things that really matter, like taste, texture and whether you can walk away with that pleasant sensation of fullness without having stuffed yourself--I'd rather have thick rice porridge flavoured with crispy fried onions and dried anchovies. Anyone can eat till they're bloated; few can achieve fullness. I mean, it could have been worse; the sticks could have had little umbrellas on top; when one needs to resort to that level of decoration there's got to be something about the food they're trying to cover up. No, what was amazing was the over-dinner conversation. The long table between the two of us made talking a little troublesome, but the messages got across in the end, and well…let's just say the resultant conversation was more than a little interesting.

Falcons don't get along well together, everyone knows that much. You might see a group of wild falcons migrating together, and they'll have the sense not to tear each other to bits, but that's the extent of it. Those with humans have a lot more brain, so they pretend to play nice when it suits them. And since falconers are a bit like their birds--although it's still up in the air as to whether they're falconers because of that or the other way around--they don't play nice, either.

Which is why facilitators like me are allowed to exist.

The Emperor explained it to me quite well over some roast dove and highland tea. Facilitators are allowed to hang around for the same reason he allows House wars to occur--that is, they serve to keep the Empire stable. Counterintuitive, perhaps, to keep the peace by allowing wars and other disturbances to happen, but falcons live by killing and eating their prey. That's the way they're made. Better to let the Houses, great and new, snipe at each other in the marketplaces, through assassinations and in small-scale skirmishes rather than let everything dissolve into anarchy. Better to have progress go a little slower as opposed to reverting back to the earliest pages of the Book of Annals, when hill-kings and queens ruled over huts surrounded by sharpened tree trunks. Best to let the Houses work off their natural aggression through ultimately productive competition rather than outright destruction. He--and all of his predecessors, all the way from the First Empress--have known that facilitators exist, keep tabs on them through the Imperial investigators, and have always stepped in if the House wars got a little too out of hand. No, by his own admission, he doesn't like the way things are. But until a better and practical solution presents itself…

Because falcons don't play well together. Civilisation might require that we suppress some of our instincts for the good of everyone, but considering even ordinary people tend to bend the rules as much as they think they can get away with, I'm not holding my breath for the Empire to change overnight. If the Emperor, the man with the golden falcon mask, can't stop this nonsense, what can I do?

Besides, I cause trouble for a living, so you could say I have a vested interest in this matter. Had things been a bit more peaceful I could have been an excellent throwball player. At the very least, I'd be better paid and a lot more well-liked.

#

"This is an interesting place." I reached out and tested the stone walls with a finger. They felt slightly chilly despite the early summer heat outside, as if they'd been recently swept over with an ice block or something. "If I may be so bold as to ask, why do you live here?"

"I used to live--" Elpe screwed up her face, as if thinking required monumental effort on her part-- "somewhere else. I was so young back then that I don't remember very much of it, but this place makes me feel comfortable."

"Like the birds?"

"Especially the birds." She sighed. "They make me feel at peace. Is there anything that makes you feel at peace, Lianne?"

The thrill of the hunt, a tiny, not-quite-human voice supplied from the back of my head. Blood in the feathers, flying back to the glove and feasting on the kill, feathers, guts and all.

"A nice drink of sweet fruit juice usually does the trick," I said.

"You liar," Kale supplied helpfully.

"Oh, quiet you."

"You stay right there. I'm coming back."

As Elpe prattled on about the myriad wonders of fruit juice, I took a closer look at the tower's insides. What it had in height it lacked in floor space; stairwells aside, each level was only the size of a single room or so. The place was sparsely--well, not sparsely. More utilitarian, I suppose--furnished, a small kitchen that seemed hardly used and stasis chest, a dining table and old-looking chairs, a bed. No, it didn't seem like a home to me, no matter how much Elpe gushed over her drab curtains and the wonderful view from the tower's upper floors. The tower just lacked that lived-in feel homes have, that, you know, someone cared. Maybe it was just my imagination, I don't know, but that was the way it struck me. No, if you asked me it didn't feel like a home.

It was a cage.

"That's all very interesting," I said, "but what would be nice to hear would be any history this place might have. I mean, it's not as if you built it, did you? It seems too old for that."

Either she was good-natured enough to not take offence at the jibe, or it'd gone straight over her head. My money was on the latter. "No, I didn't build this place. It was already there when I moved in."

Before she could say another word, though, Brodik was coming down the stairwell, his heavy workman's boots clopping on the stone stairs. "I've put the kettle on, Elpe." He turned to me. "I'm sorry, Lianne, but would you please leave? Perhaps you could come again tomorrow."

"Can't she speak for herself?"

"Brodik speaks for me not just because he knows me well enough for that, but because I trust him to and…" Elpe shook her head. "If it will make you more comfortable, I will say it. Please do come again some other time."

Well. I could think of several reasons why they'd want me to go all of a sudden, several of them which really shouldn't be spoken of in public, but I could see where I wasn't wanted. Of course, without concrete evidence, I couldn't say anything, but what I was sure of was that I still had a tic just under my eye when I left the tower gardens.

The white mynahs were back, perched on the feeders and branches, and every single one the stocky little things looked up and stared as I passed, like a flock of birds sizing up a lone predator.

"Go screw yourselves," I told them, and didn't even notice Kale had landed on my shoulder until I was more than halfway back to town and the tower itself was just a line in the distance.

"Angry much, chum?"

"Figured it all out, have you?"

"Nah, you're just boiling over. Why get so worked up? It's her home, after all, and you were asking questions you don't ask the first time you meet someone."

He was right. Why was I so worked up? No, I'd have known if someone was messing with my mind like a saker, and even if someone was good enough to escape my notice, they probably wouldn't have gotten past Kale. No, it's wasn't anger, but…

"You're right," I told Kale. "And sorry about having to ask you to take a bath back there. I didn't want to cut you out of the fun, but you were really unsettling that poor girl."

Kale pecked at my hair. "It's all right. I forgive you."

"Either way, it doesn't make sense. The way Elpe behaves, most people like her would end up in an institution or something for the mentally simple. That's not it, though. Most people have history. Relatives. Where they came from, that sort of thing. If she's really that fragile, how does she make a living? What does she do, anyway? Even if Brodik is helping her out of the goodness of his heart, I'm still not sure if that's enough. And if she's not…why bother to pretend?"

"Eh, chum. I just have one thing to say."

"Yeah?"

"Make up your bloody mind whether you want to get involved with this nonsense, 'kay? If you ask me, I just want to have a nice relaxing time, but if you want to go poking around, make sure you're going to do it properly and save poor old me from getting killed, even if you couldn't care less about yourself. Either do or don't." He fluffed himself up. "So there."

I drew in a breath and looked down at my boots for a moment, then pulled my cloak tighter about me. "You know what? I think I will."

"Goodness, you actually enjoy your job? And here I was, thinking you only did it because you weren't capable of holding down proper employment."

"Oh, quiet you."

The Green Tower

Chapter 5

"Really, I don't know what you see in fishing; there's just so much waiting. Heck, I could snatch them up with my bare hands if they came close enough."

Kale flapped up and perched on the base of the fishing rod, set securely in the holder, and eyed the fairly clear water that was fed into the lake by a small stream. The inn hadn't been shy about loaning me a rod--for a price, of course. I suppose everyone could always do with a bit more money.

"It's the suspense that does it, chum," he said. "Just like soaring, only with water. The wait. The luring of the unsuspecting victim. The final struggle once the trap has closed, in which the victor is decided. Oh, and bells." He tapped the bells on the rod with his beak, sending them ringing. "You had your fun. Now it's my turn."

"I don't remember you being an osprey. Well, at least I can see the bottom of the water for a change. All we ever caught back home were catfish." A lakeshore that wasn't a smeared mess of mud. How novel and wonderful, at least for me. Kale puttered over to the few fish we'd caught so far, simple trout and long, thick eels, and mantled himself over them with all the pride of a hill-king of old. Well, time to cast again--

"What's the matter?"

I tugged on the line. "It's stuck on something."

"What do you want me to do, help you pull when I don't even have opposable thumbs or even hands?"

I gritted my teeth. "Oh, I don't know, a bit of moral support would be nice, perhaps?"

"Oh, hurrah," Kale said in the most dreary monotone he could muster. "You go, chum." Still, he did make an effort to take up some of the burden; I might not have pulled any harder, but I certainly felt less tired doing it, and maybe you'll think me a bastard for it, but I was secretly hoping the line would snap. Selfish perhaps, when I look back on it, but there and then I was just trying to appreciate the lovely clear sky and mountain wildflowers and failing. I remember myself thinking maybe I should have stayed in Aerie; at the very least, they certainly do very good puddings in the capital.

I grunted, heaved--and saw what had been dragging down the line. A twisted hunk of metal, frayed, corroded wires coming out of its various ends. I wasn't quite sure what it had been under all that discolouration, but thick globs of glowing blue ooze still clung to it like moss on a rock. I mean, it could have been worse; the stuff might have been dripping as I towed it up onto the muddy lakeshore.

"You know," I said after a few moments of uneasy silence, "I wonder if there's more of that down there."

Kale scooted away from the fish. Not that I blamed him for it; I think it was a safe guess that we shared the same sentiments.

"Eh, chum. We're screwed, aren't we?"

"Please be quiet a moment, unless you have something to add. I need to think."

Kale was nice enough to shut up, and I concentrated for a second or so before giving the both of us a quick look-over. He looked fine enough and so was I, but the blue ooze was simply pulsating with pent-up magical energy. The fish and the lake seemed fine enough, too; as far as I knew those things, there didn't seem to be anything above background levels, but I could have been wrong.

Well, at least there was the small relief that it didn't seem to be catching, as with the carriage breakdown last morning.

Don't panic. Have a plan. It's a good idea, and I might have even continued doing it.

"Easier said than done, chum."

"Oh, quiet you."

It's not that hard to handle something that can potentially kill you; plenty of people do it all the time. You just need the right equipment. Alchemists use shatter and heat-resistant glass for their apparatus, sometimes goggles and masks if fumes are involved. Sorcerers have wards to hopefully stop the worst from happening. Machinists and engineers have thick work gloves and other safety equipment. Worst comes to worst, you build an automaton, do the proper runic programming, and it will wade through seas of fire if need be. Of course, everyone needs a healthy dose of common sense, which is better than any protective equipment you can get.

I could have picked up the ooze and probably gotten out of it unharmed; thanks to Kale, I've caught, picked up or otherwise taken in hand all sorts of things from energy blasts to songbirds to flying crossbow bolts. No, the problem with the ooze wasn't picking it up, not when I usually rip lock spells straight off doors in the course of jobs. It was where to put it. Back into the lake was out of the question.

"Hey, why'd you think the gunk hasn't vanished?"

"Beats me, I'm not a sorcerer. Maybe the water preserved it or something. We've got to get this to the watch. How, though, is another matter."

"Well, you could always ask that Brodik guy for help. Didn't he help the watchmen clean up that mess yesterday?"

"I don't know. I didn't hang around to see."

"Well, I did. After we get this settled, though, I think we should call in a proper sorcerer to take a look at this."

I eyed the ooze-coated metal. So far, it hadn't tried to eat the two of us, which is always a good thing. "You're not thinking of--"

"I am, chum."

#

A facilitator's job is so much easier when one has friends. Well, friends in the common meaning of the word are best, but in the absence of those contacts or people whom owe you favours are good enough. The Emperor has spies, the watch has informers, and facilitators have friends.

A client almost always won't have sufficient information on a target for you to do even a minimally satisfactory job, and besides, you can't have enough of it. Regardless of what you're aiming for, more information means better planning, and that means you're more likely to succeed.

And what better way to do that than friends? You give some, you take some, and you get as much as you put in. That's the way the world works. Well, my part of the world, at least. You want to lay your hands on some rather illegal plants or the floor plans of someone's house? If you've chosen your friends wisely, chances are a friend of a friend will be in the know, or can at least point you in the right direction. One of the last things old Mistress Yarrick did before cutting me loose was to introduce me to some of the people whom I'd need to know--mostly informers--and after I'd started working proper, I've had the opportunity to meet new people.

The Aranians say that no hill stands alone; that there's always a range. I don't subscribe to very much of the philosophy that comes out of that province, but I will say that no matter how much you try, you can't know it all, and it's always good to have people in the know at your fingertips.

Heck, even better if you can get them interested in the job; after all, giving the hired help a personal stake in the outcome usually makes things smoother.

I mean, I should know.

#

"Hmm. Looks nasty." Brodik circled the ooze-covered metal in a half-crouch, as if he was ready to spring on it any moment. Then again, I doubted he could make any sudden movements; in addition to his usual outfit, he'd donned a faceplate complete with goggles on the front, and heavy, elbow-length gloves lined with gleaming metal. Heck, I wouldn't have been surprised if he creaked when he moved. "You fished this out of the lake?"

"Yes." I felt Kale tense on my shoulder, and ran my fingers across his belly to calm him down.

"Thank goodness the lake's too far away from town to be used as a water source. Wouldn't want folks drinking the stuff."

"You sure you're well protected?"

"I'm a country machinist, miss, and a smallholder at that. Don't expect me to be able to afford a full-body spellsuit like the buggers working for the great Houses do."

Hmm. Interesting. Most people don't even know spellsuits exist. Well, it matched up with him having worked in a major city--and by extent probably for one of the great Houses. "Well, what're you going to do with it?"

"First off, I'm going to get this stuff scraped off at my workshop and hauled into containment. Some scrap parts can be dangerous, especially if they're damaged, so I throw them in--" Brodik made a thumbing motion over his shoulder-- "and there's this guy who comes in every week or so, buys my scrap and juices it for what little magic's left inside. I'm not sure how strong my setup will be, but it's probably safer than leaving this stuff out in the open."

"I don't know much about your line of work, but it sounds good to me. After, though--"

"Sister, if you want to hand it over to the watch or something, just say so. I'm not keeping this, and I don't think there's much of a market for glowing sludge. No future in it. Now…" he went back to his cart, which he'd parked a little way away, and brought out a small, dark cylinder under an arm and a very long pair of tongs, one handle in each hand. "I know you think it's not catching, miss, but would you mind stepping back just in case?"

Well, it wasn't an unreasonable request. I did so, and Brodik opened the cylinder. He levered the tongs into position, picked up the twisted hunk of metal--ooze and all--and slammed the lid down on it.

"That'll hold it." I couldn't see his face under the faceplate, but I could imagine his expression. "For now, that is."

"You mind if I catch a ride on your cart back to town?" I said and picked up the fishing rod, wondering if I should break it in half and stuff it in along with the ooze. "I've got to make a report with the Watch as soon as possible."

"Nope, milady. Hop on."

"Was that me, chum, or did he manage to sound respectful and utterly contemptuous at the same time?"

"Hmm…close. But it's probably you, my dear little falcon."

I hopped on, Brodik started the cart's engine and pushed up his faceplate, and we were off. Most carts don't do very well off the official empire roads, but Brodik clearly knew his stuff; his cart trundled across the grass and bumpy ground without much problem. Must have been good advertising for his services.

"So, with you and Elpe yesterday--"

"It isn't that way," Brodik snapped.

Kale giggled. "Oh, really."

"I didn't say anything."

"You don't need to say anything," Brodik said, and grunted as he turned onto the road leading in to town. "I know what you're thinking."

"Can he do it, chum? Can he really read your mind?"

"Eh, I don't see a saker anywhere near him."

"Everyone used to think the same way," Brodik continued. "I'm not going to pretend that I'm helping Elpe purely out of the sheer goodness of my heart. But someone has to do something, all right?"

"You'd be better off getting her professional help."

"She can't leave the tower. Not for very long."

"There are ways of convincing--"

"Listen to me closely, mil--miss. I didn't say that Elpe didn't want to leave the tower, although that's true, too. I said that she can't leave the tower. Look, you're not a local and hence I can forgive you for being curious. I mean, I'd also feel that something was out of place if there was this little waif of a young woman living all alone in the hills with a sad middle-aged bastard being the only person who even cares that she exists.

"Elpe is happy where she is, she can take care of herself even if I vanished tomorrow, and she likes to be alone when she has her tea and biscuits." It sounded like a rehearsed speech, and maybe it was, for he fell silent for the next few seconds. "It would be good for her if she had a few more friends, but I'm not quite sure you should be one of them."

"What do you mean?"

"I meant what I said. I don't mince my words, sister, especially since tongue-cutting's been gone for a long time. Enjoy your stay, take in the wonderful scenery--that's one of the reasons I moved here--but if you can't be bothered to learn about local issues, don't bother going around taking shots at them." Brodik shook his head, faceplate and all. "Yes, I'm a horrible, evil monster, keeping a frail, helpless young woman locked up in the middle of nowhere against her will, and also taking advantage of her on a daily basis because I'm such an evil man. If all falconers were like you, no wonder I got fired from my previous job. You know what? That was probably it. I'm such a horrible monster that I came out here during business hours to do a civic duty free of charge, by someone who thinks she knows better."

The cart trundled on in silence for a few more milestones. I noticed Brodik's hands gripping the cart's steering handle tightly, perhaps a bit too tightly.

"Wow, chum. That was just…"

"Think he's protesting a little too hard? Thought that speech through just a little too well?"

"You know, there are some people who'd say that the more people deny something, the more likely they're guilty, eh?"

"I don't know," I said. "Really haven't got evidence on this one. He was right about that, at least. But if he's implicated, I think we just put him on his guard."

"Eh, not as if you've never managed to find a way around that."

Kale was right. It wasn't as if I'd never found a way around these problems. "You all right there?"

"What?"

"Was it the fish? You didn't eat any of it, so you should be fine."

Kale fluffed himself up indignantly. "I'm perfectly fine, chum."

"What was that about people denying things again?"

Kale just made a rude noise in my mind, although it did seem a little half-hearted. Well, I wouldn't press him if he didn't want to be.

"Look, I'm sorry," I told Brodik. "But even you admit that the whole business is a little odd, when you think about it."

Brodik didn't even look back at me. "What have we come to, that helping others is suspicious? You know what? I've got a bit of time; I'll take you straight to the watch house. They'll probably want my statement as well anyway."

Now that was an evasion if I ever heard one.

The Green Tower

Chapter 6

As I'd suspected, Barajov didn't have its own watch house. Instead, Brodik drove us to a nearby city--Mihalov, which is a reasonable name for a place in the old country--where the watchmen who'd attended to the carriage case the other day had come from, and all of us had a jolly good time getting down our statements.

"And that's all, milady?" the watchman said, taking great care to retrieve his pen after I'd signed my name on the statement. I don't know, he seemed a little disappointed that I didn't have a seal or something to stamp on his paper. Well, he'd have to settle for a surname. At least not everyone has that.

"Yes. That's all."

"And you, Mr. Brodik? Nothing else to add?"

"No."

I tapped the tall, dark canister. "What's going to happen to this, anyway?"

The watchman just looked very, very tired and shrugged. "Beats me, milady. I'm a watchman, not a sorcerer. I can tell you the name of every street in this city, every small village within this locality and most of the known troublemakers, but I can't do more than keep the rats out of my house or light a candle."

I tried very, very hard not to raise an eyebrow, and failed. "So…"

"So we'll send it to the lab, and when the results come back and all, if they want us to nick someone, we'll go out and do it. I wouldn't hold out hope for it, though; the Imperial authorities have been rather busy with something, although they're not telling us what."

Brodik clenched his fists. He didn't have to say anything; from the very way he stood, from the set of his lips and brows I could tell what was going on in his mind: this is unacceptable.

And frankly, I agreed with him. I know everyone thinks their own interests are the most pressing concern in the whole world, but…well, you'd imagine corrosive magical ooze turning up out of nowhere would at least spark a little interest. At least when some two-bit idiot lights a candle wrong everyone knows who to point fingers at when the ashes have settled.

"Gee, chum, so I'm a saker now?"

"Who knows, you could have a bit of saker blood in you."

"Oh, I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy inside."

"Will we have access to the evidence?"

The watchmen scratched his head. "I guess so, if you've got the proper authorisation. There's enough of this stuff that we don't need to send all of it off."

"Oh, I know where to get the proper authorisation. Or at least, who to call." I turned back to Brodik, who hadn't so much as twitched. "It's all right," I said a little more softly. "We'll find a way around this. There's always a way around this."

Slowly, Brodik turned. For a moment I thought he was going to hit me and Kale tensed on my shoulder, ready to leap and tear, but he just turned on the watchman and didn't stop walking till we were back outside the watch house, where he'd parked his cart.

"You'd think that as an officer of Imperial law, they'd have more concern for people's lives," he said through his teeth. "Nobody cares when you try to tell them anything."

"Look, I know where you're coming from, but what did you expect the watchmen to do? Heck, the plaster on the walls was cracking, and they were watching even the pens and ink. How much money do you think House Doskar allots them?"

Brodik clenched his fists so hard the calluses on this knuckles turned white, and he slowly let them go. "You know, you're right; I just lost it for a moment there. They aren't really to blame. We should blame the great Houses instead; they're the ones responsible for this mess. Are you coming back to Barajov with me?"

"No, I have to send a message to a friend who might be able to help. This place has a saker's services, right?"

"Yes."

"Good. Would you mind taking me there? I'll be fine from there."

So yeah. Brodik drove me down a few more streets, and I got off in front of a sending station. Thankfully, it was still open, and I went in and had a message sent. No matter how many times I do this, and yes, I know that some people let others into their heads on a daily basis like some sort of factory, but I'm not a hired messenger. I still don't feel comfortable, even if sakers aren't supposed to go any deeper than that, and I know Kale would notice if someone managed to get by without me noticing.

It's just…unsettling, if I may say so.

"We're going to see her again, chum," Kale said as we left. "We're going to see her again!"

"You mean, you're going see that little bird again."

"Well, yeah." He preened himself absent-mindedly. "I've got to look good for the occasion."

"You always look good."

"Aw, shucks."

#

Back in the Dysis where I come from, there's a story about a little girl who was prophesised to be chieftain, and that something really bad would happen if she wasn't. From the first day of the poor sop's life she was being prepared by everyone to be the best lady chieftain she could be, because frankly no one wants an idiot running the show and back then people were too unsophisticated to understand the meaning of "figurehead" and "puppet". Heck, even her name was changed to "chief" or some ancient variant thereof-- after all, this was supposed to be in the dark old days before the rise of the Empire.

As it turned out, the poor kid was horribly unsuited to do leading of any sort. Not for lack of trying, or so the story goes, but she just didn't have the guts or smarts or whatever it took to be an effective chieftain back in those days. At least she could admit that she wasn't cut out for it, unlike all the idiot third or fourth sons and daughters of great Houses drifting aimlessly in middle-upper management. But all this while, she'd been raised with this one goal in mind, even had her name be her destined occupation, and no matter how she tried things just didn't work out and she felt responsible for the messes she made, especially since what she really wanted to do was be a baker--

--I don't quite remember how the story ends, but it can't have been good. Why I wanted to bring this up, though, is how I've noticed falconers never seem to have this problem. Sakers are too valuable to be wasted, so every one of them is slated for the telepathic service, even if it's just to relay messages--and believe me, that is one of the things holding the Empire together. Gyrs don't mind any job, so long as it involves beating people up. Lanners tend to drift into business. As for myself--maybe I could have ended up as a throwball player, or a particularly vicious entertainer. I know Kale would enjoy that last one.

Oh, there're plenty of types of sorcerers, for example, with some working in energy and others in theoretical alchemy and still others in applied mechanics, but at the end of the day they're all sorcerers. Come to think of it, even when I was working my way through the Book of Annals when I was younger, I'd never come across anyone who'd ended up in the same situation at that poor chieftain girl. Which brings us back to the question of whether it's the matter of the falcon picking out the right person, or the person being changed by being picked out. Or a little of both.

Excuse me, all this philosophizing makes me thirsty. Now where were we?

I know, it's sort of strange to have your future decided this way, especially when the ordinary folk of the Empire have to actually think about what they're going to do with the rest of their lives when they come of age. But it works, the Empire putters along with business as usual, and no falconer has really ever experienced a sudden need to do something drastically different. Although I must say that mongrels aside, the fact that most falconers are also of one House or another should be counted for something.

It's just something to think about, you know?

#

I was hungry. One should not be hungry while on vacation, even a working one, and I stepped into the nearest restaurant to have a good meal; after all, it was only mid-afternoon, the ride back to Barajov wasn't going to be too long. If people wanted to stare at a woman with a falcon on her shoulder and fishing rod in hand--well, I would let them. I found a booth, a menu, and if the waiter was slightly surprised at me ordering raw chicken breast for Kale, I wasn't going to blame the poor sop. I'd just finished the small plate of boiled greens in spicy sauce they'd served as an appetiser when I felt something poking at the fore of my mind. It wasn't trying to get in, but more of letting me know it was there. Like the difference between grabbing someone by the shoulder and giving them a tap there, if you get me.

Kale looked up from his chicken. "Chum--"

"Yeah, I felt it." The sensation was trying to tell me something, and I think I knew what it was saying. There was this distinctive feel of personality, of smugness barely held in check it was hard to mistake for anyone or anything else. "Arus?"

"Lianne? Good thing you opened up. The sakers charge so much for direct communication--"

"And you're still wasting time blathering?"

"--But I'm on Imperial business. Well, technically. In any case, I'm paying nothing. Look, about the message you sent me, it wasn't the sort of thing I was expecting from having sent you on holiday…"

"Being what I am isn't something I can just wash out. In any case, I'd like you to come down, if possible. You can translocate, teleport, whatever you want to call it, right?"

"Yes, but--"

"What?"

"Why me?"

The waiter chose this moment to come back with a steaming bowl of noodles, and I took a few seconds to savour the fragrance wafting up from the broth before giving my reply."Because you're the only sorcerer who would actually be interested enough to do it for free. All the others I know would wonder what's in it for them. I mean, I was thinking of who to sucker, and well, if someone was willing to technically commit treason for the good of mankind, who better to ask for a favour, especially if chances were he'd be interested of his own accord?"

Silence for several moments while I sampled the boiled meat dumplings on the noodles. Could have done with a bit more salt. At least, Arus managed to find his mental tongue again. "Lianne, knowing you, you're quite insane to be this honest."

"My dear Arus, as a sane man, you are badly outnumbered in this poor, sad world of ours. Might I suggest you join us voluntarily before you're dragged over anyway, kicking and screaming every step?"

More silence. "I'll come,"Arus said at last. "But you'll have to give me say, a day or so to get matters sorted. This looks serious; at the very least, I'll have to pass the details along to both the Empire and a few other sorcerers, let them know where I'm going, what to do in case I mysteriously disappear, that sort of thing. It'll take a bit longer to have my equipment sent over, but there are benefits to being the son of a head of House, even if it's a small border House at the feet of the Roof of the World."

"A day or two? That quickly? Well, that's even better than what I was expecting."

A tinge of sadness, or at least, I think it was that. "You know, it's hard for a traitor to find proper work. Even a pardoned one. I'm still living off the stipend the Empire's giving me for assistance in theahfollow up of that austringer business. Maybe I should just take the plunge and apply to be an imperial investigator."

"Bravo, my dear Arus. What a speedy enlistment into the ranks of the insane, demented and people too nosy for their own good. We definitely hope you'll enjoy your stay with us."

There was what could only be described as a mental snort. "You're staying at the Lucksday, aren't you?"

"Well, it would be quite rude for me to follow up on my friend's suggestion of a holiday and not trust his choice of accommodation."

"All right. Don't go anywhere; I'll see you there tomorrow or the day after." The mental link cut off, and the tingling sensation at the fore of my mind withdrew itself. Kale, who'd been applying himself prodigiously to his cut chicken breast, looked up smugly.

"Ooh, I'm going to see her again, chum. Got to make myself look all pretty."

"Really, I don't know what you see in that little moon falcon," I told Kale, feeling his crop to make sure he hadn't overeaten. I know, I shouldn't have to baby him like that, he's all grown up now and all that nonsense, but you can consider that the next time you see someone lying in a back alley in a puddle of his or her own vomit.

"What do you mean?"

"What I meant is that--well, let's start from the basics. What do you and her have in common, hmm? All right, let's make this easier: is there anything you and Alyssnd like to do together?"

"We like to fly and we like to hunt, even if she prefers mice."

"You might as well say all humans are suitable for each other because they eat and shit. Doesn't count, my dear friend."

Kale made as if to rap me on the knuckles with his beak, and thought better of it at the last moment. Oddly enough, feeling pain you cause to someone else makes one a lot less inclined to solving problems relating to that particular person through violence. "Why are we bringing up my love life, anyway?"

"Hey, you were the one who started it."

That shut him up--albeit with more than a little skulking--and I finished the rest of my noodles. Very good egg broth they were serving, I'll say. The best food you don't find in fancy and horribly expensive restaurants, but in small establishments like these. When I was sure Kale wasn't going to foot me out of sheer spite, I levered him onto my arm, paid for the meal and left.

There were a couple of white mynahs on an awning outside the restaurant, but they fluttered away as we approached.

The Green Tower

Chapter 7

I woke up cold, and it was a second or two before I remembered that yes, I was on vacation somewhere, and the chilly air was very definitely not because I was sinking to the bottom of a lake with weights tied to my feet, locked up inside a cold cellar to freeze to death, or something equally nasty on those lines. I know it sounds rather stupid to someone who's not in the business, but this sort of panic has saved my life on more than one occasion, even if I'll admit it was a bit misplaced there and then.

Kale, who'd found a nice spot on my belly to nestle down on, merely murmured into my head and shifted in his sleep.

"Come on, lazybones. Wake up."

He didn't bring out his head from under his wing. "Mm."

"Come on, we can't have fun if you're going to sleep away the whole day."

"Gee, chum, what's the point of a holiday if you aren't allowed to sleep in? We've been waking up on time for the last fifteen years; what's one day when we're supposed to be taking it easy?"

"One day too many," I told him. "Come on."

I drew a basin of water for myself and another one for Kale, and took a few moments to change my outfit and freshen up before the two of us headed down for breakfast. The first thing I saw in the common room was a huge rack of yellowed, smoked fish turning slowly above a heater, right in front of the wheat porridge and hard-boiled eggs.

Kale winced, coughed and hacked up a good-sized pellet of matted feathers from his crop. I almost didn't feel like having breakfast. Almost. Porridge. Porridge was good and bland. I'd almost finished half the bowl when I managed to convince myself that no, my porridge wasn't going to suddenly turn into blue sludge. And to think I used to put my sister off her food by claiming that the fish paste was actually mud with a bit of the real stuff in there for flavour.

No, no airship crashes, no seas of corrosive ooze lurking at the bottom of lakes, in engines and on the underside of carriages. Just happiness, peace and porridge all around.

"I'm hungry, chum."

"You're still a bit too heavy, by the feel of you. You know why you have to let your weight drop a bit before eating again. I don't want to have to tell you."

"Yeah, but watching and feeling you eat isn't helping any, either."

"I doubt it can ever be."

I looked up from my porridge, and spotted Brodik. He looked a lot more human now that he wasn't wearing his faceplate, and that was good, considering he was making a beeline for me through the breakfast crowd. No one wants to be seen with a mashup between an automaton and something more fleshy. It causes talk.

He stopped at the edge of my table and stared. "Miss."

"Yes?"

"I was just thinking that since you didn't get the best of welcomes two days ago, you might want to come along with me to the tower today. Today's my off day; I'm not opening shop."

"Huh. With all this traffic coming through town, you'd think you'd lose business."

He shrugged. "Money's not everything, and it's hard for a smallholder to get an apprentice to run the shop when he or she's away; best and the brightest are all going off the to city. Besides, one can't work everyday or one'll go crazy."

"Did you hear that? That man speaks truth."

"Oh, quiet you." I pushed away my empty bowl and looked up at Brodik. "What's the catch?"

"Catch?" He frowned at me, and shrugged. "Well, I wouldn't mind an extra pair of hands to help load the cart and unload it at the tower. Is that good enough for you, or do I have to admit I'm secretly planning to knock out a doubtlessly filthy rich falconer, steal all your falcons and quills and dump you into the lake with weights on your feet?"

I smiled. "Ah, a man after my own heart. All right, let me confer with Kale for a moment."

"What's there to confer about, chum? We've seen pretty hills rolling with wildflowers and lakes with nasty shit down at the bottom. Unless you had something equally enriching and life-shaping planned out today?"

"Well, I just thought you might want to have a say instead of me making the decisions all the time. After all, you do have a good idea every so often."

"Flattered, chum. But no, I don't mind. I still want to find out how those little white birds taste. They look so pristine."

"Like the bottled mountain spring water they serve at fancy restaurants?"

"Sorta."

"Let me tell you, if they taste anything like that water, you don't even want to try."

Brodik had turned away and was watching me out of the corner of his vision, the way people do when they think they're being sneaky and very definitely not looking at the person in particular. It's not as uncommon as you might think. I held out my arm and Kale hopped on, then got to my feet.

"Do excuse me," I said. "He tends to get a little long-winded and tiresome."

"I resent that."

"Hmm." Brodik said it thoughtfully, as if I'd asked him to…eh…recommend me a set of good, long-lasting wheels for a cart or something. You know, the way I feel when I'm trying to break into a building and trying to figure out which way would be best to go about it.

"Oh, just so you know, I've managed to contact a sorcerer who's shown interest in our little problem, one with connections to the Imperial investigators, if only weak ones. He'll arrive in a few days, and I think he'll want to speak to you."

Brodik just nodded. I don't know, I'd have expected more of a reaction considering most times people actually get close to a sorcerer is maybe when they're setting up a new home and need fresh wards and spells about the place, but he seemed to take it pretty calmly. "Good that someone who can do something is actually taking an interest. Too many worrisome matters can get lost in the shuffle, especially in the rural parts. Who knows, maybe we'll get something good out of this mess, but I wouldn't hold off moulting for Aerie to start twisting House Doskar into shape." He looked around, then held out a hand. "Shall we go, Miss? My cart is waiting in the courtyard."

"But of course."

#

When we talk about the great Houses, I'm not so sure why they insist on being called "great", because frankly, some of them aren't. Perhaps a better and more accurate term would be "old", because that's what they are--the great Houses are the remnants of the local royals and chieftains that existed before the formation of the Empire, the native falconers of the land. Oh, they wanted power; they just thought too small as opposed to Aerie, which thought big. In the end, the grander dream won over petty concerns, and here we are today with the wonders of a unified writing system, proper sanitation and regularly spaced streets.

Compare this to the lesser Houses, which only came to power within the last five hundred years or so, taking advantage of the stability and prosperity of the Empire to expand their fortunes and in many cases, literally buy their way into power. The caretakers in their towers like to think they're incorruptible, and to be honest the Emperor does take a personal interest in their integrity, but there have been times in which a modestly large pile of gold falcons can open doors, and well, to use the old adage, no saker is wasted. To take a more legitimate route, though, Emperors in the past have also ennobled various individuals for great services to the Empire, and that's where most of the lesser Houses got their start. Yes, I know, falcons can't be forced to pick someone, but things do happen, so…

The great Houses claim the lesser Houses are fresh-faced upstarts getting into things they shouldn't, lacking the legitimacy of the first accords of the Empire. The lesser Houses, on the other hand, claim the great Houses are ancient relics that kept the Empire stagnant for its first few hundred years and of course, are just jealous that the peons can do just fine for themselves, given the chance. If you ask me, it doesn't really matter. Lesser or greater House, in the end they're all the same. Anyone who's seen wild eyasses in the nest fighting and stealing food from each other while starving out their lesser siblings and leaving them to die of cold and hunger shouldn't really be surprised at how the Houses of the Empire conduct themselves, especially when they think the Emperor's not watching. Falcons are what they are, and that means work for Kale and me. Have some more rice wine? No? Well, don't mind if I do.

Believe me, a facilitator's work is preferable to a House war. At least most of my jobs are restricted to the immediate families of the Heads of House, or at the very least, fewer people die, have their homes burned down, or are dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night and sent to goodness-knows-where to die for a lord or lady they've probably never seen in their whole lives.

Yeah, take it from me. Houses? Different feathers, same bird.

#

Brodik stopped his cart not too far away from his home. Well, the part he lived in was dwarfed by the workshop connected to it, but I wasn't really surprised. Most of a machinist's tools of the trade tends to be bulky; I've broken enough of them to know.

"Would you mind waiting outside? There's something I need to get to Elpe, and--" he stopped in front of the back door, and stared. It was open, and almost certainly had been deliberately left that way.

Uh-oh. Kale ruffled his feathers, and his grip on the leather of my shoulder pads tightened ever so slightly.

"Brodik?" I said, getting out of the cart and stepping towards him. "Brodik?"

"Lianne," he managed to say, his voice slightly strangled. "Come and take a look at this."

So I did. Brodik's place had been trashed--not sabotaged, but trashed, as you might expect from a couple of toughs paid for by a handful of copper feathers. You know, the sort of damage you might expect from someone intending to send a warning, rather than cause critical damage. Shelves swept clean, workbenches upturned, wires pulled, not so much breaking as a mess-up. And if it couldn't get any more painfully obvious, someone had scrawled "progress" on a wall in black sooty stuff.

I knew it could be worse, had seen worse, but still, could understand why Brodik was so upset. I'd be mighty pissed off too if someone went into my chambers back in House Escobar and messed up my kitchen and alchemy stuff.

I stepped forward. "Brodik?"

"Eh, you'd better be careful, chum. I've read books; this is when the guy gets all quietly angry and then swears to take revenge on the bastards."

"Books? When did you ever start reading?"

"When you did." He said it as if it explained everything. "Duh. You just remember less than I do."

"Don't be silly." Another step closer. "Brodik?"

"It's all right," Brodik said quietly, and stepped over a twisted wheel and into the workshop, clearing a path through the debris with his heavy boots towards a door in the far wall. "I'll clean this up when I get back."

"Seems like a bit, though. You sure--"

"When I moved to Barajov, I only had two things with me: my hands and my word. I'm going to break neither, because they're all that've been keeping me going all this while. Would you mind taking a step in, Miss? The stuff's in the back."

"The predator lures its unsuspecting victim into a hole with only one exit, otherwise known as a 'trap'--"

"Quiet, you." As soon as my eyes had adjusted to the dimness inside, I had to pick my way by puddles of spilt oil and paint and scattered machine parts, some trampled beyond usefulness, others just a bit more resilient to have survived a trashing. That I could stand, but the stink of machine oil was another. The door led to Brodik's living quarters, which had been comparatively untouched, and he motioned me in before he opened a closet and drew out a large cardboard box.

"There's one more in there," he said, thumbing in the direction of the closet before he took the box in both hands. "Would you mind helping me shift it out to the cart? Try not to slip on anything on your way out."

"For someone who's just had his place broken into and trashed, you're pretty calm."

Brodik let his shoulders sag just a little. "What would be the point in getting all worked up? I'll just come back a little earlier than planned and clean up, and it'll be business as usual…tomorrow…"

"You know, chum, I think someone's trying to tell himself a lie."

"And you're probably right. We'll deal with it outside." The box Brodik had pointed out wasn't too heavy, but I wasn't sure what was under that long, flowing dress on top. It felt light and dare I say, a bit feathery, like Kale's tummy when he's feeling more genial. Brodik mustn't have felt too good about buying that.

I caught up with Brodik outside. "For her?"

He nodded, and I noticed that he now had a thick, angry-looking wand handing from his belt. I didn't blame him. Once, I was caught without so much as my cutlery on my person. Trust me, it didn't happen again.

"You should contact the Watch," I said as I loaded the cart. "Maybe tell them that--"

"And what are they going to do? Post a guard on my house and workshop? Actually go out and apprehend the perpetrators?" Brodik shook his head and tapped the wand at his side. "No. I don't blame the watchmen, considering how poor they are. That's what you get when you make something report directly to Imperial authority but still force the Houses to fund them; there's this temptation to not care and do the least they can get away with. What that means, though, is that people have to watch out for themselves out here. Oh, I'll make a report all right, but as to whether they'll do anything about it--I'm sure you can entertain Elpe for one afternoon while I head back to town, can't you?"

I wasn't too sure of that, but really, what did you expect me to say? No? "Sure. Not to pry, but…you don't like the Houses much, do you?"

Brodik started the engine. "Just a few. The rest are fine. Just a few."

The Green Tower

Chapter 8

The birds didn't fly away this time. Instead, they watched Kale and I closely from their perches and nooks, the stocky little things stopping what they were doing and pulling together, as if unsure whether to charge or scatter. A potential chain reaction, if you want to put it that way.

At that time, though, I had more pressing concerns on my mind.

"You know, I think there's more going on than what Brodik is letting on. Or at least, more than what we originally were giving him credit for."

"Think he's trying to set us up, chum?"

"No, but with all that's happened, added to just now…I didn't say that he was setting us up; there's not enough evidence for that. But one way or another, he was clearly expecting his place to be trashed, even if he didn't do it to throw us off--but what do we have to be thrown off, anyway?"

Kale was silent for a while as the cart rolled through the gate and into the tower gardens. "You know, that's a very good question. So what do you want us to do, ask him?"

"Maybe."

"You do know I was being sarcastic, right?"

"Yeah." Brodik had stopped the cart by the tower entrance and was coming around to the back. "We'll talk about it again later. For now…let's just watch him."

"Would you mind helping me carry these in, Miss?"

"Uh. Yeah. Sure." Even though I had my back to them, I still felt the collective gaze of each and every one of the mynahs in the garden as I lugged in the cardboard box after Brodik, and I'm quite sure Kale felt it, too. They weren't singing, flapping or so much as fidgeting, just staring at us like a flock of small white statues until I entered the tower and shut the door after me, whereupon they resumed their squabbling.

"Those things give me the creeps, chum."

"Have you tried talking to them?"

"I have. They're not falcons or--" he chippered out loud at the very thought-- "even hawks. With as much brains as they have, you might as well try talking to a flowerpot."

"Well, if they're that bad, then--"

"That's exactly why they're creeping me out, chum. Flowerpots aren't supposed to stare at you like that. At least you can reason with most people. There's no way you can reason with a flowerpot. Heck, they aren't even supposed to stare."

"We should really get Arus to take a look at them as well," I told Kale as Brodik shut the door behind us with a grunt. "Can't have flying flowerpots creeping us out; who knows what they'll try to do next."

Kale didn't have time to say anything else, for Elpe came pattering--goodness, I never thought I'd have to actually use the word pattering when describing someone who isn't a hobby--down the stairs from the tower's second floor, and positively squealed when she saw the cardboard box in my arms.

"Brodik, you shouldn't have! I know I can't be making that much money for you to be able to afford this." She pulled out and unfolded the bundle of fabric on the top, and by every single one of Kale's feathers, it was a dress. To tell the truth, it wasn't too much different from the white, trailing one she had on at the moment, only it was tipped with black at the hems and ends of the sleeves. Maybe being raised by a man--no, a man with a bird who according to Kale, only spoke in words no longer than two syllables despite knowing much longer ones--has revoked my right to be fond of silly clothing, but seriously, I really couldn't tell the difference. Or maybe it's my job; for obvious reasons, we don't get to wear gaudy apparel very often.

Elpe stroked the fabric between a thumb and a forefinger. "It's so warm. So comfortable. Like a second skin." She leaned forward and hugged Brodik, who was trying very hard to look impassionate. "Thank you."

"Ugh, chum. I think I'm going to be sick."

"Can birds be sick?"

"Oh, if I can't I'm sure I can pass it along to you to do the honours for me. We're just old and cynical. Old and cynical, chum. Any regrets?"

"Nope."

I looked down at the box in my hands. Underneath the fabric lay several spell-globes, the not-quite-inexpensive sort a professional sorcerer might give you if you ordered a spell to take away or he or she couldn't be bothered to come down and set the spell in person. I could see they were charged, yes, but what was inside could have been anything from enough energy to flatten the tower to simple cantrips to keep the place warm what it was cold and cool when it was hot.

"Excuse me a moment," Brodik said, carefully disentangling himself from Elpe's embrace, as if worried he might break her in the process. "I have some business to attend to at home. Lianne, would you mind keeping Elpe company for the afternoon? I was planning to, but…you know." He shrugged.

"Of course."

"That's simply wonderful!" Maybe it's just me or a result of being exposed to Kale for so long, but I don't like it when people grab me by the arm and try to pull me somewhere. Not even mindless, waifish young women. "I'll show you where to put all this, Lianne, and then I'll get out the tea."

"Kale? You know, I think--Kale?"

He wasn't answering. I turned to look at him on my shoulder, and he'd gone stiff staring at Elpe's back. Wait, not stiff, but rather, tense, like a piece of rubber stretched to breaking--

Thoughts wafted over to my mind as I climbed the tower steps.

Hunger. Food. Prey.

Her?

"Kale!"

"What's the matter? I was just a bit hungry. There's no crime in being a bit hungry."

"There is, if you're intent on eating a grown woman."

"Wait, what?" Kale began, but Elpe was already standing by my side and fussing over him.

"Look at your falcon, he's such a cute little thing when he's all cleaned up! I can't believe I was so scared of him when we first met! How often do you have to feed him?"

"Excuse me, but he's a falcon, not a toy."

"Oh, I'm so sorry! He's so lovable, though. Please put the globes by the counter over there--" she pointed in its direction-- "and we can sort it out later after tea. I like talking to people so much; Brodik tells me the most fascinating things, but I can only go so far from home before I feel really ill--oh, do excuse me, the tea won't brew itself."

I looked around the small kitchen. Not a bad place, actually; it reminded me of my own back in House Escobar. Stove, small oven, ventilation that went out the tower's side and a lovely set of folding chairs and table…quite cosy, actually, if you were inclined to be that way. I wasn't.

"Kale, what happened just now?"

"I…I don't know." Heck, I could feel the confusion in his head, a bubbling, seething mass of jumbled red lines. "I shouldn't have…"

"Don't mess up your coat all over it. I was just wondering."

"It's just strange. Maybe it's all those songbirds outside making me hungry."

The heavy smell of tea brewing came to my nose, and I let myself relax just a little. "Yeah. Maybe."Elpe came over with a steaming teapot, and I watched carefully as she poured out two cups and took a seat across me.

"I've never met a falconer before," she chirped happily, and sipped at her tea. "They don't come out all the way here these days."

"Not all falconers are rich and powerful," I said. "There're always the fifth sons and daughters of the smaller Houses who ended up being so-called surplus to requirements when they're no longer required as insurance if the heirs die off, and then we have mongrels--"

She ignored me. "Is it true you people wear masks and feathered robes at court? Why? Does it hurt when he grips your shoulder like that? How much does he eat every day? Don't he need his personal space every now and then? Does he sing? Do falcons build nests like some other birds do? I once saw--"

And by goodness, I answered her questions as much as I felt it was safe to. Let people feel as if they're getting a fair exchange, instead of being pumped. Make them feel as if they're the ones driving the conversation, and they'll willingly tell you more, if not what you want to know. Heck, Elpe didn't even notice I hadn't touched my tea. Or maybe she had, but just didn't care. Kale didn't say much, but that was probably because he was patiently taking down notes in his head about every single thing in the conversation. I do that, too, but sometimes either one of us makes a mistake and--enough about that for now, let's get back to the matter at hand. Now where was I?

"So your parents sold you as a bondservant to the House? That's horrid."

I fought the urge to wince. "Oh, I don't blame them. They were just trying to make the best out of a bad situation. Besides, I'd have to be executed otherwise. But what about your own parents?"

She frowned slightly, and sipped at her tea again. "I don't quite remember; it was so long ago. Would you like a biscuit? I went into town to get some; they're hand-made."

I looked down at the biscuits. They looked all right, I suppose, but after that bit with Kale I didn't feel quite hungry. "That's all right, I suppose. Your home is quite nice. I wouldn't mind having a place of my own like this--"

Elpe beamed.

"--But it has to be a bit problematic, living out here so far from people. I mean, it's not that far, but getting to and from town at this distance…what do you do for a living?"

"I sing."

"You sing?"

"Now that's something."

"Yes." Elpe pointed at the box of spell-globes in the corner. "Those are tuned to record my singing, and Brodik takes them when I'm done and sells the lot for me. I go out with him when I can, and he tells me I'm quite well-received around here." She sighed. "I'd love to go out and perform in front of people, but…"

"You're not well enough," I finished for her. Well. This was interesting, if not on the scale of matters I'd handled in the past. Still… "What do you sing, anyway? I'm not a music person, but I'm sure there has to be a style you favour. Classical? Tribal? Or maybe something on the lines of the slow, moving pieces from the seventh Kestrel Empress' reign?"

Elpe looked down at her delicate shoes for a moment and licked her lips, then turned back to me. "I've heard them all. They don't really appeal to me; I like to do things my own way. Although I've never had a real audience…"

"Well, I'm a falconer, for what it's worth, and I'd like to hear you sing, if you're willing."

Kale shifted his weight on my shoulder."Oh, do spare me. Are you sure you want to do this, chum? I mean, looking at her, she's probably going to launch into some sad song about how two people didn't get to screw each other and killed themselves out of love, or whatever passes for tragedy in these parts."

"Oh, quiet you. It's not as if you've got something better to do."

Elpe stood. She took a breath.

She sang.

I stared.

#

Ever since the first recorded instance of a ball of fluff seeking out some poor sop and demanding to be fed, sorcerers, philosophers and people in general have asked: why falcons? Even if it has to be a bird, why not, say, ducks, or crows, or even a swan? Heck, I know that last one can be more bloody-minded than Kale when he's moulting all over the place.

And the answer is? I don't know. Nobody knows. Recently we'd managed to find people outside the Empire--yes, there is a world outside the Empire, despite what your teachers told you in class--to whom hawks attached themselves to. There's another story in there, so I won't go into the details.

But back to the point. Plenty of people have tried to figure out this particular question, and no one's ever come up with any concrete evidence. It's sort of strange, the way we put so much effort into understanding every detail of, say, runic automation, and just accept the bond between falcon and falconer without so much as blinking. I guess I can understand that falconers have always been around and the Empire has had its own checks and balances to account for them since time immemorial, but maybe we're just compensating for the things we don't know by focusing like mad on the things we do know.

