Breath-of-Heaven stumbled into his apartment, feeling as if his brain had been removed and replaced with uncarded wool; the wine served at Bureau of Nature functions was legendary as the best in Creation, but it was also legendary for the toll it collected on the morning after. Still, Breath-of-Heaven told himself, it was a small price to pay for such a good time, especially for the night that had stretched out after the party had ended. For that experience, he would pay almost any price gladly.
Taking his time, Breath-of-Heaven sat down gently at his work table and began to leaf through the papers that had accumulated during the night. Most of it was the usual, and incredibly dull, expense reports from Bronze Faction functionaries in Creation: money for quartering Immaculate Monks on the Hunt, money to pay scribes to make new scrolls for use in the Heptagram, and so on. He sorted them so that he could have one of his assistants file them later in the day.
As he neared the end of a pile, the name Summer Kestrel, spelled out in elegant Old Realm, caught his bleary eyes. Looking closer, he saw that it was a memo noting that all requests for Wyld Hunt funding for the purposes of bringing down Summer Kestrel were now to be approved and moved through with all due haste. The next piece of paper down was a copy of the letter sent to all bastions of the hunt declaring that a new Anathema threat had been discovered in or near Sijan who answered to the name Summer Kestrel. The piece of paper below that was a personal letter sent to Kestrel via Breath of Heavens that his Celestial Travel Permit had been revoked and he would no longer be able to enter the city of Yu-Shuan, unless it was to face trial for crimes against the Faction.
As his mind cleared a little, he noticed that all of these had come in last night, just after the party -- anything he could have done to prevent any of these orders from going through would have needed to be done hours ago.
All of the sudden it became vitally important that he remember just who had invited whom out for that stroll along the canal.
Cricket and Kestrel
Part 3: Hours of the Night
"Thank you for walking me home, it really was too kind of you." Cricket smiled politely and serenely, trying not to betray any of the irritation that had been building inside her since she had been driven out of her private cherry blossom snowfall by this social epiphyte.
"The pleasure was all mine." Orchid beamed obliviously, showing Cricket that her own true feelings remained well hidden.
Seeing Orchid's hand move to take hers, Cricket placed it on the handle of the door in an attempt to escape and also robbed him of another failed attempt at impressing her. "The sun is setting, Orchid, and the way to your home takes you though places where the dead see the night as theirs. I would not be able to forgive myself if anything happened to you. " Orchid moved to speak and, realizing this might be taken the wrong way, she hastily added, "If I keep you any longer, you will not have time to make it home before dark."
"Yes I suppose I should." Orchid looked crestfallen. "Well then, good night sweet Cricket."
"And to you, sir." Cricket backed into the doorway and closed the door just as Orchid was opening his mouth and undoing his sash. When she was alone in the waning light, she thanked the gods for dimwitted men before turning around.
She supressed a gasp when she saw the bedraggled figure asleep at her sewing table.
Kestrel sat in the Flax and Crow nursing a beer he'd ordered several hours ago. He wasn't interested in the drink, he was interested in the people: ghosts from ages past sitting with their grandchildren and great grandchildren, swapping stories over drinks. Watching others usually helped Kestrel forget about everything else, and at the moment he had a great deal he wished not to remember. Unfortunately, it did not seem to be working.
After his confrontation with Five Tears, Kestrel had gone back to the Festival to find Cricket and impose on her for a dance. A dance was simple, a dance was nonthreatening. You could have an entire conversation without speaking a word, if you had the right partner. And Kestrel was invariably the right partner.
Unfortunately, it had been a long time since Kestrel had tried to woo anyone without a Cloak of Destiny. In one of the city's many squares he had danced in and out of a crowd, and had partnered with her, met her eyes, and fallen in love again each time she moved perfectly with his motions, but the nature of the dance was to change partners and the faces of the Maidens' Chosen were not made to stick in the memory. Each time she met him again she met his eyes with fixed interest, and a spark of what Kestrel hoped was familiarity. But each time she introduced herself and asked his name, his heart broke a little more.
But he could do nothing to make her remember him. Every Charm he wove to fix himself in her memory would turn the Heart around her neck to dust, and if he donned his Resplendent Destiny, he would be no better off than he was now: a perpetual first impression.
This had all been more than enough to officially proclaim this a Bad Day. Unfortunately, there was more. Kestrel sighed as his memories came flooding back to him.