Me? Let's just say it's a mystery.

#

Elpe sang, if that was what she was doing, because it damn well didn't feel like singing. There were no lyrics, and my ears and head were arguing over what the heck they had just really heard. Oh, she went through the motions, but I'm quite sure that human vocals don't make the floor vibrate strongly enough to be felt through your boots. This was worse, it went all the way into my bones, rattled them hard, and wormed its way out again.

And it felt good.

No, seriously. Although I've never taken psychedelics, I've known people who have and they way they've described it to me pretty much describes what I felt. Well, not so much with the flashing lights and other hallucinations, but a sense of unearthly beauty. Of…well, I've never been one for it, but it felt like peace and happiness and sunshine and small furry animals. Well, maybe not the last one. That one's more food.

"That was the most horrible noise I've ever had the misfortune to come across, chum. Why're you staring at nothing like an idiot?"

"What?"

Kale helpfully brought the relevant thoughts to the fore of his mind, and I picked through them. No. What he'd heard wasn't what I'd heard, and yes, the screeching noise that played back in my mind was terrible. Someone was poisoning the pigeons, to use the saying.

I opened my eyes to find Elpe's face looming into mine. "Did you like it?"

"Oh, yes. It's very…moving." She turned her back to me, and I whispered a short spell under my breath while she wasn't looking.

The room exploded into colour before my eyes. So much magic, packed up tight into the tower's stone. It wasn't unstable or in fact, doing anything at all; it was just there, and even so it was enough to set my teeth on edge. No wonder the stones had thrummed as she'd sung; they could have torn themselves out of the wall and danced a little jig, and I really wouldn't have been surprised.

"More tea?" Elpe said, and smiled. I'm sure the smile was meant to be friendly, but there and then I was out of my depth, and that's saying something. The mynahs were there too, jostling for space in the open windows; stocky little white balls of feathers, their wings and tails tipped with black.

They were watching.

"Chum? I don't think I want to eat one of those any more. Let's get out of here."

I needed Arus. He'd be able to make sense of this--or at least, better than I could. I just kill people. In a creative yet professional manner, yes, but still.

"You know what?" I said to Elpe, slowly turning my head towards the staircase that led down, down and out of the tower. "I'm sorry, but I think I'll pass."

The Green Tower

Chapter 9

When I finally dragged my boots through the inn's door, I went straight up to my room, made sure the door was locked and collapsed onto the bed. Kale, who'd been silent the whole trip back from the tower, settled himself on my stomach and just lay there, a warm feathery ball against the chilly highland air.

Neither of us wanted to say anything. Neither of us needed to say anything. The last time I'd felt like this, I'd nearly died the day before. Well, maybe that feeling had been just a tiny bit stronger than this one, or maybe it was the other way around. It just scared me, to tell the truth. The whole tower did; the magic only came alive when Elpe sang.

But why? And what did it do, besides make a bunch of pretty colours only visible to anyone trying to look for it? People don't just put all that energy in one place for nothing.

Or do they?

Kale nestled against my stomach, and I laid back on my pillow and reached out to scratch his head. I'll never have children--too dangerous, even if I ever wanted to--but there and then, I could see the appeal. Bit by bit, the tangled lines of frustration in Kale's mind unravelled to reveal--

I pushed myself out of the bed with a groan; Kale started with a flap and a squawk. "Oh no. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'll go down and get you something right now."

"Don't bother, chum. I've lost all my appetite."

"Nonsense." I reached down to his neck and felt for his crop. It was empty. "Your pellet?"

"Coughed it out when you weren't looking. Look, don't bother. I really don't have any appetite any more, not after the way those flying flowerpots stared at us as if itching for a fight. Didn't your mother tell you not to eat anything that could stare back?"

"I'm not going to have anyone say I'm neglecting you, and you're not going to be impressing any ladies looking all skinny and haggard, so let's get you something to eat. If I let myself allow you to go hungry, next thing I know I'll be contemplating suicide."

"That's not funny," Kale said, but he deigned to flutter to my wrist anyway.

"That's how seriously I take it." I'd hoisted myself onto my feet and had just stepped out the door, though, when one of the messenger boys from the front desk came running up the corridor to me and bowed.

"Milady."

I brushed a few stray strands of hair from my brow. "What?"

"There's a young lord at the front desk. He wants to see--"

"Oh. Yes. That's right. Um, thank you. If you see him, tell him I'll be down shortly."

The boy bowed again, and scurried off to that mysterious place where messenger boys, butlers and road sweepers vanish to when they're not needed. "Well, if we're going to go down and see your lady love, we might as well have food to accompany the meeting. How about it?"

Kale just sighed into my mind. By the time I reached the inn's lobby, he seemed to be a little better, though, looking around the streams of people getting off their carriages and coming in the front entrance.

"Lianne! Here!" It wasn't hard to tell where the voice had come from; there was a small circle of empty space in the crowd, and people instinctively parted to let us through to it.

"By every single one of Kale's feathers, am I glad to see you, Arus." Back, straightened. Shoulders, squared. Nope. Not enough. Oh well, who cared if I looked haggard? I deserved it. Arus, of course, looked as prim and proper in his long-sleeved tunic and equally thick pants, as if he'd just crossed the street to get here. Considering how he'd planned to arrive, he'd probably only had to walk that far. His little moon falcon was as neat as her human was, and hid her little deep yellow stomach behind Kale's shoulder before peeking out and chippering angrily at Kale. They, as an Imperial courtier might say, have a history. It's not a pleasant one, at least for the poor little thing.

"How's Barajov?" Arus' eyes wandered over to my chest. "Have you been keeping in training?"

"Less enjoyable than I'd expected, and please. I'm on my first ever holiday." I reached out and gently pushed his chin upwards. "There's no need to stare like that. I'm not going to smother you this time around."

"You don't have enough in the way of--" He shut his eyes and shook his head. "Alyssnd was distraught after that last time you tried; she couldn't sit still for days and kept on wanting to display. Look. You asked me out here on business, not to air out grievances regarding your breasts. Shall we begin?"

I shrugged. "Sure. Let's find somewhere a little more suitable."

Which was how I found myself in a booth in the inn's diner, discussing matters over a large bowl of crisp mountain vegetables. The falcons got some raw dove--I sent the first serving back when they hadn't mixed in the feathers like I'd asked them to--and naturally, Arus got a earful from me as to everything that'd happened in the last few days.

"So," he said, "allow me to review the facts. Engines involving House Dorst's new energy converters have been mysteriously exploded by corrosive, magical ooze, which dissipates shortly after the damage has been done. Unless it has been immersed in water, that is. The locals are not too concerned, but a local machinist who has taken an interest in the matter has been disturbed by unknown people, and he is taking care of a young woman who is sitting on a pile of magical energy that would put most major generators to shame. Oh, and she sings."

I chewed on some greens. A bit bitter, but that was only to be expected. "Yeah, that's about the long and short of it. Was this place this horrible when you visited?"

"Interesting. And there I was, thinking you'd have a lovely time here with all the fields and food about, especially the local fish soup. Seems I was wrong." He fished about in the pockets of his tunic and brought out a pencil and small notepad, the cheap kind made from sticking pieces of paper together with glue. We'll go over this one more time, make out the known connections…"

#

I'm not a glutton. I merely like to enjoy my food, which is different. Yes, really, and that's why we're sitting in this small restaurant and not at some horribly overpriced place in Aerie where even water costs more than the meal we're eating now, because it's been lugged all the way from some disgusting remote mountain spring and is guaranteed to clean your palate or something on those lines. Besides, if I were a glutton, I wouldn't be able to do my job on account of being a fat blob.

I know that some "proper" falconers look down on commoner-bred mongrels that've been allowed to live, the term being "having been brought up in a wheat field". That, at least in my case is wrong; I didn't grow up in a wheat field. I grew up in a rice field; try to grow wheat in the Dysis and all you'll end up with is rotted seed. Well, at least it could have been worse; I could have grown up in a corn field, and that's just bad. Corn's just plain evil; don't let its mundane appearance fool you into a false sense of security.

But yes, before Kale arrived and I was sold to House Escobar, I grew up in a rice field. My family was lucky enough with both tithes and harvests that they managed to work what we had into passable meals for seven people, even if we didn't eat the same number every day and we had to mix sweet potatoes and tapioca into the porridge on a regular basis. Still, we did what we could; I do remember that we raised catfish in the rice paddies, that we caught crabs, eels and shellfish in the mangroves, and it helped. I'm glad to say I never starved--although I knew some people who did--and even so, hunger is a downright unpleasant feeling that you can't forget, not when it's the sort you can't cure by simply walking down the street and buying some fried bread or a warm sticky rice ball, depending on where you are in the Empire. It gets under your skin and into your bones, and I'm quite sure that no sane person would ever want to feel that again. I know I don't, and neither does Kale.

Even to this day, I don't like to see perfectly good food go to waste, and well, what's the harm in enjoying what you know you can stomach, be it the flavour or the nice, warm feeling of fullness you get from a good meal? Well, unless you're an Aranian, but people in that crazy province sleep on the floor because mattresses are too comfortable or some other nonsense on those lines. I will enjoy my comforts, I will appreciate my food, and I bloody well am not going to be ashamed of it.

#

"I see," Arus said, and made a few last scratches on his notepad before turning it to face me. Several near-perfect squares had been drawn in the paper, with words like "Brodik" and "possible resonance chain" written neatly in their middles. The boxes themselves were connected with straight arrows, and the next few pages had been filled with rows upon rows of short, bulleted notes.

Yes, that was Arus. He wouldn't be him otherwise. This, give or take a few things, was the essence of Arus-ness.

"What's a resonance chain?"

Arus put away the notepad. "A horribly overspecialised and inefficient piece of jargon that has no real purpose other than to make you sound smart. The layman would refer to the event described as a 'disturbance'. You would call it 'a whole bunch of shit going down'."

"That sounds about right," I said at last. "What do you suggest we tackle first? You're the trained expert."

"And you're the field agent," he replied without so much as missing a beat. "What do you think we should do?"

"I'd have you get a grip on those samples, I suppose, maybe go see Brodik when he's available, but you did say your equipment was on the way. What should I be expecting?"

"Nothing more bulky than that alchemy set you keep in your chambers back at House Escobar." Arus paused for a moment and looked thoughtful. "Oh, before I forget. I've managed to garner just a little interest in Aerie with regards to this matter, and they've asked me to send back a brief report once I arrived here. Not very much, but they are interested in potential threats to the new energy converters. Or at least, I think. They wouldn't have let me come otherwise, right?"

"I can't see how they might ever possibly be interested in something poised to be a part of every household in the next few years."

"Hmm. Yes. Give me a few moments to think this through, please."

So I did. I didn't know what sort of antics Kale had gotten himself up to while I hadn't been watching him, but between the two of them he and Alyssnd had pretty much emptied the meat plate while Arus and I had been talking. As I watched, the little moon falcon strode up to Kale, who must have been at least a whole head taller than her, and pecked him hard on his head while he was scrounging for scraps.

A sharp pain lanced through my skull. I winced.

"All right, what'd you do to piss her off this time?"

"Nothing, chum. I was just expressing my love for Alyssnd with a tenderly crafted poem."

"A love poem. Well. That's great."

"That's how it happens in the plays, chum. A slap here, a smack there, but at the end of it all the leads are in deep true love." Kale half-spread his wings and strutted across the table. "And did Gryphus the Elder not say, 'is not love the greatest aspiration? Between lovers, between friends, between family, between human and falcon? For it is love that holds our great Empire together despite our aggressions."

I leaned on the table and rubbed my forehead. You know you're having a bad day when you're being outtalked by a bird with a brain the size of a walnut. "I'm not sure what you're doing is love. More like you being a creepy bastard, perhaps. If you were a human you'd end up locked away somewhere."

"Judge us not by human standards, for we are not humans."

"Another quote?"

"Yes." Kale puttered about on the table and eyed Alyssnd, who'd taken cover behind the vegetable bowl. "Besides, if she really felt that strongly about it she'd make enough of a fuss to Arus that he'd never get anywhere near you, and you know as well as I do that the falcon comes first. See? She's just playing hard to get."

"Oh, quiet you." I turned back to Arus, who apparently had finished whatever thinking he'd needed to do and was looking expectantly at me, his hands folded and that signature I-know-something-you-don't smile on his face.

"Well?" I said.

"Well, what do you want to do now?" came the reply.

"I thought you were thinking up just that."

"No. I was merely going over the details of what you told me, and making sure everything fit where it was supposed to. I don't see any problems so far."

I rolled my eyes. "And you're questioning my professionalism?"

His smile grew wider. "No, just double-checking for potential errors of perception."

"Fine. You want errors of perception? How about we go for a lovely evening walk to a lake? Do you like water, my dear friend?"

"Water? Splendid. I love water."

I called the waiter over and paid the bill, then scooped up Kale and was about to leave with Arus when I noticed that a lot of people suddenly had the exact same idea. By the time all of us had managed to push our way through the crowd and into the open, the streets were clogged with people pointing upwards and chattering amongst themselves.

Another airship was going down, and this time it was trailing a steady stream of bluish smoke as it passed dangerously close to the village. Well, it only made sense, airship routes are fixed in order to avoid wandering into an unfriendly House's airspace; not a surprise that another would pass by again this soon. What was disturbing was the fact that it was on fire, and half the hull had been eaten away. Not charred--the fire was mostly on the airship's upper half--but eaten away.

Arus followed the airship's descent with his gaze, his smile wiped clean off. "It's getting worse, isn't it?"

"I think so."

The Green Tower

Chapter 10

Have you ever been to Aerie? It's neat. Organised. After all, where better to display the glories of the Empire than in the capital? You won't find slums there; one either goes to a lanner and gets help in finding gainful employment and accommodation, or gets forcibly removed from city limits. You won't find shacks or derelict buildings to shelter those people, either; they get torn down or spruced up the moment they start looking a little shabby.

You know, they say the true hallmark of civilisation and plenty is when people have enough to spare in order to afford this mysterious, elusive thing known as "charity".

It's a nice place to visit, especially while the novelty lasts, but I wouldn't want to live there, even if I were rich enough to afford a place. It's a city of tall buildings, wide streets, complete with greenery, running water and plenty of open space on ground and in air for the falcons, and nothing, nothing is allowed to so much as sully the lovely atmosphere, so much so that it's what all city councils aim for when they're drawing up their lovely urban redevelopment plans.

Something like this anywhere within sight of Aerie would have at least a third of the city's officials frothing at the mouth and demanding cleanup crews right away. Smoke, dark and heavy. Splintered wood and torn metal. Occasional flashes of light from within the wreckage. Nope, definitely an eyesore, even if you were to try and pass it off as a piece of abstract art.

"Hmm," was all Arus said, and stepped through the crowd, keeping his distance from the still-burning wreckage. People parted to let him through. I mean, what's the puzzlement over that? Here was an authority figure in a time of crisis, and one particularly suited to the task at that. House? What House? Some of them might have cared, I don't know, but evidently enough thought a falconer was a falconer or simply assumed he was authorised to be here, and he would work his magic and the world would be all right again.

Don't tell anyone I said this, but I think the aristocrats have established their superiority over the common man just a little too well.

"Hmm?" I said, and followed him, a sleepy and sated Kale just managing to remain perched on my shoulder despite his full belly. At least he knows better than to crap on my shoulder.

"Yes. Hmm."

"Is this supposed to be a joke of some kind?"

"No. Excuse me a moment." Arus approached the airship and worked out a spell or two of some sort; I didn't have to use my detection cantrip to see the magic being worked as something washed over my skin and sent shivers running down it.

"Arus? Am I next, or are you going to finish it up? You know, having a sense of professional responsibility and not leaving an untrained bumbler to sort out a mess?"

It took him a second or two to recover. "Hmm. That shouldn't have happened. I don't think it'll be any good if I tried again. In fact, it could make matters worse, and I want to wait for my equipment before risking anything deeper. If you want my estimate, enough, any unanchored magic should dissipate within the next few hours, which should make this safe for general cleanup." He shrugged. "Although I'm sure the House will have their own experts over soon enough."

"Tell the watchmen that," I said. "Here they come."

And they were. Some of them were further away, obviously trying to anticipate what few glide-boats there were in the sky as they spiralled down, but the bulk of them were heading our way, looking very tired and very determined. Arus already had his feather-seal out and forward as the watchmen approached.

"About time Aerie started taking an interest in our problems," the sergeant at their head grunted as he examined Arus' seal and nodded in approval. He pointed at me. I don't like people pointing at me. "I take it she's with you?"

"Yes, and I believe both of us will be staying awhile. I hear you've been getting a little less funding than you should be having from House Doskar. Maybe they'll take this a little more seriously now that they've lost something of value."

"Could be." The sergeant looked somewhat unconvinced, but eventually shrugged it off and motioned for the watchmen to start their business. Underfunded or not, they were doing their best to keep back the crowd and restore order, which was not too different from watching Kale attempt to turn a doorknob on his own. "Could be. I'm sure someone from the House will be coming in soon to wrap things up--you want an introduction?"

"Not at the moment, but thank you very much." Arus turned to me. "Let's go. There's nothing left for us here."

There wasn't. Really. Yes, if the whole of the Empire was comprised of happy, altruistic folk we could have stayed and had a lovely chat with whoever House Doskar had sent to investigate the crash of their airship. I can picture it right now in my mind: Arus, I, the sergeant and the bloody House representative talking things out, promising to share information on investigations and actually following through with that promise, and general sweet and lovely cooperation all around that would have made the poor watchmen's lives easier.

Which was impossible, considering that at the first sign of weakness all of House Doskar's rival Houses would be out fighting for the proverbial nest-box, one of the possible outcomes when you mix human greed with a falcon's bloody-mindedness. If we'd stayed, we might have had that lovely chat I'd mentioned, but gained nothing of use. The local watch…well, they looked and acted upstanding enough to me, but while they officially reported directly to Imperial authority it was still the local House who paid their wages. Call me a cynical bastard, but I'd rather be safe than be sorry.

"It's a sad world, chum," Kale said as we followed Arus back through the crowd. They could have been disappointed that the amazing falconers weren't going to be performing any miracles today, or they could just have been muttering like crowds always do.

"Yeah, but it's the only one we've got."

"Oh. Of course. How silly of me to have forgotten that."

#

No matter how I try, I still can't figure out when I really stopped fearing falconers and the rich and powerful, who tend to be the same people. Kale helped, I suppose, but really, even when I had a huge and ugly ball of fluff in my arms I was still sort of lacking this whole social status thing that was supposed to come from being a falconer. Kale says the problem's that we humans think about matters by pushing them over clearly defined lines, that most of us have trouble coming to terms with gradual becomings. Naturally, this only made me look for that definitive point all the more. I know that when my parents dressed me in what passed for my best and sent me to manor Escobar in exchange for a handful of gold falcons, I was absolutely terrified of the Lord with his gyrfalcon and the Lady with her hobby. Somewhere along the line, that changed.

I do remember, though, when I was about seventeen, my mentor sent me down to the market. Ostensibly for alchemy supplies--properly processed, there are various interesting and deadly things you can do with commonplace foodstuffs like peppers and fresh scaled silvertail--but since I was there, it wouldn't hurt to pick up that night's dinner. Kale had pulled a few muscles of late during training and wasn't with me, but damn, I could feel his hunger pestering me with every step I took.

So there I was, a young woman in her House colours holding her woven cane basket full of seafood and vegetables, and I'd barely stepped out of the market district when two young aristocrats--a gyr and a merlin--stepped out from one of the side alleys. I'm still don't know why they were there--they could have been touring the country like some foppish young lordlings with too much time on their hands do, or perhaps they were en route somewhere else and just decided to stop in the Dysis for some fun, although I'm not sure what sort of fun miles of river delta and mud flats have to offer. Definitely not on official business with House Escobar, otherwise I'd have heard about it.

"Where's a nice young woman like you going so early in the morning, then?" the gyr said as he stepped forward. Goodness, the imagination of some people. I mean, even I can come up with a less hackneyed line than that.

"Back to manor Escobar," I said, looking him in the eye. That's what they were, young lordlings eager to stretch their wings like freshly fledged falcons, full of knowledge that they were worth more than the average man and with none of the caution that an older falcon learns.

The kind of people that form the backbone of my trade.

"What's the hurry, then? I'm sure you could stay awhile, entertain us a little. I'm sure you'd enjoy it too."

"Come now," the merlin said to his fellow, "I don't think this is such a good idea. House Escobar--"

"Shut up, Felich," the gyr snapped. "My mother's been blaming me for the salt deal falling through, and it's all House Escobar's fault for sweeping the table. You can join me and have some fun that happened to pass our way, or you can stand back and let everyone know how gutless House Marr truly is."

"He's got the right idea," I said. "You don't want to do this."

"Whoever said you could speak? You think your lord will protect you? Look, the girl's all important now because she works in the lord's manor and no doubt--"

I threw the vial I'd palmed seconds ago into the gyr's face. He screamed, a lovely sound made even more so by the faint hissing that accompanied it, and started clawing at his face, screaming something about his skin being on fire, which was pretty much the whole point of what was in the vial. I was vaguely impressed; a lesser man would have had his skin peeling by now.

His bird came at me, screaming madly, but I lashed out and nabbed the crazed bird by its feet. I'm not lying when I say I can catch or throw anything. The merlin stared, and his eyes grew even wider as I set down my basket on the road and got my other hand about the struggling, confused bird's neck.

"This isn't fun anymore," I told the gyr. "Do stop it, or I'll have to break your neck." That calmed the bugger down well enough, and I passed the bird to the merlin, who was trembling ever so slightly, as was the bird on his shoulder. "There shouldn't be any permanent damage, not unless he does something stupid. He might suffer a few blisters, but that should be within your powers to cure, unlike his ego."

The merlin nodded. I nodded back, picked up my basket and in no time was out of the alley and on with my life. Dinner wouldn't cook itself.

#

"Lianne!"

I turned. Brodik was lingering at the edges of the crowd, looking at its burning remains, and he waved me over. I tapped Arus on his free shoulder and pointed; he nodded to show he understood, and we approached Brodik together.

"Two airships taken down in what, three days?" Brodik said as he turned to take in the watchmen helping what survivors there were out of the glide-boats. "Someone in House Doskar is going to be losing a lot of sleep tonight."

"Sounds about right," I said.

"Something's going on around here, that's true," Brodik said, and lifted his head to eye the taller, thinner Arus and Alyssnd on his shoulder. "You the man from Aerie? The one Lianne said was coming to help sort this mess out?"

Arus gave him a thin smile. "Unfortunately, it's just me. If you were hoping for Imperial agents to come swarming into Barajov and start ripping the truth from people's minds like what happened in the Lakeshore Uprising, it's not going to happen. But no, I'm not here to visit some places, hem and haw and then go back, if that's what you were worried about. Lianne's filled me in on the things that've been happening here of late--would you mind answering a few questions?"

"Sure." Brodik thumbed at the crowd behind us. "No one likes having their lives disturbed. If there's anything I can help you with, just say the word."

"Of course there is…" Arus took Brodik aside, and the two of them were soon nattering away, with even Alyssnd looking interested at whatever they were saying. I, on the other hand, busied myself with looking on as a large watch wagon rolled into view and through the crowd, and then the watchmen began to spray the wreckage with water from tanks on the wagon. There were some people from House Doskar--they had their colours, both on their clothing and painted on the carriage they arrived in--and they put on huge spellsuits not too unlike Brodik's before they started poking around the doused bits.

I had this mental image of a huge wave of blue ooze gushing out from the gaping hole in the hull and washing over that whole crowd of people, then reminded myself that the ooze was probably long gone by now.

"You're feeling inadequate, aren't you, chum?"

"What?"

Kale pressed himself against my neck. "You're feeling inadequate. You think you should be doing something, but don't know who to go after or what to look for; Arus is handling the technical bits and you can't really do anything until he figures out what you're up against. Am I right?"

I opened and shut my mouth a few times, and then gave up trying to say something witty. "I guess. For a trained facilitator, I guess I'm not doing very much in the face of crisis. I don't think this is one of those easy ones. Who knows, it might be a technical thing and then it's up to people like Arus to solve matters."

"Comes from most of your jobs being handed to you, eh?"

I didn't deign to answer that. This is part of Kale's job, and I do the same for him. The difference is that I actually listen.

"It's getting late," I heard Arus say to Brodik. "You've raised some very good points, but I'm a bit too tired to think properly right now. Perhaps we'll speak tomorrow, or when it's convenient for you?"

"But of course. I'm more than willing to help."

"By the way, where did you get your training? You're better than the average country mechanic, if I may say."

Brodik shrugged. "Oh, here and there. Mostly in the Valia Institute of Technical Education. You?"

"Aerie. Empire needs every sorcerer within its borders and all that."

"Ah. Can't disagree."

By now, the crowd was starting to disperse since the watchmen had already managed to get the fire under control and take away what survivors there were along with the glide-boats. Brodik turned to the wreckage once more, took it in, and with a nod and a firm handshake thrown Arus' way left with the rest of the crowd. Arus watched him depart, and then fell in step by me as we plodded back to the inn.

"What was that you were doing earlier?" I asked.

"Running a diagnostic. I wanted to see what might have caused that airship to crash, and it…well." He shook his head. "Either this is something no one's ever seen before--something which I doubt--the diagnostic spell is being blocked by someone, or it's simply outside the limits of what it's calibrated for. Whatever the case, the spell shouldn't have just unanchored itself and gone wild."

"Hmm."

Arus stretched and rolled his shoulders. "An eventful day. We might as well turn in for the day; there'll be plenty to do tomorrow. I need some time to sort out matters, then compose an initial report for Aerie."

"You don't snore, do you?"

Arus blinked, then scowled as realization dawned. "There is a perfectly serviceable chair in your room, Lianne, and snoring is a disgusting habit."

The Green Tower

Chapter 11

All right. Day five since I'd stumbled straight into this mess, and I was already half-considering if I should just turn the whole matter over to the Empire and get on with my holiday. Arus was here; I'd done my part in alerting the authorities to strange goings-on, and besides, I wasn't getting paid for helping out in the investigation. I…

Oh, who was I trying to fool? Myself? Lianne, you know better than to try that. I filled a basin with water from the tap, checked it for traces of glowing blue ooze, and when I didn't find any, splashed my face and left the rest for Kale to bathe in when he woke up. Naturally, Arus was still asleep; most sorcerers have the privilege of being able to wake up after the sun has risen, unlike us more unsavoury folk. He looked so peaceful lying back in the chair with his arms folded on his lap and a blanket draped over his knees, I probably wouldn't have had the heart to wake him anyway. I tapped Kale's mind just in case he was vaguely awake and wanted to come along, but all I got was a sensation of drowsiness. Well, I suppose what I'd planned for the morning would be easier for that.

Barajov really wasn't a bad place for a crossroads town. At least it was fairly clean and didn't stink unlike some other places I've had the misfortune to visit on business, and as I slipped out of the inn there were already people in the streets and they were talking, the good kind of talking. Mostly about yesterday's airship crash, but that seemed to have triggered a whole slew of conversations from whether the House was going to raise land and road taxes to whether there was going to be a House war and if the local produce was going to be affected by all this nonsense going on. I found a road vendor at the edges of the market, and bought a large bell pepper stuffed with soft, hot rice, minced chicken and spring onions. It didn't taste too bad, so I had another.

"I take it this sort of thing doesn't happen that often," I said to the vendor as I started on the second stuffed pepper.

"No, it doesn't," she replied with a sigh. "Hopefully these strange things won't continue, or no one's going to come by."

"Strange?" I said. "I mean, I hear there's this green tower not too far from town, and there's this young woman who lives there. That's not something you see every day."

"That's different. We know Elpe, even if she doesn't show her face that much, and she's harmless, if a little odd. Besides, Brodik's taking the trouble to look out for a poor thing like her."

I considered that for a moment, and swallowed. "But surely she must have some family somewhere, or must have come from someplace--"

The vendor shrugged, and turned to serve someone else. I guess that signalled the end of the conversation, and I finished my breakfast before moving on. No matter who I asked, though, or where I tried to slip in a question here and there like the average curious traveller would--especially when faced with things like burning airships and exploding carriages--the final answer always seemed to be the same: that while the tower had always been there as far back as anyone could remember, it had always been more than a little deserted before Elpe had moved in from out of nowhere. Oh, the details varied: that she was a ghost, that she was really Brodik's illegitimate daughter and he was hiding her here, that the aforementioned couldn't really be the case because he was so upright, but who knew for sure…the sort of talk that one had to sift through to find anything of use, or sometimes, nothing at all, even if you ask the right questions in the right manner.

Brodik himself? Fine man, used to visit every now and then before eventually moving to Barajov. Always paid his taxes on time and in full, excellent work that was built to last, unlike the official House machinists who'd sabotage your stuff so they'd have to be repaired again sooner, never overcharged anyone, kind to small animals…well, I didn't quite rightly hear that last one, but I think you get the idea. Honestly, from the things they said about Brodik, I got the feeling at least half the women I spoke to wouldn't have minded marrying him if he wasn't ever just so slightly past the prime of his life, and I don't blame them. Just for fun, I checked the message boards at the carriage stations, but as I'd expected, they were mostly about news coming in, rather than going out.

By the time I'd decided enough was enough and got back to the inn, both and sun and Arus were up and he'd a large, important looking pack with "fragile" stamped on the top laid out on the floor. He gave me a cursory glance as I stepped into the room, and then turned back to inspecting his equipment. Kale was still snoozing away--falcons are diurnal creatures by nature--and once I was satisfied he was fine, I turned back to Arus.

"It arrived quickly, didn't it?"

"Couriers are fast these days, especially when you've got the best in the Empire." He looked up again and sniffed the air. "Are those chicken pies I smell?"

"Fresh from the market." I tossed Arus the paper bag. He caught it perfectly and drew out one of the flat, thick-crusted pies before giving it an experimental bite.

"Well?" I said.

"I was thinking of whether I should forgive you for all your past transgressions against my sensibilities." He put the paper bag on the bedside table, and turned back to his pack. "While this is not the case, I have nevertheless come to the conclusion that although people may eventually cease to find you sexually attractive, they will always respect you for your taste in good food."

I rolled my eyes. "I'm sexually attractive? That's news to me. Well, I've got some news of my own. Want to hear it?"

"Speak."

While Arus checked over his field kit, I told him what I'd learned about Brodik and Elpe, sorting out all the gossip I'd heard into nonsense and possibilities. "Brodik did tell me his retirement wasn't quite voluntary. Maybe someone from his old workplace still has a feather that needs plucking."

"He'll have to come clean with us if he wants Imperial protection."

"What's clear is that the tower's been there a long time before Elpe moved in. there would have been a greater chance of foul play if they'd appeared at the same time, but she just seems to have appropriated it. Which wouldn't have been a problem on its own, but the way she acts around the place…how does something like that get forgotten, really?"

Arus pursed his lips. "Things get lost all the time, despite the best efforts of the kestrels. It's quite frustrating, especially to hear them complain about it."

#

The mind of a wild falcon is divided into two broad categories as to how he or she perceives the world: the first one is "can I eat it?", with the second being "will it hurt me?" Falcons who've found someone to attach themselves to find their horizons broadened and subsequently gain a third category: "can I make it do my work?" Oh, Kale will protest this to no end, but it's true, take my word for it. The reason you don't see falconers complaining about it is because they want to feed and worship their birds; as I've mentioned, if a falconer is neglecting his or her falcon, that's a good sign the sop's having suicidal tendencies.

But back to the point. Wild falcons are simple creatures, which is perhaps part of the reason why they sought out humans to begin with. I mean, who can't help but admire a magnificent, scheming bastard just a little? If you observe wild falcons going about their daily lives, they fly, they eat, they breed. Falcons don't build nests; they lay their eggs straight into tree hollows or onto the bare rock. Most of them don't have the urge to build, and perhaps that's why they handed the tools to us humans and pretty much whispered into the falconers' minds: "go forth and build us a glorious monument in our name, and we'll split the profits."

And we did.

Don't you think it's just a little strange? I suppose coincidences do happen, but look at it this way. We have gyrs to do the conquering and trampling, and once that was over, enforcing Imperial law. Sakers to maintain the lines of communication, enabling the Empire to spread far wider than it should have. Kestrels and lanners to ensure that the workings of the Empire are smooth, records are kept and goods get from where they're made to where they need to be in one piece. Merlins to tend to the sick and wounded, and hobbies to give the people their circuses; so on and so forth, with every breed of falcon having a nice little slot in society for them to fit into. Everything seems to have been orchestrated so perfectly…

…Or maybe we just made it up as we went along.

Oh, don't get me wrong; I know there's a difference between "won't" and "can't". Of course I know about the fifth Kestrel Empress and her falcon's rather talented symphonies, but by and large most of the falcons I know are content to sit around and let us do the work. I mean, it makes sense; I'd do the same if I had lots of people willing to carry out my every command and whimper slavishly at the foot of my perch.

Wouldn't you?

#

Somewhere in the heart of Valia province, there's a ravine so deep that it's said light only strikes the bottom at exactly noon, when the sun is directly overhead. Local folklore has it that if you go smack into the exact middle of the ravine and stay put for a whole day, you can look down one end and see how others truly see you, and the other will show you how you truly see others, unclouded by all the niggling little annoyances and self-lies that we people are so full of.

I've never seen the need to go there, and if I have to guess, neither does any falconer. We know where we stand in the world, and there and then I was standing besides Arus, and I damn well know what he, or any other onlooker, would have been thinking had they seen me now. The same goes for what I thought of Arus.

"Put this on," he said, his voice slightly muffled from the spellsuit he wore.

I studied the baggy…well, bag of thick, stiff cloth he thrust towards me. It reminded me of one of those body bags that're used to transport the dead off battlefields, only this one had room for arms and legs sewn onto it. Quite morbid, really.

"Uh-huh," I said, taking it from him and struggling with the zipper as I endeavoured to put on the suit.

"It's either you put on the spellsuit or spend the rest of your life counting your limbs every morning." He shrugged. "Either one's fine with me."

"And I said it wasn't catching. Well, not unless you went ahead and touched it."

"Better safe than sorry."

Well, hard to argue with that. It was a lovely day, clear sky, sun beating down, me slowly cooking inside this ridiculous outfit despite the cool lakeside air outside and the gauzy veil on this suit that covered my face--

"Oh come on, chum. You don't look that bad."

"Enjoying yourself?"

"More than usual."

"Look, just don't get close, all right? It's not my fault they don't make spellsuits to fit falcons. Or at least, not to my knowledge."

"Chum, please hit me if I ever stoop so low as to start wearing any kind of clothing. Hard."

"Oh, I will, trust me on that. I will."

Back to business, then. We'd stopped by the watch house earlier and picked up the sample before heading for the lake where I'd found it; a flash of his seal and they were pretty much falling over each other to get the containment canister back to us. Heck, the watchmen didn't even try to hide their relief that they were getting rid of something potentially dangerous, and I could understand why. I guess this little outing made sense; if everything blew up we'd want it to be away from any population centre. By now, Arus had already unpacked his stuff and most of it was on a lightweight folding table, and he waggled a small clear container at me without so much as looking up from his devices.

"Would you mind getting me a small sample of that lake water? Might as well save the trouble of performing multiple passes."

"Uh, yeah. Sure." I stumbled over, scooped up some of it, and headed back. By the time I'd returned, Arus had one of the machines humming merrily away, and as I watched he took out a canteen and poured a small amount of water into a similar clear container, followed by opening the canister and transferring a small amount of the blue ooze into a third one with a small metal ladle. I passed him the container of lake water, and he set it in a slot in the machine with the others before screwing the containment canister's lid back in place.

"Now what?" I said.

"Now we wait. That's one of the wonders of automation, not having to do things by yourself. What did you expect?"

"I don't know, tinkling sounds and flashing lights would be nice. Maybe a puff of coloured smoke to add to the ambience?"

"My dear Lianne, the day a simple portable emanation spectroscope--especially the latest model--does these things is the day I'll tear my academy degree to pieces. The days of cauldrons, reptile eyes and boys stirring the cauldron day and night to distil three drops of pure wisdom are long over."

I stared at the so-called spectroscope, merrily whirring away on the folding table. It looked ugly, but then knowing Arus, I wouldn't have expected him to go about doing silly things like mixing utility and aesthetics. "So what happens now?"

"We wait," Arus replied. "Then I get the readouts, make a copy for Aerie, and try to figure out what this stuff contains, whether it's truly non-catching like you say, and how bad it is compared to background levels. Even you could understand it."

"Flattered."

All of a sudden, the machine's whirring grew low-pitched and laboured, as if it was working against a sudden load, and stopped altogether. Arus clicked his tongue in annoyance, and reached for the samples.

"What--" was all he said, because a small wave of blue ooze gushed forth from the sample compartments and over his hands. The spellsuit's gloves were left unharmed, but the ooze began eating its way through the table, making a soft, hissing noise as it did so. Within moments it was dripping onto the grass, leaving behind bare patches of earth as it sank into the soil, the rest of the ooze fizzling into nothingness before our eyes.

Arus clicked his tongue again. "Well. This certainly is frustrating."

The Green Tower

Chapter 12

Arus thumped the side of his prized spectroscope for the last time. It let out a small, sad cough, made several half-hearted attempts to start, and then stopped with a groan. Even from within Arus' spellsuit and through mine, I could still hear his muffled grunts as he attempted to coax his precious machine back to life.

"It's no good," he said at last. "The ooze probably ate away some of the internal circuitry. Now how am I going to justify this to Aerie?"

"You could say the locals ate it. Goodness knows what sort of strange acts country hicks are capable of. Everyone knows rural folk perform all sorts of bizarre rituals, unlike intelligent, rational city folk who do sensible things like shutting the windows to keep the cold out."

Arus gave me a frosty glare. I shrugged. "All right, maybe that was a little too much. I'll apologise."

"Hmph." Arus dug around in his pack and produced a small canister. "Raise your arms."

"Pardon?"

"Decontamination. Just in case. I don't think we can be too careful."

I acquiesced, and Arus sprayed me from head to toe with sticky, glimmering strands that reminded me of spider webs, although they, too, evaporated within moments. He passed the canister to me, and I did the same for him, although it wasn't until he'd thoroughly sprayed both what remained of his table and spectroscope, as well as the surrounding grass, that we dared remove the spellsuits.

I sucked in lungfuls of cool air. Good thing that; the stuff inside the suit was beginning to remind me of home. Arus immediately set about disassembling his equipment, and halfway through the process, pulled out a particularly nasty-looking runic plate and waved it before my eyes.

"As much as I suspected. Seared beyond functionality."

"So what now?"

Arus chewed on his lips, then extended his fist to let Alyssnd land. No doubt Kale wasn't going to be too far behind. "Without a proper spectroscopy or even a simple diagnostic, I don't know what the heck we're going up against and that's the worst thing that could happen. I want to talk to that Brodik friend of yours again, bounce a few ideas off him, see if that'll get the bird to nab the lure. He seems to have taken an interest in what's going on, so…"

"Hmm." Arus waggled the plate again, and I thought how that airship had its hull pretty much eaten away in the same manner. What had Brodik said the other day? That House Doskar wouldn't be sleeping well? "Come to think of it, this wouldn't be too bad of an option for sabotage."

Arus frowned. "You suspect foul play?"

"I was just wondering. I had my doubts at first, but…I was wrong. You have a destructive substance that vanishes once the job is done; it could do what damage it needed to and then leave everyone to scratch their heads over just what the heck happened. Given that the targets so far have been rather high-profile--"

Arus considered that and nodded. "Expensive, state-of-the-art carriages. Airships. Definitely the talk of the town. Attention-getting."

"--And definitely premeditated, you can't blame me for being more than a little suspicious. Someone had to work up that hunk of metal, whatever it used to be; after that, it still had to be dumped into the lake. Too bad I had to have my vacation. I--I--well, you don't find cyanide lying about for no reason, do you?"

"Jumping to conclusions, are we, chum?"

I tilted my head up to watch Kale land on my arm. Well, of course I could be jumping to conclusions. Of course I could be completely wrong, and all the signs were just so many brightly coloured lures thrown out to get us to fly around in circles like in those old falcon exercises. Then again, it was the only theory I had that seemed to stick anywhere halfway together given what we'd seen so far, and I wasn't about to let go of it that easily.

"All right, my bratty little bird, if you've got a better idea why don't you let us hear it?"

Kale paused for a few moments to preen his tummy. "Well, it could be the other way around. That whatever's causing this could have been here all along, and it's something about the airships and whatnot that've changed. They're supposed to be new, after all. Could be anything from the converters to the mechanisms to the fiddly little bits. Or maybe it's all of them at once."

"Here all along? You mean that tower?"

If you can imagine the psychic equivalent of the sound someone makes when they exhale in an extremely noisy and unflattering manner, that's what I got. "Could be. Doesn't have to be. But you've got to admit it's the prime suspect."

"If it's the tower, why isn't Elpe drowning in a large puddle of ooze?"

"Beats me; that's why I said it's a conjecture. That's up to you and Arus to figure out. Maybe she doesn't have much in the way in state-of-the-art technology about her place? I bet it's got to do with the engines. Remember those airmen? Or maybe those damn flowerpots are to blame, though. They're just…disturbing. "

"My dear friend, just because you don't like something doesn't mean it's evil."

"Doesn't matter. You asked for a plausible alternative, so I gave you one. Just don't be too sure you're right, okay?"

"The same could be said of you."

"That's gratitude for you. I slave over remembering facts your tiny brain can't hold, watch your back, help you out all the time and this is all the thanks I'm going to get? Who else is going to remind you to have fun, chum? Arus?"

"Apparently, yes."

Kale looked back and forth between me and Alyssnd, who had her head bowed and tail spread, eyeing Kale suspiciously. "Women. Every single one of them with problems of one kind or another. Mark my words, you're going to end up old and fat. Old and fat, I tell you, and I'm going to have to spend every single day of my dotage putting up with your moaning about where the good men were in the days of your youth."

"Is this the scene where both leads have a spat over one catching the other spying on him or her in the bath? You know, the one where they decide that despite having just engaged in senseless acts of petty violence, they still love each other very much?"

Waves of grumpy sullenness positively radiated from Kale's mind, adding to the cheery scene.

I ignored him, turned back to Arus, who'd finished packing up, and told him what Kale had suggested. "We have some time anyway, so that's something worth looking at," I said. "Brodik's unlikely to be free at midday, unlike us idle, rich falconers; we'd be best off trying to see him in the evening."

Arus clicked his tongue. "You know, your bird has a point." Alyssnd chippered angrily, and he reached up to scratch her head. "Yes, he might be an uncouth bastard, but that doesn't mean he's an idiot. Although I must say, I'd rather have an idiotic bastard than a smart one. They're less dangerous."

"Now who's she calling a bastard, chum? I knew who my parents were."

"Take it up with the love of your life, will you?"

"Oh, I will."

"I suppose going out to discreetly observe this green tower you speak of couldn't be too much trouble, especially if we're already this far out in the countryside," Arus continued, and hefted his pack onto his shoulders. "Strange, though; the last time I was here, I never heard of any such thing."

"You don't strike people as the talkative type, you know. Maybe they didn't want to trouble a high and mighty falconer with their local eccentricities."

"Perhaps."

#

Back in the Dysis, we have a quaint little custom: you're served a bowl of noodles on your birthday. Most people make them out of rice flour, although some of the wealthier folk prefer to use imported wheat flour--for the taste, they claim--and the noodles are long, to symbolise long life. I know a few people who've gone to such ridiculous lengths as to roll out the noodle dough across--never mind, that one's a strictly private affair, anyway.

There is one tiny condition, though. You have to eat all of it, down to the last drop of broth, otherwise you'll have bad luck up till your next birthday. Of course, our ancestors being the smart buggers they were, set up obvious so-called taboos against that: things like no unreasonably large portions, no poisons, no putting in anything that the poor sop might be allergic to, so on and so forth. You know, that sort of obvious thing. I guess I can understand that; no one likes having what's supposed to be a happy occasion ruined by inconveniences like death. I know of one of my colleagues who carried out his contract by slipping a rather nasty cocktail of heavy metals into a local chieftain's longevity noodles. Last I heard of him he was making friends with the crabs at the bottom of the mangroves, having being introduced by their mutual acquaintance, the average angry mob.

However, local customs say nothing about "accidentally" spoiling the food, and so out come all the tiny little grievances that've lain buried, like so much scum floating on the surface of a muddy pond. A small form of revenge, perhaps, but sometimes people feel it's the only way they can rebel. Dear mother being a controlling bitch for the whole of your childhood? Come to think of it, doesn't the broth need a little more vinegar? Yes, yes, I know your brother's found favour with the House while your business floundered; why don't we use a smaller flame? Don't want to overcook the noodles--oh no, better to serve them disgustingly thick and undercooked than have the pot boil to dryness. Some families have made a game out of the whole thing, with one group guarding the broth while it's being prepared while the others try to spoil it. The whole thing is so deeply ingrained into the collective consciousness in my homeland that it's often better to ask if a local Lord or Lady enjoys his or her longevity noodles, rather than flat-out ask if the locals approve of the House in charge of the land.

It's a pity, really. Such a waste of perfectly good food, especially when the broth can have anything as its base--seafood, meat, poultry, vegetables, eggs, whatever--and it is a delight to eat if no one hates you. But that's what happens when people feel they don't have any outlet for their grievances, whether that's true or not; at the very least, seeing someone you thoroughly dislike choke down the most horrible thing you think you can get away with sure makes one feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

And then you hear stories about truly crazy people who didn't care anyway and poisoned the noodles, then went and cut their own throats in front of everyone else. Both highly impolite and unprofessional, if I may say. I don't know about you, but even after the numerous times I've witnessed or heard of such incidents, I find it a bit hard to wrap my mind around the fact that someone would be desperate enough to throw away their lives out of sheer spite.

We people sure know how to ruin a good thing, don't we?

#

The tower came into view over the next gently rolling hill.

Alyssnd grabbed Arus by the shoulder she was perched on and flapped her wings madly, as if by sheer determination she could pull him back. When he tried to coax her into coming along with him, she screamed, grabbed him by the back of his tunic and continued trying to drag him away. Kale just stared quietly, but I'm sure he was privately teasing the poor little thing again.

"She doesn't want to get close," Arus said at last with an exasperated shrug. "There's something about the tower that makes her feel uncomfortable. A barrier or ward or something similar. Not that she couldn't go in if she wanted to, but…"

"Uh-huh."

Arus sniffed, prised Alyssnd off his back, and shook his fist to send her off. "Alyssnd is very sensitive to disturbances. Well, more than your average moon falcon. In any case, I have no wish to upset her unnecessarily."

"Kale…"

"Chum?"

"Take care of her, will you?"

"Of course."

"And by taking care I don't mean teasing, pestering, performing any of your so-called romantic overtures, or otherwise taking advantage of your position to place her in distress."

Kale roused himself and feigned a look of hurt innocence. "Who, me?"

"Yes, you." I tapped him on the beak with a finger. He twisted his head, as if wondering whether he should snap at my finger or not, then fluttered off after his purported lady love.

"You know," I said, "what are falconers without a falcon?"

"Dead," Arus replied, then shrugged again at his own joke, palms upturned. "They're not ours to control, not any more than I'm yours or you're mine. They need their time."

"That's an easy way of justifying it," I said, but shut up as we approached the tower. Arus had already stopped dead in his tracks and sketched a few symbols in the air, muttering under his breath as he did so.

"Alyssnd was right. There's something here. Can't you feel it? Not the tower itself, although it's linked to it. Like…like a net. Or a web."

"No."

"Oh, that's right. I forgot." He stared at the tower, as if challenging it to some unseen duel. "You'll have to take my word for it, then. Take a closer look when you have the chance. It's quite subtle, really."

"Elpe did mention she does feel ill if she strays from the tower for too long."

"Could she…no. From what you told me, it's the tower and not its lady that's the problem. This is interesting; I'll have to see where this takes us."

"Could you please explain to me what all this is about?"

"If I'm not wrong, the tower and its environs are acting in a manner not too different from a spellsuit, Lianne. I suspected as much once you told me the stones held so much raw power for no apparent reason, but didn't want to come to the conclusion until I'd seen it for myself. By all rights, it should be stabilising any disturbances, rather than encouraging them."

"So Kale was wrong." "See? You were wrong."Kale didn't reply. Not that I'd expected him to.

"It's like a watchman on a street," Arus continued. "The watchman doesn't need to do anything, but the mere presence of one helps to keep the rabble in line. Or magnetism, if you're familiar with the phenomenon; iron is magnetic itself, but also shields against the same interference. The question is, is it there to keep something in or out?"

"Why not both?"

"You know," Arus said, "that's a very good question. Screw discretion--how about we pay someone a social call?"

The Green Tower

Chapter 13

If you're going to be doing any sort of serious walking, be it on business or for pleasure, I can offer you a few suggestions to keep yourself standing at the end of the day. Get a pair of good boots and socks. Remember to bring along enough water, or some other suitable refreshment. If you're new to this, a stout stick can help immensely, both as something to lean on and to push various obstacles out of your way.

Oh, and never, ever do it with someone who knows how to whistle, or even worse, sing, especially if it's a tune you've never come across on account of it being from the other end of the Empire.

"Don't be so sour, Lianne," Arus said as our boots ground up the grass beneath them. "The meat song is a deeply moving tune that is solidly rooted in the cultural awareness of the people of Monitor and has a history that spans generations, each one leaving their own particular mark on the tune. A living history of the people." He paused and looked a little thoughtful. "Even if it's just to pass the time while waiting for the meat to cook."

Oh, don't get me wrong. I don't mind history. I even like history, when put in the right place. I just don't like history that repeatedly tells me where I can find meat, a number of unique and creative places I could put said meat, whom I could share my meat with or likely candidates who would be willing to share their meat with me in a myriad of meaty manners. And worst of all was the lingering suspicion that either Arus was singing it while being perfectly oblivious of the insinuations he was making or that he was doing it to piss me off, and both alternatives disturbed me equally. As far as I'm concerned, the only place where meat goes is into my stomach. Wait, no; that came out all wrong. Never mind.

I tried complaining to Kale, but either I was too annoyed to properly collect my thoughts, or he was shutting me off; maybe both. The cheeky bastard. Step by step, the tower gardens drew closer, and the mynahs were in their usual spots on the branches and in an old and rather discoloured birdbath. Some were pecking at the cut fruit Elpe had set out, and I took that as a sign that hopefully she would be out in the gardens, even if I couldn't see her yet.

"Well, what do you know?" Arus said, approaching the nearest fence post. "You'd think the trees would be at least a little more windswept than this with the hills this open. Maybe I'm reading a little too much into this; it could be just the tower--" he stopped mid-sentence, having noticed that every single one of the mynahs had focused their attention on him.

They stared. He stared back.

Then they flew at him.

I'll have to give Arus this; he has guts. He already had a shield up the moment he realised what was happening; it held easily against the hundred or so birds that pounded against the invisible barrier from all directions, making soft, wet noises like raw meat patties being thrown against a wall. That didn't stop them from trying, and part of me was tempted to see how long Arus' patience could last until he snapped and roasted them all.

I knew those birds were evil.

"Lianne?" he said from amidst the screaming songbirds and falling feathers. "If you don't mind, I could use some assistance here."

"Uh, any suggestions?"

"I have the utmost faith in your creative abilities."

Oh goody. I spotted a flash of white that wasn't a bird and waved it over. Not that it was really necessary; Elpe was already coming at us in a full run, one gloved hand keeping her hat in place and her gown trailing behind her.

"Stop!" she shouted. "What is the meaning of this?"

The birds stopped. Amazingly, they did. Maybe it was my imagination, but one or two of them even contrived to look a little sheepish. Don't ask me how I knew; it's not something I can explain. Why are you asking this now anyway, considering you've accepted me relaying Kale's emotions without a problem? One by one, the mynahs peeled off Arus' shield and returned to their perches and fruit, although that didn't stop them from giving him the occasional cautionary glance.

Arus dusted off his tunic and straightened himself. Well, of course he was taking being swarmed by a flock of crazed songbirds quite well; spend any length of time as a sorcerer and you go at least a little bit crazy. "Pardon my curiosity, miss, but the birds--they're not in the habit of mobbing people, are they?"

"They haven't done that for as long as I can remember," Elpe replied, a small, sad smile replacing the frown on her face. "Then again, not many people pass by. It's good I have the birds around, even if they get a little overprotective at times. They thought you were an enemy and attacked."

Overprotective. Hah. Well, time to set things straight. "Elpe, this is Arus. He's a sorcerer from the capital, here to take a look into the things that've been going on in town."

"I know. Brodik came by this morning and told me about the airship that crashed; it's the talk of Barajov. Is there any way I can help?"

"Not really," Arus said. "Investigations have halted as we look for additional leads, and I decided to take a little time off. Lianne said she'd found a friend here and thought I might want to meet you."

It was the most obviously transparent lie I'd heard in a good while. In the real world, no one just brings along an old friend to be introduced for its own sake. However, since I had the lingering suspicion Elpe didn't live in the real world along with the rest of us sour-faced real people, it worked out just fine.

"This is so wonderful!" Elpe positively squealed as she waltzed in through the tower's main entrance and hung her hat and gloves on a hook by the huge wooden door. "I've never had a sorcerer come by before. Lianne, you have got to be the best friend ever; this is going to be so exciting! So many new things!"

Arus chewed his lips and appeared terribly interested in the tower's ancient-looking masonry as we followed Elpe in. "Are you sure she's not secretly a hobby, my dear Lianne?"

"No, she's not. Although I can see why you'd think that." I lowered my voice to a whisper. "Well? What do you think?"

He closed his eyes and laid the palm of his right hand against the green stone of the tower's walls. In that moment, I had the fleeting, irrational worry that Arus didn't know what he was doing, then relaxed. Of course he knew what he was doing; it was on his face, in the way he stood. Either that, or he was very good at faking it.

"Being afraid of this would be perfectly natural," he whispered back to me and shook his head. "But yes, the power is inert, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. It's a cage, not a bomb."

"Not much point in a cage when its occupant can walk in and out as and when she wants."

"You said the tower was here long before she came to live in it. Maybe it was built for someone or something else a long time ago. Without any further evidence, it can be anyone's guess as to what it was originally meant to hold. Come on."

Elpe led us up to the small kitchen again before she excused herself and left to put the kettle on. Arus and I saw no reason not to make ourselves comfortable at the table, so we did and watched Elpe make tea. I didn't blame the poor girl; she couldn't have had much variety in the way of social contact. The kettle was steaming merrily away, and it was only when she got out a couple of huge, golden-skinned pears out and started slicing them open that it struck me.

"Arus?"

"Hmm?"

"Notice how she doesn't get dirty. I should have realised it before, but…look. A feathered gown, even this highland sort that wraps around the neck and shoulders, is hardly the kind of thing you'd wear when gardening. Even if I were to do the same, I'd expect mud and grass stains all over, especially if it trails on the ground like that. No sweat. No scars. No calluses from hard work. The juice from the fruit--it's getting onto the knife and chopping board, but it doesn't stick to her hands."

Arus considered this. "When I look at that girl, I do get the feeling I could dash her against the floor and she'd shatter to pieces. Hmm. A spell to keep one neat, perhaps? Hardly an uncommon find."

"Then why not extend it to the chopping board as well? That's what's usually done. Or that birdbath we saw out in the garden? You know it'd take minimal effort to extend the enchantment. I--" Our conversation was cut short by Elpe returning with a tray of cut fruit.

Oh joy, now were we supposed to be mynahs? Yes, the pears, plums and various berries were fine, as far as I could tell. Part of me did feel instinctively ashamed for doubting this waif of a young woman, I guess, but I've known some of my colleagues to use the poor innocent thing shtick to varying degrees of success. I tried a slice, and damn, it was good, the pulp papery yet bursting with juice.

But wasn't there anything else besides tea and fruit? They made excellent beginnings and ends to meals and for the times in between, but they didn't make meals. There wasn't a grain bin like most households have, or even a string of something dried hanging somewhere…maybe, I thought to myself, I should have a peek into her stasis chest when she wasn't looking.

"And so we meet the famed golden pears Barajov's countryside is so famous for," Arus said. "For free, too. You have my thanks."

Elpe beamed, and I resisted the urge to stick out my tongue in an utterly juvenile yet satisfying manner.

#

One of the good things about having a falcon with you is that there's someone who'll talk to you about the weirdest things and understand exactly what you meant. Conversely, one of the bad things about having a falcon with you is that there's someone who'll talk to you about the weirdest things, understand exactly what you meant, and then laugh at you for it afterwards.

Oh, and sometimes you'll have to be the one doing the listening.

I remember there was this time five or six years back when I was in a bit of a slump. I'd just finished one of the few jobs that'd come my way--someone wanted a copy of the blueprints for their competitor's latest product, which I got by way of a disgruntled employee in exchange for a few falcons--and was nursing a bottle of chilled imported wine in my office while Kale puttered around on my desk. Yes, I know you're not supposed to chug wine from the bottle. Why no, I didn't care, and still don't. Sipping and swirling are for people who aren't me.

"Chum?" He flapped a little, landed on my leg and worked his way up to my stomach, still sweaty from my bout in the courtyard earlier.

"Yeah?"

"Have you ever thought about getting a man?"

I set down the bottle on my desk and looked Kale in the eye. "Why the sudden interest? Couldn't you just dig it out of my head? It's not as if I'm shutting you out."

"Yeah, but I figured it'd be more polite if I asked."

I guess that was true, but I still had no idea what he was getting at. "No, not at the moment. Why? Should I have one?"

"Well, by rights you should, chum. If you hadn't come to the House you'd have been married off about four years ago, and had children shortly after. So…yeah."

"Well, that isn't the case, and we're here now. You know that a man would be too much of a liability. It's just you and me, and no, I don't feel like going out and hiring a duck for his services. I know, I know, the good ones don't have icky little sicknesses hanging about their bits, but I don't have the money to pay a good one."

"Don't you feel uncomfortable sometimes?"

I took a sip of the chilled wine. It was getting a bit too warm for my tastes, so I made do with a little cantrip and cooled it in my hands. Not bad, or at least, better than cheap rice wine. "My dear friend, in all the years we've known each other, have you ever known me to touch myself at night or read sappy romances? It's the rest of the world's business if they want to indulge in one giant orgy, but they can damn well leave me alone."

His talons tightened against my skin, pinpricks of sensation sinking into my flesh. "Yeah…"

"So tell me, why the sudden interest? Cough it out, and you'll feel better for it." I looked at Kale's worried expression and added, "don't worry, I won't laugh at you."

"I…uh…"

"Go on."

"I…I've been having urges, chum."

"Urges?"

He sounded more than a little pensive. "You know. Urges."

Brief memories of vaguely remembered dreams rose to the surface of my mind. Or maybe in the light of this, they hadn't been dreams after all. "I think this explains some things."

"Yeah. I'm eight, chum. Most wild falcons start breeding at three or thereabouts."

"Most wild falcons don't live past ten years, either." I shrugged. "So do what you need to. Go out and get yourself interested in some lovely little specimens. So what if the eyries won't let you in; who needs them anyway? And before we forget, what the heck does this have to do with--"

"I think you're passing on your urges to me; they have nowhere to go in your head and so they take refuge in mine. That's why you have none and I have a few too many. Not that it's a completely bad thing, but it can get distracting at times." He puffed himself out. "If you know what I mean."

"No, I don't. So you want me to screw someone so you won't end up feeling screwy yourself?"

"That's about the long and short of that feather."

I considered that for the whole of three seconds, then set down the wine bottle and carried Kale over to the window.

"Out," I told him, pointing at the window. "I don't care if you end up fathering half the wild falcons in the Dysis and leave countless ladies heartbroken, just go out and fulfil enough of these 'urges' for the both of us, okay?"

Kale said some extremely colourful words that I probably shouldn't repeat here, but flapped off into the early afternoon sun. I finished the rest of the wine in the bottle, and tried to get some sleep before the inevitable summons to the Lord of House Escobar.

Let's just say I didn't rest very well.

The Green Tower

Chapter 14

"--And so I pulled out a copy of 'The Littlest Kestrel' and read it to her. No one should leave children unattended, especially those who've a falcon so young; I remember there was a case of this boy saker who tried to find out more about his dead mother by poking around in his father's mind. Turned out his parents had loved each other very much, and his father had fond memories of his mother, the kind that children shouldn't know about until they get a bit older."

"Oh dear," Elpe said, raising her hands to her mouth in the approved I-am-so-shocked-and-I-will-let-you-know-that-in-the-most-delicate-manner fashion so beloved of Imperial courtiers, only she damn well couldn't have been anywhere near Aerie in her life. "What happened?"

Arus sipped at his steaming teacup. "Actually, he took it quite well, although he didn't get out of that unscathed. The falcon helped a lot, I must say. It's good to have someone to talk to knowing they'll understand what you mean."

"Oh, that's so interesting!"

Yeah. Elpe's sort would probably find grass growing interesting as well. I don't remember finishing the plate of cut fruit, but I must have, considering the two of them were busy yammering away and I was the only one around--wait. There is no evidence. You did not see me. I admit nothing.

"Ooh, is someone getting jealous?"

I grimaced at Kale's giggling. "Took you long enough to get back. What was so important that you had to shut me out?"

"A little touch, chum. A little touch, a little warmth, and plenty of romance in the air."

"Shut up. Forget I asked."

"Stop lying to yourself, chum; I can see it. You are jealous, it's hanging around your head like a cloud of black flies."

"And you're the one so desperate for a stable relationship, yet have no idea how not to act like a creepy pervert." I sighed. "Look, this whole corrosive ooze thing is shaping up to be something that's rather ugly and we're trying to find out what we can about the nature of this tower and its occupant, so when you consider our priorities my personal desires don't rank very highly." I paused, out of sheer habit than any actual need to catch my breath. "What I'm saying is, stop it."

"Sure. Right." His laughter echoing in my head, Kale shut himself off again leaving sour old me staring at the now-empty plate. Well, at least I still had a pleasant conversation to listen to. I know it was small-minded of me, I know I was facing more important things than being a bitch and I don't expect you to agree with the way I was thinking back then, but there we have it. If everyone behaved rationally at all times life wouldn't be fun anymore. Arus might have been a touchy mess of a sorcerer, but he was my touchy mess of a sorcerer.

And they say in the wild, it's the female falcon who has to do the job of defending her nest and mate from intruders. Wonderful.

"--And this 'bad place' you came from. Can you tell me more about it?"

"I really don't remember," Elpe replied. "It was so long ago; maybe it's better if it stays forgotten. I…I just know that it was bad, and there was too much light, and they wouldn't let me sleep when I wanted to."

"And the tower? How'd you come across it?"

"I…" she closed her eyes for a few seconds, then opened them again. "I recall…the tower was just there and it needed me, so I moved in. it's not a bad place to live, really."

"Hmm. Wouldn't you like to find out more about yourself? I know kestrels in the capital who have access to the birth records. They might be able to dig something up."

She smiled. "You're very kind, but I'm all right with it. The tower is where I live; this is who I am and I'm happy with things as they are. I don't need anything else. Besides, Brodik's helped me a lot."

"He sounds like he's been very nice to you."

"He's nice to everyone. I believe he cares deeply about everything he holds dear," Elpe replied. "I'm still grateful to him for all he's done; he's taken care of me for a very long time. Would you like some more tea, Mr. Hazzard? The local brew is best. I once tried some imported tea from Arania, but that sort's far too bitter for my tastes."

Bleargh. By the look on his face, Arus seemed to be in one of his thinking phases, so I listened for what would come next.

"How long would that be, anyway?" Arus said.

"As far back as I can remember. Maybe eight years or a bit more than that. Why?"

Eight years? But the locals had said Brodik had only moved in here in the past few years. Either Elpe was lying and it was up to us to figure out why, or Brodik had been seeing her long before he'd even started staying in Barajov. If it was the latter case, who was Elpe to him that he'd come all the way up into the mountains just to care for her?

"I was just curious."

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted two more of those damn white flowerpots spying on me, as if ready to jump me should I make one false move. Well, if they jumped me, I'd…I'd…do something nasty to them. I just needed to figure out what. I hadn't brought along too much of my official cutlery, considering I was supposed to be on holiday, but a stone or two thrown right should be just as deadly to those buggers.

"Fascinating. I never knew you sang." Arus held up the spell-globe to his eyes, and a frown flashed across his face. He turned to me with his lips thinned, and nodded before addressing Elpe once more. "Does it make you much money?"

Elpe nodded. "Brodik handles much of the business since I don't feel well when I leave the tower for too long, although I know who to go to and what to do if need be. I get by. Would you like me to sing for you? In fact, I sang for Lianne the other day."

"I don't think that'll be necessary, but I think I'll buy this, if you don't mind."

Could he be--no, I told myself, Arus had better common sense than that. Besides, he'd seen something in that orb. I was sure of it, and he wanted to talk once we were out of here.

"Lianne? Lianne?"

I blinked at the sound of Elpe's voice. Well, finally she deigned to address me, huh? "Yes?"

"Thank you for coming today. And you, Arus. Thank both of you; I can't remember the last time I had so much fun. I must apologise for what happened out in the gardens. And Lianne--" she turned to me-- "I'd appreciate it if you brought more of your friends out here in the future. Maybe I can write you after you have to go back. Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

Oh yes. It would be wonderful, indeed.

#

One of my first truly coherent memories is when I was six or thereabouts. My parents had figured I was old enough to mind myself and decided they wouldn't mind if I tagged along to the hotpot festival to celebrate the latest rice harvest. Not the small, private celebration families hold the day before with everyone crowding around a dinner table, but the big public one you might happen to chance upon if you go into the village square on the day itself. Everyone brings something to put in, it gets all boiled up in spicy soup with plenty of lemongrass for flavour, and the resulting stew is doled out bowl by bowl to all who're present. Since you have to eat what you put in and there's always someone watching the pot, there's not much of an incentive or chance to mess with its contents, but that's not my point.

What my point is that there I was, a tiny little girl on the dirt road with her siblings, and as some of the men from the village passed by with a huge cast-iron pot on their shoulders, my eldest sister looked down at me and said with all seriousness in her voice, "seems like they're going to boil you now, Lianne."

I looked up at the pot, now well on its way to the slightly drier patch of dirt that passed for the town square, and remember thinking that it could very well hold a little girl without anyone ever noticing she was ever inside, considering how large and heavy the pot was even when empty. Then there was the matter of how deep the pot was, that a little girl like the one I was would never make her cries heard, and how no one would probably notice that the stew was a bit thicker amidst the straw mushrooms and crab paste, or the bones a little too large to be fish or chicken…

Yes, I was a rather morbid little girl. I still am.

So I passed my basket of cockles to one of my brothers, and ran. Ran away screaming from the big, black pot as fast as my feet could take me, all the way home, up the steps and hid under one of the mattresses for the rest of the night. Neither threat of the rattan cane or coaxing could get me out from under there, and it was only in the morning when I was sure that pot was gone that I dared crawl out and went down into the mangroves without any breakfast, fishing net in tow. I was hungry, but that didn't really matter. Not when I still had my skin on my bones, was in a very positive state of not being soup stock, and other good things on those lines. You know, things that help to put other things in perspective. But hungry or not, being boiled alive or not, one still had to work in order to eat and I was no exemption.

I met my sister in the paddy fields. She had quite a few cane marks on her back, and they seemed fresher than mine did; she looked up as I passed by on the embankment and scowled. "You do know that I was just kidding about the whole boiling you part, right?"

I glared straight back at her. "No."

My memories are hazy as to whether there's any proper conclusion to this tale. I guess that since I was eventually sold off to House Escobar, there really hadn't been the chance for one, and maybe it's better that way.

What I do remember, though, is that it was a long, long time before I attended another hotpot festival.

#

It was evening by the time we left the green tower. The moment the tower disappeared around a hill, Alyssnd came swooping out of the sky, landed on Arus' arm and scrambled down the front of his tunic, her head peeping out from over his neckline. Kale landed on my arm shortly after and puttered around a bit until he noticed I was staring at him.

"What did I do, chum?"

"What did you do?" I said, very definitely not looking at Arus fiddling with the front of his tunic as he tried to coax Alyssnd out of hiding. "That's a very good question."

"I did nothing, my dear chum. We went flying, sampled a bit of the local food, tried out a sand bath on a riverbank…you know, that sort of stuff you do on a dinner and date. Nothing socially awkward."

"Nuh-uh. Not possible; you're incapable of propriety. Just look at that poor little thing over there. What did you do?"

"Oh, and you're suddenly so sympathetic to poor little things now, chum? Or are you forgetting a certain poor little thing you weren't feeling so kindly towards not so long ago?"

"Don't change the subject. What did you do?"

"I did everything I said I did, and nothing more. For the whole of five hours. You can take it or leave it, chum, because I haven't got anything else to say." An aura of heaviness descended upon his mind, a bit like a woollen blanket, although I did get the sensation he was peeping through, waiting for me to say something.

Well, that settled it. I looked down at Kale, then at Arus, who'd finally managed to get Alyssnd out of his tunic and onto his shoulder, although the little falcon looked as if she was liable to climb on top of his head any moment. Maybe she was telling Arus what a lovely time she had with Kale, and how underneath that creepy black-feathered exterior there was really just a sad bird who wanted desperately to be loved because his evil human had shunted off all her sexual urges onto him. Probably not.

"You know," I said to Kale, "I'm responsible for how you've turned out. Well, mostly. Probably."

"Nah, chum. It isn't all bad. Although I must say that sometimes, sex with wild falcons feels more than a little like bestiality."

"I don't want to hear about it."

"You don't."

"Arus?" I said.

He blinked, and his eyes came back into focus. "Yes, Lianne?"

Talk shop. Talking shop was safe, or at least, safer than asking what sort of conversation he'd been having with Alyssnd. "Why'd you buy that spell-orb off her, anyway? I know you saw something in it, but what?"

"Do you understand the concept of sympathetic augury?"

"Sort of. It's like the way the kestrels can perform their divinations better if they have a piece of or the possessions of someone they want to trace, right?"

"Close enough. There's something about the orb's emissions that's similar to the backwash I felt when I tried to run a diagnostic on the airship wreck. I want to see if I can pull up something of use."

"That's a tenuous connection at best."

"Yes, but it's currently the only lead I can really work on for now." He held out the spell-orb, shrugged, and then shoved it along with the rest of his equipment. "Besides, I want to hear her singing for myself--and at my own leisure, under controlled conditions."

"And if you find a link? Do you think she's involved?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. But whatever it is, I do want to talk to Brodik about her. You don't have to be a kestrel figure out they're hiding something."

Well, that made two of us, then. The sun had almost set by the time we found the road again; I found myself wondering if Brodik would mind if he had two more for dinner that night. Or did he even have dinner, considering he lived alone? No, to hear the townsfolk tell it, a man like Brodik would have dinner because that's what proper people did; only slobs and no-gooders never had the time for at least one proper meal a day. I mean, I have dinner on a reasonably regular basis, so…

"Eh, chum, is the sun a little too bright or what?"

"That's not the sun," I told Kale. I sniffed the air. Faint, perhaps, but the wind in these parts was certainly strong enough to carry the scent of smoke all the way from Brodik's place to where we were standing. "It's fire."

Arus said something, pointed, but my feet were already over each other, Kale leaning forward to account for my shift in stance. Like it or not, this was already beginning to resemble work too much for comfort.

And to think I'd come here wanting a vacation.

The Green Tower

Chapter 15

"Brodik? Brodik!"

The flames hadn't spread too far yet, mostly being confined to the small room to the side that was Brodik's living quarters. Bloody amateurs; can't even set a proper fire. If I'd done it, I'd have used jellied silvertail oil as a proper base, maybe with a spot of potassium in there to start it off on impact…

But I wasn't the one doing it, right? I threw up a small spell against the heat and smoke, dashed across the courtyard and into Brodik's workshop. He'd cleaned the place up pretty well since the last time I'd been here; sort of a pity that it was all burning up. I know if I were him, I'd be really upset.

"Brodik?" I yelled against the crackling of the flames off to one side of the workshop. "Are you in there?"

The only response I got was a blast of energy that tore through the already burning door leading to the living quarters. Fine. Someone was in there. I pulled my eating dagger from its waist sheath and tested its weight in my hands; I'd have searched the workshop for a better makeshift weapon, perhaps, but there wasn't time.

"You ready?"

"We don't have much of a choice, do we, chum?"

True enough. I considered the door for a moment, thinking how to best get around that problem, then reached out with my free hand and ripped the flames straight off the ruined wooden door where they fell to the ground in a soft, crackling wave. No time to appreciate the wonders of the natural world, though; I stomped out the flames under my boots and barged through the door, the thick smoke making my eyes water despite the spell.

"Brodik?"

"Duck!" I couldn't quite see him through all the smoke, but it was Brodik's voice all right, if a little hoarse. Moments later, a bright light flashed from one end of the room to the other, and I heard even more wood splintering. Fine. I dropped onto my hands and knees, Kale scrambling between my shoulder blades, and crawled towards the spot where both Brodik's voice and the blast had come from. As I approached, I saw what Brodik had done; he'd piled up most of the furniture in the room about himself, creating a small fort of sorts, and was struggling with a huge wand the length of his arm.

"You picked a fine time to come," he said, and coughed. A flash of light in the smoke, a sense of something speeding towards us, and I stood directly in the path of the fiery blast despite Brodik yelling at me to get down--

--And caught it in my hands. The energy roiled in my grasp, seeking release, and I pitched back and hurled it in the direction it'd come from.

I wasn't lying when I said I can catch anything.

There was a man-sized hole in the side of Brodik's fortifications, and I squeezed through to join him. Brodik primed the wand, aimed and let loose a blast of his own into the smoke, although I was quite sure he wasn't going to be hitting anything that way.

"What's going on?" I said.

"Bastards--" he coughed-- "blew a hole in my bedroom wall, set fire to my place to smoke me out." He coughed again. "It's working."

I drew on a bit of energy and set another spell to cover Brodik, and his breathing eased almost instantly. "This should help. Think we have time to talk a little?"

"Thanks. I think so; they're just waiting for me to run out of charges or die from smoke inhalation. How'd you get in?"

"Through the front door."

"That's not right. The whole workshop's on--"

"Not any more." I chanced a peek over the top of Brodik's fortifications and didn't get much, save the smoke was definitely thicker than it'd been when I entered; I guessed it wouldn't be too long before my spell was overwhelmed. The air was already a little warmer than I'd have liked; even if Brodik's place was solidly built and a fire wouldn't collapse it, it was only a matter of time before everything inside was cooked. Heck, it was a wonder Brodik hadn't already passed out from the heat. "Look, you can run, right?"

"Y-yes."

Another blast shook the walls, and I winced. "Good. Get out through the main door; Arus should be somewhere around out the front. Go somewhere safe; I'll catch up after I've taken out these guys. Do you know how many of them there are, and what they're armed with?"

"Somewhere between two to four. They came in a wagon. As for weapons…" he waved tiredly at the flames all around us. "You can see for yourself."

"And who might they be?"

"If I had to guess?" Brodik coughed, although he sounded better than before, and his fingers tightened about his wand. "Chances are they're my former colleagues."

And so the feathers fell. What else had Brodik been hiding from us, and why? "Once we get out of here, you're going to have to come clean with us. At the very least, you owe it to me for getting your sorry behind out of this mess." He opened his mouth to say something, but I slapped him on the chest and pushed him towards the hole before drawing my dagger. "No time for arguments. I'll draw their attention while you get away."

Brodik stared at my dagger for a second, then nodded without so much as a word, passed me his wand and slipped through the hole. I eyed his silhouette through the smoke until it vanished, then checked the wand over.

The grip felt solid, albeit slick with sweat. Good. The core thrummed with pent-up power, a simple but efficient kinetic model for large game hunting, and I guessed it was at least at half-capacity. I replaced my dagger in its sheath, hefted Brodik's wand, and crawled out of the fortifications and through the smoke, Kale in tow. Yes, definitely getting a little too warm for my liking; goodness knows how Brodik had survived this long without any protection against the heat and smoke. Maybe being a mechanic made him of sterner stuff than I was; he definitely looked like it. No time for idle thoughts, though.

"So, what's the plan, chum?" Kale said as I fanned myself with the front of my tunic.

"We'll see when the smoke clears a little," I replied. "But the general idea is to keep those bastards from going round the front and noticing Brodik's done a runner. Maybe--"

The air was getting clearer by now, and someone spoiled my lovely mood by letting loose another fiery blast in my direction, probably mistaking me for Brodik. I let loose with my free hand, grimaced at the sensation of pressure stopping the concentrated magic produced, and hurled it back at the dim silhouette of a wagon parked by the next hill, which burst into flames. It wasn't a proper firebomb, but it'd suffice.

Someone screamed.

Gyrs beat up people, aplomados muck around with the weather, and I never miss a catch or throw.

#

Mention the term "facilitator" to the average person off the street, and they'll repeat what the books, plays, psiprints and so forth have told them: of slit throats in bedrooms, poisoned cake with strawberries on cream, concealed daggers in spring-loaded wrist sheaths and exciting chases across rooftops. I won't deny having done some version or other of the first three in my time, but the last one is flat-out romanticised--the rooftop chase hasn't really been viable for the last few hundred years thanks to proper city planning on the Empire's part. I've pulled it off once, but I was desperate, and to be honest I went more through the houses than over them. But yes, this job is pretty much a stealthy one; after all, you're supposed to be a precision strike, not an army. An alternative to a House war, as opposed to a House war itself.

And then you make a mistake.

Everyone makes mistakes, and that's all right, so long as it doesn't end up being fatal and one doesn't make a habit out of it. You can be good. You can be lucky. But no one can be good and lucky all the time, even if you've set up as best as you can, and sooner or later something's going to go wrong.

Examples? Maybe you hit the bodyguard a little too lightly, or maybe he was tougher than you'd expected, and in any case he's up and racing for the alarm. You position yourself up a tree and wait all night in the branches, flinching at the slightest sound, and in the morning the good lady doesn't take a breath of fresh air at the window like she's supposed to, and so you've been lugging around a high-powered wand for nothing. Heck, you might even end up pitted against a colleague who's better and luckier than you are, and what then? That's something most books never even bother to cover.

You fight. People generally take a dim view of would-be killers, especially when they're the intended victims, and your patron's not going to implicate him or herself by bailing you out. You're on your own, and you fight to keep the bastards after you occupied while you make your retreat. Stealth has already gone straight out the window thanks to your fuck-up, and there's nothing left between you and a headstone or pyre save a foot or so of good steel and maybe a small wand or two. Whether you make it out with all your body parts attached--well, that depends on whether you were paying attention during your lessons, and I don't regret one moment of it.

But hey, you'll never find a dashing swordfight in a novel about facilitators. That's one thing they got right, at least.

#

All right, so Brodik hadn't been wrong; there were three of them on the hillside. Four, if you count the guy rolling about on the grass trying to put out his burning clothing, but I didn't think he'd be bothering anyone for some time. I found a small pile of rubble that used to be part of Brodik's bedroom and took cover while the bastards were trying to help put out their burning friend.

"So, what's the plan?"

I sucked in a breath, feeling the relatively cleaner air fill my lungs. It was very nice. "I think I can take one of them down while they're occupied. You flank them and distract with the one with the hat on my signal, and I'll take out the last remaining guy before coming over to mop up. Even if it doesn't go quite as planned, we should have bought enough time for Brodik to get away. Sound good to you?"

"Sounds good, chum." Kale hopped off my back and a little distance away from my position and took off, trying to avoid being outlined against the roaring fire behind us. Well, no time to waste. I took a few more breaths to calm myself, hefted the wand into a firing position, and let loose with a blast. There was a rather ugly and wet meaty sound, and when I looked up one of my assailants was missing a good portion of his torso.

Goodness, what's the point of hunting with these things if there's nothing left of the animal after you're through with it?

All right, that had gotten their attention just fine. The remaining two sent up a veritable barrage of fire at the spot I'd been hiding out, and I took that as a suggestion to scram through the long, thigh-length grass. Like it or not, I only have two hands, and one of them was occupied at the time.

"Are you close enough? What do you see?"

"They're doing a pretty coordinated sweep of your position, chum. I…hang on, head left. They're heading the other way. I don't think you'll have problems with any serious spells; they look like hired arm-men, not wizards."

I twisted my head to one side and chanced a glance up. Coordinated? From where I was, it seemed more like they were randomly setting fire to the grass in the hopes of flushing me out, but I suppose Kale had a better view of things. At least the grass was moist and green and wasn't catching easily--not being able to stop and prime the wand was already irritating enough.

I crawled a bit further. "How close am I?"

"Almost there. I'm in position."

"Then go. I'll take the other one once you're in."

"What the--" one of the arm-men said, and growled in pain as Kale's talons met his face, the fire blasts from his wand going wild. "Get it off! Get it off!"

"I resent being called an 'it', chum."

"No one likes that." The other arm-man moved to help his fellow and dropped his guard for a moment. Just a moment, but long enough for me to leap out of the grass, lay my eating dagger against the back of his neck and get an elbow in the stomach. Oof. I didn't get to where I am without taking a few knocks in the process, though, and hung on long enough to recover and push my eating dagger through the side of his neck, coating my hands with warm blood. The bastard dropped like a stone and I made short work of his friend, who'd already had plenty of blood running down his face. No harm in adding a little more, then, especially when it only took me about two seconds.

"Is that the lot of them?"

"Seems like it, chum."

I knelt down and cleaned my dagger on the grass, and Kale fluttered onto my shoulder and began cleaning his bloody feet. My stomach growled, and I remember thinking I'd have given quite a bit there and then for some boiled dumplings in soup, maybe some thick, soft congee with a dash of fried onions in it, or a large dragonfly. Don't ask me why I feel hungry after killing people; it's probably a falcon thing.

"Keep a lid on it, chum. First things first; we can get num-nums later."

Right. First things first, and that meant cleanup. The fire on Brodik's place was already dying out, but the one on the wagon was still blazing merrily away; I guessed I wouldn't be finding anything of use inside once the fire was through with its job. It's only in bad novels that arm-men conveniently carry letters of commission from their employers, but I searched their bodies anyway. Not that it turned up much: between them they had some silver quills, which I pocketed--practicality, my friend, practicality--several doses of a certain narcotic I'd rather not mention here, a half-full hip flask…and a couple of small wands, clearly meant to be used as sidearms. Much good they'd done the bastards. Maybe the wands could be traced…I hadn't seen this exact model before, and believe me, fences usually have a wide variety of stuff they're interested in getting rid of really fast.

"Well," I told Kale, "another mystery, is it?"

"Oh goody. I like mysteries."

The Green Tower

Chapter 16

"Arus? Arus!"

He turned, albeit a bit slowly on account of Brodik leaning on his shoulder. "Lianne? You look a fright."

I sucked in a breath through my mouth and tasted soot. Yeah, he was probably right. Now that the rush was wearing off, various niggling itches in my muscles made themselves known, and the horrible, empty sensation in my stomach redoubled its efforts in getting me to implode.

"You need a bath, chum."

"Yeah, you're right."

"What? No argument? No mule-headed disagreement for the sake of opposing me? Preposterous! I expected my money's worth when I got my human, and--"

"Oh, quiet you."

Another breath, another lungful of soot, this time bad enough to make me cough. Brodik's place was still visible behind the three of us, the fires still strong enough to cast light on us under the fresh evening sky. Hope he'd bought insurance.

"Let's go home," I said. Brodik twitched. Whoops. "All right. How about 'let's go back?' Would that be better?"

Arus sighed. "I appreciate you trying to help, Lianne, but really, you're not making matters any easier for any of us. Could you please explain to me what's going on?" He pointed at Brodik with his free hand. "And we'd better get him some medical attention."

"No," Brodik said with a grunt. "I--"

"Shut up," Arus replied. "You're no good to yourself or us dead. Is there a merlin anywhere near Barajov?"

"No," Brodik said, and coughed. Now that I could see him clearly, he looked as bad as I probably did, if not outright worse. Well, there really wasn't much room to wiggle about, not when soot covered what skin that wasn't burnt or weeping and plenty of his hair had been singed off. I may not be a merlin to produce an accurate diagnosis by instinct, but he looked pretty bad to me; a lesser man wouldn't have been standing, let alone moving around.

"Fine, then just a physician will do. Come on."

I don't remember exactly how long it took us to get back to Barajov proper. Brodik was a heavy bastard, so we'd to prop him up between us and help him along the road; I kept on hoping a carriage or something would pass by and we'd be able to hitch a ride back to town, but one never appears when you need it. If you'd asked me to guess, we'd walked maybe the better part of an hour, maybe a little more, since I had enough time to explain to Arus what had gone on in Brodik's place.

"--And then I dumped the bodies and came around the front to find the two of you staggering back to the road. Goodness, I know it might have been a bit hard, but you could have at least tried to keep a low profile; two guys standing straight with nothing but grass all around--what if I hadn't been able to distract those bastards?"

Arus closed his eyes. "Lianne, if you were a bad facilitator you wouldn't be standing here arguing with me. You'd be dead."

"Point taken," I said, then nudged Brodik in his side. "Don't think I've forgotten about you. You owe us an explanation as to what all this nonsense is about."

He grunted; I took that as a yes. Joy.

Eventually, though, we managed to make it through to the inn where we were staying, and the poor sop at the front desk stared as we dragged Brodik into the lobby. Arus went up to him and said something about whether there was a physician on call--I didn't quite catch exactly what, considering I was left supporting Brodik on my own--but Arus came back, hefted his share of the weight and together we dragged the great lump that was Brodik up the stairs to our room and propped him up in my bed with a couple of pillows.

Arus stood back to admire his handiwork, and smiled a little. "Hey, Lianne. Remember that joke? The one about you having strange men in your bed on a regular basis? Well, here's another one. And there I was, thinking I'd be the last."

"Quiet, you." I turned to Brodik. "Feel better?"

He nodded.

"Good. Then you might as well start talking. Got to keep you awake until the physician arrives."

Arus arrived with a glass of water. I handed it to Brodik, who downed it in one gulp, and he eyed me more than a little warily. "All right, I suppose you've earned the right to know. Where should I begin?"

"The start is generally a good place for such things."

Brodik frowned, then held out the glass for more water. Well, it was a reasonable request, so I filled it up and watched him drink while Arus pulled up another chair and made himself comfortable by the bedside with his notebook. I felt the familiar twinge in the side of my mind that meant Kale was paying extra attention to whatever was being said, and I guess we couldn't have been more ready for a long tale save a boy came up to our door with a small basket of buttered rolls, which Arus intercepted while Brodik began his tale.

"Yes, the beginning; I think it was the thirty-third year of the tenth kestrel Emperor's reign when I finished my education. Back then, the job market was booming, and even without any connections I still managed to land a low-level job as a general technician with House Dorst. It wasn't a bad job, I'll give them that; my supervisor never asked me to do anything shady or illegal like I've heard some of the other Houses have. Well, save that there was that business with the birds…but…no, that's beside the point. The work was what we were given in the description, the hours were fair, and we even had a union of sorts, even if it was supported by House Doskar, which hated House Dorst.

"I don't expect you two to remember this, but back then the next big thing was the idea of energy, even moreso than it's been of late. That was about when the current Emperor took the throne; you young folks couldn't have been much more than children back then. People were talking about where our energy was going to come from in the future, and whether it would last, considering that the sorcerers were telling everyone we'd run out of magicite at the rate we were using it. Of course, they never said when, just soon. Soon," he spat the last word.

Arus passed me the water jug, and I held it out to Brodik. "More water?"

"Please. This talking is making me thirstier than it should be." I filled his glass again, and appropriated one of the butter rolls for myself. It tasted…well, buttery. In a good way, of course.

"You getting this all down?"

"Oh, of course, chum. Although it would help my concentration if you didn't take such perverse pleasure in eating simple bread and butter."

"Hey, I'm hungry."

Brodik sighed and set down the glass by the table then, crossed his peeling arms over his chest. "So, yes. Every House with so much as a passing interest in energy knew that whoever came up with the first form of cheap, sustainable energy that fit in well with the Empire's current infrastructure was going to make the kill. There were all sort of crazy stoops and dives back then--people tried extracting magic from the waves, the sun, living things, even people, but none of them worked very well. In the end, the cost of producing magical energy still didn't match up to magicite. One by one, most of the Houses either withdrew their investments or simply ran out of golden falcons to make their theories fly."

"Except House Dorst, of course."

"Yes. By then, I'd moved up in the world a little, earned a little more, had lodgings in the House's facilities itself…ah, the glorious life of an engineer when his skills are in demand. Whatever we requisitioned, the House would give us without question. Money, materials for testing, anything. We slaved for months, years long after the energy fever had died down, finding out plenty of things that didn't work, but not one that did. Then someone on the team found something that worked."

"What eventually became the energy converters, I presume?"

Brodik nodded and sighed wistfully. "It was the ultimate dream, you know; defying the laws of magic, economics, whatever you care to name. We were getting something for nothing. Something for nothing. Creating value. Can you wrap your mind around the true enormity of that statement? Pulling inert magic out of the surroundings, making it useful, and letting the spells unanchor themselves harmlessly when their useful life was over. Nothing about it that could run out or make people grow an extra head. We weren't allowed to talk, or even think about it in public for fear a saker working for a rival House could catch wind of the project. We lived in the facility for weeks on end; didn't see the sun. Not that we cared. The House even went to the trouble of disguising the whole matter as a weapons research project, that we were working on a new kind of wand, and some other sucker fell for the bait by stealing the useless trash they'd set out. Ha."

I swallowed. There's another story in there, but it's really far too long for me to talk about right now. "Well, what does this have to do with you being attacked one fine evening?"

"I'm getting there, miss. I'm getting there. Humour an old man, will you?"

"You're not old; you're merely in the prime of your life."

Brodik chuckled. "Like I haven't heard that one before. All right, then; I'll cut to the chase. Not too long before the final prototype of the converters were released to the House, I noticed an instability. I called a few of my colleagues over, and they noticed some more potential problems with the integrity of some of the mechanisms under long periods of stress. We're not whistleblowers; we went straight to my boss, and she took it right up to the Head of House."

"What kind of problems?"

"You wouldn't understand even if I tried to tell you." Brodik grunted, and weakly jabbed a thumb at Arus who'd been having some intimate time with his notepad. "He might. Suffice to say that things looked all right in our initial tests, but bad things might happen after some time. Bad things on the lines of the Arkon alchemy plant disaster during the third aplomado Empress' time."

"That bad?"

He nodded. "We thought so, and couldn't believe it when word came back from the House. No time for more tests, they said. Couldn't give us a year or two to work out the kinks. It's a long term problem, they'll never trace it back to us if something does go wrong. The House has made promises, and its reputation will suffer if we can't deliver on time. That sort of rot. People were going to use our work, there were lives at stake, and they threw a bunch of marketing nonsense in our face.

"We weren't going to stand for it. I got about a third of the project team behind me, my boss included, and said to the House: we're not going to work. We're not going to put our names on something that might end up with people dead, or worse. So they said 'fine', fired the lot of us, and got in new people to work on the project. We weren't needed, not when we were standing in the way of progress with our outmoded notions and negative thinking. Forced us to sign a non-disclosure, then told us on the side if one of us so much as squealed to the Emperor or the newsprints, they'd hunt down each and every one of us and make us regret it."

Now this was getting interesting. If I could get Brodik to tell me where some of his fellow workers had ended up…well, there would be people back at House Escobar who'd want to know as much as possible, considering disgruntled employees are usually the biggest breaks a facilitator can find. But back to the matter at hand for now. "Well, did it take?"

"For the others, probably. I'd snuck a copy of the prototype blueprints from the House and tried to go to the Empire, but by then everyone wanted to believe in the great wonder of something for nothing and refused to listen to what was probably a jealous ex-employee. That's the problem with most falconers; they're so used to seeing the world the way they do that they think others must follow suit.

"So I gave up, went into hiding in House Doskar lands considering their relationship with House Dorst, and there we have it. Now what I warned them about is happening. Corrosive ooze. Explosions. Now my old chums are convinced I somehow sabotaged the greatest invention of the generation by virtue of having led the protests a few years back. Because I'm just jealous." He sighed and looked down at his reddened flesh. "Can I have some more water, please? I'm terribly thirsty."

I poured Brodik another glass, and he grasped it like a drowning man grasping a lifeboat. He drank it all down in one gulp, then stared into space as if there was something he could see that we couldn't.

"I'm tired," he said at last, and slumped against the pillows.

"One more thing," I said. "What about Elpe? How is she--"

Brodik's face hardened. "She isn't. Elpe's an orphan I took pity on years ago. Leave her out of this. She doesn't need to be involved in this any more than she already is; she's already a potential target just for knowing me."

I doubted that she was just an orphan, but the set of Brodik's face told me that pressing him right now wasn't a good idea. "Fine, then. Get some rest; the physician should be here any moment." I reached out for Kale, who'd been amazingly silent all this time. "Got all of that?"

"Really, it was quite a riveting tale. Considering most of the buggers unhappy with the Houses are hurting over taxes or low pay or some petty slight or the other…it's just interesting, you know? That there're still these sorts around, yeah?"

"I wonder if he's telling the truth."

"I think he is, chum. At the very least, it doesn't clash with what we already know."

I took another roll from the basket, chewed and gave Brodik one last look-over. He seemed immensely interested in a knothole in the ceiling; I might have had a few more questions, but I guessed they could wait a little longer.

"Why don't you go wash up?" Arus said, not looking up from his notepad. "You'll feel better for it. Besides, you're not doing a fine figure of womanhood any service with all that soot on you."

Alyssnd was teetering on the back of Arus' chair, and almost fell off. As if to confirm what I was thinking, Kale prodded me psychically. "Yeah, she's laughing all right."

"Come on," I told Kale as I turned and staggered off in pursuit of a warm bath. "No one ever appreciates the work we do, despite us providing an important and valuable service."

The Green Tower

Chapter 17

Sometimes people ask me, "Lianne, how do you do what you do? How is it that you can sleep comfortably at night?" and I give them the truth, which is to enjoy the small things in life and let them add up. It usually isn't what the people who ask these sort of questions want to hear, but it's the truth. Small niceties like good food, a clean, comfortable bed, and of course hot water; these things all go a small but significant way towards keeping a person sane and willing to get out of bed the next day. Don't believe me? Take away any one of the things I've just mentioned, and see how long it is before someone starts whining about how uncomfortable they are.

Heck, I was currently being reminded of why hot water was so important to civilisation.

It was all I could do not to fall asleep in the bath. I didn't, and I think that's something to be proud of. My clothes lay soaking in another tub not too far off; the soap--both for myself and for the washing up--had cost me a little extra, but damn, was it worth every copper feather paid. Even Kale had a basin all to himself, and it was so amusing watching him splash about.

"I am not amusing."

"But you are. You're such an adorable little clown. Maybe you should have been a kestrel instead, what with your round, fluffy body and all those bright colours."

Kale sputtered in mock rage. I closed my eyes, laid back, and felt the hot water leach away the various twinges from my limbs. This continued for some time--which was definitely not enough--before a knock came at the bathroom door.

"Lianne?"

"Shut up, Arus. I don't want to listen to--I do, don't I?"

"The physician's here and seeing to Brodik. We need to have a talk before I go and compose my formal report to Aerie. Would you mind finishing up and seeing me for a moment?"

I don't know, at that point in time I was tempted to ignore him, seeing as how my body felt far heavier than it should have. Still, it's not as if I had much of a choice. I crawled out of the bath, dried my clothes with a snap of my fingers and lurched back to my room, which was getting pretty crowded considering it was only supposed to be for one. Brodik looked somewhat better, but I guess there wasn't really any way to go but up, considering what he'd just been through. What burns on his body that hadn't been covered had been smeared with a bitter-smelling salve, and he looked almost peaceful just snoozing away on my bed while Arus and the physician discussed matters.

Oh well, the floor's always been a good choice. Besides, we've been best friends ever since I was a child, so there's absolutely no chance of any hard feelings whatsoever.

"Do watch him, and don't hesitate to call for me again if he gets worse." the physician told Arus as the latter was showing him out the door. "Who would want to hurt Brodik? It doesn't make sense; he's never harmed anyone."

Arus said something I didn't quite catch, and shut the door, leaving just the three of us in the room. "Lianne?"

"I'm here. Now hurry up and say your piece before I give in to the urge to flash you again."

Arus didn't say anything to that, but Alyssnd puffed out her chest and looked as haughty and dignified as she could, which was very much so. Hooray for us unlanded, low-born falconers. "Could you suggest somewhere we could put our dear friend? Yes, I've got the mind to place him under Imperial protection as a witness, but we still need somewhere to put him while we wait for them to arrive."

"My dear Arus, you know how I feel about Imperial protection."

"Yes, but you've got to admit it's better than nothing. At the very least, it might discourage the average two-bit thug from trying to off him for a week's worth of drinking money." Yeah, when he put it that way, there really wasn't much wiggle room to disagree. Still, it's hard to think of the average Imperial guard with anything but contempt when you have the kind of history I have with them; it's like saying that having all your teeth punched out is better than being hacked to pieces.

Then I had a great idea.

"Let's put him in the tower."

"Why?"

"Why not? You said yourself that the whole tower is a shield, so it'll deflect any form of sorcerous attack. The birds will mob anyone who tries to make trouble, and I swear the bloody things don't sleep. Besides, I'm sure Elpe will be more than willing to mother him and fuss over his every need, which'll leave the both of us free to investigate further."

"Oh, so what happened to your mothering instinct?"

"I burned it along with my innocence a long time ago."

Arus scowled. "That was a joke, you know." He scratched his head. "I guess it's not as if we have much a choice, considering how small this town is. Somehow, I don't think Brodik will like the idea very much."

"I really don't see a better place he can go. Let Brodik do his Brodik things; I'm sure Elpe and I will be able to convince him, if he doesn't come around himself. Besides, his precious pet is already a target. Might as well make the risk a little more worth the while, hmm?"

"I don't think he'll see it that way." He looked down at Brodik. "You know, I feel sort of guilty for talking about Brodik when he's around. Like…like he's a slab of meat."

"Well, screw him. That's about what he looks like right now, a slab of meat. I'd rather be practical and lower his chances of dying as much as I can." I considered my words for a moment, then added, "oh, and screw you as well."

"Oh, I don't think I will. You've been to all sorts of places, after all. Plenty of exotic diseases in the corners of the Empire."

"That was a joke, you know."

"But of course."

#

Anyone can be killed.

This is a fact. Underestimating the depths of human ingenuity, bloody-mindedness and resourcefulness has never fared well for anyone vaguely important enough for enough people to want his or her head. You can be the greatest swordsman in the world, but you'll still have to sleep sometime. The most dedicated and disciplined magician can suffer from the most freakish of accidents. For all their bodyguards and food tasters, at least one Head of House never bothered with checking just what went into the scented candles she was so fond of. Generations of facilitators have gone up against all sorts of interesting obstacles in their line of work, and when you see how the Empire tries to protect witnesses and other people it takes a passing interest in--essentially, tossing them a set of easily distracted and bored bodyguards who don't really want to be there--it really stretches the imagination as to how they think that might be sufficient, let alone effective. It's quite sad, really. Either that, or they really think even less of people who aren't falconers than I suspected.