After keeping up the masochistic dance for over an hour, Kestrel went to take a rest on the wall nearby; as luck would have it, sitting next to him was the brown-haired girl he had seen with Cricket earlier that day. From his research he knew her to be Still Sky, one of Cricket's closest friends. For a moment, it seemed that at least a part of the night sky still shone on him.
Acting quicky, Kestrel spun a strong thin line of stardust between his hand and looped it over Sky's head from behind. He pulled back hard and long, making sure the stardust would do its job. Finally, he let it dissapear in a burst of Essence, and tapped the young woman on the shoulder. She turned around, bright eyed, as he asked:
"Excuse my impertinence, milady. But can I trouble you for a dance?"
Sky had looked at him for a moment, then reluctantly pointed to her waist. "I am afraid that I am not the sort of girl to accept two sashes."
Kestrel laughed, "Oh, don't worry about that. My sash may still be around my waist, but my heart is with another girl. I just mean to pass the time while we wait."
Sky smiled. "Well then, there can be no great harm in it."
Kestrel happily led Sky into the center square. With any luck, Sky's bridle would afford him a permanent avenue into Cricket's life.
Unfortunately, Lady Luck seemed to have left him as soon as he'd picked up a new dance partner.
Cricket sat down gently next to the person sleeping at her table, settling an arm over matted hair. "Honey, what happened?"
Sky sat up. Cricket could see that she had been crying: her eyes were still puffy. "Oh Sky! What's the matter? Tell me."
Criket held Sky silently for what must have been a full minute. Sky wasn't crying any longer but Cricket could see that it was taking all her effort not to. Cricket just sat with her arm around her, looking at her and waiting for her to talk. She always did, eventually.
"Cloud and I ..." began Sky, then she stopped and drew herself up. "Cloud saw me dancing with someone. It was harmless, really. He'd gone off to fetch something from his house, he told me, and a nice young man had asked me to dance. He was lovely -- dark of skin and with a foreign accent. He said he was already with someone else and just wanted the company. And he danced like a dream, Cricket, like he had been born to dance, and you know how Cloud hates dancing. I was so happy, with the lovely day and the divine movements, only... how could I know that he ... " she broke off, trying to choke back the tears that were coming into her eyes.
"Take your time, honey. I'm sitting right here." Cricket's voice was gentle and soothing. Sky took strength from it, and continued.
"Cloud had gone to the jeweller's down on Market Street. He'd ordered a ring there, he was going to ask me to marry him. But he arrived and saw us dancing ..."
Cricket's memory stirred for a moment at the mention of a dance. She said nothing, however. She didn't want to interrupt.
"He yelled at me, Cricket. I have never in my life heard him so much as raise his voice and he yelled at me. He told me where he'd been. He showed me the ring and then he ... and then he said that it was the only time I would ever see it. He stormed off in a frightful temper. I didn't know where else to go, Cricket, and I knew that you kept a key ..."
Sky broke off into sobs. "Oh, Sky. I'll go talk to him for you. I'll tell him what happened. I think I met this dancing partner of yours, though I danced with a lot of people today for the sake of mother; I can't be sure. He didn't try anything, did he?"
"Oh no, he was a perfect gentleman. It was completely innocent. You will tell Cloud that?"
"I'm sure he already knows it in his heart, he was just nervous wanting everything to go right. But yes, I'll talk to him. He'll come around, you'll see. And you're welcome to my home whenever you need it, you know that."
"Oh, thank you Cricket, I couldn't ask for a better friend."
"Now, why don't you get some decent rest in the bed. I won't be using it for hours. And you can use one of the dummy robes for a sleeping gown."
Sky smiled through her tears, and then slipped into the other room to dress for bed. When she came back, Cricket tucked her in and made sure she was asleep before setting off to find Cloud.
Kestrel was startled out of his reverie by an elderly woman who sat down opposite him.
"Young man, whatever are you doing sitting by yourself on the Festival of Resplendent Blossoms? You're an attractive young man, you should be strolling through the parks with some lovely young lady, not sitting by yourself in some dreary old bar. Do you know why this place is called the Flax and Crow?"
Kestrel shook his head, not knowing quite what else to do.
"It's an old local story. Flax, you see, was a very special little girl. She never took much interest in the affairs of other children. Instead, from the time she could walk she spent her time walking through the Necropolis, admiring the pretty flowers and the scent of history. Crow was the ghost of a little girl she befriended in her trips over the Bridge. Together, they met the spirits of a thousand ages of this city. It's a story meant to teach children respect for the dead and acquaint them with the rich history of their city. It is a story that commemorates the dead, and the inn is named after it because it is a place they like to come to remember being alive. But you, young man, are alive. You should be out there, and instead you sit here talking to a dead woman. It's a shameful sight."