That's not to say that there's no point in protection. Keeping to the side of the road on a busy market day in Aerie might not guarantee you safety from being crushed under a set of wheels, but you're better off there than standing in the middle of the street and hoping traffic swerves around you. When one speaks of being untouchable, the Emperor or Empress is pretty much as close to that mythical status as one can get, and it seems to have worked well enough that there hasn't been an attempt to get rid of a reigning Emperor for quite some time, and only one has actually succeeded.

What I'm getting at is that if you're trying to protect someone like what we were doing with Brodik, my first recommendation would be to move the poor sop around, prevent whoever's after him or her from getting a firm grip on details and destroying any sense of routine and predictability. That wasn't quite possible in Brodik's case, so the alternative was to hole him up and try to cut as much as possible the chance that someone would get to him, which is what most people think of when they hear the word 'protection'. Try not to be overconfident, but also at the same time have enough faith in one's abilities to do what you can. As I've mentioned before, you can be good and lucky and know it, but you can't be good and lucky all the time.

#

It was morning when Brodik woke. Big surprise there. Arus had left some hours ago for the next town in order to lodge a report with the watch and check in with Aerie, leaving Kale and I to stand guard over Brodik. As I watched, he yawned, tried to stretch, and grunted in pain for his efforts.

"How do you feel?" I said.

"Everything aches. I do need to--pardon my language--take a piss."

"It could be worse. Be thankful for that," I told him, but helped him up and out to where he needed to be, then returned him to the bed when he was done. "Do you mind if I take a nap now?"

He frowned. "Why should you need my permission to do that?"

"Because, my dear piece of broiled mutton, I'm supposed to be watching you. Problem is, I'm being quite useless on account of having stared at you like an art exhibit for the whole night." And it was true. I might have lasted a little longer if Kale hadn't being weighing me down with thoughts of comfort and fluffiness, but then I'd already asked a lot of him; heck, he didn't even have the energy to speak, which is saying something. Falcons aren't nocturnal creatures, and training can only go so far towards denying one's nature. Brodik studied me for a moment, then laid back on his pillow.

"Well, I'm awake enough, and haven't got anything to do. I'll be sure to call out if someone stabs me."

"Wonderful. At least your sense of humour is recovering." I got a blanket, slumped in the armchair Arus had occupied last night, and tried to make myself comfortable. Kale perched himself on the back of the chair, and fell asleep almost instantly. I didn't have that kind of luck, though--I kept squirming in the chair as the sun crept in through the windows, which struck me as a bit odd, especially since how I'd nearly nodded off in the bath. Guess I couldn't get comfortable, but at the same time I didn't want to eat my words to Brodik, possibly out of sheer mule-headedness.

At last, he released me from my torment with a single word. "Lianne?"

"Yeah?"

"Why did you rescue me?"

I blinked the sleep from my eyes. "What?"

"I mean, I heard Arus mention last night that you were a facilitator. Did someone hire you to--"

"No," I said. "I'm on holiday. Even cruel, cold-blooded murderers need to unwind sometime."

He laughed at that, which wound down into a small coughing fit. "No, seriously. Why did you rescue me, then, if no one hired you to look out for me? You could have just walked by and pretended you hadn't seen anything."

"Do you really think that lowly of my profession?"

"Well, I've never heard of any of you stealing money for charity. Even highwaymen have their own honourable sorts, after a fashion, but you never hear of honourable facilitators."

In a way, he was right. Being a facilitator tends to attract a certain sort of person, and usually things have gone quite bad when we have to rein in our own. Still, there're nuts everywhere; is it so surprising we'd have some? Brodik's forthrightness was rather refreshing; I could see how he'd gotten fired from his job. "We're people, too. You know, the way I see things, most folks like to think of themselves as basically good, but I think of them as just ambling along, minding their own business. Sometimes people can't resist temptation, lose control of themselves, or have a conscience attack, and then they do things. It takes a little more effort to go further down either way, which is why that sort of person makes the newsprints."

"And that's how you see things?"

"Yeah. We may not be very glamorous, but still deserve your respect because we provide an essential service for the Empire. Sort of like sewer workers, if you want to draw a comparison." I sighed and tried to cover myself a little better with the blanket. "Why are we even having this conversation in the morning, anyway?"

"Because you can't sleep, and I'm lying down here with nothing to do. I'd ask you to get me some water, but that would be pushing it."

Yeah, it probably would. "Well, is there anything else about us you'd like to know? I'm feeling rather talkative today."

"Well…how do you justify what you do to yourself?"

Oh, goodness. Not that question again. Yes, I know I couldn't blame him for asking it, but having to answer that question over and over again does get tiring in social situations. I gave him the brief run-down I've already told you about--that essentially, an all-out House war would be worse than what we did. "It isn't the perfect solution, but then if we were looking for perfect solutions we'd never have done anything to start with. There's got to be a better way, yes, and we're still looking for it, but something has to be done in the meantime."

Brodik was silent for a while, long enough that I wondered if I should be checking his neck for a blowdart or something. Thankfully, he sat up with a groan and eyed me. "I see. Well, that was interesting. I feel like a spot of breakfast; would you care to join me?"

That's the life of a dashing rogue for you, discussing personal ethics one moment and thinking about food the next. My muscles and stomach had a brief argument, in which my stomach quickly emerged victorious. "I don't see why not, especially since there's a bird's chance in a storm that I'm going to manage this 'sleeping' thing. What do you want to eat?"

Eventually, I stuck my head out the door and called for a runner boy, who returned after a while with two helpings of hot porridge, some crackers and a side dish of preserved eggs. We mashed the eggs with our spoons, stirred it into the porridge and enjoyed the taste as best as we could, then scraped the bowls with the crackers. It was good.

"The eggs are boiled, then packed in local herbs which give them that flavour and texture," Brodik explained. "The recipe's been in the region for a while now."

"Mm." I would have said more, but then the door opened and a slightly harried-looking Arus stepped in. I could have sworn his eye twitched at the sight of breakfast, or maybe it was something else.

"Are we ready?" he said. "We've got a lot to do today."

The Green Tower

Chapter 18

Arus' "work" consisted of hauling Brodik out of bed and carrying him on our shoulders downstairs to a cart he'd chartered in town. I was tempted to ask him why he couldn't just translocate us to the tower, but shut up when I saw his bloodshot eyes. He'd probably used a spell to sustain himself; either that, a good quantity of alcohol or coffee, or any of a number of concoctions I know of, several of which are supposedly illegal. Maybe he'd had all of them, I don't know; whatever Arus had been taking to keep himself standing, I wanted some of it for myself. Kale complained when I picked him up, but fell straight asleep again on my shoulder with his talons digging into my shoulderpads. Just as well.

"Where are we going?" Brodik asked as we laid him down on the cart and pushed off, much to the hired driver's chagrin.

"I already told you; to the tower," Arus replied through his teeth. "It's the safest place we can think of."

"I don't like it."

"Well, I've already explained it to you. You're staying there until protection from Aerie arrives." Had he? I don't remember Arus explaining anything to Brodik, but then again I'd gotten to the point when I'd to concentrate to reliably put one foot in front of the other, so I guess it's natural that I'd miss some things. If this were a job I'd have brought along a potion or two in case I needed to keep fatigue at bay, but as I've said, one goes on holiday to forget work.

"I know the reasons, and understand why you're doing this," Brodik said. "I just don't like it. Oh, and you'll excuse me if I don't have the greatest faith in Imperial efficiency, generally speaking."

Arus made a rude noise. It was that or argue, and I think we all agreed that no one felt like arguing. There wasn't much left to say, so the three of us stayed silent and I let the gentle bumps of the Empire's well-built roads rub away some of the worries from my muscles. The next thing I knew, we'd stopped in front of the tower and Arus was shaking me awake.

"Lianne."

I groaned. My skin felt stretched, the way skin feels before blisters start forming over burns, but at least my head felt a little less stuffy than it'd been. "I'm here."

"Help…help me get Brodik into the tower, okay?" He turned to Brodik. "I'm sure you'll excuse us if we don't do a very good job of supporting you."

Brodik didn't say anything, but let me heft him upright while Arus tipped the driver and sent the bugger on his way. Between the two of us, we managed to get him through the tower gardens and all the way up to the door, the damned flying flowerpots staring at us as we passed under the fruit trees and rows of vegetables and flowers. I think I tried to find something witty and scathing to say about those damned songbirds, or maybe I'd meant to be deep and meaningful like how the birds were supposed to be unsleeping guardians of the tower, how it was in their nature to come and go yet they stayed, or some other nonsense on those lines. What I do remember is thinking to myself that if Elpe wasn't home, I'd find her and throw that frail little body of hers to the ground, maybe shatter every bone she had while I was as it. Good thing she answered the door when I knocked.

She stared. "Brodik!"

"He needs help," I said, my mouth a bit drier than what I was comfortable with. "Do you have a spare bed? Or two? Or three?"

"I--I'll make do," she said, and led me up the tower. I lost Arus somewhere near the end; he'd spotted a rather comfortable-looking rug in Elpe's bedroom and curled up on it, Alyssnd nestled by his stomach. I didn't blame him; I was feeling a little dizzy even after that short nap on the cart. Elpe tried to fill the empty space Arus had left, but the added weight wasn't something I enjoyed. Still, we got Brodik into his new bed, even if his feet stuck out over the edge like some idiot from a travelling carnival.

I might have laughed, if I still had the breath to spare. There was the rug under my feet, there was Arus snoozing contentedly away on it, and I very badly wished Elpe would go and light a fire in the fireplace to keep out the damn cold in the mountain air, which seemed to be biting with a vengeance this morning.

Then there was the rug again with all its largeness looming before me, its warm fuzziness against my skin, and Kale making happy, wordless noises into my mind, and then I slept.

#

Before I met Brodik, I'd met all sorts of people who had their gripes with the Empire for all sorts of reasons. I've met people who complained about their taxes, and claimed that the collectors were cheating them, making them pay more than what was owed so the balance could be skimmed off into the collectors' pockets. That might have held up five hundred years ago when a sizable proportion of the population didn't know that two added to two equalled four, but these days the excuse is just laughable. Besides, an Empire doesn't last a thousand years without good bookkeeping. As the joke goes, the Emperor has a secret room under the Imperial palace filled with nothing but kestrels and lanners, all dedicated to doing the Empire's accounts. After generations of nabbing tax evaders and crooked collectors alike and humiliating them in public, you think people would have learned.

Then there are others, say, who don't see why they should have to throw their lives away for someone else in a House war, and I have to agree with that. However, it's not the fault of the Empire in and of itself; it's the nature of war, which tends to be stupid and petty regardless of who started it in the first place. It was stupid back when chieftains were fighting for possession of the next hill, and it's still stupid now.

Where does that leave us? People from the poorer provinces coming to the cities and doing menial labour for a pittance? How horrible! How dare these provincials come into our lands and try to take our jobs! Never mind that the Emperor has been bugging the border lords and ladies to develop their territories despite the barbarians chipping away at the frontiers, we just want them out anyway, damned be the consequences! Other people don't like the way falconers carry themselves in public, but the way I see things, we're not different from other people. Yeah, there're falconers who're asses, but there're good people as well and everything in between, just like normal folks. Unless you're going to tell me that you've never known a single smarmy bastard in all of your existence?

That's why Brodik struck me as different. From what I've already told you, he had every reason to be pissed off at House Dorst for what they did to him, but he didn't. He'd had a life some would consider rather privileged, even if the path he took is technically open to everyone, yet let no one shame or unnecessarily praise him for working his way above the flock. He'd gone to the Empire seeking not revenge against the House that'd used him and his colleagues, but out of concern for what he'd thought was a true danger, and gotten rebuffed for daring to care about what happened to other people, simply because no one believed that it was impossible for someone to not have an ulterior motive in ratting out one of the Houses.

And even today when I think back to all that happened in my time at Barajov, I can't help but compare it to when all the whiny little bastards complain about the Empire only in the way it affects them and no one else, as if--as if the world is just a bubble with only them in it and everyone else is just incidental. I know I'm being a hypocritical bitch in saying this, but that's what made Brodik such an oddity in all the jobs I've done, on a professional basis or otherwise.

I know the Empire's atmosphere isn't exactly conducive to altruism, but…damn. Pass me the wine bottle, I damn well need more of the stuff just to think about this. On second thoughts, forget it; it'd just be like drinking sewage. Are there really so few people like Brodik, that he should stand out in my memories that strongly?

It's something to think about on a sleepless night, isn't it?

#

Legend claims that the first falconer never really had the best of relationships with her bird; that they argued and fought too much, even for falconer and falcon. That can be pretty much expected, considering things hadn't really been worked out yet, and both sides were as caustic and egoistical as this sort of relationship's can ever be. The reason I'm telling you this is because there and then I felt like I was in one of those mythical fights--being pretty much pecked to death by my own falcon who was bloody-minded enough to not care about the consequences. Craziness, an incurable and usually fatal disease.

"Wake up, chum. C'mon, wake up. You've been on the floor for long enough."

"Bbrblbrblbl."

When I refused to budge, Kale puttered over to my face and pecked me hard on the nose. Oh goodness, did he have to resort to that? I squirmed about on the rug in the most undignified manner for a few moments, then gave in to Kale's insistence and sat up, wishing for a warm bath. Several splotches of red had appeared on my arms, although they were nowhere as bad as Brodik's, and I resolved to look around for a better heat-resistance spell in case I ever needed to wade into a burning house again.

"How long have I been out?"

"About several hours, I think. It's somewhere around mid-afternoon now, anyway."

"Ugh."

"How'd you feel?"

I closed my eyes, clenched my fists and willed away the last vestiges of sleep. "Like someone stuffed dirty rags into my mouth and left them there for far too long. You?"

"Fair enough, chum. The damn birds let Alyssnd and me out to go find num-nums. I don't think there's a single scrap of meat in this whole tower, even if you asked."

"Huh." No meat. Hard to imagine such a thing when it applied to me, but I could see Elpe living off cut fruit and tea. She'd probably die horribly of indigestion if she tried to eat anything else, poor little waif that she was. Either that, or choke on a bone.

"Damn it, chum, I hate those birds. They're just so…creepy. Wrong. Even she--" he cocked his head at Alyssnd, pecking worriedly at Arus' sleeping form-- "feels it, much more strongly than I do. It's only because of Arus that she's even here."

"Hmm." I decided I'd had enough of the floor, and pushed myself upright. Arms, working. Legs, still functional, if not perfect. All right, my not-dying campaign was still going strong, considering what I'd been through. Arus looked so pitiful that I didn't even consider waking him, and I wandered downstairs to the kitchen in the hope of finding the mistress of the tower. Turned out Elpe did have something besides tea and cut fruit; she was busy cooking up a pot full of milk-based oat porridge, and nodded at me as I approached. Damn, it smelled good.

"Lianne."

"Hey."

"Brodik told me what happened while the both of you were sleeping. You're very brave, Lianne. I wouldn't have dared to do something like that."

Out of sheer habit, I scrutinised her face for any hint of sarcasm, but found nothing save that blank simplicity she always had. Call me a bastard, but it really annoys me when people don't behave the way I expect them to.

"Would you mind going up to the storeroom and getting some of Brodik's old magazines from the closet? He's left so much here over the years, and well, I know how much he doesn't like being bored. I'd do it myself, but…" she waved at the steaming pot.

"Least I can do," I replied, working the last of the aches out of my shoulders. "Where's the storeroom?"

"The top floor, above the bathroom."

Well, that made sense. Up the spiral stairs I went, past Arus and all the way until the steps ended. The storeroom was rather neat and well-aired, with old furniture and cardboard boxes full of stuff stacked on top of one another. There was a smaller version of the bed Brodik was currently lying in, as well as a few other things of the sort a grown man who doesn't really understand children might buy for a girl--things like a pair of white high-heeled shoes, several rather sad-looking stuffed cloth birds, old books, their words and colours faded and yellowed. Then there were things Brodik must have forgotten about on his visits to the tower, because I really couldn't see Elpe being interested in, say, an antique wand. She'd saved it anyways, carefully putting it away in a box, maybe awaiting the day Brodik might remember it again.

I was looking at Elpe's history, all neatly wrapped up and preserved. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine that I'd dropped something on my visits here that she'd saved, or she'd kept the first coins Arus had paid her for her singing and put them away in one of these boxes.

It was all a bit surreal, if you understand what I'm trying to say. There was a closet in the wall, but it was locked tight and wouldn't budge when I pulled on the handle. Heck, I was wishing I'd at least brought along a set of picklocks when--

"What's going on here?"

Elpe sounded more than a little worried, and I wondered why. "Well, you asked me to get the magazines from the closet, so I--"

"Oh, I forgot." She moved past me and struggled with a few of the boxes, moving them away from the wall to reveal another handle. "There're two closets in here. I was worried something might have happened; it's a bit cluttered and well…things do fall."

It was a lie, only made worse by the fact that she was a terrible liar considering how much her face coloured. Quite pitiful, really. Then again, I suppose it had the intended effect, because I dropped the subject and pulled open the closet she'd pointed out. The magazines that flopped onto my feet were on the lines of New Mechatronics Journal or Frontier Magic, the earliest being dated a few years ago; seemed like Brodik had been keeping up with his fellows even after his forced retirement. There were other magazines, too, all of them issues of Runic Fabricators Weekly, with some of them much, much older than the other titles. Interesting hobby, that. I carried the magazines down to Brodik, who was staring up at the ceiling and looking vaguely bored.

"What's this?" he said.

"Elpe told me to bring them to you. She thought you might want some reading material while in bed."

The corners of Brodik's mouth jerked upwards. "So that's where all these went. And I always wondered."

"You seem to be in rather good spirits for someone who's just had his home and livelihood burnt down."

The smile vanished from Brodik's face. "Thinking about it isn't going to do me any good. I have insurance, which should be enough to get me back on my feet, and what was supposed to be my retirement fund. Besides, do you think I'm likely to be doing any work with things as they are?"

I looked askance. "Guess not. To pluck the other feather, even if you didn't have any of those, the whole of Barajov would probably flock to help you."

"They're good people," he said, before he sighed and reached for one of the dusty magazines. "They don't deserve to have this happen to them. You're a good person too, Lianne."

"Who, me?"

"Yes, you."

The Green Tower

Chapter 19

Well. To think I was supposed to be a good woman. If I were a good woman, what did that make the average chum in the street? A philanthropist?

I reached for Kale, half-regretting it as a stiffness appeared in my wings, wings I knew I didn't have and shouldn't have felt as if they were moulting on the spot. "Hey."

"What, chum?" Kale mumbled sleepily.

"Do you think we're good people?"

"That information is restricted to members of the falcon species. Move along now; nothing to see here." With that, he tucked his head under a wing and went straight back to sleep.

Well, so much for resolving moral issues. Elpe came up with a bowl of the oat porridge she'd been cooking earlier--I guess it made sense to serve Brodik porridge--and set it on the side table. I moved to give her space, felt something shift in my pocket, and remembered something.

I pulled out the wands I'd taken off the dead guys and waved them in Brodik's face. "Do you recognise these?"

He looked over the top of the magazine he was holding and thinned his lips. "Oh, I'd recognise that model anywhere. Personal defence weapons, only issued to security officers employed by House Dorst. Saw some version of them every day for at least fifteen years of my life, maybe more." He hesitated a moment. "where did you get these?"

"Off the guys who attacked you last night." I guessed Brodik's story was reasonable--if I'd wanted to finger someone as behind an attack, I'd use something a layman would fall for, like the much-used note of commission, or maybe a House seal. Definitely not something only a handful of people would recognise. Maybe I should take them down to a fence when all this was done, get a quick valuation done.

Brodik just looked sad and set down his magazine before he turned his attention to the porridge. "I thought as much."

"Do you want me to leave one of them with you? You know, until we can go back and get the one we left in the inn?"

"Not much point, I'd imagine; if the situation ever arose that I'd need to shoot someone, it'd probably already be too late for us. Feel free to keep them."

Elpe stared at me like I'd caught something rather disfiguring and contagious. "You took things that belonged to dead people?"

"Well, yeah. They had a bit of money, too. Not as if they were going to need their stuff anymore, so there wasn't any point in letting them go to waste. Besides, I was looking for clues and they'd been trying to kill me."

Well, go ahead and blame me if she still managed to look crestfallen despite me trying to be as nice as possible about the whole matter. Maybe it's a good thing Elpe couldn't leave the tower; she wouldn't have survived in the real world for a day. Better to let her live alone in her little domain with her flowerpot guardians and imagine the world was filled with sunshine and pigeons.

Brodik reached out with a bandage-wrapped hand and shook her gently by the shoulder. "It's all right," he said. "Why don't the two of you go down and get yourselves something to eat? The rest of the porridge isn't going to finish itself, you know."

It was all right, or at least, it became all right to Elpe. Because Brodik had said so, and that made it all right. Now, if only I could have gotten Brodik to say something on the lines of all the Houses of the Empire playing nice together and the problems of poverty and hunger were now solved, all of our lives would be much easier now.

Bah. The porridge was passable, I guess; I guess Elpe didn't get much practice, cooking for one. She busied herself with the dishes when we were done, and I went back to check on Arus, who was stirring on the rug. Alyssnd had given trying to wake him some time ago and was perched on his belt, spreading her tail and chippering angrily at Kale and me as we approached.

"Oh come on," I told the little moon falcon. "We aren't going to hurt him."

She gave me a look that said and how do I know that? before hopping onto Arus' arm and doing the same thing all over again. I prodded him with my boot; when that failed to rouse him I took the most logical course of action: I prodded him again. He made various unintelligible sleepy noises.

"Come on, get up. You've been out most of the day; that should be long enough. It's already evening."

"Ugh…" He tried to push himself upright, failed, and lay there for several moments before trying again. Alyssnd chirped worriedly. I'm not sure what Brodik thought of the whole matter--he could see us from where he was lying down--but he damn well seemed extremely interested in his magazine.

"Come on."

"Lianne, if I ever suggest using any form of stimulant in the future to get around having to stop and rest, please slap me. Hard."

"Gladly. What did you use? Nudberry leaves? Rednuts? Or just plain old tea?"

Arus just shook his head and rubbed his temples. "Nothing I want to tell you about. We should get word back from Aerie by tomorrow. I'm quite sure they'll be willing to spare a few more resources to--yes, I said I'm sorry for putting you through all that, would you please stop trying to snap my finger in two, because it's not helping matters at all." He rubbed his bruised finger from where Alyssnd had bitten it, and started staggering towards the stairs. "Damn it, I need to wash my face. But yes, for now, we take a breather and wait. Weren't you supposed to be on holiday, Lianne?"

Why yes, I was. But as everyone knows, there's no true rest for the morally bankrupt.

#

Have you ever seen an aplomado create a localised rainstorm? The prominent theory is that the birds themselves lived in arid areas, so they developed this particular power because being hot and thirsty is annoying. Naturally, the humans to whom they attached themselves to found themselves much in demand, and from there it's all so much history.

But it's an interesting thing to watch, especially since aplomado falconers are a bit rare. You can have a completely clear sky one moment, with the bloody sun trying to kill you, and the next moment the clouds have started gathering on the horizon. Even then, some people can be oblivious as to what's happening as the clouds start piling up and getting all angry looking. They can just sit there in their beam of light, apparently not noticing that the sunny patch they're standing in is getting crowded out by the clouds the falconer's called in, up till the point where you can swear that they must have been blind to not notice what's going on above them. Maybe they're telling themselves that it's all right, that they can still see the sky, and it can't happen to them.

Guess what? It can, and when it does start pouring, it's too late to avoid getting wet.

Much like with the rain clouds, people are excellent are not seeing things they don't want to see. I'll admit that even knowing this fact, there've been times that I missed an important detail on a job or messed up, not because I wasn't paying attention or hadn't done the planning, but just hadn't thought such a thing might be possible. I don't think my examples are quite relatable to you, but…let's try something common, then. How many people do you know who aren't peregrines, yet think about the world beyond the Empire? Wonder what might be beyond the Roof of the World to the north, or if there's any end to the barbarians a little off to the west?

Don't be in a rush to give your answer, I want you to think about it. How many people? The Empire's so bloody wide that it's got pretty much every landform known to us. I mean, what could the outside world have that we don't already? We are great. We are wonderful. Mere barbarians being able to do anything better than us? Preposterous, isn't it?

That's the way people have been brought up to think, whether they had their lessons from private tutors, in a proper schoolhouse or from travelling teachers who do two cabbages' or a loaf of bread's worth of education. I don't know what's worse; acknowledging that there's something out there but dismissing it out of hand as being worse than what we have here, or not thinking about it at all. Whatever the case, it's cost us, not just in terms of the border lords and ladies' complaints at every Imperial convocation, but…ugh, I can't talk about this. It hasn't been declassified yet, you know? Let's just say there were some very special people beyond our borders, they came into the Empire and did inappropriate things, and it was because of this sort of thinking that they managed to succeed quite well before Arus and I caught on and stopped them. That resulted in me being freed from my status as a bondservant, Arus getting a pardon and us having that dinner with the Emperor I was telling you about earlier.

When facts don't match up with beliefs, people tend to find it easier to lie to themselves than to change what they believe.

Maybe it's impossible to get rid of this lying-to-yourself thing completely--after all, if you honestly don't know the rain clouds are coming, you can't run for cover. If you don't know you're deluding yourself, you can't do something about it. But I've seen it so often--people just want to believe in their beam of light, even as the clouds converge. And if they avoid getting completely drenched they tell themselves "never again", and go on to do the exact same thing all over again, only in a different sunny spot.

It's really sort of depressing, when you think about it.

#

"Hold still," I told Kale as I examined his feathers.

"Oh, I'm holding still, I'm holding still. But you try sticking out your arms for half an hour on end, and let's see how much you like it. Can't you be faster?"

"Not too bad, I guess. Only one damaged feather on this wing. You take care now, all right? Don't get into a fight with Alyssnd over something stupid; I've got nothing to imp your feathers with."

Kale strutted off and began to preen himself, and I moved onto giving Alyssnd a look-over. Well, technically Arus was supposed to do this job himself as is expected of any falconer, but he was busy talking to Brodik and I needed something to keep my hands and mind occupied. You'll excuse me if I didn't choose to go out to the gardens with Elpe, at least not with a whole flock of those white mynahs watching my every move. For someone who's lived the way I have, I think you'll agree that the idea of being observed that way is…disturbing, to put it mildly.

"Hey, chum. She wants me to let you know the only reason she's not footing and biting the crap out of you is that Arus hold her to behave. Oh, and also because Arus trusts you and she doesn't want to make him upset."

"You know, that's two reasons."

"Tell her that."

"My, aren't we cranky today?"

"Hey, this place makes all of us uncomfortable."

Moon falcons are but one of the many animals that've managed to figure out some sort of basic magic; wild ones will stun their prey with a small energy discharge to make the job of breaking necks easier. In any case, it meant that Alyssnd's feathers were in better shape than Kale's. It might have been something to be proud of, depending on which of the two falcons in front of me you asked.

"Oh, she also wants you to know she doesn't like the way you're touching her."

"What? I'm not doing anything improper."

"Beats me, chum. She's just saying it's not the way Arus does it."

Oh. That.I looked down at Alyssnd. She looked back. "You're fine," I told her. "Go back to Arus. On second thoughts, I'll take you there. Shouldn't he be done already?"

Alyssnd just glared at me like I was an idiot. Fine. I took both falcons, one on each shoulder, and went up the stairs to the bedroom. Arus was standing--albeit a bit unsteadily--by Brodik's bedside, and they were having some sort of argument.

"It's not that I don't have faith in your testimony, but we have to have airtight proof of some sort if we're going to go up against one of the lesser Houses. You said you smuggled copies of the defective blueprints out; they could help. Unless they were in your home when it burned down, that is…"

"No," Brodik replied. "They're in my safe-deposit box at one of the local banks. A single man's home burning down isn't too much of a problem, but the same thing happening to a bank--" he broke into a bitter chuckle. "Ah, that's the way of the world."

"That's excellent. I'm sure I'll be able to take it straight to the Imperial investigators, considering how important this is. That, and with the local watch alerted to what's happened to you, there shouldn't be any problem getting at least some sort of action taken."

"You really believe that, young man? You really believe that they'll actually be bothered to do anything?"

Uh-oh. The skin on the back of my neck tingled. Knowing Arus, this was about to get interesting. "It may not be perfect, but every Imperial citizen does have a right to recourse. You, I or anyone off the street could waltz into the Imperial palace so long as the Kestrel's Gate is open and petition the Emperor directly. There're methods built into the system to make change or bring us matters."

"And how many folks actually have the money or guts to go travel to the capital to see the Emperor? Ruled by a man or woman they'll never see or hear from, and pretend the very real House that actually matters to them--"

"The peasants in Duntra, that's who; they sent a representative to petition the Emperor, and succeeded in stopping that dam from being built. The Houses are not above reproach; just less than a hundred years ago during reign of the third saker Empress, Houses Alero and Tanbel were stripped of their status and lands by the convocation for being unnecessarily cruel--"

"You think I don't know that? I can admire your enthusiasm, young man, but the reality is that you've been sheltered--"

"I won't deny that I've had a better start than most, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't assume that just because I have a bird following me around that I'm an evil bastard who has nothing better to do than to crush the peasantry under my feet, much less if one's a fifth child who's been deemed so-called surplus to requirements. Can't we just admit we want the same thing?"

I looked back and forth between Brodik and Arus, and decided I didn't want to get caught up in this argument, not when both of them were seated in their little beams of sunlight and refusing to budge.

The Green Tower

Chapter 20

In my experience, a job can usually be likened to a siege; long periods of quiet punctuated by comparatively brief periods of frenzied activity. Look at it this way; planning takes up a huge amount of the time you'll need to pull something off successfully, working out the whos, whens, wheres, and hows. Then when you actually go out and get the job done, there still may be plenty of waiting involved; I remember one of the first few jobs I did had me hunkered down in an alleyway behind the target's favourite bar, getting there before dawn before his protection secured the area and waiting all the way until he left the place and came within reach so I could hurl a dagger into the back of his neck.

I nearly didn't make the getaway. Let's just say being scrunched up for four hours on end isn't good for your circulation. It was a mistake, but they made a mistake, too. Their mistake was bigger than mine, so it all turned out well for me. Not for the sucker, though.

Back to the point. I knew there was something big going down in the locality of Barajov, but damn it, there was nothing I could really do until either something happened or Arus pointed a target out to me and said "kill". He was the one with the capability to make my leads make sense, but was more interested in getting into arguments with Brodik than actually taking another look at that heap of blue gunk we were still carrying around.

Sounds like I'm making up excuses for myself, huh? Maybe I was. I could have tried to dig up more dirt on what the local folk thought of this whole business, maybe, but Kale wanted to fly and this time around I was inclined to join him. We went a little way away from the tower, I threw him from my fist, and found some nice pebbles to throw about while Kale did his thing. I'd have gone to the lake to skip them, but I couldn't really think of it without wondering if there was a huge sea of ooze and corroded metal waiting down on the lakebed. At least the long grass of the downs weren't enough to really hide anything like that; not in broad daylight.

"What's going down there?"

"Hold on, chum. A picture's worth a thousand words, eh?"

A faint itching behind my eyes, and then I knew what Kale was seeing. When I was young this particular exercise was always a bit fuzzy, but practice makes perfect. I took a deep breath, grabbed hold of the image of the old, scraggly tree Kale had sent me, wound my arm back, and threw. The pebble sailed through the air and rapidly vanished from sight. Not that it was going to hit anything of use, but it still made me feel better about this whole mess, anyway.

"Right on target."

"Oh, goody."

"Want another go?"

Maybe when this was over, I'd get another vacation--and this time that'd mean just lying down in my chambers back in House Escobar and sleeping the day away. At the very least, one has to make an effort to get into trouble by lazing about. Well, you know what I mean.

"Enjoying yourself?"

I turned. Well, that did it. I'd seen Arus tired, worried, upset, smarmy, frightened, unconscious and now I could add sour to that list. That was one more less to go before I'd experienced the many emotions of Arus Hazzard and could complete the masterpiece I was painting on the ceiling of my chambers back in House Escobar.

"Sort of," I said. "As well as I can, I guess. Finished arguing?"

"He's a stubborn old man."

"And he probably sees you as an idealistic young upstart." I shrugged. "What's the difference? Besides, you'd be lying to yourself if you thought falconers haven't been doing a good job of setting themselves above the flock."

Arus scowled. "So you're on his side?"

"I'd like to think I'm above silly arguments like this one is, and that involves pointing out to a certain person that he once technically committed treason to bring the wonders of modern technology to the underprivileged. So yeah, when did you stop wanting to rock the boat?"

"That was different. There really wasn't another way back then, seeing as how people won't even believe there's anything worthwhile beyond the border. In Brodik's case, there's actually completely legal recourse provided for his concerns, and if he believes that they don't work--" Arus sighed, let Alyssnd hop onto his fist and threw her into the air after Kale. "Look, I don't want to have this argument all over again, so could we please cut it? I'm going into town tomorrow to get Brodik's blueprints and check if we've had any news from Aerie. Want to come along?"

"I don't see why not."

#

There are some people who believe in "light magic" and "dark magic", and some of them even go to the extent as to attach all sorts of silly tags to various self-imposed subdivisions of the craft, like…like…hold on, let me try to come up with the most hilarious example I've heard so far--ah, yes. "Blood magic."

These people also tend to be shocked and horrified when they learn that I can end someone with my eating dagger, then after a bit of cleaning, use it to cut my bread, meat, vegetables and cheese. Somehow, this is utter sacrilege, despite the fact that the practice originated not with me but with Empire troops, who used their shortswords to do the job when kitchen knives weren't at hand.

If you haven't caught on already, I think the whole idea is stupid.

Your average dagger is so much tempered steel, worked nicely into the shape it is and maybe given a cheap spell or two to keep its edge, prevent rust and generally keep it in working condition. Throw in a good hilt, grip and proper balancing, and you have something anyone would be proud to own. Now, I won't deny that there are different short blades suited for different purposes, and I wouldn't use a paring knife as my first weapon of choice in a pinch, but to go beyond the sensible and somehow attribute ethics and morality to a handspan's worth of steel--well, I may be stupid, but I still damn well don't get it. Somehow, if I kill someone with a dagger, that dagger becomes tainted. Cursed. Evil. Now, if someone accused me of being evil, at least I can see where they're coming from. But to claim simple metal gains some sort of intangible moral aura about it…

Ugh, just thinking about it makes my brain hurt.

I'm sure you've heard about rival farmers' spats, where one of them goes and hires a sorcerer to "curse" the other's field with "dark magic" so that the crops will fail. Some of these feuds are quite hilarious when you look on them as an outsider, but the interesting thing is that they think of such spells as "dark magic". Well, guess what? By that extent, every single farmer in the whole bloody Empire uses "dark magic", because the so-called "curse" is just a slightly reworked version of the usual weedkill spell the farmers themselves use on their fields. The only difference is that the bits of the spell that tell it "don't kill the wheat" are taken off along with various other failsafes, and if they knew the trick, the recipient of such a "curse" could just unravel the spell without much effort or training.

Don't take my word for it. Maybe I'm missing something important, or I'm just blind to a plain truth that so many other people are capable of seeing, but trying to claim a tool is somehow inherently evil for what it can do when placed in certain hands is just dumb. There's no logical reason a dagger is evil, but it does have a bad reputation despite that. What makes it more baffling is when you compare it to a sword, which does all of the things a dagger is supposedly reviled for, and yet has no such stigma attached. There's no logical reason certain spells should be evil--and Arus is backing me up on this--yet some people insist on seeing them that way, even when we use said spells in some form on a regular basis. A crime is committed, a criminal is caught, and the tool is blamed. I can understand other arguments for restricting certain types of magic--too unwieldy and dangerous without adequate training or equipment, too much potential for misuse when not under proper supervision, heck, even because it might be dangerous for the peasantry to have access to that kind of power--

But evil?I'm not going to pretend to understand it, because I don't.

#

It was night when Arus and I pushed through the inn's front entrance and staggered towards the restaurant; thank goodness they still hadn't closed up for the night and we were still able to order a large steamed trout served in light sauce and ginger shreds. Fresh from one of the local rivers, or so the waiter assured us; I don't think I'd have been able to stomach it otherwise. I don't quite remember what it tasted of--it didn't taste good, that much I can remember, but it didn't taste of ashes and seawater, either. Maybe the reason I don't remember much of that was that it didn't taste of anything at all; you can't form a memory if there's nothing for it to be formed on, eh? I'm sure it was wonderful with all sorts of flavours from the waters and the land, but my tongue registered nothing.

Finally, when both sides of the fish were bones and I'd gnawed on the head for a while in the hopes of actually getting some flavour out--you should try it sometime, fish eyes are really good when properly prepared--Arus sighed, wiped his mouth with his napkin and looked up at me.

"Do you mind staying up tonight? Just a little; this shouldn't take too long."

"I don't mind, so long as it's for a good cause."

"Do you, chum? Because I don't."

"You've only yourself to blame."

"Like you said, the food here is blessed by the waters and the land. Can't blame me if I overeat a little, eh?"

"When we get back, I am so making sure you get back down to proper flying weight."

Arus must have been having his own conversation with Alyssnd, for she left his shoulder and fluttered off in the direction of our room. He turned back to me. "That spell-orb holding Elpe's singing--I'm going to run a divination on it tonight, and I might need your help at some point."

"You aren't a kestrel."

"No, but I am a sorcerer, and I can try. I said I would do it, and I am."

Well, how could I say no? I told Arus as much, and let his shoulders sag and drummed his fingers on the tabletop.

"That's good," he said at last.

"What are we looking for?"

Arus lowered his voice. Not that it really mattered; anyone vaguely attentive and with the intention of eavesdropping on us could still have heard the whole thing. "I've made my own study of the young lady. You were right, Lianne; she doesn't get dirty, she seems to live off fruit and tea alone, and all the other oddities we've noticed…it's only this afternoon that I realised what truly disturbed me about her."

"What? The fact that little miss Elpe actually has a sense of humour? Or maybe all her magazines aren't sorted in alphabetical order by title or publication? How about the fact that she doesn't seem to understand the wonderful joys of sarcasm? I know that's a huge crime in my book."

"Be serious, Lianne."

"All right, you've got me stumped. Was it the birds? Because I'd be damn unsettled if a huge flock of them mobbed me like they did to you."

"It's the way she moves, Lianne. She doesn't move right. Oh, it's well hidden, but noticeable if you think about it, which I wasn't."

I dredged up the still-fresh memories from my mind, and Kale helpfully supplied his version of the events. Yes, she did tend to waft a bit, but that could only be expected of someone like her. It was…a little incongruous, to put it, but I'd never thought of it as a great cause for concern. Well, not until Arus pointed it out.

"How so?" I said.

"There are differences in the way men and women walk--"

I cut him off with a wave of my hand. "Yeah, I know that already; best way to see through some disguises. Get to the point."

"She doesn't do either. I know enough basic anatomy to realise that."

"Well then, what does she move like?"

"I don't know. That," he said, tapping his nose, "is what I intend to find out."

I thought back to Elpe and her long, flowing gown. The gown, some variant of which she always wore and covered up most of her body…

Ugh.

"Don't be worried, chum. You were just too sour with her actually talking to your man that you failed to notice it. So much for being professional."

"Say that again, you cheeky bastard, and I will hit you no matter how much pain it brings me." I turned back to Arus. "You think she's not quite human."

"I'd rather not go in with preconceptions, but if you asked me to guess from what we already know, I'd say those would be my suspicions."

"All right. Let's get back and do this, then. How can I help?" At that point, I probably would have gone along with anything crazy Arus suggested out of sheer shame, but I'll say this for him: he knows when not to push matters.

"Just to observe and give your thoughts. Oh, and to rip the spell off its anchor and destroy it if it goes out of hand."

That's what you get for having magic fingers; people want to take advantage of you all the time. "Any other suggestions?"

"Don't mess up."

"Sounds good."

"Does it?"

"Yeah, it does." That shut Kale up.

We paid the tab, and feeling better for the meal, went up to our room. Room service had been in and changed the sheets on the bed--a nice touch--and generally cleaned things up, so it wasn't all bad; Arus set down his pack, reached into it and drew out the glassy orb.

"Her singing is lovely," he said more than a little wistfully.

"Yet our falcons think it's the most horrible noise ever."

"With any luck, we'll figure out why."

Arus pulled up two chairs to the side table, sat down in one of them, and began. Although I've witnessed a kestrel perform a divination before, I won't deny that I was hoping for at least a few flashing lights and tinkling noises. Although to put things in perspective, Kale would probably shed all his feathers before those came from any one of Arus' spells. He set the orb on the table, placed his fingers on it, and hummed a small tune. Not that it was magical, unless the meat song was some ancient ritual preserved in code; he probably wanted to calm his nerves or focus his concentration or something. Still didn't stop me from hating it. He closed his eyes and stopped the damned humming, and while I wasn't sure what he was currently looking for, he'd managed to get something after a minute or two of this nonsense. A swirl of colour formed in the air above his hands, coalescing into something clearer, sharper--

Bah. To make a long story short, I saw a brief image of a mynah. Short, stocky and white with black at the wing and tail tips, like those that infested the tower gardens. Arus opened his eyes and stared at the image, then it flickered and was gone.

"Interesting," he said. "Of course! That was it; she moves like one of her birds. Little wonder I never heard her footsteps."

A mynah.

And then I thought I had it; the last piece fit in nicely. All I had to do now was to test the theory and see whether the assembled puzzle would match the board. "Hey, I thought of something. Would it be possible to turn someone into an animal, or the other way around?"

He furrowed his brows. "Hmm…I don't know…"

I stifled a yawn. "Just say yes or no."

"Theoretically, it's possible, but the energies involved would be far too great and unstable for any such transfiguration to be practical. If we could turn people into animals, no one would have to farm anymore, because we'd be turning rocks into bread and water into wine." He took a deep breath, and I prepared myself for a long explanation. "Let's keep the language simple. The closer something is what you want to change it into, the easier it is to get it done. Even then, still impractical."

"Okay, I'm following."

"To turn someone into a small, harmless animal like the stories tell would not only be immensely difficult in terms of activation energy, but also who or whatever was changed would keep on trying to revert to what it knows it's supposed to be. Unless you crafted a self-sustaining loop--a minor miracle in itself--there'd be no way to support the deed even if you got it done."

"Like how people have to renew the spells on their homes every twenty years to prevent the walls from falling apart?"

Arus nodded. "Something like that. It's why you can rip a spell off its anchor with those hands of yours and not have it go awry. Back to the point; if you turned a rock into a loaf of bread, chances are it'd probably change back in your stomach. Most uncomfortable, to say the least."

Well, there went my theory. And I thought it was a good one, too. Such a spell wouldn't be possible, although…

Something for nothing. Wasn't that what Brodik had said, something for nothing, the dream that so many people wanted to believe in? If it cost nothing, wouldn't that mean there could be as much something as we wanted?

But was the dream even realistic, or just something made up to catch the minds of the public? And even if it worked, who could have realised it could be used the way I was thinking it might have been, and why?

"See? I told you it was stupid, chum. You really believed someone had that much time to go turn a bird into a person? Whatever for? We're already superior."

Screw it, I didn't have to put up with this.

The Green Tower

Chapter 21

"But it'd all make sense," I protested. "The way she moves, her diet, the way those mynahs seem to love her and obey her every word for no perceptible reason at all--all those would be so easily explained if she were one of them."

"Lianne…" Arus rubbed his eyes and put the spell-orb away. "I would love for it to fit together, too, but we can't ignore basic laws of nature just because we want to believe in something. It's that line of thinking that ends up with people falsifying research findings."

"Explain your findings, then."

"It could have been denoting her love for the birds. There're plenty of ways for people to have connections with birds without being on themselves. Or I could have made a mistake. You know as well as I do that divination is a tricky business." He sighed. "I really shouldn't have tried it. We are getting desperate, aren't we?"

"So even with the output of the converters--"

"Wouldn't be enough, even at industrial-strength ratings. It's not about the absolutes in this matter, it's about the rates, and as I said, it'd destabilise too quickly. Now will you give up the idea of people being turned into birds, Lianne? You'd have to go against a number of the basic laws to do that, and I'm not about to ignore conservation of potential for the sake of my ego. If we were to rewrite any of the basic laws we'd have to overhaul the way we look at the world, because that'd mean everything the academic community has been working on for the last few hundred years has been flawed. Somehow, I don't think you're the one to do that."

"Then who would?"

"Me, for one." He rubbed Alyssnd's belly, smoothing down the pale feathers, then sagged back in the armchair and drew a blanket over himself. "Good night, Lianne. There's more work to be done tomorrow."

"One last thing, Arus."

"Yes?"

"Play along with a small thought experiment, please. What if you did manage to do it?"

"Why, all chances would be you'd end up with something human-shaped but a complete, babbling idiot, unable to work his or her strange new limbs and probably incapable of even breathing properly, resulting in a quick death. Does that answer your question?"

"Yeah, it does. Goodnight."

It was anything but a good night. Arus slept well enough, the lucky bastard, but I kept tossing and turning in bed until Kale yelled at me to either sort out the mess in my head or forget it and go to sleep, because if I wasn't about to get my rest he wanted some for himself. Not that I could stop thinking about it, but at least I tried to keep it down.

If Elpe wasn't a bird, what was she? The simplest explanation for her behaviour was that she was an idiot and Brodik had put her in the tower to keep her away from pointing fingers, but that didn't explain her physical oddities. So she was an idiot and deformed? The latter didn't match up; yes, she was thin and waifish, but as far as I could tell, all her arms and legs were in the right places. Besides, none of those explained the fruit or the way the birds protected and obeyed her.

Maybe Kale was right, and I was just a jealous bitch who wanted to believe that Elpe had somehow dirtied her hands in this whole mess; I mean, no matter what she was or where she lived, she'd never bothered anyone and the residents of Barajov had only good things to say about her. Maybe I just wanted to hold onto my bloody-minded cynicism and oust her from behind that facade of a sweet, innocent young woman who still believed the world was a good place and could still react to things with wide-eyed wonder.

Well, I believed it was a facade. Or wanted to believe it. Or…you get the idea. I waited for Kale to come up with a snide, snappish remark about how Elpe had helped me find my true feminine nature, but he was well and truly asleep, his soft, feathery belly heaving in and out. Somehow, the lack of Kale's wit just made me feel worse.

It was some time before I did manage to fall sleep.

#

The Imperial investigators are not people you want to trifle with, or even meet on a good day. I know a number of parents who tell their children that if they misbehave, the Imperial investigators are going to come and take them away in their sleep.

This is a lie. They don't take children away from their beds. Well, not unless they happen to be a threat to the Emperor or Empress, or might have the potential to destabilise the Empire's integrity--I remember there was one time when there was this daughter from House--look, never mind, all right? My point is that they don't do half the things they're supposed to have done, which are almost all bad.

Great choice of name for horrible, invisible monsters, isn't it? Investigators?

The half that they do take care of, though, is important. Keeping tabs on the Houses, for one. Making sure facilitators like me don't get too out of hand, the same way they keep tabs on what most major sorcerers are currently poking around into. Protecting the reigning Emperor or Empress--which is one of the main reasons why he or she is untouchable, as I said earlier. They're trained by the best the Empire can muster, professional and well-funded; compared to them, the likes of me or Arus can't really compare. No, we have to question people and deal with lies and half-truths, instead of sticking them in isolation tanks and ripping what they know straight out of their heads. With a warrant, of course, so it's all legal. At least it's better than what people used to do long ago when they wanted answers, so…

There's no doubt that the Imperial investigators are good at what they do, but it's not impossible to get around them. Two interesting cases I know of in this respect are the Firebird, because she was that skilled, and the rather special people from beyond our borders I was telling you about, because there was no reasonable chance the investigators could have been prepared for that sort of subversive attack on the Empire. But at the end of the day, they're still human, even the falconers amongst them. There's no known falcon whose power that accounts for the blind spots we humans tend to have, and the birds themselves…well, sometimes they help, and sometimes they don't.

That's how all the troubles get started. Yes, the investigators might report directly to the Emperor, yes, they might have the best at their disposal, but there are only so many of them and they're human. If they were perfect, they'd never need to do clean-up duty, and would be able to deal with every problem before it so much as fledged. That's why I say they have far more important things to do than snatch little children in the middle of the night, and you can go back and tell all the children you know their parents are bloody liars and they can rest easy in their beds. There, that's my good deed done for the day.

I can understand why they need to prioritise their concerns, but sometimes it really sucks to be on the receiving end of the broken feather.

#

Brodik's home was a mess. The walls and roof were still mostly standing thanks to the wonders of modern magic, but I doubted that anything within those charred, fire-eaten walls had survived. Somewhere within the long grasses lay the bodies of four suckers, probably bloated and worm-eaten by now, unless the local watch had been considerate enough to discover and haul them away. Seeing that all they had done was to cordon off the site by wrapping some tape across the walls and the burnt-out shells of the carts and carriages in the courtyard, I really doubted it. In that moment, I thought I could see where Brodik's cynicism came from.

Arus stood at the side of the road and whistled. "Looks as if the Firebird herself came through here."

I glared at him. "Don't even think about saying it."

"I--"

"No, just don't. You and I are fair game, but at least I have the decency not to drag in historical sorcerers for a jibe. Drop it."

"That's right, chum. You show that bastard what's good for him."

Maybe I overreacted a bit, but Arus didn't seem to take offence at my words. The two of us just stood there for a few moments staring at the burnt-out shell of Brodik's livelihood, and then Arus sighed.

"Come on. There isn't much we can do here."

We followed the road over the hills and back into town. The people did their things about the two of us, although I'm not sure which would have been creepier--everyone noticing what had happened to Brodik and expressing their sympathy to two complete strangers, or that they either hadn't heard of it or did know of it and were just getting on with their lives. Some people stopped to stare at Kale and Alyssnd for a little longer than I was comfortable with, but I don't think there was anything I could have done about that, either. In any case, I followed Arus through the streets, past what passed for city hall in this place, and up the steps of an adjacent building that looked a fair bit less shabby than most of the other establishments in Barajov. I could only assume this was the bank.

"Lianne, would you mind standing watch out here while I go in and get Brodik's blueprints?"

"Last time I heard about safe-deposit boxes, they didn't give out their contents to just about anyone who asked."

"Oh, I have a signed slip in Brodik's writing. Besides, who's going to question a falconer, especially when he has all the necessary details in place?"

He had a point, I'll admit. "All right. And what should I be looking out for?"

"I'm not quite sure. Fires, explosions, mysterious carriages pulling up to the side of the street, people trying to kill us. You know, that sort of thing. After what happened to Brodik, I don't think we should be taking any chances."

I studied Arus' face, but he appeared to be completely serious. "All right, then. I'll let you know if a small army intent on slaughtering us appears outside. Maybe they'll even have the decency to introduce themselves."

"Thank you."

Arus disappeared into the building, and I leaned against one of the columns near the entrance and tried to make myself comfortable while still remaining alert. The people continued doing their quaint mountain folk things about me, and Kale made various remarks on the state of their lives and dress sense. I told him to shut up.

"I'm just trying to bring some joy into our cursed, bleak lives."

"Ha. Ha."

"Another laughing fit? I'll get out the pink pills, chum. The ones with little hearts on them. That should bring some joy into your life, eh?"

"Very funny."

We continued watching, but no carriages came by with wands sticking out of their windows to try and turn me into a bloody stain on the stone steps. It was a bit of a letdown, but I suppose it made sense. Using two-bit arm-men clearly hadn't worked, and as for facilitators…oh, House Dorst was probably rolling in money right now, but I wouldn't go out and do a job without proper preparation, especially not so soon after a failure. Putting Brodik in the tower meant he was pretty much untouchable by magical means--I trusted Arus on that--and that meant gathering information on him would have to be done by traditional means. Add that to the fact that we hadn't been following any sort of routine, and it all added up to there being no information and hence no job. Simple as that.

Although I'll admit I wasn't about to stake my breathing privileges on it, either.

Arus emerged just as I was wondering what the heck was taking him so long, and he had a sturdy-looking tube made from what looked like sheet metal under his arm.

"Got it?"

He patted the tube. "It's here."

"Understand what's written on it?"

"I gave it a look over, although I'm not really trained in this field. Sat through a basic course or two back in my time, but I think it'll make better sense with Brodik explaining matters."

"Yeah."

"Come on, let's go. We still have to get to the next town to send a message back via saker; I want to get a psiprint of this made and sent in as soon as possible before there's a chance for anything to happen to it."

I looked around us one more time. Nothing. If someone was going to attack us, now would be a good moment, when we presumably would be distracted by our new find. No, nothing.

"Nothing here, either. You sure you aren't paranoid, chum?"

"It's the reason we're still alive."

"Thanks, I feel better already."

"Glad I could help."

Kale's talons felt as if they were nearly through my shoulder pads and into my flesh, but maybe it was just shared nerves. A flutter of movement to my right, and that wasn't just nerves. One of those lovely white mynahs flapped a bit and landed on a nearby post, its breast and beak stained bright red with blood.

Oh shit.

The bird flapped and pecked at my tunic, clearly wanting my attention; at least it had the grace not to stain my clothing in the process. Kale chippered angrily at the mynah and I felt an instinctive surge of anger from his mind. I calmed him, then turned to Arus, who was looking on interestedly.

"So," I told the mynah, "you want us to follow?"

The bird tugged at me again. I guess that counted as a yes, then. The possibility that it might have been a set-up flashed across the fore of my mind, but it wouldn't make sense. The birds loved Elpe, Elpe loved Brodik, and we were helping the two of them and all misunderstandings should have been cleared up. No, didn't make sense.

We must have seemed silly to the townsfolk around us, following a bird through the streets, but as everyone knows, falconers move in mysterious ways and serve higher purposes the mind cannot fathom. Either that, or they're just eccentric. I tried not to imagine what Arus must have been thinking as we followed the mynah around a few corners and entered a small alley.

There were two bodies slumped against a wooden fence of sorts, and through the bloody mess on the cobblestones I saw they'd been pecked and torn to pieces. They'd been swarmed, all right, and their wounds were just a bit less numerous on their faces where they'd tried to shield themselves from the beaks and talons. Heck, I couldn't even recognise who they might have been, what they'd been wearing or even if they'd been men or women underneath the layers of flesh and blood. Yes, it was that bad.

I heard Arus lose it behind me. Not that I blamed him.

"I think he needs some of the pink pills, chum."

"To be honest, I think we're all going to need them."

The mynah chirped, and disappeared behind the bodies. It emerged a few moments later, pushing a small assortment of blood-slick objects, some of which I recognised and some others I'd rather I hadn't. The mynah chirped again and looked up expectantly at me.

"Uh, thanks?" I looked over the bodies again, and swallowed hard. "Next time, though, I'd rather you left them recognisable. Or even better, let's not have a next time. We'll handle them ourselves."

The Green Tower

Chapter 22

Arus looked positively queasy. Not a big surprise there. Some of the bloodied odds and ends the mynah had brought out pointed out these poor sods as being from House Dorst, not a big surprise either. The small personal defence wands were a giveaway, but these suckers seemed to have had identification tags for various House facilities--clearly they hadn't been here to get into action, since they hadn't expected to be killed, or even brought serious weapons. Observation for later action, maybe? But the birds…now that was a surprise.

At the very least, I didn't imagine it would be this bad. I've seen people die in a number of creative ways, but you don't think of songbirds as being killers, not until it's too late. That's how it gets you in the end; that's how it gets everyone in the end. Overconfidence.

Its job done, the mynah bobbed its head up and down, then flapped off into the sky. The two of us just stood there for several seconds--I really don't know what we would have done if someone had walked in on us, but thankfully, no one did. Arus looked a little less pathetic now, so I walked up, grabbed him by his free shoulder and turned him around.

"Let's go," I said.

"What?"

"I said, let's go."

"You can't be serious."

I bit my lip. "I am being serious. This isn't anything we can deal with, and the best thing we can do about it is distance ourselves as best as we can and let House Doskar clean the mess up. I'm sure they'd love to. If you feel that strongly about it we can always ask Elpe to give the bloody birds a good scolding once we're back at the tower, I don't care. I just want to be out and away from here, okay?"

"But the evidence--"

"The blueprints, added to what we've got, should be more than enough to get the attention we need. Anything more would really be overkill; we should leave these here, let House Doskar wonder what the heck one of its rivals is doing messing about in its territory. Don't you think so?"

Arus looked a little unhappy at the idea, but nodded. We left the alley at a brisk walk, not looking back, and didn't stop until we'd lost ourselves in the marketplace. Crowds are somewhat chancy things; you can easily lose yourself in them, but it's also easy for someone tailing you to do the same. I bought a pastry stuffed with vegetables that tasted predominantly of onions, finished it in three bites, and felt slightly better about the world at large.

Arus thinned his lips. "How can you--you know what? Never mind. That was a stupid question. Of course you can; you're a trained professional."

"Yep."

To make a long story short, we beat it from Barajov and went to the next town to check in with the saker. There wasn't any news from nosy bastards headquarters, but Arus composed a quick report on the spot and sent it in along with a psiprint of Brodik's blueprints. I know some people who've wondered if the messages they're sending along by saker are going to places other than their intended destinations, but that's quite stupid. Professional ethics and the Emperor aside, any saker who went around blabbing the contents of sent messages would find him or herself out of business really, really fast. We should have paid, but Arus waved his identification and signed a chitty to put it on the Empire's tab. Ah, the many benefits of the civil service. Arus wanted to go to the watch house and inform the watchmen about the bodies lying in that alley, but I persuaded him to reconsider and when he felt up to it, he teleported us as close to the tower as he could manage.

The mynahs were in the tower gardens, perched on branches and in their nests, their stout little bodies clean, white and ever pristine. It might have been my imagination, but I thought the water in the stone birdbath was tinged just the slightest shade of red. As we passed under them on the way to the tower entrance, Arus faltered, and they looked down at us as if to say "what? Who? Us cute little fluffy things? Killers? Are you sure you aren't mistaken?"

The bastards.

#

Every profession has their heroes. You have the greatest sorcerers, the greatest physicians who wandered into plague-stricken areas to provide aid, glaziers who were contracted to cover the windows of the first Imperial Palace, tanners who discovered how to make good leather without having to use piss and shit, sad, bespectacled people working out lines upon lines of runes until they figured how to safely give commands, upon which golems made the jump to automatons. You know, people who made remarkable breakthroughs or achievements in their fields and are generally remembered as some sort of role model for future craftsmen to aspire to.

We aren't any different. You won't find their names in the Book of Annals, but that's what you get when your profession is technically illegal.

The Firebird--well, she's not in the Book of Annals, not because no one wants to recognise her, but mostly because we still don't know her real name. What we do know is that she started off small, systematically eliminating the Heads of House of lesser and greater Houses by turning them into little piles of ash, working her way up through the more influential ones until she went and took out the sixth kestrel Empress, the Imperial Consort and most of the palace in the process. With fire, of course. It got so bad that most of the great Houses started openly using stimulants, not just for members of the House proper, but for all their security as well.

According to word of mouth from that time period, there could have been any number of reasons why she'd gone on this killing spree. Money, perhaps; there were plenty of Houses left untouched who'd have paid plenty to see their rivals go down and the lands reassigned, preferably to them. So long as there're two people left on the face of the world, someone is going to want someone else dead. Revenge? It was a possibility; those times weren't the ones we know today and everyone knows that the sky is high and the Emperor far away in Aerie. The Houses were more free to do with the commoners as they pleased; it's not inconceivable that she could have been one of those poor sods who got the short end of the stick. What really stumps the kestrels studying the time period is why she went and plucked the Empress. To this day, they still have no idea as to her motive for that; all logical explanations just didn't make sense.

Which is the problem. I think I might have one: she did it because no one else had done it before. Don't look at me like that. The problem is that kestrels like to believe people are rational, when it's usually the other way around. I mean, it makes sense, right? No one managed to touch the Emperor before then, no one's done it since, and to this day the only thing stopping most watchmen from writing off unsolved murders as her work is the fact that the victims weren't so many ashes at the end of it all.

Of course, heroes aren't perfect. That's part of what makes them heroes, the flaws that keep them within grasp of the common bugger who looks up to them. One can admire the Firebird for her planning and amazing successes, plenty of which would have been deemed quite impossible even by the better facilitators of today. One can be inspired by her having eluded the Imperial investigators until the day she took herself out along with the Imperial Palace, by her ingenuity in avoiding all the traps set out for her.

Her professional ethics, though, leave something to be desired.

#

"You see," Brodik said, jabbing a finger at the dusty paper, "this is where the problem lies, in the activation sequence where inert power is drawn to its active form. Resonance effects cause the instability to multiply upon itself--"

I didn't understand very much of what Brodik was saying, but Arus was positively entranced, scribbling away in his notepad like a half-drunk student on the night before his final exam.

"Heh, guess she doesn't have a good memory like mine."

I reached up and scratched Kale's belly. "No, she doesn't."

Kale giggled. I poured myself some tea from the set Elpe had brought up to us, and pretended that I understood what I was hearing. From what Arus explained to me later, what was happening was that the magic in the converters was accumulating over time. Small amounts, perhaps, but enough to upset the operations to the point that the whole system would go haywire and start spitting out magical, corrosive ooze which then leached away into the air. Water couldn't accommodate this wavelength due to it being a different transmission frequency or something, so that's why the gunk I'd found at the bottom of the lake had been preserved.

Sounded about right.

Arus stopped scribbling for a moment and examined his notes. "One more question. How long would it be before this meltdown happened?"

Brodik shook his head sadly. "I don't know. Depending on the size, usage and model, it could have been anywhere from weeks to years to decades, but there was never a question of if, only when. That was why I think the House imagined they could get away with ignoring the problem; by the time something did happen they could blame it on an external factor. So what did they do? The sensible thing, of course; fake the results and get it passed."

"You definitely ran your tests well."

"Couldn't make a case to the Head of House without being sure of my facts, could I? I still remember those last few months; bastards breathing down our necks, demanding to know why there hadn't been any progress. We would have run more of them, using sound to induce disturbances and observing the effects, but…" he sighed and looked up at Arus. "It's not up to me any more. You're a falconer, young man. Maybe they'll take you more seriously."

Arus paused, then set down his notepad and poured himself a cup of tea. "I'm not having that argument again, sir. Maybe after all this is over, but not now. Don't worry, I'll handle it."

"See that you do." He beckoned Arus forward, then lowered his voice to a frightened murmur. "You must. Maybe they won't listen to me, but you have a better chance; if every falconer were like you this would never have happened. Thanks to the promise of free energy, these things are going to be in every household, every carriage, every boat and airship. What you've seen is just the beginning. It will be terrible."

"Think he's overstating things?"

Kale turned his head to study Brodik. "No, chum. At least, from the looks of him I'd wager he really believes that's what'll happen."

"That's what I thought."

Arus straightened himself, then looked over his notepad one more time, his lips thinned and Alyssnd peering down from his shoulder. He seemed to be discussing something with her, and this went on for a good while until he finally frowned, clenched his teeth and closed his notepad with a slap. "You're right. It will be terrible." He turned to me. "Lianne, I must go now. I'll catch up with you back at our room."

"Can I help?"

"It's highly technical. You'd be doing nothing but standing around while I filed my report." He sighed and rubbed his shoulders. "Even if your skills could help us, I'm not sure if I still have the energy to translocate the both of us safely. Why don't you stay here and make sure the two of them are safe?"

He wasn't lying. I stifled a groan.

"So much for being useful, eh?"

"Oh, quiet you."

Arus finished the last of his tea and turned to Brodik, the tube holding the blueprints in hand. "One last thing. You don't mind if I keep this, do you?"

"Oh, you can have it. I know everything on that damned slip of paper too well." Brodik laid back on his pillow and closed his eyes. "I don't think I could forget it even if I wanted to."

"That settles it, then. I'll catch up with you later, Lianne." He hurried down the stairs, his footsteps the only sign of his passing, and then even that was gone, too.

Well, excuse me if I was feeling more than a little melancholy back then. Elpe came up with warm water, salve and bandages, and I had no intention of watching her change Brodik's dressings, so I plodded down to the kitchen and skulked at the table. Thankfully, there weren't any of those white mynahs hanging about; they would have just made things even worse. I seriously considered going up and telling Elpe that her beloved birds had swarmed two people until their remains were barely recognisable as human just to see her reaction, but decided against it.

"Gee, cheer up, chum. What's wrong with you?"

"Idleness," I told him. "Uselessness. Maybe more than a little anger, and there's nothing around here I can kill to let go of that."

"Well, at least you can admit it to yourself. That's the first step."

"Well. How's your love life?"

"What do you mean, how's my love life? Who are you, what have you done with my human, and how can you speak into my head like she can?"

"Come now, is it that strange for me to be concerned?"

"Not like this." Kale puffed himself up and hopped circles about the kitchen table. "But…you can't really expect me to continue pursuing any sort of serious romance with you sending all these nasty emotions into my head, can I?"

"I thought they were coming from you."

"Stop blaming me for everything, chum."

"No, really. Weren't they were coming from you?"

Kale settled down and began preening himself. "Well, no one's messing with your mind, because I'd know. So how about just admitting it's all your own fault?"

"Huh." I tried to think of something snappy to say but couldn't come up with anything, so that was that.

I might have felt pretty terrible, if it weren't for all that tea I'd drunk.

The Green Tower

Chapter 23

It was evening when I made it back to the inn. Elpe had asked to me stay for dinner but I'd declined, saying I'd originally made reservations for my meal at the inn's restaurant. Of course, that was obviously a bloody lie, but Elpe just smiled and bid me good day. I wondered what would happen if everyone was as trusting as she appeared to be, then tried not to think about it. That way lay madness.

They were serving a thick, meaty broth that the menu claimed to be made from locally trapped hill foxes, so I had that and bowed my head over my bowl maybe a little too much than was proper as I ate. Why, what did it taste like? Sort of like chicken, if a bit--bah, not a bit, much--stringier. I also got a reasonably large hunk of black bread to sop in the broth as well as a couple more of those herb-baked eggs as a side dish, and finished those off while Kale squirmed uncomfortably. I pointed out he had no problem eating day-old chicks, so he should just pipe down.

The meal was okay, but that wasn't the point. As I was finishing up, an oddly familiar melody wafted through the restaurant and came to my ears. A haunting, sad song, yet with notes of hope well hidden within…

"Ugh. The noise!"

Some of the restaurant's clientele were already looking up in that faraway manner that people get when they don't want others to know there're tears in their eyes. Others had a little less self-restraint, and were openly blowing their noses. Elpe? My eyes darted about the restaurant, then settled as I remembered she'd mentioned recording and selling her singing. Hadn't she or Brodik told me that it was quite popular locally? Yes. Now that I was looking closely, there was the spell-orb tucked away a little way behind the bar counter, blending in amongst the rows of bottles.

I just hoped I didn't encounter any more of them. Thankfully, there were none as I tromped up the stairs and pushed open the door to my room. Kale chose this time to hack up his daily pellet and I disposed of it out the window, then kicked off my boots and lay in bed. Freshly laundered sheets. Soft mattresses. It's these little things that help me get through the days when other people have to rely on regular doses of small purple pills. All right, bad joke there. Still…

So what did it mean if Elpe wasn't a bird? Could she be--no, that was ridiculous. In the few thousand-odd years of the Empire, there's never been an instance of that happening with any bird but a falcon or much more recently, a hawk, and I'm sure if mynahs started attaching themselves to people the Emperor's kestrels would falling over each other to record such an oddity in the Book of Annals like what happened with the hawks. Besides, the way Elpe handled the birds was different from the bond falconers had with their falcons--the mynahs were clearly able to keep secrets from her, as was proven by the killings they'd done, and there were so many of them. One of Kale puttering about in my head was bad enough, but the few hundred I'd seen at one point in the tower's gardens…no.

"No, chum. If there were two of me we'd fight each other to the death, and you'd end up with one again."

She wasn't bound to the birds. Which still begged the question of how she still retained a hold over them, even if it was a rather weak one. Then again, I should probably ask Arus for his opinion, just to be sure.

"What do you think?"

"Remember how I told you the birds were dumb, chum? They're definitely not operating on the same level as us; I can't even talk to them. At least even hawks--" he did a passable mental imitation of someone spitting-- "can talk. But these…I tried, and got nothing. And after what we've seen, I don't even want to get near them. Songbirds pecking me to pieces…it's not the natural way of things."

"You having your food nicely butchered and served to you on a plate is hardly the natural way of things, either."

"That's the good kind of unnatural. Those birds…" he shivered and pretended to preen himself. "They're the bad kind of unnatural."

I thought about it. "Yeah, I guess no one can deny that."

I'd barely gotten comfortable, though, when a key clicked in the lock and Arus came storming into the room. He glared at me with bloodshot eyes, then relaxed as I stood from the half-crouch I was in and put away my eating dagger.

"Sorry," I said, "force of habit. But you shouldn't have gone and barged in like that. That sounded suspiciously like someone sneaking in to--" I stared at him. He hadn't moved. "Are you all right?"

Arus didn't deign to reply, instead choosing to slump into the armchair, Brodik's precious blueprints still clutched tightly in his hands. The only way this could be worse would be for him to have reeked of alcohol, but that was an impossibility as Arus never drank. So yeah, this was probably as bad as it got.

"Well? Are you fine or not?"

"No."

"Care to elaborate?"

Arus opened and shut his mouth several times, then finally found his words. "They said no, Lianne."

I blinked. "What? How? If things are as bad as Brodik claims, then why aren't they already sending agents to shut down House Dorst's factories and plants? Why aren't--"

"I don't know! What Aerie told me was that yes, it was a serious concern, yes, they would send people--once they'd dealt with the hawks. You know, the problem they say is the more immediate threat? Those nasty people who came across the border not too long ago and are now in isolation?"

"You know as well as I do that I was involved--"

"I was being sarcastic, Lianne. Shouldn't you know what that is, having taken part in so much of it yourself?" Arus leaned back, closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. "Wait, let's just have a moment, all right? All this is getting to our heads; we aren't thinking straight."

Good idea. Heck, even Alyssnd and Kale seemed ready to fight any moment now, and there's no better way to draw attention than two falcons beating the stuffing out of each other. Arus rubbed his shoulders and groaned; maybe it was a good thing I hadn't been with him when he'd made his report. After a while, he took his hands off the tube, flexed his fingers a few times and tried again.

"Aerie says all their resources are tied up at the Roof of the World, trying to find a way to sneak past the barbarians. Oh, they're concerned about what's going down here all right, but even headquarters is running on a skeleton crew right now. Even if they recalled everyone from the border and sent them out here, it could take weeks for anyone to arrive. Since Brodik has no idea exactly when the converters will fail, or if they'll all fail at once or one by one, they're going to shove it to one side for now."

"So what you're saying is we've been clipped and hooded. Brodik gets no protection except us, no one's going to send House Dorst a cease and desist, and it's essentially up to us against a whole…ugh." I shook my head and tried to sort out the tangled mess that was my hair. "You know, Brodik isn't going to see this as a problem of resource allocation. He's going to see this as a betrayal by the people he already detests."

"The problem is, what do we do now, Lianne? We're not going to be able to go up against one of the Houses without any sort of backing."

I sat down on the bed and sighed. "We go to Brodik and let him know what's happened; maybe he'll have some idea of how we can still help. Whatever we do next, he still needs and deserves to know, especially considering it's his life on the line. Even if I don't want to see his face when we do tell him."

#

Trust. That's a tricky concept. I try not to trust easily, or at least not to the point where I would stake my life on it. I don't mean being suspicious of everything and everyone, worrying that the chef intentionally undercooked the bitter tapioca or doubting everything the guy you're pumping for information is telling you; that's paranoia, not a healthy sense of caution. The trust I'm talking about is the kind where you can count on that someone to watch your back while in the field, who you can believe has your best interests in mind when he or she makes decisions regarding you, whose presence in which you wouldn't mind sleeping in. You know, the human equivalent of a falcon letting another stand on his or her back or tucking a head under a wing to sleep while in the same room.

Comes with the job, I guess. It's not surprising, considering the things we have to do and the sort of people we piss off as a matter of course; they just don't understand the meaning of "strictly business". Of the people I see or used to see or a regular basis, I can trust Kale. Arus I didn't, or at least not when I first met him; things eventually got better between us, though. A few other people, like my foster father or my mentor, even if I don't see them very much these days. And…that's about it.

Sort of sucks, but that's life for you. Might as well make the most of what I have while I can.

Enough about me, though. How many friends do you have? More than me, I'll wager. Now, how many of those would you trust your life with? Maybe you're hanging from a cliff and unable to pull yourself up, and there're arm-men at your back--this is a thought experiment, of course; anyone worth their weight should have learned to do a pull-up--and the only person around is a friend of yours. Would he or she take the risk of helping you up, or abandon you and just run for it?

How many people do you trust?

A facilitator must network; it's essential to acquiring the information and tools you need to get a job done. However, there are very, very few facilitators who work in teams, and then all I've ever heard of are duos at most. How many people have you come across who look like decent or even friendly people at first glance, yet turn out to be complete jerks later on? How about the reverse?

Even those who think they know all the wildernesses of the human heart get surprised every now and then.

#

Brodik was definitely looking better compared to the state he'd been in when we'd first brought him to the tower, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine. Oh, he still had plenty of angry red splotches on him, but at least a good number of the enchanted, salve-soaked bandages had come off and he'd the strength to get up on his own and eat at Elpe's table, which was what he was doing when we arrived at the tower the next day.

I briefly wondered if the shock of what we were about to tell him would kill the old bugger, like how they tell it in the stories. Probably not; knowing Brodik, he was expecting it. Besides, he was a tough old bastard.

"Good morning, Lianne, Arus," he said as we approached the table, Elpe bringing up our rear. "You look well today."

Arus and I shared a Look. "Uh…yes."

"You have bad news."

Well, it wasn't as if we were trying to hide our feelings. "To make a long story short, yes."

Brodik chewed his fruit oatmeal. He swallowed. He put the spoon down very, very slowly, so that all I heard was the tiniest clink of metal against wood as it left his rough hands. "Your superiors refused to listen to you or send help. No, please don't argue. It's the only reason you'd look this way here and now, right in front of me. I'd like to think I know enough about people to guess at that."

Oh, I wasn't about to contest him in the sending help bit, but rather, the my superiors bit, because they weren't my superiors. But hey, in the scheme of things I guess it wouldn't have been worth the time or effort. "Pretty much."

"Care to share the details?"

Now that sounded familiar.

Arus told Brodik pretty much what he told me back in the inn room. I don't know, I'd expected him to get as crazy as Kale sometimes does when he's in moult, but all Brodik did was pick up his spoon again with painful slowness and start shovelling more oatmeal and raisins into his mouth. Well, he'd expected it, but I expect to get plenty of trouble with each job and still feel the rush each time.

Arus eyed him, as if he were an alchemy experiment gone horribly, horribly wrong and ready to explode any moment. "Sir? You're not--"

"I'm fine," Brodik said softly between mouthfuls. "For a moment, I'd dared to hope--"

"Hope?"

"Hope." I tried to read Brodik's face, but I might as well have tried to read a stretch of the mud flats back home--it was pretty much equally void and featureless. "I dared to…no, it doesn't matter now. Arus, Lianne, you've done more for me than I imagined anyone else ever would, but this isn't your fight anymore. You don't really belong in Barajov, anyway.

"Go home. Go home and make sure your old generators are running well; stockpile as much magicite as you can. If you have a country estate or something, stay out there until the worst is over. Perhaps you can help pick up the pieces then."

Arus balled his hands into fists. "This isn't over. I'll keep on trying to get Imperial attention. There must be something that can be done. But what about you? I'm only a fifth child, but I could speak with my mother, try to see if there're any positions--"

"No. I'm too old to start all over again, and besides, who would help care for Elpe?" Brodik shook his head. "No. I…I can't stop now. Not after so many years of trying. It'd be a betrayal of who I am. What I believe in. Maybe we'll meet again sometime."

"Arus, he's right," I said. "I'm sure Elpe will get him back on his feet. The birds will protect both of them. We'll go back and try to persuade Aerie to send reinforcements; maybe they'll be more inclined to listen if we make the petition in person."

"One last thing before you go, Lianne. I remember our conversation a few nights ago, but…I would like to ask you one last question. Do you believe one person can change the world?"

"Uh…"

"The Firebird did it. Before she came into being, the Emperors and Empresses were seen not as humans, but as--if you will believe it--the personifications of the Empire itself. Some of the folk even worshipped them as gods. Poor fools.

"But the Firebird changed all that. By murdering the Empress of that time, she burned with the Imperial Palace the illusion of divinity all of their wonderful Imperial Majesties had strived to create; from her ashes, the Empire was reborn. No more gods. No more worshipping. No more needless mysticism, which set the Empire straight in the path for all its advancements since then. The Empress was a human, and the Firebird proved it by striking down a god. She was not even a falconer, and she did it all by herself against all those who professed to be better than her, by skill or nature.

"Do you believe one person can change the world, Lianne?"

The Green Tower

Chapter 24

"Some vacation this turned out to be," I told Kale as I counted out enough silver quills and copper feathers for ten days' board. "If all vacations are going to be on these lines, I'm going to work myself silly to the day I die. Never had a holiday for twenty-three years, and I'm not any worse off for it."

"Might be that your life might be fine, but it could be better if you hadn't missed out on the good things, though."

"Oh, quiet you."

Kale was quiet for a few moments as he watched Arus pack up, then gave me a small psychic sigh and roused himself on his perch on the back of the armchair, an imitation of a human shrug. "So, you're going to drop this?"

"Do you think we could really drop it, even if we wanted to? We've been seen around and asking after Brodik. House Dorst isn't stupid, they'll have figured out what we've been doing and come after us in force and that would drag House Hazzard and House Escobar into the fray. This isn't about a theft or an assassination; we could bring down the whole House, if only we could get someone to listen to us. And that's what we're going to do; we're going to march straight into the bloody Imperial Palace and petition the Emperor straight to his face. It's not as if we're expected back home for a while, yet."

"Do you think it'll work?"

"Even if it doesn't, there's no point worrying needlessly about it. Better to worry about making it there safely than get distracted and ending up dead. Besides, who knows what's going on in the Emperor's mind?"

"I guess…the food in Aerie is good; I wouldn't mind another visit."

"That, too." You know, people go on vacations in order to relax, but ever hear that sometimes one ends up more tired after they're done than when they left on it? I understand what they mean. Still, there wasn't much left for me to do while Arus gave his pack of equipment one last look-over, and I leaned back in the armchair one last time. Hey, it was a good armchair and we'd become very close friends over the past few days; I was seriously considering getting one for my office. Kale left his perch and went over to bother Alyssnd; she returned each of his advances with a sharp tap to his head. Maybe it was my imagination, but she seemed to be enjoying herself just a little too much.

"Hey, some people are trying to relax over here."

"Ah, the pain love brings, and yet we seek it anyway."

"Quiet, you."

I closed my eyes; moments passed, and when I opened them again Arus was still rummaging around like a falcon at pecking at a plucked kill. I know I'm the one who travels light, but someone has to draw a line in the ground sometime, yes?

"You done there?"

"Almost. Do you have money for a trip to Aerie?"

"I can always withdraw more from my account with the Imperial bank if need be. That's not the problem I'm worried about."

"What is, then?"

"Brodik."

Arus looked up at me and frowned. "You yourself told me he should be relatively safe in the tower for the time being."

"I'm not worried about something getting in to him. I'm worried about him going out of it. Do you remember what he said to me just now? He asked me if I believed one person could change the world. If that wasn't a huge hint that he was going to do something, I don't know what was."

"Come now, Lianne. Brodik's not stupid, nor does he seem like the type prone to hysterics; he's not going to rush out of the tower and do something foolish. I'm guessing he's more than a little used to futile anger by now, and well, people say things they don't mean when emotions run high. Even if he were to do something, I'm sure he'd take the time to plan it out. Brodik will be fine, there's no reason to worry about him."

"I still don't like it." No, I don't like loose ends. Heck, it's not just me; any facilitator knows to tie them up, because they have a nasty tendency to unravel and throw a fat ugly snarl right in one's face at the worst times. Brodik counted as a massive loose end flapping about in the wind, and yes, it bloody well didn't sit right with me. But there and then, what could I do? Ask Elpe to fly me one of her mynahs if Brodik ever so much as wandered out of her sight?

Actually, it wasn't a bad idea if those birds had any sort of homing instinct. I was still enjoying the thought when a series of soft raps sounded at the door in rapid succession; the sort of knock one uses when one desperately needs the attention of others but still wants to be polite.

I made myself comfortable in the armchair, and Arus got the hint, crossing the room to open the door.

It was Elpe, her face a little paler than usual, the front of her gown still damp, bordering on soggy. Perhaps she'd never heard of a handkerchief, living all alone in that tower of hers. Ever the gentleman, Arus ushered her inside, locked the door, then offered Elpe a small hand towel on which to daub that dainty little nose of hers. Women aren't made of salt water and nipa sap--I mean, I should know--but the poor little thing was really pushing it there and then.

"Please help," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "Brodik's vanished."

#

In Arus' home province of Monitor, there's a saying amongst the mountain folk that when the moon turns red, someone is plotting something terrible, and that everyone should watch their footing lest they fall victim to said plot and end up as a few bloody stains in the slush. That, or so Arus tells me, usually involves people retreating into their houses, barring the doors, and getting rather drunk while the winds blow the snow clean off the slopes outside.

Of course, there's a perfectly logical reason why the moon sometimes turns red in that part of the world; it has to do with light being refracted in the sky or off the mountains or something sensible on those lines. But then again, people have never passed up a good excuse to stop work and laze around for a bit, so that's why the practice still continues to this day. Besides, don't you think that if someone or something had enough power not only to figure out whether someone was plotting something anywhere in the world and change the colour of the moon, that person would actually bugger out and go use all that power to stop said plot from happening? I mean, it makes sense, doesn't it?

No, it definitely doesn't make sense. You've got the whole of the Empire, with pretty much all the Houses plotting to grab more territory or market share from each other, not to mention scheming to find more favour with the Emperor. Then there're the workers' unions, even if those are usually puppets of one House or the other. Add that to the Imperial investigators sticking their feathery little heads pretty much everywhere other people don't want them to be, and the things people like you and I are capable of--little larcenies by comparison, but no different in essence--and the moon would have its job as a full-time warning beacon cut out rather well.

As we all know, the moon isn't red. Most of the time, anyways.

So where does that leave us? Cooped up in our homes, hiding under the bed or in the closet for fear of being the victim of little Timmy's dastardly plan to drop bucketfuls of water on the heads of passers-by? Or going about your daily business believing that all those people are just harmless nuts, everything's perfectly all right and there's nothing to be worried about? Or maybe you're somewhere between these two extremes, I don't know. Speaking as someone who's been an instrument involved in some of the more major machinations between the Houses, my opinion is that of course they're out there. It would be rather stupid not to admit it. On the other hand, unless you've screwed up big time, most of the Houses aren't going to be bothering with the likes of ordinary citizens; the closest I ever got to that was with my very first job, where I had to end a tax collector who'd been skimming off my patron's dues. If and when Bad Things start happening, everyone knows who to point a finger at, and the perpetrators can't really hide. Heck, it's pretty much a daily feature of life in the Empire. I mean, you don't think about what the Houses do as evil scheming, do you? No, it's just what they do.

In a different vein, the plots contrived by the average person usually are immensely petty on the scale of things--how shall I climb over the heads of others to rise to the top of my career, how shall I embarrass that cheap hussy who upstaged me at the union meeting last week, how am I going to get the neighbour's dog to stop bloody barking before I go insane, that sort of thing. Inconsequential, maybe not to the people directly involved, but otherwise very much so.

It's when average people come up with above-average plots that the real problems arise.

#

Arus twitched. He vaguely reminded me of a boiler I'd had to sabotage once; it'd been a rather lovely explosion, if I remember it right. I shrugged. "I'm not going to say 'I told you so.' I'm not going to say it. Because it should have been really obvious, and we chose to do nothing. And now it's happened. All right, you know what? I told you so. There, I said it. Happy now?"

He ignored me with monumental effort and turned to Elpe. "Brodik vanished?"

Elpe sniffled, then blew her nose. "I--I don't know. I went up to check on him as usual after lunch, and he wasn't in bed or anywhere in the tower. The birds would have seen him leave, and…and he'd have to pass through both the sitting room and gardens to go…you have to help. You're the only ones I know who can help…"

And of course, I had the nagging suspicion that if we refused her, the birds wouldn't take to that idea too kindly. Grunting, I levered myself out of the armchair. "Did he leave anything behind?"

"A note." Elpe patted down her gown. I hadn't thought it possible, but she managed to look even more pathetic than she already had been. Chances were we'd have to finish this conversation quickly or end up drowning in her tears. "I…I must have left it back at the tower, I'm such a fool…"

Well, that excluded him being taken by House Dorst operatives. Not that it'd been my main concern, but it's always good to know things for sure. "We'll have to go there anyway," I said. "To try and look for clues as to where he might have gone."

One person. One person to change the world, that was what Brodik had said. I could think of a few rather romantic notions as to how that could happen, like storming House Dorst and slaughtering everyone inside, but Brodik wasn't a romantic person. Arus was right, he would do something he'd have planned out, quite possibly directly related to his problem at hand. Something practical. He was an engineer, after all. I remembered the way he'd set his spoon down earlier today, remembered the clink of metal against wood, and felt my shoulders tense.

It'd have been better on my memories if he'd just pulled a wand on himself and blasted his brains out.

Kale supplied his own version of events, and they came flooding forward and jostling for my attention; snatches of recalled conversations, questions asked, subtle shifts in tone as the words were paraded past my consciousness one by one:

Do you believe one person can change the world, Lianne?

How do you justify what you do to yourself?

What you've seen is just the beginning.

It will be terrible.

Maybe it wasn't that way. For all I knew, I could have been sitting in my beam of sunshine and interpreting the memories through the lens of suspicious cynicism, but it was a salient possibility, one that shouldn't be ignored.

"Lianne--"

I cut Arus off with a wave of my hand. "You're the one who wanted to do something more. Well, here's your chance."

"I didn't mean that. I meant to say we'd best cancel our check-out before we go, lest they let out our room to someone else."

"Oh. Yeah. Right."

We settled matters with the front desk which involved pushing a little extra coinage across the counter, then started a brisk pace across the countryside and out to the tower. No, it wasn't lost on me that no matter where we were, there were at least two of Elpe's lovely white birds watching us from a distance, clearly agitated and hopping about in circles with no end in sight. Not that I cared, so long as we weren't the focus of their frustrations.

"Does she look sick to you, chum?"

I tried to study Elpe discreetly. At least she'd stopped sniffling, although the tears on her face hadn't dried. "Not very, or at least, much more than usual. Why? Should she be?"

"Well, I thought she couldn't leave the tower for long."

"I don't think it's been that long. She did say she goes into town every now and then; let's not start grasping at invisible pigeons here, shall we?"

Eventually, we made it back to the tower, and Elpe led us up to the bedroom. A small crumpled sheet of paper lay on the stairs to it, and she looked down in shame as I picked it up and held it so Arus could read too, although Alyssnd's uncomfortable fluttering kept getting in the way. It was in Brodik's hand, all right, and it went something like this, to the best of both Kale's and my memory:

Elpe,

I'm sorry I have to leave like this, but it's better this way. The less you know, the less reason they'll have to come after you. It may be too late for that, but I can only hope.

Don't fret about me. I have enough money to see me through; if you go to the bank in town I've left some in a small fund to help you get by, the payout each month should be enough to defray your living expenses. Besides, I won't need that many falcons for what I'm going to do.

Live your life, that's all I will say. If by some miracle I've survived after everything is over, I'll come back.

The rest of the letter was comprised of a small list of advice for Elpe, urging her to be frugal, find friends, and generally be a sweet self-sufficient and loving young lady. Yuck. Irritatingly, it was all about her and not him; I'd hoped we'd find a lead without having to ransack the tower or the ashes of his home--

"He needed money," Arus said.

"Come again?"

"Brodik needs money for what he's going to do. Didn't he mention he had insurance?" Arus took the letter from my hands and scrutinised it again. "Look. He needed money, and his home and workshop have been burnt down, so he's not getting it from there. We know he's stopped at the local bank, and the only insurance agency in the whole of bloody Barajov might be worth a visit, too." He sucked in a breath. "As much as I hate to say it, I think he's really got a plan. At least we have a starting point from which to trace him down."

That I had to agree with.

Elpe's eyes widened. "You think you can find him?"

Arus solemnly passed Brodik's note back to her. "We have to. For one reason or the other, we must."

The Green Tower

Chapter 25

*

We left the tower as soon as possible.

"We'd better hurry. I'd wager we have about two hours before the banks close for the day," Arus said as we jogged down the road back to town. Perched on his shoulder, Alyssnd looked more than a little relieved to be away from the tower, chirping with her head bowed as she looked back at it.

"If we're in such a hurry, why don't you just translocate us there?"

"Because we can still make it on foot, and I don't want to waste my energy when I might need it later."

The phrase "too precious to use" flew through my mind, but never made it to my lips, maybe because they were contorted into a scowl. I looked through Arus' notepad again, a psiprint of Brodik's letter burned into the paper, and tried to figure out if there was anything we'd missed. A bit hard to do on the move, especially since he'd that wavering writing that looked as if he was more used to shorthand than full sentences. As for the letter's wording…well, it was a bit on the cliched side, if it'd been a novel, but it'd definitely been the kind of letter Brodik would have written. Maybe, just maybe, Brodik had taken what was left of his money and done a runner? After all, he wouldn't have been the first ex-employee I'd known to have gone into hiding.

"I really don't think that's the case, chum."

"I know, I know. It's just wishful thinking. But our job would be so much simpler if he were really to go into hiding and we didn't have to worry about him."

"You know what Iskandar used to say: nothing worth having is ever easy to get."

"Yeah, I guess." A thought came to my mind, and I nearly forgot to keep my breathing in rhythm. "He mentioned the Firebird. Do you think…"

"He can't be going out to end the Emperor, chum. That's insane; you and I know what kind of protections the Emperor has. Besides, there's only one Firebird."

"Okay, maybe not the Emperor. Maybe the Head of House, or his old bosses…but he wants to stop this disaster he's predicted from happening. Petty revenge wouldn't help his cause one bit. Besides, the converters are already in mass production; pushing someone off wouldn't stop them from being spread, and he can't be everywhere to sabotage every single one of them. Uh…"

"What is it, chum?"

"Could he…no, I'm quite sure it can't be done, I've broken enough pieces before to know something about it, but…"

Arus' voice cut through my conversation with Kale, breaking off my thoughts. "This business getting you down?"

I slowed down a little so Arus could catch up, and handed him back his notepad. "Oh, you can tell?"

"You've been more sullen these last few days. More irritable. Less in the way of stupid, sarcastic and snide jokes. More focused." Amazingly, he managed to look thoughtful even while jogging. "I'm trying to decide if I like this Lianne or the old Lianne better."

"My dear Arus, last time I checked I didn't need your permission to be a bitch." The moment he turned away, though, I prodded Kale. "Think he's right?"

"I wouldn't know. I'm sharing your head space, and if you don't realise what's happening to you, what do you expect of me? After all, I've only got a brain the size of a nut."

"Well, you're not acting like you have one."

"Durr."

The sun had dipped a little lower in the sky by the time we hauled ourselves through the middle of Barajov and up the steps to the bank. Had it only been yesterday that we'd been here? Arus, breathing hard, looked up and was about to say something to me, but I remember telling him not to waste his breath. We made it through the doors with an hour to spare, and marched up straight to the nearest teller; the closing-hour crowd looked a little unhappy at the prospect of two people pushing ahead to the front of the queue, but I don't think anyone was going to start a fight with a falconer in public.

"We'd like to see the manager about Mr. Brodik's account with the bank."

"I'm afraid client confidentiality--"

Arus thinned his lips, and seemed to be struggling with himself. He sucked in a breath, reached into his pockets, and pulled out his identification seal. Like it or not, I had to give him points for style, especially in the subtle-but-not-too-subtle intimidation factor that could only be helped by anything remotely connected with the Imperial investigators. "Please," he said. "It's an Imperial affair."

The teller looked from Arus' face to the seal to Alyssnd and Kale, and then nodded. "Excuse me a moment. I'll be right back with him." She disappeared around the back and returned with the manager, a rather sad-looking man in a suit with silver lace on. I don't trust people who wear silver lace.

He gave us a worried look. "Uh, my lord, my lady--"

Arus nodded, which seemed to put the poor man a little more at ease. "We'd like to know if Mr. Brodik was in here earlier today, and have a quick look in his records. We suspect he may be witness to a rather nasty matter of Imperial security, and need to trace him down and offer him protection before something untoward happens to him. Can you help us?"

The manager clearly didn't believe us--it was written all over his face--but nodded anyway and led us into his office, where he pulled out a few papers and offered them to us. To make a long story short, Brodik hadn't been lying in his note; he'd withdrawn everything he'd had in his account, closed it, and put an enormous--for someone like him, that is--number of falcons into setting up a small investment fund with the bank in Elpe's name.

I looked at the difference between Brodik's previous bank balance and the seed money in the fund. That was about the amount he might have gotten for the insurance on his home…and what he'd kept for himself was nowhere near what it would take to set up shop somewhere else. Heck, it wasn't even enough to hide quietly in a small village in the middle of nowhere. He'd be destitute before the year was out, and what would become of his life? Brodik had liquidated all his assets, given almost everything to Elpe and vanished. How would he live?

Maybe he didn't care.

Maybe he didn't expect to live. My mentor once told me that a man with nothing was the most dangerous kind, because he was capable of anything.

It will be terrible.

"Damn it," I said through my teeth. "Where are you, you old bastard? What are you thinking?"

Arus just shook his head and scribbled furiously on his notepad.

#

It's interesting how weapons technology has progressed over the different eras of the Empire, usually spearheaded by the sorcerers and their ilk. The earliest spells used were simple kinetic and incendiary cantrips, with much the same effect as a thrown brick or flaming torch. Further improvements left the sword-and-board traditionalists a bit miffed and wary that the sorcerers were becoming a little too powerful, so they too began starting to imbue spells into their weapons and armour; charms to deflect magical attacks or evenly absorb their energy so no harm was done, small spells to keep an edge sharp, that sort of thing.

The sorcerers responded by developing crude spell-globes and wands, which allowed pretty much anyone to use their spells, whereas people still needed years of training to be able to effectively wield a sword, mace or some other weapon. The wand, as they say, was the great equaliser; it could let the lowest peasant have some sort of chance against an arm-man or retainer for a lot less training, even if it wasn't very much of a chance.

Essentially, the two camps went into an all-out arms race, trying to prove to various Emperors and Empresses, as well as the border Houses, that their products were the superior ones and they should be the ones getting patronage instead of the other side. There was a certain amount of spilling over into other fields--for example, the enchantments the construction industry uses for strengthening steel girders and beams is based off spells designed to help blades remain strong and flexible--which helped civilian life as a whole, but even after a century or two of this nonsense there still wasn't a clear winner at any of the trade shows or minor House wars.

But it's the reason why even today watchmen still wear blades in their belts along with their truncheons. Some people who've never touched an edge or wand in their lives have expressed to me their astonishment as to why a sword is still considered a viable weapon today when a wand could blast you from fifty paces.

What a load of crap.

If I'm in a good mood, I give them a small lecture as to why range, while being a perfectly good advantage, isn't the end-all of weaponry. And if I'm feeling not so great that day…well, considering the staggering amount of misinformation and ignorance in the world, a little more won't hurt.

Or will it?

#

After we left the bank, we asked the locals for directions and made it to the insurance agency just as they were closing up. It was the same story there, if only because it produced an equally sour sensation in the pit of my stomach; essentially, Brodik had grabbed as much money as they would let him have and scrammed without any suggestion as to what he might have intended for it or if he was even going to use it sensibly.

"I asked him if he wanted me to help him get in touch with some good contractors I knew, help him get back on his feet," the insurance agent told us. "Top-notch homes, wouldn't even know they'd been prefabricated and put together on the spot. He just gave me this small, sad smile and said he wouldn't be needing their services in the place he was going."

"Any idea where that might be?" Arus said.

She just shrugged. "He didn't say."

I was tempted to ask Arus to arrest the bloody unhelpful bitch who was clearly more interested in the prospect of dinner than a potential crisis, maybe suspend her in darkness and salt water until the sakers could rip her thoughts and memories straight out of her head. Just a fantasy, albeit a morbid and violent one, but hey, I've never claimed to be a paragon of virtue. The two of us stormed out into the street, quite possibly no closer to finding Brodik than we were when we'd started.

"Well," Arus said, "that was upsetting."

"What, you think he'd have conveniently let slip where he was going? Come on, now."

We puttered through the night market of Barajov, Kale and Alyssnd on our shoulders. The place was in full swing by this time in the evening, and seemed to be catering to the night arrivals off the carts and carriages passing through rather than the locals. Not a bad idea; by all appearances they were doing a reasonably brisk business. I spotted another stall selling those stuffed peppers, and bought two before I handed one to Arus.

"Eat," I said. He did so.

"What about me, chum?"

I bit into my stuffed pepper, and felt slightly better for having something in my stomach. "You see any day-old chicks on the stands, you tell me and I'll get one for you. Otherwise, you can wait till we get back to the inn."

"Hmph. I'm hungry. Huuunnnngggggrrryyyy. Want num-nums. Now."

"You want to catch something? It's not too dark to fly."

"I'm not that hungry."

"What do you think he's up to?" Arus said as he finished off the last of his stuffed pepper. I wasn't too worried about someone overhearing us; the crowd was doing a pretty good job of drowning us out.

"Could be anything. If you have the knowledge, you don't need a lot of money to create something destructive with your own hands. Give me a couple of glass bottles, three silvertail off any fishmonger, some rags and a good fire, and in four hours or so I'll give you a passable firebomb with a payload of jellied oil."

Ouch. That just upset Arus. I finished the last of my snack and was about to wipe off my fingers on my tunic when something small, white and feathery landed on my chest and started tugging at my clothes with its feet.

Oh shit. Well, at least its feathers weren't all bloody this time.

"Let me guess," I told it. "You want us to follow again. Did you kill someone else?"

The bird just tugged harder. I took that as a yes, then. As in that it wanted us to follow, I mean, not that it'd killed someone. "Come on, let's see what our friend has to show us."

"Are you sure that's a good idea, Lianne?"

"It's better than standing here cooling our feathers with no lead, isn't it?"

"I was thinking of something more on the lines of not being pecked to pieces, but…"

The mynah led us down the streets and out of the market towards the road leading out of town where the carriage stations were, simple, squat brick-and-stone buildings surrounded by a small army of parked and idling carriages. More of Elpe's birds had joined us on our way here, peering down at us from tree branches and rooftops, and just stood there watching as we followed that one to a particular rental establishment.

I looked down at the bird. "Oh, you're trying to tell us to get out of town? Very funny. I--"

"Lianne. Look."

My gaze followed Arus' outstretched finger, and something glinted in one corner of the dusty courtyard. Well, what did you expect me to do but to go over and pick it up? It was a spell-orb, perhaps a little larger than most, and Arus concentrated for a brief moment as he took it from me.