Kestral had a long temper in almost everything but he had a weakness for listening to lectures, especially those that came from his juniors; even though this woman was dead he would lay heavy odds that he had still been born before her father's father was a twinkle in her great-grandfather's eye.
"Madam, I do not know what your purpose is, nor do I care to know. I came here to be alone, and if this place will not serve my purpose I shall find another. Good day."
The old woman simply smiled, "Forgive my tongue, friend, sometimes it runs away from me. The truth is, I came here to do you a favor, well, to do both of us a favor." Kestrel ignored her pointedly as he stood up and walked towards the door.
"That girl you were dancing with at the Festival was lovely, young man, whyever didn't you give her your sash?" Kestrel stopped.
"I danced with a lot of girls this day, madam."
"You know the one I'm talking about. I could see you were quite taken with her and, unless I am very much mistaken, she felt the same towards you."
Kestrel turned back to face her. "And how is it that you came to be watching us so closely?"
"Oh, I'm just an old busybody; I like to get into the business of others. After all, there's not much left to do but enjoy the lives of others once you've lost your own. Oh, and of course the young girl you were dancing with is my daughter. I'd very much like to see her with a man who cares for her properly, and I can tell that you would. Come with me, and you might yet rid yourself of that sash."
Portentious Visitation awoke to the stirring of shadows in the corners of his small cell. Reaching for the knives he always kept under his pillow, he was out of bed before his heart beat again and, with calm and steady breath, he turned his gaze to each corner of the room. Finally, turning back towards his bed he saw the source of light and shadow: a small children's doll fashioned of wood and paper with a tiny white flame where a head might be. Immediately he dropped gently to his knees, pocketing his knives and placing his empty hands palm down on the floor. Bowing his head, Visitation spoke softly in Old Realm.
"Little doll, little doll, where have you been?"
The doll stood and bowed at the waist, answering the question in the voice of a thousand-year-old child.
"Round earth and round heaven, round all parts between."
"Little doll, little doll, what do you say?"
"A star that has fallen must be swept away."
"Little doll, little doll, where did it fall?"
"In this city of shrouds, into sunlight's white pall."
"Three questions I've asked, now your bond I release. Little doll, little doll, go now in peace."
Visitation reached out and snuffed the flame atop the tiny spirit with his fingers, and said a small prayer in the darkness. Where the doll had been, Visitation could now feel a small scroll, sealed with an unblemished perfect circle of wax: the iconless icon of the Immaculate Order. When he unrolled it, he knew that would find a contract of bounty, complete with description of his new mark.
He sighed. Visitation disliked taking Wyld Hunt bounties not because he was not up to the challange of killing Anathema, but because he hated running up against the upstart noble Dragonbloods who made up the body of the Hunt. They always looked down on him no matter how many quarries he had hunted down himself before the Dynasts had even gotten their boots laced up. He was Outcaste: a freak Dragonblood born to two mortal commoners. A constant reminder that all the breeding and noble bearing in the world could be matched by a couple of farmers who had never even heard High Realm spoken.
Still, a job was a job, and he owed too much money to turn one down on principle. Plus, this one was local: he could do the job tonight and be able to pay back every penny he owed when the banks opened in the morning.
Before he left, he opened a wooden chest in the corner and took out a handful of coins from among his other belongings.
It had been easy to talk Cloud into coming back to see his beloved. When Cricket came to his house, he was already sitting with his head in his hands, asking the gods why he had thrown away such a precious gift as that. He had even forgotten why he'd ever gotten so angry in the first place, so great was his grief.
"I worry, Cricket. I don't deserve her forgiveness."
She stopped before she opened the door, and turned towards Cloud. "But she will forgive you. She already has. Forgiveness is the act of realizing that the present is more important than the past because, in the end, Cloud, the past cannot be changed. But the present, the present holds nothing but possibility."
"Thank you for your kind words, but I'm not sure I understand."
"Do you love her, Cloud?"
"With all my heart."
"You hurt her, and you will hurt her again. You cannot love someone without hurting them."
"But I never dreamed I could. And if I get her back, with the stars as my witness, I will try my best never to hurt her again."
"Even though you know in your heart that you will."