"That's strange," he said. "Some kind of singing burnt into it like a psiprint? It's rather strange, yet beautiful…"

"Elpe's. Brodik must have been here." I think it was quite safe to make this assumption; if it was one of those she'd sold, it wouldn't be lying forgotten in the dust, would it? Well, we'd find out soon enough. I jerked a thumb at the doorway. "In."

"Hmm."

Now that I think back on it, it makes sense. Elpe loved Brodik and wanted him back. The mynahs would have picked up on their mistress' emotions, and gone crazy trying to find him. Yet they had no real way of bringing him back to her, since she would have been terribly upset if they'd hurt him in any way, hence the birds tried to enlist our help since they knew we were also looking for Brodik.

I looked around me at the birds perched on the carts, coaches and carriages. "And thank you. Don't imagine, though, that this means I like the lot of you any more than before."

They flapped a little, then flew off, a wave of white against the red evening sky. As they left, I noticed that the sun wasn't completely down yet, but the moon was already starting to rise, tinged the very same colour.

The Green Tower

Chapter 26

"I still can't quite believe it," Arus muttered as we stumbled back to the inn. "How…it doesn't match up. Not when they said he'd had his downpayment with them for two months already."

"Which can only mean that he's planned this all along."

"But why?"

I didn't have an answer to that. Not that I was suffering from a lack of trying, but every time I tried to shuffle about the puzzle pieces in my mind and make sense of them, I couldn't get past the first point. Maybe I was just tired or depressed; Kale had the same heavy aura floating about his mind as well, and Arus--well, he just looked sad. If I had to guess, I'd say he felt betrayed by a fellow man of education, science and magic, but as I said, it was just a guess.

I remember stumbling through the streets of Barajov, stunned, not thinking, not feeling; believe me, this isn't something I get to do very often, because someone could have crept up and put a sharp edge between my shoulders, down my spine and I'd never have known. But it was so unlike what I'd ever encountered in the eight or nine years I'd been a facilitator, and well, I was shocked. It's not as if I'd never been called upon to deal with problematic employees, whether past or present, but if you'd say, asked the Houses to give up a few hundred golden falcons or thereabouts for the service, they'd have spat in your face. Want something to compare that price to? My family sold me to House Escobar for ten falcons, and that was enough to bump them up one notch in the social pecking order. All right, so Brodik made more than so-called simple people of the land, but my point still stands.

Believe it or not, we made it back to the inn. I didn't need to say anything and neither did Arus; he just threw Alyssnd off his wrist and she fluttered over to sit on my other shoulder while he stormed up the steps to our room. Me? To the kitchens like a good woman, of course. I got lost, a few coins got lost, and before too long I was holding a nicely balanced knife and was staring at a rather ugly specimen of a dove. I shook my head, stretched my fingers in anticipation of the comforting, familiar motions I was about to make, that every falconer learn to make in the first few weeks of their new status. I touched steel against flesh, and the pressure on the inside of my head lifted a little. Kale and Alyssnd waited on a table a little way away, and I placed an empty plate between them before they could start fighting.

Now I could think.

Wash my hands--

Brodik had clearly planned for this long before Arus and I turned up on the scene. The carters had been clear on this; he'd made arrangements for transportation to the next town, had somehow managed to pile up a whole cartload of spell-orbs with Elpe's singing in them and hidden the lot away from his home, or at least somewhere they could be safe yet easily accessible.

--Slice open the breast and belly--

He'd been more than willing to give Elpe all his money, because he'd already set in place most of what he needed. At least, that was the most likely reason. From all he'd told us, he wasn't going this for money or revenge. Brodik was a good man, which made it even worse than if he'd been a nasty bastard. He was doing this because he really thought it was the right thing to do, which meant he couldn't be bargained with. Reasoned, maybe, although I wouldn't wager my life on it. Should I be more scared than I already was? He hadn't been telling us lies when he spoke of the dangers inherent in the converters; Arus' calculations agreed with his words. No. Not a petty reason, at the very least. Brodik had never told us a lie, but he'd never told us a lot of the truth, either. Then again, we'd never asked.

--Remove the guts and crop, and throw them away--

If he'd been planning this all along, everything else made sense. Why he'd just happened to be on the scene when both the carriage and airship exploded into ooze and flames. Why he'd been so cavalier about protection at the lake, when Arus had insisted on a full spellsuit and at least some sort of basic decontamination procedure afterwards; Brodik had known that the ooze wouldn't harm him even if he'd handled it with minimal precautions. He should have known; he'd said he'd worked on the converters for years. Why he hadn't been shocked, surprised or even excited about the disasters like the rest of Barajov had. Could he have been there when the airship I'd been on went down? Watching, waiting? Had he planted that hunk of scrap metal in the lake, or thrown it in as disposal and hoped it'd never be found?

--Hack off the head and set it aside for the falcons to file their beaks on later--

The mysterious explosions and ooze had stopped when we'd started helping him try and get the attention of Imperial authorities. Were they about to start up again? Brodik had said he'd dared hope…hoped that we'd succeed. What else had he said? Something about sound, but it eluded my thoughts at the moment. Never mind; I'd find--there it was. He had said his team had been planning to run tests back when they were with House Dorst, using sound to create disturbances. Sound. Her singing?

--Off went the feet too--

Arus said the tower had been like a cage, keeping things inside in and those from outside out. I'd said it might have been both. Whoever had placed Elpe in the tower was likely to have done so both to protect people from her and the other way around. The question was, had she known what he was doing? I didn't trust her looks--the courtiers in the Imperial Palace are more than adept at the sniffling and snivelling she did--but why the note, why the fund, if she was in the know?

--A few more cuts here and there--

Her singing--had it caused all this? I hadn't heard it when my airship failed, but Kale might have, considering how Elpe's singing was completely different to him than it was for me. Why hadn't things been failing left and right before? Granted, there wasn't much in the way of cutting-edge technology in Barajov considering that there were still plenty of magicite generators in use, and the tower…

Had it been meant to keep her singing in, where it couldn't do any harm? Or had it been meant to keep the world out, where it couldn't hurt Elpe? Come to think of it, if not for the airship failing, I'd have had to catch a carriage from the next town all the way to Barajov. All the way from the helioport, in fact…

--Mix back in the feathers, liver, and heart, and gasp. That was it. It was a shot, but I thought I knew where Brodik's next stop would be.

"You weren't thinking in exactly a straight line, but most of it fits."

"Actually, it's not too much of a dive," I told Kale as I served up the butchered dove. "We know he's going after the converters. We know he's headed to the next town. The biggest concentration of the things there is the helioport that serves the whole bloody province. That's what he's going after next. The rest we can figure out in our own time."

Kale stared at me, then pecked at the raw dove half-heartedly. "Alyssnd wants to know if you want her to wake Arus up."

"I…I don't know. We should be going immediately, but then again, we're useless as we are. I think we can stop and rest until morning."

"All right chum, you call the shots. Just don't make a decision you'll regret later on."

I swallowed hard. "I don't regret easily."

"I'm holding you to your word, chum."

#

It's really a sign of the faith people have in technological advancements that people even so much as step onto an airship. No, really, stop and think about it for a moment. You're getting on a craft that is going to take you high enough into the sky such that falling is pretty much going to guarantee your death, and all that's keeping you up are the four aerium engines--well, older models are still using aerium instead of the converters--at the rear of the ship. At least if you're going on a sea craft you still have a better chance of surviving a shipwreck. I've known airships to have crashed before the glide-boats could be launched even when all the gas bags had been deployed, and there weren't enough parachutes or slow-falling spells to go around.

Of course, said airships had a little help, but I'm not really at liberty to discuss those particular jobs any further.

"But Lianne," you say. "Not everyone has the money to travel by airship." Fine, I say, and point you to the nearest generator, the sort that can be found sitting by all but the most destitute rural households. Play along with me for a while, please? All right. You go up to the generator, you push the button, and after some chugging you get useful magical power to light up your home, power your water pumps and heater--if you own the latter, that is--maybe set it to charge your field machinery while you sleep. Pretty normal, don't you think? Yet you're showing tremendous faith that when you push the button, the generator will do generator things as opposed to heavy-grade weaponry things. Of course, there are failsafes built into almost every model that's out there these days, but with enough intelligence, malice or stupidity, they can be overridden. It's not impossible. Then when it does happen, through one or more of the above, people act all surprised and start to panic, as if their favourite dog turned feral one day and started attacking them. Actually, that's not a bad analogy; I'll have to remember it.

Something as simple as drying your clothes with a snap of your fingers or a small shield to keep both rain and sun from getting to you--these are the little things we take for granted in our everyday lives, and to take matters one step further, they're usually automated these days; people don't know the every detail of the runes and gears that go into carts and carriages, yet trust their lives to these things on a daily basis. Minor miracles of magic that the Empire's founders would have committed ritual suicide even to get a glimpse of, yet we think of as perfectly normal.

Ever wonder what if it all stopped working, or even worse, turned on you?

#

Arus stirred. He rubbed his eyes, groaned and forced himself out of his armchair several moments later, blinking at the sunlight streaming through the window. Not that I was much better than him--I'd barely gotten up an hour ago, and this is coming from someone who usually wakes before dawn as the natural order of things.

I knew how he felt.

"You're up," I told him. "I worked some things out last night and both birds agreed with my line of thinking, but you were so tired we thought you should rest. Not that we weren't pretty much beat down, either."

Arus blinked again, tried to widen his bloodshot eyes at the sunlight, and screwed them up again. I handed him a cold and wet hand towel I'd prepared for just this purpose.

"Explain," he said as he wiped his face.

So I did. I joined up the dots in front of Arus the same way I did last night, and when I was halfway through he clenched his teeth, set his hands on the armchair's rests and heaved himself upright, reaching for his vest which he'd draped over the armchair's back the previous night. Alyssnd fluttered at him, but he frowned at her. "You should have woken me. You as well, Lianne."

"No. You needed the rest. Now we're going to get some breakfast, and then we move out."

"Have you absolutely no sense of urgency? If Brodik is targeting the helioport as you claim, there are lives at stake here? How can you--"

I helped Arus put on his vest. Yes, I did, and so what of it? He looked so pathetic fumbling with the thing, anyone with half a heart would have done the same. "I can, and you know why? Because the way you are now, I'm not going to trust you to translocate us without putting us in the middle of a mountain or at the bottom of the sea. Even if you did, there's something I want you to do first. Still got that spell-orb?"

Arus patted one of his vest pockets. "Yes."

"Good. Run a divination on it, see what you can find. Any information on how he's going to go about it, or whether he's really headed there--well, knowing something is better than nothing. Going in knowing nothing is pretty much suicide. Trust me, I'm the trained expert."

Arus opened and shut his mouth several times, then hung his head in quiet resignation as he followed me out of our room. The inn's restaurant was serving up as the highlight of the morning an interesting omelette made with green onions, tomatoes and straw mushrooms--what? Oh, high-class nibbles, fish eggs and bits of fruit and cheese on sticks might be nice, but they don't stick to your ribs and make you feel all warm inside like some good meals do. Of course, I'm biased, but who isn't? Arus managed a bowl of cream soup, the falcons watched us eat, and when we were done Arus pulled the spell-orb out of his pocket and laid it on the table amongst the crockery.

"All right, let's see what we can get from this."

This divination started off much like the last time, until the point when I saw faint images of fire coalescing. Then the images were gone, and Arus was pressing his fingers against the spell-orb's glassy surface so hard the tips of his fingers went white; even Alyssnd looked strained, the way Kale does when I have to catch something rather weird or heavy. Call it a hunch, but I don't think that was supposed to happen.

"Arus? Arus!"

Just as I was getting really worried, Arus sucked in a breath and pulled his fingers away. The glow faded, and it was just the two of us in our booth.

Arus exhaled, a loud whuff of breath coming from his lips. "I…Brodik know's someone's trying to watch him. He's blocked me."

"He's that skilled?"

"Blocking divination has always been easier than doing it. Why do you think kestrels are so valued?" He shook his head.

"Saw anything?"

"Fire. A lot of it."

Maybe the omelette hadn't been such a good idea.

The Green Tower

Chapter 27

Have you ever had the misfortune to be translocated before? It's not something that happens to just anybody--even today, the only people who have the ability to pull it off reliably are sorcerers, who cheat by having their falcons help. I don't see why two people can't do the same, but Arus' assured me it's all so much technical garbage, an opinion which I'm inclined to share.

But it's an interesting thing to experience, and although no two people have met it exactly the same way, there is a general consensus on what one goes through. The way I went about it, I felt as if I'd been pulled really, really thin, sort of like stretched rubber. Part of me was where I'd been standing and the other part where Arus was bringing us, and in between...let's just say I'm not sure if I was supposed to feel my spleen. Then whatever was holding me in my original spot let go, and my stretched-too-thin body snapped into its new position in the blink of an eye.

In short, it's like riding a carriage to your destination, only a lot, lot faster and with all the disorienting effects condensed into a fraction of the time. As to how birds feel it...well, Alyssnd never seemes to have any trouble, and Kale refuses to discuss the matter, even with me.

So there I was, standing on the grass and tarmac of the helioport listening to Arus argue with what passed for the head of security, some sop who didn't look too different from the average arm-man you can hire for two feathers, only he was in the colours of House Doskar and had better boots than most. The attitude, though, hadn't even been dressed up. I wasn't sure if the feeling of revulsion that lingered like week-old falcon shit was the result of the translocation or this guy.

"And I'm telling you that you need to evacuate the premises," Arus said, his face and neck red--and not from the sun. "There are lives at stake here. Even if you don't give a shit about the people, think about how your employer will feel when the whole helioport goes up in flames."

The bastard folded his arms. "I can't go shutting everything down without solid proof this malcontent of yours is going to bomb the place. I need papers, I need something I can show the House. I'm not a rustic who shakes at the sight of an Imperial investigator's seal; this place serves the whole province and evacuating everyone is going to cause all sorts of delays and problems I don't want to deal with right now. How about you dig up some evidence that weighs more than the word of you and your lady friend here, and I'll consider it deeply."

Malcontent? Was that was Brodik was now? Well, Arus and I were probably biased, considering how we'd all known Brodik and spent so much time with him, but...no, he wasn't a malcontent. Not with the connotations the word evokes in most who hear it.

Then what was he?

Arus bared his teeth. "What I see is a man refusing to err on the side of caution."

"And what I see is House Hazzard trying to stick its nose into the affairs of its betters. Go back to you mother; House Doskar doesn't feel like playing today."

"Damn it, this isn't a pissing contest between the Houses!"

"Now who's not erring on the side of caution? Hundreds, maybe thousands of folks coming through each day. That's time and money, friend, and I'm not going to have to explain to the Head of House why there're a thousand pissed-off people at the gates."

"This show," Kale announced, "is boring."

"That's because there's nothing on the stage, at least for you. You've never managed to appreciate the wildernesses of the human heart, my dear friend. Unfortunately, neither have I."

"Wildernesses of the human heart? What wildernesses? I'll be damned if there's more than a single scraggly tree."

Like it or not, Kale was right. Neither of the men seemed like they were going to be getting anywhere fast, so I left them to it and took a look around. Sure, it's not as if I haven't been to a helioport before, but you know how things are when you're travelling on business; always moving on with a pigeon to catch and no time to feel the wind under your wings. At least the landing fields weren't deserted; there were people coming on and getting off gangways, huge wheeled automatons lugging around both supplies, magicite and cargo to be stuffed in the holds, carriages shuttling people to and fro between the airships and waiting areas. Just for fun, I sketched out a few paths from which I might sneak from the waiting area to the landing fields, and well, let's just say that even with the late morning crowd, the sheer number of airships, pallets of goods waiting to be loaded, and yes, even the crowd itself could be cover--any idiot could have worked their way anywhere without being noticed.

Brodik? No question about it.

A shiver ran down my spine. Maybe I'd been wrong about where Brodik had been headed. Heck, I wanted to be wrong about where he'd been headed. I'm willing to kill one or two people to prove a point, but a few hundred...if we were wrong, we'd look like fools, perhaps, but better fools than the alternative, especially since Arus didn't seem to be making any progress with the obstinate idiot in our way. Maybe I should have just stabbed the bastard and got him out of our way. I don't know if it would have been the better choice.

Well, now I'll never know.

"Chum? Chum! I hear--"

I first felt it through my boots, the way you can feel drumming against your skin and through the ground if you stand close enough to the drummers. It's hard to describe the way it felt, but if you can imagine the ground and air trembling while being absolutely dead still at the same time, that's about it. Yeah, that's a contradiction right there, but I did say it was hard to describe.

And then I heard it, the same horrible screeching Kale had heard when he'd--I guess translated is the best word--Elpe's singing for me. Arus had heard it too, and his eyes had grown impossibly wide, small sparks of bluish-purple magical energy falling from Alyssnd's wings as the little moon falcon grew more agitated than I'd ever seen her get. Most of the people in the landing fields hadn't heard the screeching--or maybe they'd heard something else, for some of them just stopped to listen, enraptured, transfixed, whatever the word is, by whatever song they were hearing. it would be too late to warn them. It was too late to warn them.

Well, fuck.

Kale fluttered to the ground and I tackled both Arus and the bastard of a security head, skin and feathers ending up in a crumpled heap on the grass. "Down!"

"What--"

"Down!"

Arus raised a hand, and there was just the faintest shimmer of light as the world exploded.

#

As I've already mentioned, falcons don't play well together. Put two wild falcons of different species together and chances are that they'll start fighting; not surprisingly, the same goes for falconers. Usually matters are resolved with words, in the marketplace or perhaps with the persuasion or elimination of a few key members from either side of the argument, but sometimes the situation ends up being a bit more complicated than one would like and things start spiralling out of control.

That's when you get a House war.

Let us get this straight: no one likes a House war. That's right, no one. The peasants and small-time artisans don't like it, because more likely than not they'll go to bed one night and wake up the next morning holding a cheap knockoff wand and even worse boots on their feet, wondering "what the heck am I risking my butt for?" The tradesmen don't like House wars, because no one likes having their goods commandeered and it's bad for business. The Houses don't like it, because it means time, money and their reputation out of their pockets; only gyrs like warmongers. And of course, let's not forget our beloved Emperor, who already has enough to deal with without having to brood and fuss over two feuding Houses but has to watch them lest a comparatively minor House war get out of control.

With so many people disliking House wars, it's more than a little surprising they ever get started, but they do anyway. The only Houses that haven't really gotten into those at some point are the border lords and ladies, and that's only because they're too busy holding the borders to fight each other, although the way they complain at each convocation, you wouldn't know it. Yet for all the reasons against it happening, these modern re-enactments of the ancient hill-kings' and queens' dramas still play out today, sometimes to the point where the Emperor has to step in, waggle a finger at them for threatening the Empire's stability, and force a peace up their bums. All this because a bunch of birds and their people happened to be too bloody-minded for their own good.

It's not that I don't understand why it has to happen. Considering the way most people act, even if there weren't any falconers I'm not quite convinced the world would be a much better place than it is already. Humans are perfectly capable of bloody-mindedness on their own; that may be one of the reasons why falcons chose to attach themselves to us.

For all the death and destruction involved, do good things come out of House wars? It's a bit hard to imagine it might, especially when you consider that fact that a House war usually means that a facilitator's services failed, but...well, I suppose there've been advances in technology spurred by conflict. Making sure the Houses don't get too far above their flying weight. Maybe policy changes within the Houses and in the Empire as a whole. Good coming out of a House war...yes, maybe, but let me ask you a question: how many lives are worth a policy change?

Hard to answer, isn't it?

#

I don't remember very much of the next few seconds. Yes, I know my job's rather dependent on noticing details, but I don't think that's rather possible when one's eyes are shut and all one can hear is a terrible roaring all around. There are some things I do remember: the grass against my clothing, Kale alternating between chirping in terror and screaming "this is it!" into my head, the warmth of Arus' skin as I instinctively pressed myself against him. For a moment I wondered if Arus' shield was going to hold up against the forces hammering against it and what would happen if it did; there was so much orange fire and blue smoke we'd have been engulfed in a single wingbeat. Either that, the fires would have kept on burning forever, and we'd all suffocate in the small bubble Arus was struggling to maintain.

If you ever go down to Aerie, the kestrels at the central Imperial library have records of what happened that day, and when I compare their dry, stiff words with my memories--well, it really doesn't do them justice. Oh, the events match up, I guess, and it's nice to see that they can make a neat series of happenstances out of chaos, but every time I go back and read it for old times' sake I can't help but shake my head at how some things were worded.

So what else do I know, I who was caught in the middle when it all started? I remember a wall of fire sweeping up and over us, embers and debris hurtling against Arus' shield in the few moments I dared to peek. I remember the ground beneath me becoming unbearably hot, so much so that I was convinced we'd be burnt alive in that bubble. I remember some other things I saw, mostly involving various remains of human remains--if you get the rather curious expression--and you'll forgive me if I don't want to go into the details. There are some ways in which no one should die, and to see the kestrels sum them up as "the death toll was approximately eight to twelve hundred"--well, it just doesn't do it justice, don't you think?

I uncurled ever so slightly, and then, slowly--

--Slowly--

--The air cleared, or at least, as clear as it was going to get with so many things burning all at once. The fires had spread from the newer airships, jumping across both wood and flesh alike to the older models, and pretty much everything that wasn't molten or ashes was still burning. Part of what might have been a forklift bounced off Arus' shield and landed on the ground with a metallic clang. Save for the crackling of flames, I didn't hear anything else.

I think it was better that way.

"Will you just look at this," Kale said.

"I saw."

We were silent for several seconds. "Yeah."

The bastard of a security chief wasn't moving, so I left him there and tugged at Arus' sleeves. I mean, from what I understand of these things he had to be in there somewhere, otherwise the shield wouldn't still be holding. When neither he nor Alyssnd stirred, I grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him hard while Kale went and beaked Alyssnd, like he couldn't quite believe she was well and truly out.

"Come on, you idiot," I growled. "Don't scare me like this. Get up!"

Kale looked up at me sadly. "Seems like no one's home here either, chum."

Well, damn it. I don't know how Arus managed to look any more rubbery than he already was, but he did so and the shield dissipated soundlessly. That, I presumed, was my cue to get the heck out before something even worse happened; I knelt down and checked Arus over, then the bastard. Not that I really cared about the latter, but Arus would whine about social responsibility or something with an equally stupid name if I didn't.

"There's a pulse and they're still breathing. That's good enough for me," I told Kale as I hefted up both men, one on each shoulder. Yes, it's harder than it looks, and isn't something you should attempt without training. "Can you manage with your lady friend there?"

"I'll drag her all the way back, if that's what it takes."

"You don't have arms."

"I'll hop all the bloody way back if need be. Don't question me, chum, and I won't question you."

Smoke. Fire. The dead. I muttered the same spell I'd used in Brodik's home under my breath, sucked in a breath, and winced as the air stung the tip of my tongue. Nope, not healthy at all, and it wasn't just the soot. "Best to get moving, then. I would really hate to miss lunch."

"Hah."

Brodik had done this. He'd done all of this, and given his objective, had been quite successful; I doubted anyone around these parts would go near a helioport for some time. I knew the answer, yet the question still had to be asked, perhaps purely for posterity's sake.

"Why, you old bastard?" I grunted as I tried to avoid the worst of the smoke on my way out of the burning mess. "Why?"

The Green Tower

Chapter 28

One step at a time. One step at a time, Lianne, all the way back to safety. Never mind the fact that I had a man slung over each shoulder; Kale hopped behind me, one foot clutched as tightly about Alyssnd's feathery breast as he dared, flapping his wings for balance. If he wasn't about to give up, then damn it, neither was I.

All we had to do was to keep on going, one step at a time.

"Kale?"

"Yeah, chum?"

"When you think about it, it's really funny we're here."

He sounded more than a little strained. "When you think about it, I really want to kill something."

All right, I knew when to shut up. Gradually, the rectangular blob that was barely visible through all the smoke became clearer, and I became aware of alarms going off in the distance and people dressed in House Doskar colours approaching me. They were yelling something I couldn't quite make out, and as I dragged the lot of us towards the helioport's waiting area they turned out to be wearing baggy spellsuits and toting some sort of weird gadgetry that reminded me of Arus' equipment.

Two of them came forward, but I waved them off. "Get these two to a merlin or something," I grunted. "They're in worse shape. I'll be fine."

None of them would respect a falconer's wishes; so much for us being evil tyrants lording over the bloody commoners. Instead, they relieved me of Arus and the bastard before forcing me to lie down on something soft. One of the suited people poked me in various places I didn't care to be poked in, and another placed Kale on my stomach, then I got the distinct sensation of moving. I prodded Kale's mind; he was there but didn't feel like saying anything. Not that I blamed him.

"Check all of them for exposure," someone said. "Decontaminate as necessary."

Decontaminate? Damn. It was probably my mind suffering from all that smoke and making all the wrong connections, but there and then I didn't want to be "decontaminated". It sounded a little too much like "exterminated" for my liking. Too late, though; someone sprayed me all over with sticky filaments as I sat up and shivered despite the all-too-recent heat.

"It's all right, m'lady," the--I guess she was a rescue worker--said. "You and those two will be fine. Probably."

Probably. I liked her already, just not in a good way. "Define 'probably'."

"Well, the three of you have been barely exposed, considering what went on back in the landing fields. There're teams going out to deal with the fires--"

Barely any exposure? Hah, thank goodness for Arus. "No," I said, and groaned. "Not with water. Water only makes it worse. Use sand. Or something. Just not water." She stared hard at me for several seconds, so I guessed I had to explain. "My friend the sorcerer--he's with the Imperial investigators. We got word there was going to be an attack on the helioport and came down to warn you, but got caught in an argument with the head of security. Well..." I waggled a hand at the columns of bluish smoke rising into the sky. "I guess you can figure out what happened. If only the bastard had listened to us, but hey, we all have our regrets."

The rescue worker opened and closed her mouth several times, but if she was saying something, I didn't hear it on the grounds of feeling terribly dizzy and falling backwards.

#

Sometimes, life likes to slap you in the face for no reason. I can deal with that; shit happens. Must be my crude, fatalistic and utterly downtrodden peasant stock showing through.

Sometimes, though, life wants not only to slap you in the face, but beat you up and hold you upside down till everything worthwhile in the pockets of your existence is out on the ground for the taking. I wouldn't accept that, and frankly I think anyone else would do the same. Oh sure, most people don't have very much to be shaken down for, but when one's living in an empty crate every copper feather seems like a fortune, if you get the expression.

There was this time in my life not too long after I'd struck out on my own--or at least, I wasn't directly relying on either my mentor's or patron's connections to get my jobs--when a large envelope came up to my chambers via one of the runner boys you find anywhere a Head of House lives. Of course, back then I was young and foolish; these days I know better than to open bulky envelopes with my bare hands.

Anyways, it was a job. A job, for me. I won't say who the proposal came from or what it was about, but it was to be my first job as a facilitator in my own right. You know, the feeling you get when you get your first payslip and want to show it off to everyone. Proof that you're someone, as opposed to being a no-good parasite leeching off the people around you.

Turned out the potential client didn't want me, but rather, my hands. I can understand the interest; being able to rip apart a magical lock with your bare hands sure beats having to deal with intricate counterspells other facilitators have to rely on, but I think you'll understand if I don't appreciate being called "the girl with those hands". Even other falconers don't go around calling merlins "those people with the ability to knit up others" or hobbies "those people-shaped aphrodisiacs", so I didn't and still don't see any reason why I should have had to put up with that sort of nonsense. Yes, Kale was a mongrel falcon back then, but he's my falcon and no one save the two of us disparages what we share.

Oh, I wasn't in any hurry to give my reply. I went down to the kitchens, got a couple of day-old chicks, then left Kale to work on them while I cooked up some thick dumplings. They didn't taste of anything, so I added some chopped spring onions and a dash of sesame oil. Nope, still tasteless. After we'd finished the lot, I went to my newly-purchased desk, picked up pen and paper and wrote a letter politely telling them in not so many words to screw off.

Was it petty of me? Perhaps, and if it was I'm not ashamed of it; besides, it wasn't as if we desperately needed the money. Someone else might have taken the hit to their ego and accepted the job, but not me; I wasn't going to stand for this nonsense, and I doubted any falconer would, either. And let me tell you, it felt good. I was telling a member of the bloody aristocracy to screw off, something I'd never have done as Lianne, the girl who was terrified of being boiled alive in an old soup pot. It was even better than finishing a starchy, filling meal or turning a training dummy into so much broken straw with a few thrown half-bricks.

It was an old woman's pride of sorts, and I'll understand if you don't completely agree with what I did. A week later another offer for a commission came in from a rival House, and this time they were at least polite enough to use the surname my father had beggared us to get entered in the Book of Annals, were nice enough to provide plenty of details, and offered to talk it over a meal in neutral territory.

Needless to say, I accepted.

#

Okay, Lianne. Don't panic, you've done this before. Breathe in. Out. In. Out. All right, the arms are still attached. That's always a good start. Good, now let's try the legs. In working condition as well. Absolutely fantastic. Something that was probably my spleen begged to differ, but spleens are slightly less important in the greater scheme of things.

All right, now I dared to open my eyes and sit up.

I'd been lying on a couch in a small room, Arus sprawled on another one in the opposite corner and both our falcons between us on a cushion. The steady hum of ventilators drawled on, drowning out the faint sounds that came to my ears through the thick glass panelling that offered a lovely view of the landing fields.

It was a disaster.

I'd lived through that? From here it seemed impossible for anyone to have survived all that smoke without dying of suffocation, especially while carrying two men, but here I was with all my breathing privileges intact. Huge carts and wagons had now pulled up by the edges of the landing fields, and the place was positively swarming with people--some of them armed--in the green and grey of House Doskar, spraying chemical extinguisher from long hoses onto the airships and hauling bucketfuls of dirt and sand onto the smaller fires. They seemed to have the situation under control, even if it was still putting up a fight, and I turned my attention to other matters.

"Hey, you. Are you there?"

"Bbbbrrrlllbbb."

Good enough. I tried to stand, and by every feather in the Emperor's bloody cloak, my back hurt. Still, I made it across the room to where Arus lay, and nudged him on his chin. "Hey. Are you ready to get up yet?"

Arus groaned and came to. He looked confused for a second or so, then his eyes flicked into focus so hard that I edged ever so slightly away from him.

"You," he said, snapped upright, and took a swipe at my tunic. To his credit, he actually almost caught me. "You're responsible for this, Lianne."

"What? Me? I--"

"Oh, who was it who said 'let's not just sleep through the whole night, but also take the time to wash up and have breakfast while we're about it?' Who was it without any sense of urgency whatsoever? If not for you wasting hours, we could have--"

I stepped back, stood and folded my arms. "We could have what, Arus Hazzard? Argued with an uncooperative bastard through the whole night and not even gotten anywhere near the airships? Made matters even worse because we were too tired to think straight?"

Arus' face twisted into several interesting expressions before settling on a furious scowl. "Done more than what we did. Maybe sneak out to the landing fields and try to find the device Brodik rigged, maybe defuse it ourselves. Well, now we'll never know, and there are people dead because we stopped to have breakfast. Maybe lives are nothing more than meal tickets and payslips to you, Lianne, but they mean something to me."

"If I didn't care about lives, my dear, I wouldn't be here arguing with you. I'd be back at Manor Escobar enjoying a good meal."

Arus said nothing for several moments, then sighed and looked out the thick-panelled window. He turned just a shade paler, then bowed his head and rubbed his temples. He was right in a way, I suppose, but there and then I was too bloody-minded to budge on the issue. I mean, what could we have done? He'd just have spent all night arguing with that bastard of a security chief, and then we'd have to go out and try to find one or two orbs that could have been hidden anywhere amongst the airships. I could see where Arus had been coming from--on the chance we'd been able to talk someone around, maybe the people out in the landing fields and loading bays could have been evacuated in time, but--oh, I'll admit it. We could have done more. It's just that the chances of us actually managing it would have been almost nonexistent. Of course, Arus would still have tried so long as there was the slightest chance, but...

I'm not going to lose sleep over a bad decision. Fix it to the best of my ability, yes, learn from it, yes, but not lose sleep over it; otherwise I'd go crazy counting the ways I could have pulled off a job better.

Still...

I turned away from Arus so he couldn't see my face. Damn it, it hurt him. It really hurt him; he couldn't brush it off like I did, and well, as much as I was loath to admit as much and knew it made no sense, it hurt me as well because he hurt. "Fine. Maybe...maybe you're right. I misjudged the situation."

He sighed, sounding more than a little defeated. "That's the closest you'll ever get to admitting you were wrong, I suppose. Best not to push that wing too hard."

"Don't get used to it."

That seemed to be it for now; Arus laid back on the couch and turned himself around so he could better take in the rescue efforts going on outside. I couldn't see very well through the smoke rising from the fires, but there were spots of white flitting in between the burning ruins of the airships. Were the bloody birds never going to leave us alone?

Probably not, I guess.

"What are you doing?"

"Trying to find the easiest way out," I said as I tried the handle on the only door out of the small room. It wouldn't give. "Strangely enough, I don't like being locked up in small rooms. They bring out my womanly urges."

Arus rolled his eyes. "Such as?"

"Such as an overwhelming impulse to break that window over there, grab the birds and get out of here."

"How about we try something different, Lianne?" Arus said, trying to make himself more comfortable on the couch. "We stay here for a while, meet the people who have us in here, and talk to them. Like it or not, I've got good reason to think House Doskar will at least lend us a few hands in tracking down Brodik. You made the decisions the last time. Now let me have a go, will you? There's always the window if our hosts turn out to be less than friendly."

I sat down beside him and considered that. "Fine, but if shit happens I'll be the one blaming you for delaying us. Whatever happens, I'd really prefer it if we get out of this alive."

"Oh, same here." Arus looked out the window again and muttered something under his breath. "I guess if we're going to be waiting for them, we might as well get some rest."

"Says the man who was berating me for not having a sense of urgency."

"This is different," he said. "Besides, I guess I'm not going to be resting very well, not when I feel I should be helping--"

"We're survivors, my dear," I told him. "Survivors are supposed to lie down, groan, and do appropriately pitiful things. They're not supposed to go back out after just coming to and trying to be heroes. If you can't keep still, I have a solution for that."

"What--" Arus said, then tried to get up as he realised what I was doing leaning over him. "Lianne, as much as I understand your intentions, I really don't think that's a good--"

That was about as far as he got, on account me pushing his face past my open tunic and into my chest. Not that I could actually smother him, but hey, it'd worked before and it still worked, even if poor Arus managed to struggle a little halfheartedly this time around before passing out in my arms. Yep, out like a glow-orb; I checked to make sure he was still breathing, then set him back down on the couch.

"You're despicable, chum. Utterly despicable."

I turned and found Kale staring at me through one open eye, then shrugged and buttoned back up my tunic. "Oh, quiet you."

The Green Tower

Chapter 29

Once, old slat-face--I mean, Lord Escobar, although don't tell the bastard I called him that--took me to the theatre see all three acts of Thieves and Beggars in one go. I don't know, it could have been a joke of his, or maybe he wanted to get me deeper in my bond-debt or show the world at large what an amazing and powerful guy he was to have a facilitator and falconer as his bondservant. Come to think of it, I really should finish watching the whole play sometime just to thumb my nose at the people who say I was born in a cornfield. All I remember, though, was that I got an immense craving for roasted eggplant midway through the great courthouse scene, and left my seat to fulfil it.

You can say that I'm not very good at appreciating great art.

Was the scene I was looking at through the window great art? I might not have the best eye for these things, but in the hands of a competent artist it might have been something of note. I know there're psiprints on record, but--well, they just didn't manage to capture what I felt back then. Seeing people working together to get the damn magical blaze out, even if it was only out of a shared interest in self-preservation. Pretty much all of the landing fields had been charred black, with large pits eaten out of the tarmac by the corrosive ooze. Amazingly, one or two of the airships near the edges still stood, even if all that remained were the skeletal frameworks. Maybe I should have said something deep and meaningful, or even poignant, whatever that means, but all I could think of then was Brodik's last words and an old joke I'd heard a long time ago.

Do you believe one person can change the world?

"But your Imperial majesty, she is just one person. What can one person do?" I checked Arus, made sure he was comfortable, then stared out the window again. "This."

I sat in that tiny room for a little while longer, just feeling the knots in my back and shoulders unwind ever so slightly; I'd almost forgotten what it'd felt like to relax a little, even if the room way too small. At length, Kale came up and perched on the armrest; he looked terrible with his feathers all wet-looking and bent out of shape, but shied away from my touch.

"Hey, chum, I'm not so beat up that I can't take care of myself."

"Well, if you say so."

This wasn't a fair world. In a fair world, it wouldn't have been possible for anyone to feel this tired after they'd woken up mere hours ago. All I wanted was a hot bath, maybe a light snack, and some good, clean sheets; according to the world, that was too much to ask. Heck, even a perfectly reasonable request like not having to feel so terrible--well, I wasn't going to hold out much hope for that. Kale looked at me, laughed, and began preening himself with all the dignity of a turnip. Presently, Arus groaned, pushed himself off the couch, and rubbed his face a few times before glaring straight at me.

I smiled.

"I feel unclean," he groaned, and rubbed his face some more.

"Now, it's not as if I've made a habit of it. Besides, there're many men who'd be appreciative of such a gesture. At the very least, I know Kale wants the equivalent from your little bird."

Arus looked down at Alyssnd, who was still out on the cushion, and scooped her up in both hands before edging away from Kale. Despite my aching shoulders and the niggling thoughts lingering at the back of my mind, I couldn't help but savour the moment and laugh.

"Come on, now. Are you sure you didn't really enjoy it and are just in denial?"

He flushed and turned away. "It's not a matter of whether I enjoyed it or not, and just so you know, the answer to that is 'no'. It's...well...improper. Sticking other peoples' faces in your chest, that is. Or to put it in your words, unprofessional."

"So you did enjoy it. Hey, I don't do that to just anyone. Only you. Why, you should be feeling quite special, don't you think?"

"Once was enough. Twice is..." He raised his head and stared out the window, then shook his head. "Why are we even arguing about this when there's a disaster going on not more than two milestones from where we're standing?"

"You mean, there was a disaster. Because, as you might have noticed, the people from House Doskar have got matters under control, maybe? Or perhaps it's because we're too lazy and unmotivated to do anything. No matter what, I suspect that locked door in our way is going to be a small problem."

Arus sighed and sank back onto the couch, although I noticed he still wasn't looking straight at me. Alyssnd stirred in his hands, flapped her wings a little, and looked as miserable as Arus.

"Does nothing ever manage to dent that wonderful wit of yours, Lianne?"

Oh, I had a reply all lined up, but the lock had to click, the door had to open, and a rather sad-looking man dressed in the green and grey of House Doskar peered in at us.

"Ah, you've come to. Do pardon the interruption, but Lady Doskar insists on seeing you now."

#

Just for fun, let's play a little game Arus likes to call a "thought experiment". Consider for a moment, all the potential idiots out there who have the capability to cause great destruction. That's a little too much, isn't it?

Now take away those who manage to get themselves harmlessly killed.

Take away those who end up in asylums and homes of some sort or the other.

Take away those who realise they are idiots, seek to better themselves and end up as productive members of society.

Take away those who never find themselves in any position to cause serious or lasting damage of any sort. Not too many, this one, but still might as well take them into account.

Tally the final total, and I'm sure you'll agree with me that there're still too many out there.

The Arkon chemical plant disaster is known as the greatest industrial accident of our generation, and for good reason, too. As far as the facilitator community knows, no one was actually hired to sabotage the damn thing; the accident happened out of a mixture of sheer stupidity and bad luck, and created an incident that's pretty much taught in all applied magics courses as a case study in what not to do. It was all over the newsprints and in the rural areas, bulletin boards, so the more public details of the incident aren't exactly unknown, and as for the other details, Arus was kind enough to fill me in.

Essentially, what happened was that there was a chemical plant somewhere in the province of Aelthos; it was the sort that was large enough to warrant a small town named Arkon springing out of what was originally a bunch of workers' dormitories and a company store. The locals both cultivated and collected mandrake root in the local marshes, cartloads of the stuff came from all over and it got turned into mandrake essence through a process Arus says is too dangerous for anyone to try with your average alchemy set. Not that I disagree with him; I've used the stuff in a few elixirs and it is strong. If you want an example, a stimulant to produce wakefulness, heighten one's senses and stave off sleep for a whole day requires just one drop. Mandrake essence has to be transported carefully; something as trivial as shaking it too hard can set off a reaction that once gone runaway, is almost impossible to bring back under control.

Ah, now comprehension dawns. You get it, don't you?

The Imperial investigators still aren't entirely sure what set it off. There's evidence some idiot cut into a pipeline that shouldn't have been there in the first place, the people in the control room must have been asleep to react as slowly as they had, and of course, there was the matter of the waste pulp and fibres that had been dumped in a makeshift landfill not too far from the plant site itself. Without treatment, of course. The pipeline rupturing was only the beginning as the instability quickly spread to the storage tanks and became far more than they could bear; they were the next to go, and things pretty much went squid-shaped from there on. The prevailing wind happened to carry not just the essence fumes, but loads of the volatile and highly toxic solvent they were using for extraction up, away and right over the town.

Pretty much the entire town died that day. The few survivors who'd been out in the marshes when the plant blew suffered from blindness, severe chemical burns and other nasty effects from the vapour cloud that settled over the whole area, and the first emergency response team straight from Aerie found bodies just lying in the streets and their beds, their skin and flesh peeled straight to the bone. If I remember correctly, it took one and a half months for Imperial forces to completely decontaminate the area and do a thorough clean-up, during and after which there was an inquiry into the incident in which no cloud was left unsearched for hidden details.

For the first time in seventy-four years, the Emperor ordered the execution of a Head of House.

Brodik had said it would be terrible, and compared the consequences to the Arkon plant disaster. That day, walking through the fire and watching House Doskar try and salvage the ruins of their helioport, I could very well believe it. How many people had been on those airships? Loading? Waiting to take off? Travelling to and from the waiting area to the fields? Was it comparable to a small town, knowing that whatever Brodik had planned, it would only get worse? Stupidity was bad enough, but stupidity and malice...

Now that it's over, I'll leave those questions to the kestrels and lanners, who can deal with them far better than I can.

One thing I did know, though; someone's head was going to roll for this.

#

"Mistress, the two survivors."

It wasn't a bad office; something on the lines of what I envisioned my workspace to be like someday when I'd earned enough money off killing people and breaking machines to retire and be properly decedent. A nice perch for the falcon, was always a good place to start. After that, add plenty of greenery in the corners where it was supposed to be, neat open spaces for pacing around in circles if one needed to, comfortable-looking chairs--and of course, the Lady Doskar sitting in the midst of it all.

Very impressive, I'm sure you'll agree. She dismissed the retainer with a wave of her hand, then scratched the lanner on her shoulder before turning to us and bidding us to take a seat before her. We did so.

"Tea, perhaps?"

I had bad memories of Elpe, tea and birds staring at me. "Uh, no, thanks. We're good. Right, Arus?"

"What?"

"I said we're good."

"Oh. Yes." He still looked a little flustered as he presented his Imperial seal to Lady Doskar, and Kale giggled into my head. "I...we're fine."

"Very well, then, enough with the pleasantries." Lady Doskar leaned forward onto her desk, made a tent with her fingers, and seemed to age ten years in a moment to something more appropriate for her station. Very effective as well, but I guess she was a lanner; it came with the territory. "This is the biggest disaster the House has suffered since we've started keeping clean records with the kestrels in Aerie. From the latest reports my people in the field have brought in, only eleven survivors have been extracted from the site, if we choose to ignore the purely monetary cost of the damage incurred. Of those eleven, only three--the two of you included--made it out relatively unscathed." She shook her head. "One wonders why."

"Because the others weren't falconers or trained professionals," I replied. "By the way, what happened to--"

"Iduran no longer has a place on these lands, let alone employment within the House. In my great-grandmother's time, he and everyone in his immediate family would have been destroyed for such a failure; perhaps the extended family, too, if my great-grandmother was feeling particularly vicious that day. A simple banishment is preferable by far. He will not be destitute, and anyone who wishes to follow is more than welcome to do so. Although I will say I don't hold much hope for his future prospects." She smiled. "Any further questions?"

"No."

"Good. I have come to understand you have some idea why my helioport was attacked. So, my dears, do tell me."

Normally, I wouldn't deal with someone this rude. I mean, she didn't even ask for my name, only Arus', but given the circumstances being a bit snappy was justified. I guess we all had a bad day and needed to take it out on someone; let it not be said that Lianne Stracker is an unfeeling bint. Well, completely unfeeling, anyway.

"Hey, that lanner wants to my own version of the story."

"They probably suspect we're the ones who did it; I know I'd think the same way if I were them. Tell them all you want, just don't say a word about Elpe. We'll handle that, if it comes to down to it."

For the next hour or so, I laid back and rested my feet while Arus did most of the talking. We must have been thinking on the same lines, for he left out almost all mention of Elpe except when absolutely necessary. At least that was one thing we could agree with Brodik on; she needed to live as normal a life as possible, and that wasn't going to happen with people poking around her tower or maybe even poking her. Not to mention those crazy birds; we were probably saving a few idiots from being swarmed and pecked to pieces.

"--And that's about it," Arus finished. "Aerie doesn't have hands or wings to spare us. I can understand why this is the case, but that doesn't mean I have to like it--which is why we're after this man on our own. We were originally going to Aerie and petition the Emperor directly, but circumstances changed."

"A lone madman with the ability to cause great destruction." Lady Doskar rested her chin on her gloved fingers and closed her eyes. "It sounds like something out of a hopelessly romantic novel, and yet my airships burn."

"And the airships of other Houses too," Arus added. "Brodik doesn't care about the lines. All he wants is to prove the converters are dangerously flawed, and the local helioport was the nearest yet biggest and most newsworthy target."

"Do you still have these blueprints you speak of?"

"I can show you the originals, and can have a detailed psiprint ready for your people if need be."

Lady Doskar smiled. "House Hazzard helping out House Doskar so enthusiastically, and for nothing, too? Others would find this a bit suspicious. Still, your falcons' stories match up with yours, although that's not really surprising..."

"This isn't a matter of House, and I'm not here representing my mother. I'm here on behalf of the Empire--and myself, of course."

"And her?"

"Me?" I said. "Oh, I'm just the clingy lady friend with a mongrel falcon. Completely unobtrusive, that's all. Don't worry about me. Let's just say I represent my own interests, although they usually coincide with his."

Lady Doskar didn't say anything, but her smile widened. Eventually, though, it vanished, to be replaced with a thin-lipped grimace.

"Well," she said. "A chance to clip House Dorst's wings, prove to the Emperor how dedicated I am to keeping the peace and protect my own interests--how could I say no? I think we're already of the same mind on this, so find this Brodik before he causes any further damage, Mr. Hazzard. Find this madman of yours and stop him; whatever I have that might be of use to you, you may requisition. All you have to do is ask."

Yes, a lanner indeed.

The Green Tower

Chapter 30

"She wasn't interested in the people at all," Arus said as we stepped out into the afternoon sun. "Or even us. Only what we could do for her."

I fell into step beside Arus, something that pretty much came naturally to me by now. All right, maybe I exaggerate a little, but I definitely didn't need to think twice about it. "If you're going to let something like this ruffle your feathers, then it's not a big surprise you hate the whole world. Besides, she wasn't all bad; she offered us a bath and meal and treated you as befits a falconer and Imperial agent. I've seen worse people."

"Lianne, some days I have the lingering suspicion you'd do anything so long as someone was offering you a seat at a ten-course banquet."

I shrugged. "People have got to eat sometime, that's all I'm saying. Do you feel that strongly about it?"

"I...I don't know. She reminded me of my mother."

"What, sour?"

"No. Just ruthless, practical and utterly impersonal."

"Hm. Having to survive in a world where people are trying to eat you alive at every turn sort of does that to you. I don't suppose you ever got along with your mother, did you?"

"Not very well, I suppose. I guess I'm lucky I wasn't the firstborn."

"Don't listen to him, chum. I don't care if Lady Doskar's the worst bitch the Empire has ever known, she fed and washed us. That's got to count for something."

"If only the world was that simple."

"It is."

"All right, let me rephrase that. If only Arus thought the world was that simple."

"That's better."

We skirted the edges of the landing fields, now fenced off with plenty of tape. Oddly enough, none of the people from town had gathered to watch like with what had happened with the airship crash; maybe Lady Doskar's people were doing a good enough job of keeping them away. Some of the flames still refused to die out, although there wasn't any sign of the sludge that'd caused all this. It was over. What could have been saved had been saved, what was lost was lost, and now for these people the only thing remaining was to pick up the pieces.

Not for us, though. Not for us.

"Where do you think he's going?" I asked Arus. "What do you think he's doing?"

Arus considered that for a moment, then let Alyssnd hop onto his fist before he threw her into the air and watched her disappear into the distance. "I wish I knew. Lianne, do you mind if I leave you for a moment? It'll take me a little while to get the detailed psiprint ready for Lady Doskar's people, and Alyssnd's got to get my report to the nearest saker. Why don't you comb what's left of the landing fields while we wait? Maybe by some miracle you'll find something of note, because this was our last lead and we just wasted it."

"Maybe House Doskar's help will be worth something."

"Do you really believe what you're saying, Lianne?"

"No. Maybe they really can help us with being taken seriously, especially since now that this shit has happened, but I was mostly saying it to make you feel better."

"You saved my life. I think that makes me feel sufficiently warm and fuzzy inside, thank you very much. I don't need cheering up."

"Well, you saved mine too, so that makes us even."

"Hah." Arus half-turned, took in the ruins of the landing field one last time, then nodded and gave me a small, sad smile. "I'll see you back at our rooms in about three hours, then. What a day it's been. Good luck finding something of use amidst all that trash."

A number of replies came to mind, but I chose to be nice this time around. "Oh, I'll need it."

The air about Arus shimmered and shifted, seemingly pulled impossibly thin, then it snapped back to normalcy and he was gone.

#

There comes a time in everyone's life when you pass a point of no return. I hear it's called burning the bridges in some of the western provinces, and that sounds about right. A decision, a happenstance, perhaps even a careless action or word, and it might be years after the fact that you wake up one morning, think back on matters and point out that event that changed matters. Sometimes, it's not very well-defined, but rather a series of small changes that happen over a period of time, and you have no idea the world is changing along with you until it's far too late and things can never go back to the way they were no matter how hard you try.

I'm making matters sound rather fatalistic, aren't I?

It doesn't have to be for the worse. A change can always be for the better, or mixed, as is usually the case. If you asked me to pinpoint a number of such events in my life--well, finding Kale would definitely be one of them; if not for him, I'd probably have continued growing up in that rice field and had a very different life, probably one much less exciting. Still, the realisation didn't strike me for the next nine or so years until I stole a little time, went back to my family and saw how the exchange of a girl and her falcon chick for a handful of gold had changed everything. Gone was the old stilted home I remembered, replaced with a sturdy brick house. The size of the fields had almost doubled, and well, I won't go into the details of what ensued, but let's just say I realised that no matter how much I could try, the girl Lianne Stracker had been was lost forever, replaced with...well, what I am now.

Put that wine down for a moment, please. I'd like you to think--ever wonder what might happen if you'd spoken up when you'd remained silent? Acted when you hadn't? Done something when no one else would, and now things can never be the way they were? Being a falcon, Kale sees little need for regret; what bits and pieces he does have, he blames me for inflicting upon him. Since I'm with him, I don't see much point in regret, either--as I said, that way lies madness, and with my profession I can't go about bemoaning every single decision I've made when out on a job, let alone with my life. As Kale would say: you win some, you lose some.

But it's still interesting to consider the paths your life might have taken, you know?

#

In Arus' home province of Monitor, the more superstitious people sometimes leave out burnt offerings for the spirits of the dead. It's rather quaint and interesting; they clear a small patch of ground of snow, build a fire from a special sort of scented wood that grows locally, and throw whatever they want to send to the dead into it like some sort of supernatural courier service, which it is--the dead supposedly get the stuff whole, rather than the scent or sensation of the offerings like what some other people in different parts of the Empire believe.

The usual offerings are small food items like small oat cakes, fresh fruit, charred and salted fish, that sort of thing. Less commonly, though, other things get thrown into the fire. Things on the line of clothes, personal possessions, old furniture and the likes; it's implied that the dead pretty much have nothing on the other side, so they're happy to get any old cast-me-downs the living can spare. If you ask me, it's a convenient way of justifying using the fire as a trash disposal of sorts. Heh. I guess it makes sense in a roundabout way; considering how cold it is about Monitor I can see why even the dead would be grateful for a spot of warmth from the fire, even if they didn't like what was being burnt. Sometimes, a big shot dies, and what they do is to build a huge boat in one of those equally large mountain lakes, then send it off aflame. Standing where I was, though, I could only wonder what the dead would do with thirty or so ghostly airships. Maybe they could all go on a spiritual holiday, or do some soul-searching.

Lady Doskar's people didn't seem to mind us poking around as long as we stayed out of the way, and had even been kind enough to lend both Kale and I a suitably-shaped spellsuit each. As I'd expected, they were horribly oversized, but it was worth it to watch Kale hop around in an oversized cloth bag. I swear, is there something about these things that require them to be at least a third larger than they need to be? At least we weren't wearing them back home, or else we'd have been steamed alive inside those things.

"Go on, chum. Laugh. Laugh."

"No one's forcing you to wear it, you know. You could just take the bloody thing off and wake up the next morning to find you've turned into some huge, horrible feathered and furred monster with four legs and a lion's body."

"Aren't we just the height of wit today?" Kale paused a moment, tried to peck at the ground, then remembered what he was wearing. "Although I'll say turning into one of those doesn't sound too bad."

"Goodness knows what kind of wordplay the Emperor would have to resort to in order to get that classified as a falcon."

"He's the Emperor. He can do what he wants."

I remembered a conversation I had not too long ago with a certain man in a golden falcon mask, over a meal only he could have commandeered. "No, my dear friend. He can't."

We pushed a little further into the pitted, charred mess, past House Doskar troops who were searching through the airships' remains. For survivors or for salvage, I didn't know or care; it was unlikely there would be either. Still, like me they continued searching, on the off-chance there might be something. It was very sad.

What was I looking for? What could Brodik have left behind in this place that could lead us back to him? My first thought was that I could try and find the spell-orbs he'd planted around the landing fields--if they weren't shattered or molten already--and bring them back, maybe get someone more skilled than Arus to break the block or something. I couldn't go and look him up or seek out most of my usual contacts like I did for most of my jobs; a Head of House is someone of importance who attracts all sorts of attention as opposed to an engineer hiding out in the hills. After all, facilitators were, and still are, intended to be means of settling disputes between the Houses, not bounty hunters in the strictest sense of the word.

But what choice did I have? Maybe Arus was rubbing off on me today as opposed to the way I felt last night, because I remember thinking it would be better to have looked and known I'd tried, rather than not having tried and wondering if I should have. Or maybe it was the shock of watching everything blow up. I know I spent a good five minutes just standing smack in the bottom of one of those craters the ooze had eaten straight out of the ground right through the tarmac and into the earth underneath. Kale says I had this strange, glassy look on my face through the spellsuit's visor, although I don't remember doing that; I must have blanked out or something because the next thing I remember was Kale hopping on my head and panicking. He says he tried to reach me, but got nothing but emptiness, not even the quiet presence that we get when the other's out cold or sleeping. To this day, I'm still not sure what happened there. It doesn't seem to have affected either Kale or I any, so the two of us have been trying to forget it, without much success.

Don't look at me like that.

The sun dipped ever lower, and still I sifted through the burnt-out wrecks and ashes. Not that I was looking completely blindly; I knew the noise that'd triggered the meltdowns had come from the eastern side of the landing fields, and I just kept on searching and searching like a woman possessed until my arms ached even more than ever and the tough gloves on the spellsuit were stained completely black.

I found many bits of broken glass. None of them were what I wanted.

Floodlights came on at the edges of the landing field. Most of the clean-up crew had already stopped work for the night and only a few of the House's troops still remained; Kale could see them from where I was on a twisted ruin of a small cargo ship, but...I couldn't leave. Not now. Not like this. Arus would be upset that I was late, but he'd understand. There was a small light spell built into a bracer on the spellsuit, and continued searching in the darkness.

"I'm tired, chum."

"Just a little longer. All you have to do is sit there."

"You've been saying that for the last hour." His voice dropped a note or two. "Are you feeling all right?"

"I'm fine."

He sounded uncertain. "You sure about that?"

"Yeah." Now that I think about it, I'm not sure why I hadn't suffocated inside the spellsuit already, but hey, I wasn't dead. I got down on my hands and knees again, and continued searching, my fingers closing about yet another bit of glass that seemed as if it could have come from something round.

"That's what, the hundredth one you've tested? Are you sure you aren't overcompensating for something?"

"So what If I am? So what if I aren't? We'll get to sleep all we want when--" The bit of glass glowed softly under the small spell I'd worked, and I studied the colour. Perhaps...? I killed the spell, and the colour faded. I'd need to get it back to Arus. Yet all of a sudden, my head spun, my legs felt like lead--

"Keep it together, something's moving."

"Uh, what?"

The image burst into my mind, laced with a thick sheen of Kale's emotions; he was more than a little afraid, and had every right to be. I couldn't have seen it--not with a human eye--but there was a man-shaped silhouette amongst the debris. A survivor? But how? I wasn't feeling sick or anything, but my head was becoming heavier by the second, maybe because of the tiredness. I stopped for a moment, pulled my thoughts together, and pushed forward.

"You can't be serious, chum."

"All right, you explain to Alyssnd how you completely ignored someone out there who would have needed our help, and see if she ever agrees to share a nest box with you."

"That's cheating," Kale groaned, but clung to my shoulder like a madman and directed me as I crept over the still-warm debris to where the shadow had been.

"Hello!" I called out. "Is anyone there?"

The figure turned, and I saw him through Kale's eyes. That outline, those shoulders...

Brodik.

And then he was gone. Not translocated like Arus, otherwise I'd have seen the air warp and twist, but gone, vanished into nothingness. I blinked back tears and sweat from my eyes. A dream? An illusion? But he had been there, so real, so vivid. Then again, so were some illusions...

"Lianne."

A tightness flared up in my chest as my heart clenched from sheer shock, and I gasped for breath, spinning around out of sheer instinct and reaching down for the nearest good-sized chunk of debris. Not that I expected him to be there or that he actually was; Brodik's voice came from all around me, almost impossible to discern which direction it was coming from.

"Try and find him. he's got to be around here somewhere; he's speaking to us." Kale didn't need further telling; he took off from my shoulder, albeit rather clumsily due to the falcon-shaped spellsuit. I hoped he didn't have to stay airborne long.

"I can't see him. Want me to keep looking?"

"Yeah."

I waited for the tightness to pass, then took a few deep breaths. "It's...it's not polite to scare a young lady like this. You older people keep on saying how we young people have no manners."

A sad chuckle. "Aren't I supposed to be in the prime of my life?"

Where was he? Where was he? My breath came out in ragged gasps, doing its best to fog up the spellsuit's visor as I crawled through the debris, but there was no further sign of Brodik from the ground or the air. A man didn't just vanish like that, even with the wonders of modern technology. Maybe the frustration was mine. Maybe it was Kale's. It didn't matter.

"I have to be here to see," Brodik continued. "I have to understand, to know, at least in some small part, what I've done. The pain I've caused, even if it was necessary. The day I stop caring about these is the day I become no better than the worst of the Houses."

Sweat stung my eyes as I heaved myself over a lump of twisted metal, forcing myself to move towards where I thought Brodik's voice was coming from. "It's not necessary any more. Lady Doskar's asked for your blueprints; you'll be taken seriously. We'll be able to get the Emperor's ear for sure; he'll order production of the convertors stopped and units recalled. This doesn't have to happen."

"Remember I once asked how you justified to yourself what you did for a living?"

Oh crap. This was going to be one of those moments, wasn't it? "Yeah."

Brodik's voice echoed about the lifelessness of the landing fields as I scrambled over them. "It's not a perfect solution. It's far from a perfect solution, but as you said, we can't wait for one to turn up. Someone has to do something--" his voice wavered ever so slightly-- "because the Houses only care about themselves. Who are commoners to them but things to be used?"

Nearly there. Or at least, so I thought; was it more to the left, or to the right? Definitely up, though. I grabbed hold of some fallen rigging and started pulling myself hand over hand up the side of some impressive-looking wreckage. "That's not true. You could--"

"Lianne, there are times in people's lives when they cannot turn back. When one way or another, things can never be the way they were anymore. The day I realised I wasn't going to let House Dorst put hundreds of thousands of people in danger just to line their pockets and feather their nests, when I couldn't accept the lie they wanted me to sell to the unsuspecting--that was the day. The time."

"What about Elpe?"

Silence. Then a loud groaning, followed by the screech of metal tearing as the wreckage above me crumbled, pieces of airship raining from above. Brodik looked down at me, a still-hot welder in trembling hands.

"Falconer or not, you're a good person, Lianne. This didn't have to happen if only you'd taken my advice and gone home. I'm going to bring down everyone responsible for this."

After everything that'd happened, I didn't even have the strength to try and shield myself anymore, so Kale did a very good job of filling in for the screaming part as the rigging broke away from the wreck and fell, taking me with it.

"I'm sorry. I really am."

I'm quite sure he meant every word.

The Green Tower

Chapter 31

I was very tired.

This wasn't the right time of day to be flying, but I flew anyway. Help? Yes, that was the word. Help was needed, and he would help. But the disgusting fabric weighed me down and made it almost impossible to keep a straight course even in calm air, and yet--

The birds, they were coming; an enormous flock of the things with their pure white bodies and black-tipped wings gleaming in the moonlight.

I remembered feathers, pure white feathers falling through the air, the swoosh of a woman's gown the same colour--

A dream? An illusion? I knew those words had come from somewhere, someone else, but the ground kept threatening to hit me hard if I flagged to so much as think--

Darkness--

And then--

"She's got to be around here somewhere." A voice, vaguely familiar in both tone and inflection, yet I couldn't quite place it. Something in the voice tugged at my memory, sensations of downy warmth under skin.

"Are you sure?"

"Kale said she went down somewhere around here. Look at the clean edges on that thing. The rigging was cut, not torn. This wasn't an accident."

"Kale?"

"Her falcon."

Something was pressing hard on my left arm; not quite crushing, but almost there. I sucked in a breath inside the spellsuit, tasted rust and grit; tried to spit to clear the foulness, but found my mouth too dry for that.

Arms, not working. Legs scarcely in better shape. Not a good start. Or were they supposed to be wings? My mind couldn't make up its mind on the matter. Feathers, they went deep into the flesh, but they weren't supposed to feel as if the shafts sank straight into the bone. That was odd. A faint buzzing emanated in the back of my mind, like an angry bee trapped in a paper bag. I wished it would go away.

"We should go back, get them to run the digger on this pile of junk. Make much better progress that way."

"All right, you go back and get something that'll probably cut Lianne in half while getting her out. In the meantime, I'll continue sorting through this junk while holding off a falcon who seems intent on wanting a piece of my ear, hm? I'm not leaving until we find Lianne or her body."

Lianne. Lianne. Yes. That was my name. My name was being called, and loudly at that. Someone was looking for me, and I had to make sure I stayed hidden or the job would be ruined--

Wait--

Sensation rushed back to me, and my arms and legs responded better this time around. Marginally so, but any improvement was welcome. The heavy sound that surrounded me became recognisable as my own breathing and hard edges pressed against the spellsuit's thick, rigid fabric from all sides; I still had a little wiggle room but wouldn't say it was very comfortable. The buzzing in the back of my mind grew louder, and I wondered if I'd taken a good knock to the head. The merlins say that the brain itself can't feel pain, you know.

My name was Lianne, I was a trained and professional facilitator, and I was buried under the wreckage of what had been a whole side of an airship.

Life's like that sometimes.

I opened my eyes, albeit with some difficulty. I closed my eyes. No difference there. "Help? Someone? Anyone? Arus?" I strained my hearing, but didn't catch anything; they must have gone looking somewhere else. "Anyone? Help!"

The buzzing in my head grew louder and broke into coherency. "Chum? Chum!"

I would have cried, if I had any tears to spare. "Hey, I did tell you that time on the coach I wouldn't be going anywhere. Not without letting you know first. You really think I'd break that promise?"

"I...I don't know. I couldn't get to you for so long, I was worried you were dead. Are you fine, chum?"

"Hey, thanks. I don't know; I can't feel very much, especially in my toes. Besides, I'm not so sure how I'm still alive without having suffocated inside this thing." My wings that shouldn't have been there still hurt like heck. "Is Arus with you? Or someone?"

"Yeah, he's here, and pretty worried about you as well." A short pause. "I'll let him know you're around."

"Tell him to go back to where he was a little while ago, and make some noise. I heard him just now." That's us for you, I guess. Out of our minds one moment, and acting like nothing's ever happened the next. Kale broke off, and I waited for another few agonising moments before he prodded me again.

"Chum?"

"I hear him. He's getting closer. To the right. Closer now. Okay, stop, or you'll be treading on me and I don't want that. Try digging here, and I'll tell you if you're in the right spot."

"Lianne? Lianne!" Metal creaked, echoing within the confines of my spellsuit, and a beam of light came jutting down through the edge of the visor; I don't think I've ever been so relieved to see daylight, save that time I spent six hours cramped up in a barrel to sneak into a factory. Arus' face appeared in the small hole he'd made, masked by a spellsuit's visor; his hands followed shortly. I noticed the tips of his fingers were glowing a dull red, almost the same colour as his bloodshot eyes. I suppose him worrying about me like that would have been sweet, if I hadn't been feeling so awful right then. "Lianne? Don't worry, I'll get you out of there."

"Mmph," I said. It was all I could manage.

"You know," Arus said as he pulled away metal and fallen grating, "you're not the Firebird. You're good. You're lucky. But everyone's luck runs out at some point, and what happens then? Is this what you go through every time someone turns up at your desk wanting to contract your services?"

What I wanted to say was "Not really, usually there's a lot less aching involved," but it came out as something on the lines of "Mmph. Mmrph. Mmmph."

Arus tugged at the dented metal sheet that trapped my legs. Not surprisingly, it refused to budge. The glow on his fingertips grew a little more intense, and he cut out a whole bloody square just by tracing a fingertip along the metal's surface. I'd have to ask him to teach me that sometime, if I could keep my wits about me long enough to remember. Bit by bit, Arus cut away the scrap pinning me down, then the glow on his fingertips died and he reached in and lifted me out of the vaguely Lianne-shaped hole I'd so recently occupied. Kale jumped onto my belly, and well, he still looked stupid stuck in that falcon-shaped suit, but I summoned the strength to reach up and scratch him on the head.

"You should thank him instead of me," Arus said. "Without him, you'd be still under there and I...well..."

"Mmph?" "You flew all the way in that thing? Is that even possible?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Kale--"

"I said I don't want to talk about it, chum. Maybe later."

I sighed inwardly. "I'm going to have to get you a pigeon when all this is over. Maybe two."

"Hey, can't you at least be a little more inventive when it comes to rewarding me for my tireless and unending efforts in getting you out of trouble?"

"Well, you're a falcon, and you've already got a clean place to sleep, plenty of exercise, someone to cater to your every whim and the regular opportunity to kill and eat things. What else do you want?"

"You could open a bank account in my name. I've been thinking of starting a nest egg--never mind the pun."

I shook my head and could have sworn I felt the insides of my skull slosh around. "What would you buy?"

"Pigeons."

Well, good to know Kale still hadn't lost his sense of humour. He flapped off as I tried to stand, stumbled, and grunted in annoyance as I ended up in Arus' arms. He winced, so I followed his gaze down to myself and found countless shards and splinters of metal, glass and charred wood stuck into the spellsuit's thick fabric all the way down my arms and front.

Ulp. Well, it's not the first time people would have called me prickly. But the thought of those going straight through my skin…

"I don't suppose you're all right?"

I grunted and tried to stand again, this time with a little more success even if I ended up in Arus' arms like the last time. Not the outcome that matters, I told myself, but rather the fact that I tried. Somehow, I didn't find myself very convincing, especially when Arus helped me upright, albeit rather awkwardly. Certainly, it bloody well hurt, but I forced myself to take a few deep breaths of the spell suit's recycled air, stretch my lungs, even if it'd only been made even more foul by the time I'd spent in it.

Out of the corner of my vision, I noticed Kale bobbing his head up and down at Alyssnd, as if inviting the little moon falcon to do the same. She stopped, stared, and with a heavy air of resignation deigned to edge ever so slightly closer to Kale. Ha. Clearly, that was good enough for him.

"Brodik," I said when the pressure on my chest finally eased. "He was here. He wanted to…to see what he'd caused, feel the pain so he wouldn't forget what he'd done to others…it doesn't make sense."

Arus nodded, as if that explained everything. "What's that in your hand?"

Wait, what? That tiny piece of spell-orb I'd found--I'd been gripping it so tightly while I was out under the junk that it'd become embedded in the glove's material. It took a few seconds, but I picked it out and handed it to Arus. "A clue, I think."

His expression was unreadable through the spellsuit's visor, but his tone made it clear enough what he thought. "Oh. One of those."

#

Who was to blame?

That's the important question, and also the one people always seem to have a hard time answering, mostly because no one wants to shoulder that particular burden. Yes, I know people will usually point fingers at the Houses, because--well, they do cause most of the trouble, but even then the Houses will play a wonderfully convoluted game of Stupid Pigeons just to try and shove it off onto someone else.

Who or what was to blame for the sabotage that day, for the loss of eight hundred lives and tens of thousands of gold falcons in damage?

Was it Brodik himself, who'd become so disillusioned with the way the Empire was run that he saw no choice but to persuade others through violence? He hadn't been unwilling to try other methods when opportunities had presented themselves, yet had been hurt enough by the first failure to have convinced himself there was no other way. Take it from someone who went through the whole Book of Annals as a girl; various Emperors and Empresses have been searching for centuries for a way to put an end to the need for facilitators. I don't know how long Brodik looked for a solution to his particular problem, but it can't have been as long.

Was it Arus and I? Our failure that set Brodik off, or maybe Arus had been right and we shouldn't have stopped for breakfast that morning? Could we have done more, perhaps stalled for a little more time and tried to persuade Aerie to at least do something? I know the only reason they let Arus come was that he was pretty much disposable and still under observation, but I won't deny the possibility everything might have changed if we'd begged a little harder. Not that I held out much hope for that prospect, but still…

The Houses? The Emperor? The way things work in this glorious feathered homeland of ours? Brodik was both right and wrong--yes, many people will never be able to get to the Emperor and petition him directly through the Kestrel's Gate, but you can't get any more direct than that. At some point, practicality has to be considered; you can't just order, say, every single saker in the Empire to carry petitions to the Emperor for free. The Emperor's swamped as it is, the sakers would raise a stink, and before you argue with me, would you want to personally resolve a hundred different disputes between which bastard supposedly moved his or her boundary stone a featherlength into the neighbouring field? I know I wouldn't, but given how we falconers have conducted and presented ourselves I'm not really surprised people tend to overestimate the Emperor's abilities. That's why those matters are delegated to the Houses, but Brodik's whole complaint was against them from the outset, which makes the whole matter a horribly muddled mess.

It's so much easier to peg the blame on something or something intangible or far away, like--like "the regime". "The way things are done". Or maybe "the Emperor", that one's always been a good old standby for the dissidents, falconers or otherwise. What I personally think is the most solid line is that--well, Brodik made the decision to kill all those people to prove his point. In the end, he did what he did, and no amount of arguing is going to change that.

That's why I've always found it better to leave all this morality, rights, and justice stuff to Arus; he has the will to sort the bloody mess out. Me? Well, I just kill people, especially if they're messing with me or the stuff I care about. I've never claimed to be a heroine; I've never put myself forth as a paragon of righteousness.

Hey, it works.

#

They had to cut the spellsuit off me.

I admit I'm always a bit apprehensive at the idea of someone holding a sharp edge of any sort so close to various important and sensitive bits of my person, but considering it was either that or spend the rest of my life in a pincushion breathing stale recycled air from the suit's systems, I don't think there was much of a choice. It wasn't as if I was in any state to complain, anyway--I dozed off within moments of the rescue workers laying me down, and came to some time later to find someone had given me a wipe-down and change of clothes while I'd been out. Sure, it sounds creepy when I say it like this, but there and then I felt a lot better for it. If you can't trust rescue workers and the civil defence of our glorious homeland to be professional, I don't think you can trust anyone to be so.

Still, I really had to stop coming to in strange environments. It's unprofessional, and dangerous to boot.

"Chum?"

"Oh. Yeah. Hi." Someone with absolutely no taste in clothing had put me in a simple white gown, and if it wasn't for Kale I'd probably have checked my arms and legs for fear of having turned into Elpe. Thankfully, this did not happen to be the case, and Kale--now minus that ridiculous spellsuit--shuffled in.

"Where am I?"

"You're in a canvas tent, duh."

"Fine. Where is this tent?"

"Not too far from the site itself; the rescue workers went and set up a base camp of sorts. Arus' waiting for you, chum; I think he wants to see you about that thingy you found."

I laid back, thought how wonderful it would be to just lie down for a little while longer, then got up. And if I wasn't supposed to be walking around…well, I felt fine enough and no one had explicitly told me to stay put…

"He's not very far, is he?"

"Just outside, actually."

I sighed and scooped Kale onto my shoulder. "Come on, let's go find him."

The Green Tower

Chapter 32

The next time someone dresses me while I'm out cold, I'd like that person to be someone with half a brain. I've never been a stickler for clothing, but I'd rather wear something that doesn't look like a morgue sheet; as it was, I'd have rather have stepped out completely naked, if only to see Arus' reaction. Thankfully, I am not completely heartless, and therefore he got to keep his tea down as I stepped out and found him sitting at a folding table nursing a large mug of the stuff.

"Oh," he said with all the economy of energy I'd have expected of him considering our recent exertions. Alyssnd roused herself on his shoulder and gave me this haughty look, but before I could ask Kale to wrangle its meaning from her, Arus spoke again. "It's you. How are you feeling?"

Well, at least he trusted me to know myself, and didn't insist that I get back and have another lie-down in that tent. "I'd feel better if I had my boots back and got something proper to wear. This bloody gown is so thin it's freezing."

"Hmm? Cold? Oh, right." He looked down at his tea, then pulled up another one of those folding chairs before pouring me my very own wonderful mug of steaming hot tea. "Hope it can wait, but warm yourself with this while someone notices us. We're not the centre of the world, you know."

"No, the Empire is." I took a seat--if only to get my bare feet off the ground--and sipped the tea; it was a little too bitter for my liking, but it did what it was supposed to do. Good times. We sat there for a few minutes, saying nothing, drinking tea and occasionally refilling our mugs from the pot that sat on a stand off to one side. No one seemed to be paying attention to us, as if two crazily-dressed falconers sipping tea at a table was something that happened to them every day, so I was more than content to let the rescue workers do their no doubt important and demanding jobs while the two of us lazed about in the chilly morning air.

At last, I spoke. "So…"

Arus peered at me over his mug. Maybe it was a trick of my mind, but he looked a lot better this way than from behind a spellsuit's visor. "Well, I was going to enjoy the moment, but if you really must go ahead and spoil it you can begin with why you didn't turn up back at our room."

"You make it sound as if it's a crime."

"Which, spoiling the moment or not turning up?"

"Both."

"Oh, it should be." He bowed his head and inhaled the steam rising from his mug. "It should be."

Well, what could I say to an undeniable truth like that? I looked down at Kale, strutting about on the table and beaking my mug, and he looked back up at me. "Eh, chum?"

"Should I--"

"There's no reason to shout, I can hear you perfectly off the top of your head. And yes, why not? It's not as if you did anything shameful last night."

"I don't--" I slumped a little further onto the table, and my back punished me for it with a sharp twinge up my spine. That, my friends, is why good posture is so important. "Forget it. What about you? Your feathers are a mess."

"I'll take care of it, chum. You take care of yourself for now." Kale cocked his head at me, then jerked it in Alyssnd's direction. "Oh, and she wants you to know that he's too good for the likes of someone as wanton as you. Or me, for that matter. The bird is like the human and all that."

I blinked, the warm, fuzzy steam in my head from the tea clearing in an instant. "Well, whatever she means, you can tell her I said I don't really give a damn what a stupid thing like her thinks. And by her own logic, 'wantonness' means anything vaguely suggestive."

"You tell her that. I'm not doing it."

"Well?" Arus said, his voice cutting through my thoughts. "Done arguing with him?"

"I wasn't arguing," I replied, not taking my eyes off Kale. "I was discussing the most expedient way to phrase events for your benefit and understanding."

Arus studied my face, then turned to Kale and did the same before he looked away, but not before arching one eyebrow at me. I don't know what passed between him and Alyssnd, but the little moon falcon seemed just about to burst into hysterics considering how she was having trouble not falling off Arus' shoulder. Fine, everyone has to have their little private jokes, and sometimes it's my job to flush out said private jokes. Once things calmed down a little, though, I gave him a brief run-down of events as I remembered them, and he went and scribbled some more in his notepad. I guess no matter how bad shit gets, some things never change.

"He always seems to be one step ahead of us. I mean, he was waiting up there with a welder, as if he knew beforehand that we'd go after him and I'd climb up the rigging just to get at him."

"Or," Arus suggested, "he had something else to do with it and just happened to think of sending you down when you came after him. You yourself said it didn't make sense."

"I'm not too sure now. From your everyday, normal person, maybe, but from Brodik?" I shook my head. "I guess I'm too used to people only doing the practical thing. It still doesn't change the fact that he's had ages to plan this, that so far we've been dancing to his tune and diving at his lures. He's the one in the lead, not us."

Arus just looked depressed at that, so I stopped and sipped my tea. Arus stopped and sipped his tea. Kale puttered about on the table and began preening himself, and I wondered if he'd have sipped tea if falcons could do so. This horrible state of affairs continued until all our tea was gone, no doubt making us waste precious time when it came to tracking down and stopping a…well, whatever Brodik had become.

Bad tea. Bad, bad tea. Eventually, I took a deep breath, stretched my aching body, and mumbled something incoherent under my breath. Enough dithering; aching muscles or not, being buried under a heap of debris or not, the great and mighty Lianne Stracker strove on to greatness or at least the next best thing.

"You said you'd something to show me about what I found."

"Yes, there is," Arus said before he dug about in the front pocket of his vest and produced the broken shard of spell-orb I'd almost killed myself getting. I noticed it was all wrapped up in some kind of transparent film, but trusted Arus to know what he was doing. "Watch this, Lianne. You'll find it interesting."

His fingers tightened ever so slightly on the piece of broken glass, and it began to glow.

#

How did I feel when I first realised Kale and I were stuck together for the rest of our lives? As a girl, I knew--well, to be fair pretty much everyone knows--the official version of the story Aerie puts out: bringing the young and impressionable kids to the hatcheries where the dumb falcons without humans are kept for the sole purpose of breeding, the instant of recognition, the knowledge that one will have the bestest best friend in the whole world and will never truly be alone and all that other warm fuzzy shit on those lines that would make even the most cynical bastard break down into a wobbling, crying mess. Hey, we falconers ourselves will admit there's a certain amount of embellishment in that tale, but we'll also stress that there's a grain of truth in there, too.

What I can attest to is that it's definitely not like a romance, and by that I don't mean you don't do the nasty things with your bird you'd do with a lover, with hands instead of wings. Oh, in some aspects it is like one, but there's at least one fundamental difference: in a romantic relationship you get to choose who you're going to spend the rest of your life arguing with and resenting. In this aspect it's more like a parent-child thing in that you're thrust together and have to work things out after the fact, not before. Then again, it's not completely like one, either, because a parent-child thingy would suggest someone has authority over the other and believe me, most falconers and falcons are too egoistic to ever accept that.

So what does that leave us with? With regards to Kale and me, I won't deny that for the first five seconds I had this sense of amazing wonder like they tell it, followed by another five seconds of imagining all the wonderful opulence I would be living in now that I was now part of the ruling elite through no fault of my own. Oh, and another five seconds of evil giggling to myself and wondering if people would start grovelling at my feet.

Of course, Kale had to spoil it all by demanding to be fed and quickly following that up by deploring my intelligence, breeding--despite being a mongrel falcon himself--and of course, my general worth as a person. That's the part no falconer will ever admit to having gone through, and sure enough, if they tell you they haven't, you can have it on my authority the bastard is lying. With this sort of attitude, you have to wonder however falcons stand each other long enough to make little falcons, but then again, the same question could be asked of falconers--clearly something has worked, as the Empire has survived for a thousand years and more and while falconers aren't exactly plentiful, there've been enough for each generation to imp their own feathers with those of their predecessors'.

Still, these last thirteen-odd years have had their high points. Watching Kale grow from this ruddy ball of fluff into a huge, almost malformed bird that looked nothing like any of the official falcons in the Book of Annals. Each and every time I throw him off the fist, and the shared satisfaction--or perhaps even glee--when we take down our respective prey. There was this time Kale saw someone kill herself rather than be taken in by the Empire--it's not something I can elaborate on--and he made me promise I wouldn't be croaking without getting his explicit permission first. Then of course there're all the uncomfortable, sweaty dreams that happen sometimes, especially when I sleep during the day, and I wake up to find him on the windowsill with his best innocent look…

I figure it's not really possible to love someone all the time, especially if you spend much of it in each other's company; I mean, you'd have to be someone out of a tacky romance novel to achieve that, and even falconers are still people. Sure, I've had my share of arguments with Kale, but what two people have never disagreed at some point? Besides, I've heard it said that if two people agree with each other on everything, then one of them is unnecessary. If only most falcons didn't take it to the logical extreme and disagree for disagreement's sake.

Then again, considering who I am and my upbringing, what the heck do I know about love, eh?

#

"Very colourful," I told Arus. "Remind me to ask you sometime why most spells tend to have sparkly lights attached even when they seem to serve no purpose."

"Actually, it's not a long or complicated explanation, Lianne. If you think of the working itself as a waterwheel and the energies involved as the water, or the driving force, the safest and most convenient way to dispose of the naturally resulting efflux is through--"

I waggled my mug about, and thankfully he got the hint and shut up. "I said sometime. Not now. So, oh great and mighty sorcerer, what's this supposed to mean?"

"It means--" Arus paused and scratched his chin, obviously considering his next words. "It means that Elpe's singing is quite complicated. For a start, I don't think it's just her singing."

"Uh-huh. Like we didn't know that already."

"No, we didn't. Not for sure, until I ran some comparisons between this and the one we found earlier. The mechanism's more of a lock-and-key thing, you have to have both parts for it to be useful. In order to get a proper grip on it, we'll have to go for its source." He stared into his mug, deliberately avoiding my gaze. "Maybe I'd have realised it earlier if I hadn't been so occupied with berating you."

I did the same, and felt my stomach twist itself into knots at the thought of having to face down those mynahs again. "I guess we'll have to visit Elpe again, won't we?"

"It seems that this would be the case."

"I don't quite follow. If what you're saying is right--not that I'm doubting your knowledge--how is it going to help us figure out where Brodik is going next or stop him from blowing up the whole Empire?"

"If I can work out the source frequencies involved and where exactly Brodik imbued the sound with his payload or trigger, I can try and fix up a cantrip to attempt and nullify it. He may have safeguards against this, but I'm confident enough that I can at least slow down, if not stabilise any runaway reaction like the one that caused that." He tilted his head at the landing fields. "Even if he is an old man. No, it won't help us find Brodik, but it'll give us some sort of workable defence against what he's got instead of just arriving and hoping we find a small glass ball and carry it out of range before it goes off."

I considered that. "You? Alone? What about Lady Doskar's offer of help? Weren't you--"

He sighed and rubbed his temples. "You mean us. And I know what most academics are like. They'd bicker and argue and try to grab as much glory as they can out of the whole matter, and half the Empire would be in ruins before they got anything useful done. So, no. Besides, I don't trust the Lady. These people on the ground here, maybe, but the woman herself…"

"Are you sure you don't simply have issues with your mother?"

"If I did, I wouldn't be sitting within arm's reach of you."

Good point. I drained the last of my tea, and watched the proceedings as I waited for Arus to finish his. The clean-up seemed to be going pretty well; this wing of House Doskar was run efficiently, if nothing else. Although it'd be a long time before the helioport was even vaguely operational again, they'd managed to dismantle and cart away four of the wrecks overnight. I noticed they'd been cut into relatively regular shapes, perfect for carting away--or selling as scrap.

"I'm sorry," Arus said.

"Whatever for?"

"For losing it at you back there. Yesterday, I mean. I'm still upset and I don't agree with why you did what you did, but maybe I overreacted."

"Well, if it helps, I'm sorry for making you sleep well, eat breakfast and feel like you're personally responsible for a major disaster."

You could have poked the ensuing silence with a sharp stick and heard it scream. Arus thinned his lips, rolled his eyes and slowly shook his head from side to side. Success.

"Well," I said, "let's find someone who can find me some proper clothes and get my boots back. I am not turning up at the tower looking like Elpe's long-lost sister."

"You can't, you're much too ornery for that."

"Oh, quiet you."

The Green Tower

Chapter 33

*

The first thing Kale and I noticed about the tower was that there was an observable lack of small, white, cute and utterly murderous birds in the tower gardens. A number of theories sprang to mind, foremost amongst them that the birds had all gone to look for Brodik, but hey, no complaints here. Arus had with him the huge pack of stuff he'd brought with him from Aerie--minus the trashed diagnostic thingy, of course--and I wondered just how much of that was actually needed, how much made his job easier, and how much was there as dead weight. I mean, I don't have anything against lifting heavy objects when necessary, but this was something else altogether.

All around us Elpe's garden grew, and while it wasn't exactly untended, it was clearly reflecting what she must have been feeling; an unclipped bough here, a missed weed there. Enough for the garden to remain functional, perhaps, but very definitely under stress. Oh, I'd have wagered a week's meals that she'd no real part in it and had been used by Brodik--well, she didn't even seem to have the mental capacity for active participation--but I think you'll forgive me if I say I just couldn't bring myself to feel sorry for that oh-so-poor thing.

"Well, chum, I don't know if I should be worried or relieved," Kale told me as Arus and I puttered down the path to the tower. Alyssnd might have been openly fidgeting, but I think the fact that the mynahs weren't around made it easier on her.

"Oh?"

"The birds aren't here, yes, but who's to say what sort of nonsense they're up to elsewhere?"

"Thanks for ruining a good thing."

"Hey, like human, like falcon."

After a minute or so of this, our merry little band had braved the dangers of the tower gardens and were standing before the entrance. Arus and I shared a glance, then I flexed my fingers a few times, felt the muscles in my hands do their things before I stepped up and rapped on the huge wooden door. I had this sudden, inexplicable urge to run far, far away, call off the commission and reimburse society at large for whatever it'd paid me to deal with this bloody matter, but instead I stood there like an idiot as the hurried footsteps from within the tower grew nearer.

And to think it was only a little more than ten days ago that I'd first set my eyes upon the damned place. How time flies when you're having fun.

There was the sound of a latch being undone on the other side, and the door creaked open just a fraction as Elpe peered out.

"It's us," I said. "May we come in?"

I could imagine the poor little thing sagging with relief. "I--why--I--of course, please do. It's just that I imagined that--well--"

"We'd be someone else?"

Elpe didn't answer, but instead opened the door and looked away, hugging herself as we stepped in. Damn, she'd never looked healthy from the first time I saw her, but if she got any paler she'd be the exact same colour as her precious mynahs. At least she hadn't gotten any thinner, otherwise there'd be nothing left of her. Arus winced, but seemed unsure of what to say; either that, or he was afraid of having his suspicions confirmed.

She noticed us staring, and gave me this small, sad smile that could have mirrored Brodik's. "Don't worry about me. Since Brodik doesn't visit any more, I've had to make the trip into town a lot more often. It gets so tiring, but I--I'm still not dead."

Yet, I added to myself. Whether it was really because she had to leave the tower more often or because she was worried about Brodik was anyone's guess, but it was clear that Elpe was sickening, and by so much within the span of a few days.

"Maybe you shouldn't make the trip so often if it tires you out," Arus told her. "Go maybe once a month or so to settle your business in town, then hire a cart to take everything you need back here. That way you don't have to spend so much time away from the tower."

"But it gets so lonely sometimes," Elpe replied. "That's why I was hoping…"

"Do spit it out," I said. "We can't help if we haven't got any idea of what you're trying to say."

"Lianne!"

"I'm sorry," Elpe said. "But I--"

"And don't keep on apologising. I know you don't mean anything by it, but others might see it as a ploy for garnering sympathy."

Arus glared furiously at me. I shrugged. Elpe hugged herself even more, then seemed to get over whatever was troubling her and led us up to the kitchen table before she plopped down on one of the chairs. "Brodik did something terrible, didn't he?"

Arus winced. "Well--"

"I saw the smoke from here," she said. "I went into town to--well, it doesn't matter--and I heard what had happened. And the birds, they know." I'd known it all along, but to hear her openly acknowledge the mynahs as more than birds that visited her garden--let's just say it was a little unexpected. "And now you are hunting him."

"I see no reason to lie," Arus said before I could stop him. "Yes, we are."

"He's not coming back, is he?"

Arus thinned his lips and hardened his gaze. "Elpe, I'm sorry to say that Brodik has not just destroyed a whole helioport's worth of airships, but killed everyone in, on, or around them as well. He's going to be facing either the isolation chambers or a hangman's noose, and…well…no. Either way, he's notcoming back."

"If it makes you feel any better," I said, "I don't think he ever expected to come out of this alive. Even if we turned a blind eye, the Houses won't stand for being shamed like this. They'll hunt him down to the ends of the Empire."

Elpe looked down at the tower's floor of green stone and seemed to shrink in upon herself. "So, what do you want of me?" she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

"It must be really hard on her," Kale said. "Old man must have been like a father to her. Or was her father, in the manner where it counts."

"No shit. Although I don't really remember feeling this way when--"

"Can't lose what we never really had, chum. Can't lose what we never really had."

I didn't have anything to say to that, so I shut up in time to hear Arus speak. "I'm not going to ask you to betray him, and not just because I don't think you know what he's planned. All I want to know is…why you sing the way you do, if you can remember that. And of course, hear you sing one more time."

Elpe was silent for a few minutes, and Arus and I weren't going to begrudge her them. At length, she wiped the tears from her cheeks with her fingers and stood, her small mouth set into a thin, straight line. "If I do this for you, will you promise me one thing?"

Arus and I shared a Look, and then he nodded at Elpe. "Speak."

"If…no, when you take in Brodik…I want you to do everything in your power to plead leniency for him. He doesn't deserve this. All he wanted was to…was to…"

Arus sighed. "I was going to do that anyway. You have my word that I will beg his case directly to the Emperor myself."

"Then…" She shivered. "Are you sure you want to know the answer to your question? Because when you do, things can never go back to the way they were."

The exact same phrase Brodik had used; had he really left such an impression on her? More importantly, where was she going with this? "We don't have much of a choice," I said. "Thousands of people are going to die needlessly if Brodik isn't stopped."

"I thought you'd say that." Elpe looked askance for a couple of seconds, then shuddered again. "Follow me, then."

She led us up the stairwell and into the storeroom, where the pieces of her life rested. It took her a while to get the boxes moved away from the locked closet--the very one I'd tried to open the first time I'd been here--and after one last furtive glance at us, Elpe drew a small key from within her gown, fit it into the lock and turned it with a click that echoed within the storeroom's walls.

The closet swung open, and it was empty--save for a single stuffed mynah, identical to the ones that normally infested her garden. I'd seen stuffed animals in taxidermists' establishments before, and this one looked disturbingly fresh; if not for the glass eyes that winked up at me as Elpe cradled the thing in her arms and crooned over it like a young girl over her favourite doll, I'd have thought it was still alive.

"What?" Arus said. "I don't understand. What is this…thing?"

"It's not a thing," Elpe whispered, her cheeks wet with fresh tears. "It's half of my old body."

A lump rose into my throat, and I fought to swallow it back down where it belonged. If anyone else had said what Elpe had just told us, I'd have laughed, but at that moment I took her at her word. Yes, I really did, even as the realisation of what she was telling us sank in. "Wait. If this is half of your old body, where's…"

"Why…it's right here."

#

I may have gone through this sometime before, if so, please do bear with me again because it's quite important to the point I'm about to make. It's hard to think of magic as something scary and threatening; after all, we use the stuff on a daily basis. Not to debase the work of sorcerers and such through the generations, but once you get down to it the whole thing is just a matter of manipulating forces to get from one point to another. Animals do it. Heck, even plants do it. It's a bit like falling down, really; everywhere and part of the world around us.

Now tell me: how many people are terrified of heights, and how many have fallen to their death in say, the last year? According to the kestrels in Aerie, there have been approximately five hundred reported cases of people who died from falling off high places or have had heavy objects crush them. Actually, given the size of the Empire and the number of people around, that's a pretty low number, but I think you get my point.

Even when people mention doing nasty things to each other with spells in general, it's usually the unimaginative sort, which means something on the lines people blowing stuff up, or small-time nonsense that can be put to an end without too much effort. Once again, I'd like to quote Arus in that over the course of history, defence against magical intrusions and attacks has generally proven to work better than attacks, which is why the sorcerers haven't stolen our jobs yet--a hex, say, to kill off every member of a House would be unreliable, uneconomical and unsustainable. Since everyone knows anyone of note has protection--heck, the existence of the spellsuit is proof enough of that--there's not much point and now your target's been alerted to what you're trying to pull off. Add that to the fact that the Emperor frowns on such things, most don't even try and instead hire a facilitator. I've never really understood why it's acceptable to punch huge holes through people and fry them as opposed to, say, melting their skin off, but that's killing for you. I could do the same with enough strong acid, and somehow it wouldn't be as horrible.

Isn't that just hilarious?

Before the formation of the Empire, though, and with it some form of internal self-policing and regulation, there were some people who were just a little more adept at manipulating these natural forces than others. Taking this situation to its logical conclusion, said people felt they could do whatever they wanted; after all, the next hill-king or queen was several hills away and usually didn't care about some crazy hedge-witch or wizard, so long as they weren't falconers. These practitioners did some rather strange and interesting things that would be highly forbidden today, and there are people who still do these things today, usually against those who can't really defend themselves on account of being poor sops. It'd be a lie to claim otherwise; one or two of my commissions had to do with uh, following up on certain information about competitors' activities, and well, it's one of the reasons why I'm a cynical bastard today.

I know that most law-abiding citizens like you and me--ha, ha--would like to believe that people are generally nice inside, and that the stories you hear of people growing extra arms, turning into pretty much a living boil or blister, or a whole range of rather unusual defects would be the result of accidents, pollution, freak natural occurrences. You know, reasons that don't involve actual direct human input. Well, then, I've got news for you.

All I'll say is that humans don't need a falcon's bloody-mindedness to be unnecessarily vindictive and cruel.

#

The last piece fell into place.

Well, not from a technical or moral standpoint--Arus would have a lovely time trying to explain this to Aerie--but from my end of things, the picture was complete. There were a few questions left unanswered, but they could be saved for afterwards; I had most of what I needed to make sense of why my vacation had been bloody well ruined.

Brodik might have had some form of affection for Elpe, yet it hadn't stopped him from using her. Look, I'm not going to argue whether it counts as using if moving towards his goals was a side effect of actually helping her; let's just agree on the terminology for the moment, okay? He must have known of her true nature beforehand; I didn't know if he'd set her up here in the tower, but he'd visited her regularly, long before he'd settled in Barajov, had helped her survive and encouraged her natural talents.

The damned mynahs loved Elpe and obeyed her because she was one of them; she didn't act like a human because as I'd suspected earlier on, she wasn't human. Yet there was still enough of her that was human to allow her to not only exist in her current body, but also pass for a normal young woman, for a definition of normal. She was everything a small songbird should have been: frail, flighty, terrified of the tiniest things, prone to panic; it was as if she was carrying all the innocence her entire flock of birds had to offer, which would explain why they were so bloody-minded.

Why couldn't she leave the tower? Was it because she couldn't be away from her old body for too long, or was it because there was something about it that stabilised her condition? I might have been hazy or even outright wrong on some points, and probably was; if you ask any watchman, they'll tell you how hard it is to get the whole truth even when a case is deemed solved. Who had made Elpe? Not Brodik; he loved her too much and I doubted he had the power for that anyway. Who had built the green tower that she now lived in, and what purpose did it originally serve? How had Brodik come across her, back when she couldn't have been more than a girl? No, I definitely didn't have the whole truth.

But it was enough truth for me to work with, and that was all I needed. I looked down at Elpe, who was still sitting on the floor with the bird in her arms, and turned to Arus.

"I'm done here," I said. "Are you?"

"We can't just leave her here like this. Besides, there's one last thing we have to do." He knelt down beside the still-sniffling Elpe and patted her on her shoulder. "Would you please sing for us?"

"Arus…"

"Lianne, I think it's what she needs."

I turned back to Elpe, and nudged Kale with my mind. He nudged back. Well, I suppose that was to be expected; really, what was there he could have said that would have made things better? Elpe looked up at us, her fingers still in the stuffed bird's feathers, and I could only wonder what the heck was going on in that mind of hers. Whatever it was, it couldn't be pretty.

"Yes," she said. "I will sing."

And she did.

The Green Tower

Chapter 34

How shall I describe it?

How should I describe it?

If the last time I'd heard her sing was hard enough to put into words, this time was even more so. Elpe, she sang, her singing…

No. Please give me a moment to get my mouth and memories lined up straight. Consider the Imperial tongue, in all its local flavours and dialects; it's grown from a language that was used to say "my falcon is better than your falcon". Given this knowledge, I think it's not too far of a flight to say that our language is slightly lacking when it comes to describing certain events or objects.

I'm making up excuses for myself, aren't I?

I know I wanted to cry. Kale would have, if falcons could; the slew of emotions pouring from his mind into mine--and no doubt from mine to his--pretty much confirmed that. Of all the memories that came to mind, the ones that stood out the most were those of warmth, of fluffiness and goodness, not necessarily before I found Kale and was sold…of that all too fleeting sense of security. Irrational, I know, but I had a sudden impulse to give it all up and try to make my life into some sort of crazed ideal of happiness: plump children Kale could pester, a nice man who would still love me and my cooking despite perhaps wanting me less sexually as time went by, a life of relative comfort, and nothing more strenuous than having to boil up the congee every day. Overcompensation, perhaps, for all the things I'd once imagined I'd lost--

--And then my cynical side stepped in and told me I didn't need all that to be happy. It was Elpe's vision of happiness, carried to us through her song, and I wasn't going to begrudge her that, but it wasn't mine.

She continued to sing.

Arus was working a rather impressive-looking piece of equipment, his arms shaking; I would've given a feather or two to know what was going on inside his head. Or maybe not; knowing him, I could have drowned in there and no one would ever find the body.

Elpe's voice rose, a strangely resonant, powerful sound for something that was coming from a wisp of a young woman, yet beautiful in its own right. Sort of like a wild rose, to use a analogy closer to you. It went through our flesh, it went through our bones, it went through the walls and the boxes and our teeth were chattering--

--And the mynahs came.