"I have to."
"Then you deserve her forgiveness."
"But what if, one day, I hurt her too much for her to forgive me?"
"Then I will kill you in your sleep." Cricket smiled at him wrily, but for some reason Cloud didn't think that she was joking. "Come on then, time to pay the piper."
Cricket opened the door. Sitting around her sewing room table, calmly talking and drinking tea, were her mother, Sky, and the man who had caused all of this trouble in the first place.
The ghost who no longer remembered his name smelled blood. He had not eaten in days and, if it were up to him, he would give up searching, lie down to follow the light that always crept into his vision from the sides. But it was not up to him. He was a slave to the hunger which drove him, some hope whose purpose he'd forgotten that never stopped crying out for blood.
He followed the smell, but when he reached its he found a small pouch that reeked of spilt life. Perhaps he had gotten lucky, and one of the morticians had done the work of removal for him. Opening the pouch, however, he found only a handful of coins. He had been tricked, somehow. His hunger screamed at him for his foolishness, and he was driven to find another source of blood.
And when he reached it he found only a handful of coins. The next search yielded the same results. He prayed to the gods to release him, but his hunger just sang out louder and he knew he could do nothing to resist it. He lost the ability to count early on.
The ghost who no longer remembered his name barely noticed that this time, the pouch was in someone's hand. He simply reached for it so that he could end this cycle and begin another. But the hand pulled the pouch up and away from him.
"It's blood money. These coins were used to pay a midwife who delivered a child who was destined to be a murderer. When he turned sixteen, these same coins paid for his wedding. When he killed his wife, her father paid me this same bag of coins to kill him. It took me a long time and a lot of effort to arrange all these things, and all for the purpose of meeting one such as you. You will thirst after these coins forever, unless I release you from the spell. Until then, you have no choice but to follow me. You will follow every order I give and you will not try to kill me for if you do, you will never truly have the coins."
The ghost who no longer remember his name looked up at the figure in front of him and knew that he was right. The hold on him was too strong now for him to even think of resisting.
"Understand that I am not ordering you, I am only telling you what I know to be true. I am grateful for your help. It has been a long night, and I have not had any leads until I found you. I want you to find a man whose blood smells like the sky. You can already smell him; I know that he is close. As I have said, I am grateful for your help, it's just that I refuse to be a hypocrite. I will not ask you for what I know you have no choice but to give me."
The ghost looked at him. Again the man was right, he could smell the blood already now that he knew what to search for.
"I thank you for your service, and I will pay you half of what I owe you now. Your name is Unbroken Arrow. You were a kind man. When you killed you wife, it was an accident. These coins tie you to the world, Arrow. When you finish your work for me, I will bury them in your grave and give you your peace."
Cricket stood in the door for a moment, dumbfounded.
Her mother stepped into the silence with confidence. "Cricket, dearest, I thought I would drop by with a friend of mine. He was staying in the most frightful little inn, and I couldn't very well have him staying here when you have a perfectly good guest room. We have just been sitting here having a lovely chat with Sky and, don't you know it, the two seem to have met each other before!"
Kestrel stood up and awkwardly introduced himself. "Hello, Cricket. My name is Kestrel. Look, I'm very sorry about all this, but your mother was very insistent that I come along. I'll leave directly if you wish me to."
"You will do no such thing!" Cricket's mother chimed in. "You are my guest and after all this is my house, or at least it once was. Now be polite, Cricket, and introduce your friend."
Cricket sighed and put her hand to her forehead. She knew better than to argue with her mother. "Kestrel, this is Cloud, Sky's soon-to-be fiancé. But I don't think any introductions are necessary; I think everyone in this room has already met."
With these words, the fog over Cloud's memory finally lifted, and he recognized Kestrel as the man who had been dancing with Sky earlier that day, or, it must have been yesterday by now. "You're... you were the one who tried to steal my Sky away from me."
"He did no such thing!" Sky's anger sparked. "And if you were not so pig-headed you would have listened to me when I told you before. He was simply looking for a dance to pass the time."
"Then what is he doing here now?" The words cut.
Cricket held up her hand. "I can answer that question. Mother brought him by because she is trying to marry me off. He must be whomever I was dancing with when she happened to glance in my direction, and she has taken it as a sign that we are meant to be."
"I saw the both of you dancing, dear, but it wasn't just a quick glance. You two were practically inseparable the whole afternoon. I thought I'd take a chance and bring someone that you'd actually shown some interest by for once."