I remember thinking that this was it, that we'd been lured into a trap, but the birds didn't go for us. They streamed in through every single opening, from the windows, from the stairwell, their bodies clustered so thickly in their mad rush to get in that the room actually grew dark. More and more of the small, pristine birds swarmed about Elpe, fighting to be close to her, to touch her, until I was quite sure she would have been crushed under their combined weight--but still she stood, a seething, vaguely human-shaped pillar of white feathers, blue-ringed eyes and black-tipped wings. I couldn't see anything of Elpe under that writhing, jostling mess, yet her voice came as clearly as it'd been when she'd started.

What can I say? I didn't know whether to be amazed or sickened. That…thing, it looked like…well, a rather nasty tumour. Or maybe a beehive when beekeepers take them apart to get at the honey inside. Or a mass of wriggling bloodworms. I don't think you need me to go on, do you?

"Arus?" I said, but he'd given up all pretence of trying to work and was staring openly, his jaw hanging, Alyssnd standing stunned on his shoulder. I guessed neither of them were inclined to speak at the moment.

The haunting, yearning melody stopped. One of the birds peeled off from Elpe, followed by another and yet another, until they were pouring off her in streams, leaving Elpe unharmed in the exact same spot she'd been sitting in, the stuffed mynah still in her arms. When the last of the birds were gone, she stood, put the stuffed mynah back in the closet and locked it behind her. I know I'm relating this all rather calmly, but really, there's only so much you can panic or be terrified; there's a whole new side beyond that which descends into numbness and a strange acceptance of even the most bizarre.

"Was it a good song?"

My head pounded and threatened to push my eyes straight out of their sockets. "It…uh…was definitely unique."

That seemed to satisfy Elpe, for she nodded at me and stepped down to the kitchen, her gown trailing behind her, its black hem reminding me of those bloody birds' tail feathers.

Half her old body indeed.

"What just happened, chum?" Kale said; he'd been trying to hide down the front of my tunic, without much success. He sounded scared. Really scared.

"I haven't got a bloody clue. If Arus can't tell us, I doubt we'll ever know."

"One of the mysteries of the universe, eh?"

"Maybe." Arus appeared dazed, but recovering, so I went ahead and rapped my knuckles on the back of his skull. "Hey, anyone in there?"

"Yes, there is, thank you for asking, please come again." Arus looked up at me, blinked a few times, then rubbed his eyes as if he'd just woken from a long nap. "I…I'm not sure what to say right now. Give me a few moments to make sense of the readouts on this thing and I'll be with you shortly. Why don't you go down and keep her company for a while?"

I opened my mouth to complain, but the words died on my tongue as I realised the poor sop was clearly shaken and perhaps more than a little awed. Routine. Procedure. Something to fall back on. He needed those right now, and I didn't fit into any of them.

Fair enough. There wasn't much left to do but to tow Kale and I down to the kitchens, where I found Elpe putting on the tea-kettle in a manner not too much unlike Arus fumbling about with his diagnostic equipment. She seemed sadder than she'd been before she'd sang for us; her white hair less pristine, her movements more lethargic. Heck, she didn't even look up when I entered the room.

"I don't want this," she murmured, maybe at me, maybe to herself. A simple statement, yet it told me volumes.

I suddenly felt very, very tired, so I slumped in one of the chairs and stared up at the ceiling as Kale fluttered off my shoulder and landed on the table. The words sounded far too familiar to me for my comfort, but I said them anyway. "I doubt any of us do."

#

You see some things as a facilitator. You see some things as a falconer. Not surprisingly, you see plenty of things as a falconer facilitator. I don't mean to brag, but even back at the time I'd been involved in the Brodik case I'd gone on an airship, sat in on an Imperial audience and stole as many nibbles on small sticks as I could stomach, had dinner with the Emperor, escaped from a detention block filled with illusions, almost got choked to death, and many, many more. When you stop and consider that all this is from a girl who had no foreseeable future save sitting out in the middle of the rice paddies and pulling strings with bells on to scare away pests, I've seen a bit of the world.

And yet there's still so much to see. Even though I've travelled a bit in the Empire, both when my mentor took me around to get familiar with the usual hunting grounds and later, when I began to hunt on my own, there're still places I've never been to. Sights I've never seen. Local foods and flavours both Kale and I have yet to sample. I've heard so much about the small island chains off the peninsulas on the south-eastern coast, but never really had any reason to visit. Culture over there's different, maybe because they never really had any native falcons.

And then I think back to that day in the green tower, remember the writhing, chirping mass that Elpe had so briefly become, and remember why some people choose to stay in one spot and stare at the same patch of dirt for every single day of their lives. No, I might not agree with them, but I can see where they're coming from. Despite what the gyrs will tell you, there's no shame in trying to avoid a battle you've no chance of winning. There're things in this world that're better left unseen or at the very least, known by as few people as possible, and if you have the will and means to tour the world, don't follow in my footsteps. Go to a nice resort town, have a good time, and don't get yourself involved in local business.

But as for me…

You know, Arus once asked me why between me now being a free woman and the fact that I damn well could get myself certified and set up as a practicing alchemist, I continued to do this job. It's a dangerous living, he said. Go leave it to some other poor sop who has no other choice. Of course, I trotted out the usual answers to anyone who asked me these questions.

He then asked me if I liked the job, and I think my answer to that upset him.

Well, yes. I do like what I do, otherwise I'd have quit long ago. I know there's an old maxim that cautions people against hiring killers who do it for the rush, because they tend to do stupid things like giving the target a fighting chance, but there's no reason to take things to extremes. By the same logic, someone who only did it for the money would be terribly unmotivated and sloppy, and we don't want that. It's unprofessional.

Besides, I'm not sure if I could drop it any more than a gyr could drop beating up people; going to new places, meeting the locals, finishing up commissions involving or in spite of them. Encountering the most horrible and interesting--they're not necessarily mutually exclusive--sights imaginable and then some, feeling the shock, the fear, the ensuing rush. Treating oneself to the local delicacies, then going to bed and waking up in the middle of the night to repeat the cycle once more. Maybe I don't ever want to see a flock of cute, cuddly songbirds swarm someone ever again, but I suppose in a twisted sort of way, I'm glad I got to be in that place at that time to see it happen.

Yes, I know I was a morbid child. Now that I'm all grown up, I'm an equally morbid bitch.

#

"I won't stand in your way," Elpe said. "But I won't help you any more, either. Please…do remember your promise, that's all I ask. I need to be…to be alone for a little while now…"

She shut the tower door, but I could still hear her sobbing. Well, nothing much I could do about that. Arus and I stood there on the path through the gardens and turned to watch the sunset; why, I don't know, but he didn't seem to begrudge the minute or so spent doing it, so I didn't.

"Got everything you need?" I said after I'd had enough of the silence. I suppose it was deep and meaningful and all that, but we had to get a move on.

"Yes." Arus looked thoughtful and scratched the stubble on his chin. "I'll work on it overnight and see what I can come up with by morning. With some luck, it'll be usable."

It was a long walk back to our rooms in Barajov, and the way the setting sun stretched our shadows on the road only made the trip seem longer; Kale made up a few small poems on the spot about the sunset and I laughed, although they probably weren't meant to be funny. I recited them to Arus, and he laughed too, probably just to be polite. Alyssnd just puffed herself up and looked away, and I remember thinking that Kale's quest for a stable relationship was pretty much doomed, if it hadn't been so right from the start.

As we entered town, there was a fresh psiprint by the town's notice board with Brodik's face plastered on it for all to see; no doubt copies were being sent from saker to saker within the surrounding provinces, at least. To be honest, it wasn't a bad likeness; I guess Brodik had been well-known and respected enough for most of the townspeople to know his face, and that was what worried me. He'd been planning this all along, and didn't even bother to obscure his identity in any way; it only made me even more sure he was going to off himself at the end of it all, maybe go out with a bang. Anyone who knows of the Firebird can imagine how that'd turn out.

A man with nothing is capable of anything. Conversely, a woman with a bloody tiredness the size of the Empire seeping through her whole body is capable of wanting a good night's sleep. Cynicism and anger had a brief struggle, with exhaustion emerging the victor; we pushed through the people all the way to our inn, then up the stairs and into our room. Arus set his pack down in a corner and I set myself down on the bed, kicking off my boots as Kale fluttered off my shoulder, did a circle about the room and landed on my stomach after I'd made myself comfortable and closed my eyes.

"It's just hilarious, isn't it?"

"Oh, chum," he replied. "It is. Believe me, it is."

I reached up and scratched Kale's head, and he giggled. "Well, I have complete faith in you."

We lay there for some time, listening to Arus going about his Arus things. So he had more energy than me at this time of day, but he wasn't the one who'd been hunting Brodik up and down a pile of wrecks and gotten buried alive, was he? I suppose I should have been grateful that I'd come out of it with my limbs intact, even if they hurt like heck, but I like to think I'm not a great believer in luck I don't make myself. Kale opened his mind to mine, I did the same for him, and we spent the next hour or so comparing notes and arguing over them.

Brodik was still at large, but knowing Arus, if his little cantrip worked he'd insist on getting it out to anyone who might be a target, hopefully clipping the old man's plans for a while and buying us some time. That left figuring out where he was, and if we waited for him to try anything funny just to get a lead it might be too late. Now that I think back on it, the irony of the whole situation struck me--we'd tried to hard to get outside help, the lack of which had been the whole triggering incident that had set off Brodik, but now that Arus and I had a promise of assistance from House Doskar we were loathe to use it because…well, Arus said he didn't trust Lady Doskar, but what went unspoken between the two of us was that we knew that if we left it up to them, the old man wouldn't get so much justice as vengeance. "Justice" isn't a word in a wild falcon's vocabulary; it's a very human concept. "Vengeance" is debatable, but "grudge" definitely is there.

Problems, problems, and one that I could solve by killing the right person, only I didn't want to, which only made it that much more aggravating. Kale spread his wings as if he were sunbathing and lazed about on my stomach, and the downy, feathery feeling against my skin was very nice indeed. No, Elpe might have a few hundred birds at her disposal, but all I needed was just one.

It's the quality, not the quantity, that matters.

The Green Tower

Chapter 35

The room was a mess when I woke up. There might have been a small circle of cleanliness and order in the corner where Arus sat on the floor absorbed in his work, but beyond that it looked almost as terrible as I felt inside. An orderly state of chaos, if you get what I mean.

Every single part of my body protested, but I forced myself out of bed, lifted Kale off my stomach and left him on the pillow I'd vacated. He deserved a rest more than I did. Arus was still tinkering about with his equipment, playing back small snatches of Elpe's singing and scribbling lines in his ever-present notepad, so I snuck over the stack discarded tea mugs and up behind him, leaned over his shoulder and gave him a big smile. Without showing my teeth, of course.

"Good to know you're getting some of your old humour back," he said without looking up. "You know, normal people would be a little worried a day or two after being buried alive."

Well, he was the one who brought it up. "I'm not the kind of person who's susceptible to nightmares. By the way, what's up with the tea?"

"I don't think my body can handle another magical stimulant so soon after the last one. Tea might not be the best, but it won't kill me. Probably."

"Hmm." I looked down at Arus' workspace. Not that I claim to be a mechanic on a professional level, especially when sabotage is made considerably easier if you can just rip spells off their anchors with your bare hands, but well, I couldn't help but feel slightly miffed at not getting any of Arus' writing. Then again, he was the trained professional in this field, not me. "Any luck figuring something out?"

"Nearly there. Give me two or three more hours and I'll have something we can test. What I'm doing is basically modifying an existing soundproofing--"

I held up a hand, and he stopped. Good. I gave Arus the sweetest smile I could manage despite every single bloody muscle in my face feeling like a pulled piece of rubber, and patted him on the shoulder. "Now, you're sure it'll do what it's supposed to do, yes?"

"Almost certainly."

"And it won't blow up in our faces even if it goes wrong, right?"

"Definitely. The base incantation is made to fail safely in case of--"

"Then that's all I need to know."

Arus turned around and blinked reddened eyes. "That's a lot of trust, coming from you. Should I feel honoured?"

"No more than the tailor who sews my clothes. Or the machine-smith that churns out my daggers. Or you could just take my stoop of confidence in your abilities as it is and not question it. By the way, I'm going to order some breakfast for myself and the birds. Want anything?"

"Tea?"

I looked down at the still-damp rings on the floorboards and the mugs stacked up in a neat pyramid. "No. No tea."

Arus looked down at the stack of mugs, and up at me before he handed Alyssnd over to me and turned back to his work. The little moon falcon gave me a quizzical stare, as if trying to decide whether I was something to be eaten or put up with, then ruffled her feathers and began preening madly. Call me capable of holding a grudge, but I'm guessing she figured I was some sort of filthy, diseased thing she had to put up with for politeness' sake. It damn well wasn't because her feathers were out of place, that much I know.

There's no changing some people's minds, I guess.

Kale was still sound asleep on the pillow getting some rest for the both of us, so I took Alyssnd down to the inn's kitchens and got us some honeyed bread, some heated milk and butchered dove for the falcons--you know, simple peasant food that's made to stick to your bones and make you feel good for having stuffed your face. I'd barely returned to our room and begun eating when a frown crossed Arus' face, the way he does when he's thinking really hard or receiving telepathic communication.

"Arus?" I said as he stood, walked over and grabbed a mug off the tray I'd set on the table.

"We have to leave now," he said before he swallowed all his milk in two gulps and returned to his apparatus taking it apart with practiced efficiency. "Pack up and we'll settle what we owe at the front counter; bring the rest of the bread along if you must. I'll finish up my work on the coach while we travel; that's the whole idea of portable equipment."

"Wait, what? Would you mind explaining what's going on?"

"House Doskar's saker just sent me a message. Brodik's been sighted on foot in Prasov. The provincial capital, if you're not sure where that is."

"And is there anything to blow up over there?"

Arus glared at me, a piece of honeyed bread clenched in his mouth and muffling his words. "Oh, there're a number of targets, but the biggest one? A trade show the Emperor's scheduled to attend."

"And why didn't you tell me this before?"

"I didn't think it important until now," he said, "and besides, you never asked."

Oh, the nerve.

#

There's a final tipping point in every planned job, one that you have to get over successfully before wiping your brow and saying "good work!" to yourself. The last few weeks spent figuring out the details and logistics: where it's going to happen, how it's going to happen, what method you're going to use, what cover-up and alibi you have planned, how you're going to dispose of the evidence, what you're going to do in case you're caught in the act--all that's setup for that point in time, the line that has to be crossed.

It's the moment after you've pulled yourself into a stoop, after you've committed yourself; if luck's on your target's side and something you didn't plan for is going to happen out of nowhere--well, there's not much you can do about it anymore but hope it doesn't turn out too badly. It's the moment just before the impact, before the kill. You sit back, watch everything you've set in motion, and see whether you're going to knock something out of the sky or have to pull out of your stoop really quick.

It's the moment I savour. Not the one I live for--that's reserved for staying in a warm bed on a rainy morning of the sort you only get in the Dysis, or maybe a good warm meal when I need one--but it's pretty high up there nonetheless, and what a rush it is. Taking Kale out flying without it would ruin the whole bloody experience for me, I know that much.

Heh.

Every time. Every job. Maybe a little stronger, maybe a little less of a thrill depending on what's at stake, but there're no exceptions. There's an saying from old Aerie: "grasp the moment". There's a moment there all right, but there's no way you're going to be able to truly grasp it, not without planning, not when time's running out.

You do what you can, and hope stuff doesn't blow up in your face.

#

"Well," I said over the turning of the carriage's wheels. "Wonder what the bastards down in Aerie will think when they discover you've used their money to charter private transportation."

"Why, I'll tell them it's their own fault for failing to respond to a credible threat and leaving it to us to do clean-up for them," Arus replied. He'd turned what little room there was to be had in the carriage into a makeshift workspace of sorts, and was peering at rows upon rows of readouts from one of his devices while Alyssnd watched from his shoulder and chirped every now and then. "It's the truth, is it not?"

"Heh. Yeah. So tell me again, why didn't you mention anything about this trade show earlier on? If I'm going to be working there, I'll need information, time to plan, that sort of stuff. You saw what happened back at the helioport when people do things without planning, even under stress--"

"Bide a moment, please, Lianne. I'm nearly done."

Fair enough. Arus was a good guy, but he could really be an insufferable bastard at times. Kale was still busy getting enough rest for the both of us; I'd have to pay him back after all this was over by having an extra lie-in while he puttered around and did his things, but heck, it still didn't stop me from feeling at least a little guilty. I stared out of the window for a while and watched the milestones go by one by one; people might say the roads are the Empire's greatest feat of civil engineering, but I damn well say it's the milestones. I mean, you can find your way around the whole of the Empire just by navigating by the milestones, and that's got to count for something. About sixty-two of the things had passed by before Arus stood a little shakily and tapped me on the shoulder.

"It's done."

"Huh, I've never seen anyone make up a spell before, let alone in less than a day. Guess your Academy education paid off for itself, eh?"

Arus winced. "It's nothing, really. Even novices are supposed to be able to write a simple spell by themselves, if only just to produce your so-called pretty colours. You can't expect only a handful of people to program all the automatons in the Empire, can you?"

Well, he had a point there. "So, how does this thing work?"

"Hmm…it's a bit hard to explain in words. Would you mind waking Kale up so Alyssnd can pass the idea along to him?"

"Well, if you say so."

Naturally, Kale wasn't very happy at being roused, but calmed down well enough after learning that it meant Alyssnd was actually going to speak to him of her own free will. Surprises, surprises. It took about a minute or so and I could feel Kale's mind working at the back of my own, but eventually he sent along the sensation that I should concentrate and pull various energies in a particular way. As it was, though, I tried it a few times after doing a small detection spell, and kept on getting nothing for my efforts.

"You sure that's all?"

"As best as I can, chum. Believe me, I listen to every single word she says, especially when she's so beautiful."

"Then--" I turned to Arus. "Hey, nothing's happening."

"That's because I need to be the one doing it," he replied as he began packing in his equipment for what was hopefully the last time. "It's supposed to work with the amplifier I've brought along."

"Then why bother to--"

One corner of Arus' lips twitched upwards. "Because I thought you'd appreciate an explanation."

I shook my head. "I swear, you're like a child who's just discovered his first swear word. Fine. Whatever. I don't care. Now tell me everything you know about this trade show."

"Hey, at least you should have known the Emperor's attending. I mean, considering he's the Emperor--"

"--And subsequently ignored by facilitators. Falcons don't build nests, water doesn't run uphill by itself, and we don't even think about making the Emperor one of our targets. It's just not done, okay? Like…like the way you guys define magical current to be the positive direction in a circuit. The reason he's so well-protected is that there're other bastards who want a shot at him. But not us."

"Bastards like Brodik?"

I sighed. "I really don't want this, but that would be my suspicion. If the Emperor were to be the victim of a nasty technical failure, it'd guarantee an investigation into the cause--and the converters, which the old man wants. So tell me."

And he did. It wasn't much--if what Arus knew about this trade show had been a dossier on my desk, I'd have had to do my own snooping around to gather the requisite information to make me feel even remotely comfortable about stepping into the place. Unfortunately, this wasn't quite possible, so all I had to go on were his ramblings about the upcoming public demonstrations of various gadgets and technologies, when what I really wanted was a layout of the area and maybe the Emperor's schedule.

Come to think of the Emperor, maybe he wouldn't be there. Lady Doskar was smart, or at least not completely brainless like some of her staff, and this was the Emperor we were talking about. At the first sign of trouble, she'd have sent along a message by saker, and the Emperor would have his people translocate him to safety instantly.

Oh, maybe he wouldn't. Maybe he'd feel he had enough protection, or maybe he was just that bloody-minded. Perhaps Lady Doskar's message would be slightly late in getting to the people who mattered, or it was badly-worded, or something. Yes, I know the Emperor's smarter than that, but there's no point in taking chances.

And that still didn't preclude lots and lots of other people dying.

I groaned and rolled my shoulders. "I still wish you'd told me about this earlier."

"Lianne, I don't remember ever agreeing to share every detail of my personal life with you. Besides, you'd have made fun of me for it."

"I would?"

"Yeah, you would, chum."

"You would," Arus said, and stared out of the window on his side of the carriage.

"Hey, whenever did you start taking his side against me?"

Kale opened an eye. "Why, when I know he's right, of course."

"And you're sure it's got nothing to do with the fact that you're hopelessly infatuated with his falcon?"

"Chum, I hate to break it to you, but I think you've just proved his point."

Bah. I slumped back against the carriage seat, stared out of the window on my side, and watched the milestones go by again. Silence reigned for about eleven or so of them, and then I couldn't help but say it.

"Are we there yet?"

The Green Tower

Chapter 36

I don't care much for provincial capitals. Not just because of their puffed-up sense of self-importance that pervades the air the moment you step within city limits, but also because every single bloody one of them tries to be Aerie, only in miniature. Trust me on this: no matter how the peasantry live, be it in flat-roofed huts made out of mud bricks, stilted houses above the salt mangroves, floating platforms chained to the sea bed, or between insulated wooden walls, provincial capitals always have brick-and-slate buildings, clean and wide cobblestone streets and as much clear water and greenery as they can cram in.

Not that it's a bad thing, but at least the style makes sense in Aerie, where it's a natural outgrowth of their traditional architecture and the way they like to live. In the case of the provincial capitals, it's clear the city planners were trying just a little too hard to follow suit, local flavour be damned; it doesn't matter if the buildings stick out like a broken wing, so long as they look "progressive" enough.

Add a few large plumes of smoke, and you've got yourself one ugly eyesore on your hands.

"Don't look at me," I told Arus, who was staring up at the thick, blue-tinged smoke, his jaw hanging slack. "I didn't insist that we stop and eat breakfast this time, and it's not my fault the driver refused to go any closer to the city and made us go in on foot."

"We're too late," Arus moaned. "We're too late."

"No, we're not, you bastard," I said, grabbed him by the arm and started running. The poor sod was already out of breath from our jog into city limits, but tried his best to keep up anyway. "How close do we have to be to the source before your little thingamajig will work?"

"We'll need to be within, say, a few streets for maximum effect. Assuming there's only one source, that is."

I chanced another look at the sky. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but the smoke seemed just ever so slightly thicker than it'd been the last time I'd checked. "You know, my dear Arus, you really know how to ruin a good thing."

"I learnt from the best."

"Should I be flattered or insulted?"

The streets were deserted, which meant the initial panic had likely died down and everyone had gone into hiding--probably voluntarily, considering how there weren't any arm-men out, either. That worried me more than anything else--if the Emperor had really been scheduled to pay this place a visit, even under the best of circumstances, the whole of Prasov should have been crawling with Imperial guards and their bloody winged helmets. Since they weren't around, that either meant the Emperor was gone or they were indisposed or dead. Knowing the Emperor, he wouldn't have abandoned a city just like that.

Gulp.

As we approached the epicentre of the blasts, things only got from bad to worse--it started with chipped and cracked cobblestones, then went on to chipped and cracked buildings and homes as we entered the main business district, followed by chipped and cracked bones, some of which still had bits of flesh still clinging onto them, like those last bits of meat and gristle on a chicken drumstick you just can't get at, no matter how hard one tries. Arus looked as if he was about to lose it again like that time with the birds, but I kept him moving, even when he almost slipped in a streak of something thick and slimy that might or might not have been half-dried blood.

That was the important thing. Just. Keep. Bloody. Moving.

"What's the situation from up there?"

"Looks as bad as from down below, chum. Don't bother taking the next two streets; they're blocked with rubble. Third one's good, though. As for further in…the smoke's a bit too thick to see that far till we get closer."

"Any chance of people coming in to help?"

"Doesn't seem like it. Not surprising, considering there're still people at that airfield."

Well, I figured as much. We passed through a wide arcade, the shops on both sides littered with broken glass. Not that anyone had been looting--they were too busy being dead for that.

Keep moving, and perhaps we wouldn't notice anyone Arus would feel obliged to stop and help.

One of those new train things--well, they'd barely been out less than a half-year at the time--lay on its side, a huge line of dark metal coated in blue ooze burrowing through buildings like a worm through soil.

Keep moving, and I wouldn't have to deal with the foul, acrid taste that coated the inside of my mouth.

The eeriness of all the wrong noises in the right places.

Keep moving, or else Arus would stop to think, promptly lose it and we'd waste another chance at stopping Brodik.

Wild falcons might kill with less compunction than humans, but at least one can usually understand why they do what they do. For food. For claimed territory. Out of their sheer natural aggressiveness. To protect their mate and young. Humans kill for the strangest reasons--for example, ambition's a common one on the menu, with perhaps more than a little greed thrown into the mix for flavour. Or perhaps to prove a point.

When I want to prove a point, I usually kill only one person, and only if it's absolutely necessary. Definitely not more than what you can count on one hand--when the body count starts getting that high, the trouble almost always adds up to be more than the original problem.

"Are you happy now, old man?" I said through my teeth, my own voice strangely distant and echoing, as if I was hearing it through a long pipe. "One person changing the world? Is this what you wanted?"

I could still hear the last song I'd heard Elpe sing, playing over and over in my head.

#

My foster father was personal bodyguard to Lord Escobar, and very good at what he did; I mean, can you think of anyone better qualified to help train a rogue than someone whose job is to nab them? One of the things we did together almost every day was to get together an hour or so after lunch, and he'd put me in a ring in the manor's courtyard while Kale and his falcon would watch from their perches on the sidelines and make appropriately puffed-up comments on how well 'their' humans were doing.

Not to fight. The point of these little exercises was never to beat him. A facilitator isn't a professional soldier or even an arm-man; if he or she is forced into a situation where one needs to draw steel in straight-up combat, the game's pretty much up and the job is usually unsalvageable.

No. The point was to escape. He'd put me at one end of the ring, designate the opposite end as the exit, and plant himself in the middle like an imposing banyan tree. All I had to do was to get around him to the other end of the courtyard by any means possible, so long as I didn't leave the place.

Naturally, I lost. A lot. As I grew older, I managed to win once or twice every season or so, but even I admit those were more lucky breaks than anything else, sometimes with the help of a few nonlethal surprises secreted about my person. We'd just stand in the dust and moist afternoon heat, half-crouched with a healthy amount of distance between us as we eyed each other like falcons challenging each other, waiting for one of us to make a move.

He might have known all along that he was teaching me far more than just how to deal with a sticky situation, but I'll admit it took me a while to catch on to that fact. That moment just before impact, the moment on the knife's edge I was talking about earlier--that's quick to arrive, quicker to pass, and you've got to be faster than that to realise that it's there and take advantage of the opening. The blade in your wrist sheath is going to be mere dead weight if you don't use it.

#

The plaza was a mess. We hadn't seen people not because they had escaped and gone into hiding, but because they were dead, strewn amongst what had until very recently been various wonders of modern technology. I couldn't see either Kale or the sky for all the smoke that was rising up into it, and perhaps out of sheer instinct, took Arus' shaking hand into my own and felt slightly better for feeling his fingers tighten about mine and his pulse racing through them. Something about misery liking company and all that; at least I wasn't the only one feeling absolutely rotten.

"Hey."

"Chum?"

"I don't want to say this, really, but would you mind sitting out on this one? Maybe stay on high ground and keep watch; it'd really help if we knew if and when any help comes."

"You know I don't like it. I know I don't like it. Then why--"

"It's just me and him in here from now on, if you get my drift. Or maybe you don't mind the smoke?"

I felt Kale fiddling about in my mind for a second or so, and then he sighed. "No, I don't think I'd like it down there. Buttake care of yourselves, okay, chum?"

I looked around at the trashed displays, and shook my head. Oh, they were the wave of the future all right, and one made of blue goop. Or maybe a prevailing wind, if you prefer that metaphor. "Yeah. Sure. Right."A little brusque, perhaps, but as they say, you get the most meaning with the fewest words. Kale broke off the psychic connection, and I'd barely gotten back when Arus tugged at my hand.

"Hear that?" His voice was hoarse, as if something was gumming up his throat. Best not to think about it now.

"What? No, I don't hear anything."

"No, listen." He pointed towards the middle of an ugly-looking mess comprised of crushed girders and twisted metal. "There." He concentrated briefly; moments later, I felt my skin tingle, the acrid taste leave my mouth, and breathed easier. "Let's--let's go. It's not a spellsuit, but I don't think we'll be here for more than a few hours no matter what we find. Call it a hunch."

I still didn't hear anything, but maybe it was a sorcerer thing; this was his field, after all. "Wonder what that used to be."

"If I had to guess, until very recently they were a couple of cargo containers, some support girders and one high-speed train."

"Sounds about right." We picked our way over the pieces and closed in on the mess; it wasn't too long before I could hear voices from within the wreckage. "That what you heard? The voices?"

Arus looked confused. "No, not that…there was some singing. Coming from within the pile, I mean. But, no, not voices."

Strangely enough, the train wreck seemed to have held out pretty well considering that most of the surrounding displays had been reduced to scrap. A bit of an old automaton blocked the nearest entrance; I hurled it aside, crawled in--

--And found myself face-to-face with the Emperor. The four imperial guards holed up with him--all of them gyrs, save one moon--already had their swords drawn, but he waved them off.

"At ease," he told them, a small, forced smile on his face, and patted the enormous gyrfalcon nestled in his lap. "I've had dinner with her before. I don't invite people I don't like to dinner, you know."

I blinked. At least the Emperor didn't look too worse for the wear. Sure, his golden falcon mask hung on a cord about his neck and the feathered sun cloak of office was pretty torn and stained with plenty of blood, but the man himself didn't appear to be seriously hurt. Maybe he'd taken a knock on the head and the guards hadn't noticed.

"Good to know you've retained your sense of humour along with your life, your Imperial majesty. Perhaps we can have dinner again when this is all over."

"Perhaps." The smile disappeared from the Emperor's face, and his brows furrowed. "Well, to whom do I owe your presence to?"

"No one. I'm here on my own accord. And as for my friend here--" I nudged Arus a little further through the crawlspace leading to where the Emperor was holed up-- "I think he wants to prove you were right in pardoning him."

"Ah."

"Hey, would you--" Arus began, but I punched him in the shoulder and he thankfully shut up. Guess I wasn't the only one who knew how to ruin good things, eh? "You are fine, aren't you, your Imperial highness? How long--"

"I was taking the tour of this new high-speed train, and my security got warning from House Doskar of a possible attack on my person a few hours ago. Unfortunately, we naturally assumed that it would be more precise, and not…" the Emperor thinned his lips. "This. There's a block in place, and Sigmund over there is taking it apart so we can translocate out, but…we only survived because Sigmund was quick to throw up a shield about us. It's been half a hour, and one can only wonder what's going on out there."

I shook my head. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Arus having a brief discussion with his fellow sorcerer, and guessed I'd better stick with the Emperor and not bother them. "The business district is pretty much gone, your Majesty; yes, nothing like this has ever happened before. If you ask me, I don't think Brodik really wants to know, so long as his objective is achieved."

"You know this man, Stracker?"

"He crashed the airship I was on, your Imperial Majesty. It's a very personal matter to us." Not a lie, but not exactly the truth, either. I'd tell him the whole story if we ever had dinner again. "Not to be rude, your Majesty, but we just wanted to check if you were safe. There's still a perpetrator to apprehend."

The Emperor studied us for a second or so, then turned to look his gyr straight in the eye before he addressed us again. "Do you really think me that important that I'm worth…"

"Well, you are the Emperor."

"And I know what most of the citizenry feels about the matter."

"Best to claim victories where you can, your Imperial Majesty. Half an hour, you say?"

He nodded.

"And you'll be fine?"

Another nod.

"Then with your permission, we'll take our leave." Arus was less used to crawling backwards than I was, so I'd to pull him out the last stretch of the crawlspace. Once we were on our feet again, I dusted off my leggings, and then something caught my eye atop one of the scrap heaps.

Something far too human-shaped for me to ignore.

"Arus, there's plenty of snow where you live, right?"

"Here? Now? What sort of question is that, Lianne?"

"Just answer it."

He sighed and shook his head. "Yes, there is. What of it?"

"Good, because it means you probably have a strong constitution and won't die from what we're about to do." I pointed over at the top of the heaps, the smallest one being at least twice as tall as I was. "Let's go for a lovely chase, shall we?"

The Green Tower

Chapter 37

"Hey, old man!" I shouted as I jogged up the heap, my feet picking the path of least resistance of their own accord. Arus wasn't faring too well, though--he'd already had to stop and think thrice about where he could put his feet without falling over and impaling himself. Guess he'd catch up eventually; the important thing now was to intercept Brodik before he left us again. "Hey!"

The silhouette stopped and turned.

"Take a bit of advice from a professional, will you? The next time you try and kill someone you particularly want to get rid of, stop and bloody well make sure the sop's dead. It's bloody unprofessional to leave a job half-done. Might as well not even bother if you're going to be sloppy."

The air stung my eyes, and I blinked; in that moment, Brodik had ducked behind a ruined stand that had once proudly advertised heat and corrosion-resistant glass for alchemy apparatus. Pity.

"You're not the Firebird, old man. Last time I checked, the Emperor was still breathing. Plenty of dead people, though; people who had nothing to do with all of this. Still, it's not too late. You can turn back; you've already proven your point. We'll plead your case to the Emperor. He'll understand."

Brodik's voice came from all around me. "No. There's no turning back now. There's too much blood on my hands now; the Emperor won't understand. None of those bastards in their masks and feathered cloaks will. This is what would have happened, Lianne; if it was ignored, if everyone stood back and did nothing while House Dorst hid matters away in the name of greed. I merely brought a small part of it forward so the rest doesn't have to happen."

I grabbed a panting Arus by the hand and hauled him upright. "He's using that same spell I told you about to amplify and obfuscate his voice. Could you--"

"At these background levels? You're asking me to find a drop of oil in an ocean."

"All right, all right," I growled, and surveyed the remains of the plaza where the trade show had been held. "We'll just have to do this the old-fashioned way. Got you breath back?"

"I guess, but what--"

"You're right, old man!" I shouted into the smoke and ashes. "They won't understand, because they think it's you who's behind all this! They'll think it's the work of a saboteur, and not a cover-up. You'll have wasted all these people's lives for nothing! Are you going to live with that, or maybe you'd like to take the easy way out? Either way, it makes you a coward."

Silence.

"You claimed you'd go back to Elpe if you were still alive at the end of it all," I said, struggling to keep control of my voice. "You shouldn't make promises you don't intend to keep, old man. You shouldn't have given her false hope. I promised Elpe I'd do everything in my power to plead your case. I promised her I wouldn't try and kill you until I truly saw no alternative.

"I'm keeping my word, old man. Will you?"

Well, Arus had said the words, but I hadn't disputed them. More silence. Then Brodik's voice came to us again, much, much softer than it'd been. "Have you got time for a story, Lianne?"

So long as it bought us time while we searched. I mentally marked out a circle about the spot where Brodik had last been, and expanded it to fit where he might be, scanning for shadows that were just a little out of shape or too dark for comfort. An almost inaudible crunch amongst the rubble in the circle said "start here" to me, and so I did, Arus keeping about thirty paces to my left where possible. He might not have been the best at sneaking, but at least he could serve as a distraction and herd Brodik towards me.

I felt my breathing calm just a little. Things were under control. Things would be under control.

"Sure," I said. "We've got time. We've got all the time in the world." Until either reinforcements arrived or I got my grubby hands on him, anyway.

"Long, long ago--I was your age once, and know how time passes for you young people--there were some people working for a House, and they were trying to find out how exactly the link between a human and a falcon is established. Why falcons were the only birds known to desire human company in this manner. No, there wasn't anything new in that; the question has been around ever since the dawn of humanity.

"No, what was new was that these people managed to achieve something, if only by accident. They were doing…something…and ended up with a bird in a girl's body, something that'd never happened before.

"Where had they procured the poor thing? Who knows? Perhaps they'd snatched one from her mattress from one of the poorer villages, and no one would have dared to say anything despite the law claiming all are equal before it. Or perhaps her parents had been convinced to part with her for a gold falcon or two--a pittance to the houses, a fortune for the families."

I remembered the day Kale and I had been sold to House Escobar, and swallowed hard. No, that was different. It had been justified; I could've been a very real danger to everyone about me; I'd have been executed if there hadn't been a proper falconer to vouch for my actions.

"Man, can this guy get more boring?"

"Quiet, you. I'm trying to concentrate."

"They didn't know what to do with what they'd created," Brodik continued. "Such avenues of research were supposed to be prohibited under Imperial law at the time, and if the investigators found out, the whole House would be discredited. Yet these people had enough of a collective conscience that they couldn't kill her outright, so they did the next worst thing: they abandoned the girl in the middle of nowhere with the stuffed mynah they'd made out of her other half. Even if by some chance she didn't manage to lose the half of her old body and rapidly sicken to death, what chances did a naked, feral girl with little more than raw instinct to go on have? Can you tell me that, Lianne? Maybe a lethal injection and painless death would have been more humane; the gesture was never aimed at truly giving the poor girl a chance, only assuaging their own pitiful consciences.

"Centuries of the Houses feathering their own nest boxes with other people's remains. Those who would have spoken out coerced into submission. The one man who went back to the girl, hid, fed and clothed her for years, had to do so in secret, and would never have managed it if not for the mynahs that she attracted to herself and seemed to know exactly what she needed.

"And then he discovered she had the natural urge to sing, and what it could do.

"That's why it's got to end, promises or not. That's why everything has to go. The girl's now a woman, she lives in an old green tower that the birds pointed out that also contained her more…destructive aspects, and she has more of a life than what those people would ever have offered her. The blueprints…the converters…I don't know, I had hope when you turned up…but the whole farce just proved what I'd suspected all along but could never act on until it was too late…"

He had his back to me. I could have brained him with a heavy piece of debris from where I stood. I could have reached for my eating knife at my belt and planted it between his shoulders and straight into his spine, ending the matter there and then. Heck, if I'd the mind to, I could have gotten my hands around that neck of his and killed him with my damned bare hands, if need be. They would have been the simplest solutions, the most expedient ones. But damn, I'd made a promise, implied or not, and would keep it. It's why I try not to give my word at all, or at least not without a word of warning beforehand.

So I didn't do the easy and convenient thing, and instead leapt down from my perch and socked Brodik a good one in the side of his head.

#

Ostensibly, one of the purposes of the law is to protect the weaker members of society and to give them some sort of legal recourse when their rights and privileges as Imperial citizens are violated. Of course, anyone who's spent any length of time in the real world will know that the above statement is a bowl full of crock, and if they're cynical bastards like me, will know that sometimes technically unlawful things need to be done--like picking off one or two people as a matter of business--to keep things in balance.

However, another purpose of the law is to impose some form of order on the ugly mess that is human society, and generally keep people in line. Gryphus the Elder might have said something on the lines of it being better if people didn't commit evil out of their own sense of morality rather than fear of punishment, but we might as well get falcons to start building their own nests while we're at it.

Technically, Brodik and I were no different; we were willing to take lives to achieve our aims and justify it to ourselves as being for the greater good. The problem was, I might have been in my comfort zone and Brodik's actions were definitely way out of that range, but how much order should be sacrificed in the name of doing the right thing before our deeds defeated their own purpose? I know what normal people think of facilitators; how far can we go before we become no better than the very things we're trying to stop?

Where's the line between a gentleman or lady rogue and a murderous bastard? Or maybe it isn't a line, but rather, a becoming? I can't ask Arus; he'd just ask me to do a cost-benefit analysis, and how the heck am I going to reduce that to a bunch of numbers on paper without being a bloody philosopher?

I don't know. On some level, Brodik definitely wanted to be understood, and feared being thought of as a murderous bastard who'd done all this out of a grudge against the Houses; that was probably why he spent so much time explaining things to me when he could have been doing the sensible thing and hiking it out of there. Maybe, stupid as it sounds, Brodik wanted me to stop him and prove him wrong.

The Firebird might have killed to prove a point, but at least she chose her targets well before reducing them to ashes.

#

The blow should have knocked Brodik out clean, but he reeled and staggered instead, so I followed it up with another one to his guts and was rewarded with a satisfying grunt as Brodik fell to the ground. "You've made your point, old man. Really. Give up now, for our sake."

"I…no. I won't." He made a swipe that might have been well-placed to someone else, but to me it was slow, clumsy and easily dodged. I think Arus shouted something at me from behind, but I wasn't listening. "You know the dangers, Lianne. You've seen them in action. Even if this passes safely and the Emperor orders production shut down, how long will it be until another House tries the same thing? It's not truly the answer; all of it has to go."

"No, it's not the answer," I replied. "Facilitators aren't truly the answer, either, but we've managed to buy centuries' worth of time while others looked for the solution. How long did you look before coming to the conclusion nothing can be saved? Years? Decades? No, facilitators like me don't have the solution, but we have been making progress. Maybe we'll never get to the root of the problem in your lifetime or mine, but we don't have to kill thousands of people to force change. Just one or two in the right places will do, if absolutely necessary.

"Yes, I know why you're doing what you're doing and can sympathise. That doesn't mean I have to approve of it. Don't you want to know what Elpe makes of herself?"

Brodik glared at me, although there was no hate in his gaze. "And let her see me waiting for the hangman, or perhaps floating in brine? Never." With that, he smashed a clear glass orb against the ground.

"Lianne!" That was Arus, all right, and from within the shards of the shattered orb rose a sad, haunting melody that sounded almost exactly the same as the last time I'd heard Elpe sing. Maybe it was the same tune, I couldn't be exactly sure, but it soon changed as ribbons of light extended from Arus' fingers to wrap about the air above the broken orb. Another song joined the one already present, and even Brodik stopped and stared as the two conflicting melodies blended into each other and turned into something…more. Something hopeful, yet sad, and that's the best I can do to put it into words despite the fact that I know that's a massive understatement. I didn't cry, honest; a speck of ash must have gotten into my eye; goodness knows there was enough of that around.

And--

And--

"Chum, just what the heck is going on down there?"

"I…"

"There're hundreds of them up here! I--they--"

I shivered, looked up and realised why Kale had broken off so abruptly.

The birds had come.

Kale was right. Hundreds, maybe even more than a thousand of the damned things dropping in from all above, their white feathers stained bluish-grey with the smoke and soot that hung around, all of them heading for the very spot the two melodies had blended.

In other words, Brodik and me.

What felt like hundreds of tiny needles poked through my clothes and at my skin, the birds strangely quiet save for the rustling of their wings as they grabbed hold of the two of us in their sharp-tipped talons and pulled us apart. For a moment there I had bad images of the two people lying dead in the alley, ripped beyond recognition, but there were simply far too many of them to beat at or even resist--

All Brodik did was lie where I'd knocked him over, his expression unreadable as the birds swarmed him as well and held him down.

Kale's voice came to my mind, weak and tired. "--Something breaking through, chum--can't--stop--"

A rush of thoughts and images flooded my mind, a bit like Kale's, only lighter and many, many more of them all jostling for space in my consciousness.

Love her love her--

Yes--

Obey queen--

Found at last--

Fighting bad--

No hurt other--

And then I understood. In the midst of the chaos, I understood.

I laughed, despite the taste of down and feathers filling my mouth. "It is over, old man, whether you like it or not. Elpe wants us alive."

The Green Tower

Epilogue

The last time I'd been in the Emperor's audience chamber, it'd been packed with courtiers in their masks and feathered cloaks, small snacks on sticks that looked nice but tasted absolutely horrible, and of course, the Emperor's personal bodyguard. Today, it was just Arus and me in front of the Emperor on his throne, and damn, it felt empty considering that the place was large enough for Kale to fly about in, even with all the gilded feathers and wing emblems about the place.

The Emperor sighed and leaned to one side in a very un-Emperor-like manner, a balled fist supporting one cheek. His gyr was perched on the back of the throne, and the bastard appeared more than a little amused.

"Hey, I'd be too."

"Oh, quiet you."

"Lianne Stracker, Arus Hazzard, the two of you are appearing in front of me just a little too much for the courtiers' liking. Supposedly, someone like the Emperor shouldn't be seen with common citizens, despite all the customs and traditions originating with the use of the Kestrel Gate."

I cleared my throat, the sound echoing off the walls. Whoa. "If I may, your Imperial Majesty, I'd say to screw what they think. It's bastards like them who brought on this mess in the first place--if Brodik had felt there was something legal he could've done , if there had been a falconer he'd trusted to look out for him--all this wouldn't need to have happened. So yes, screw the lot them."

Arus winced, but I ignored him. The Emperor turned back to his gyr, and they exchanged glances, and then he turned back to address us. "If only he'd done this earlier, somehow brought it to my attention…"

"But he hadn't. After all, the sky is high, the Empire is wide and the Emperor far, far away, your Imperial Majesty."

The Emperor sighed and shook his head. "Yes. The Emperor is always too far away, even when he's right next to you. It's one of the problems that tend to turn up when you're ruling what everyone thinks of as the known world."

"You know, chum, I think he's all right."

"You really think so?"

"Yeah. Why, don't you?"

"I don't know yet, but I like his sense of humour. Too few Emperors and Empresses with a sense of humour, really."

"And then…about Brodik…"

"If you're here to plead his case, don't. Mr. Hazzard by your side has just spent the last hour and a half explaining to me why I should go be lenient in my judgement; that's why his throat's a bit too dry for speaking much. While he has made some good points, the fact still stands that this Brodik of yours has destroyed hundreds of thousands' worth of falcons in property, endangered thousands of lives and was intending to tear down the Empire one piece at a time. I can't just pardon him, no matter how noble his intentions."

"If you can't do that, then at least punish those who drove him to it."

"Which has already been done. A convocation has already been called, and the Houses both greater and lesser have unanimously decided to strip House Dorst of all titles and properties. As for the people…" the Emperor rubbed his hands together, and for one split second, looked exactly like his gyr, a look that turned my insides to water. "I intend to be traditional when it comes to punishment."

Would it be enough for Elpe? Would it be enough for Brodik? Maybe for the old man, who would be living in a tank and then a cell for the rest of his days, but Elpe…perhaps they could bring her to see him. Perhaps, if she dared to bring the other half of her body along.

It wasn't the best solution, but it would have to suffice.

"Which brings us to the matter of the two of you," the Emperor continued. "You both deserve some sort of reward for stopping a dangerous plot, yet I can't be seen flat-out giving you anything. Still, I could use your kind around, and hearsay is that neither of you are very comfortable with your current station in life…how does the prospect of stable employment sound to you?"

"What'd you think? Do we say yes?"

Kale hopped onto my arm and bobbed his head up and down at me, then we turned to Arus and Alyssnd, who appeared to be considering the matter. "Hmm. No harm in asking for the job description."

"Heh, guess not." "Well, might as well ask what it is you want us to be doing, you Imperial Majesty. Wouldn't hurt if it was interesting, though."

He smiled and made a tent with fingers. "Oh, it'll be interesting, all right."

#

And so that was the end of it, or at least as far as I'm concerned. Of course, there're things I still don't know: who built the green tower? What purpose did it originally serve before it became Elpe's home? Why did the birds lead Brodik to the place, and how did they know they were needed? What did Elpe's relationship with the mynahs mean for us falconers, and the nature of our bonds, those which supposedly give us the natural right to rule?

I don't know, and I'm comfortable with leaving it to the investigators to sort out--with Arus' help, of course. You never get to know everything about a job; it's fine to let the client pick up the pieces, eat the kill, so to speak. It's the way things are done; you're there in your professional capacity as a button to be pushed, a lever to be pulled. It's professional.

Well, maybe there was one last thing I had to settle…

#

Arus stopped me just outside the Imperial Palace, at the entrance to the plaza. It was a good day, thankfully without things burning and people dying, and other nice things like that I've come to appreciate.

"Lianne, wait." His breath came in short, shallow gasps, although he hadn't been running. "I have something to say."

"Go ahead, then. I've a reservation at that quaint little Aranian restaurant across the plaza, and don't want to be late."

"Lianne…I…"

"Oh, just spit it out. What's the matter with you today? You haven't seemed well since we returned from Barajov."

Alyssnd was fidgeting uncomfortably on his shoulder, although he didn't seem to notice her. "Lianne, I'd…will you…well, how'd you like to be the one to pour my tea every morning?"

I stood stock still as my brain translated what he was saying from Arus-speak into a language I was more comfortable with, and my eyes nearly damn well bulged straight out of their sockets. If the line had come from anyone save Arus, I'd have refused on the spot and given them a good bit of pain for phrasing it like that, but…well, he was Arus, damn it. If he'd proposed to me the proper way like normal people would have I'd have asked him who he was and what he'd done with the real Arus.

"Chum? Are you…is he…wait, he is. Say yes. Say yes, damn it! Just say it!"

"I…Arus, this is…" People may have been staring at us. That didn't matter. Did Arus know what he was asking, and all that it implied? Well, of course he did; he wouldn't be Arus otherwise. But… "I don't know, Arus."

"WHAT?!"

He turned away. "So that's a no."

"It's…" goodness, this was uncomfortable. Then again, I'd never thought of myself as a catch for anyone; most men do tend to be averse to having rogues for wives. "It's not a no, you idiot. How long have we known each other?"

"Some time now."

"But not long enough. I…well, you're nice enough to have around, and I don't suppose I'd mind seeing you every day, even if I do make fun of you. Let's just give it some time, work things out, all right? Ask me again in a year or so, and I'll have an answer for you."

"A year?"

"Yes, a year, if you don't mind waiting." I did my best feminine laugh, which really wasn't very much so, and kissed him on the cheek. It wasn't very good, but I think he nevertheless was grateful for it. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to have lunch. Don't fall over, now."

"Uh," was all Arus said as Alyssnd chippered angrily at me. Not that either of them could be blamed.

"I can't believe you did that, chum. Finally, the possibility of me not having to--"

"It's a year, my dear Kale. It's not that long, and besides, you know I'm right. We do need to work things out; these things take time."

"You humans." Kale sighed. "A year, I guess. What can happen in a year?"

"Oh," I said as I crossed the plaza, hearing the thump of Arus finally hitting the ground. "Lots."

The End