Cricket stopped. She had been dancing with him all afternoon. He had danced well. Why would she forget something like that?
Kestrel stood up and opened his mouth to speak. Instead, he turned his head to the side for a moment and held his hand up to quiet the group. After listening for a moment he opened his mouth again, this time to shout: "Duck!"
Everyone in the room dropped to the floor except for Cricket's mother, who dissapeared from her chair. And then Cricket heard it too: the sound of a strong wind blowing through a forest. A sound that could not have possibly been made by the single dogwood tee that grew outside the shop.
Cricket's window shattered as a piece of the night flew through it. Hazarding a glance at what had broken into her shop, she saw a single obsidian butterfly, so well carved she would have sworn it was alive if it weren't flying with the speed and force of a hurled stone.
She ducked he head down again as a thousand just like it shredded the thin wooden wall of her shop.
After a few moments she saw Kestrel stand up again, tentavively step outside, and then quicky rush back in as she heard the thunk of a knife embedding itself in the dogwood outside.
Kestrel thought back through all the Bronze Factionites he knew, trying to figure out who they had sent after him this time. After all, it couldn't be Five Tears again -- her obsidian butterflies usually came, at most, in pairs.
But he couldn't think of anyone. The technique was common enough, breaking down cover with powerful sorceries and then retreating to an unseen hiding place. But most of the assassins he knew specialized in archery. You could fire a powerbow from much farther away than you could throw a chakram, and a powerbow did not have to be retrieved each time it was fired to be useful.
Now that he remembered, there had been an unseasonably cool breeze when he had stepped outside. Could they have called the Wyld Hunt down on her?
"Cricket, is there a back way out of here?" Kestrel looked at her intently.
"Yes, through the stock room. It exits into a nest of alleys."
"Take it. Take Sky with you, and your mother if you can find her. I don't have time to explain, but whoever's out there, I think they're after you. Go out the back, don't let anyone see you. Take some salt from the kitchen on your way out. When you get far enough away, send Sky home and head for the necropolis. Put a circle of salt around wherever you hide. I'll find you there when I'm done here."
He turned his eyes to Cloud. "I am sorry about this afternoon. If you want to go with them, you can. It's probably the smart thing to do, but I'm not about to show you up again unless you want to."
Cloud met his gaze and stood up. "All right then. It's our turn to dance."
Portentious Visitation watched the women leave through the back entrance. Now was his chance to strike without hurting too many innocents, and if the other one had decided to help Kestrel, that was his own business.
Visitation crawled in through the open second-story window and crept down the stairs. The other man was sitting there with a sword in his hand, looking scared. Maybe he would have enough sense to run after all. From his hiding place at the top of the stairs, Visitation whispered below his breath and trusted the winds to carry his words. "I am here for Kestrel, not you. You are in waters far over your head and I am giving you a boat to the shallows."
"Your intentions are noble, Dynast, but he seems to have a rather large chip on his shoulder." Visitation whirled around to see Kestrel standing behind him, his sword drawn and pointed at Visitation's own throat.
"For calling me a Dynast alone I would kill you. The price on your head only makes it sweeter." With an economy of motion, Portentious Visitation leapt from the top of the stairs to the chanalier that lit the main room, throwing three knives in the direction he had lept from. Kestrel was standing nowhere near where Visitation had thought he was, and the knives thudded harmlessly into the wall.
"On my head? Well, that makes my life easier." Kestrel smiled as he slid down the bannister, dodging the knives that Portentious Visitation seemed to be throwing constantly. When he reached the bottom he leapt, severing the cord of the chandelier as he flew past it, and landed neatly just outside where the wall had been. Visitation leapt from the light fixture as it fell, landing on the sewing table. As for the chandelier, it landed on several bolts of fabric that had been stacked under it in preparation for the festival, and the candleflame caught on the extremely flammable fabric.
"Cloud, get some water from the well and put out that fire."
Cloud stood steadfast, almost defiant. "I can fight him, dammit, let me!"
"Get the damn water, Cloud! Do you want to burn alive?"
"You know something Kestrel? I think he does. You were right about that chip." Visitation produced a small vial from the folds of his cloak and threw it at the flames, letting them burn high enough to catch the ceiling.
Kestrel jumped between Cloud and the flame. "Dammit Cloud, get out of here!"
"With all due respect Kestrel, fuck you. I can take him."
"And you can also burn. Leave. You can prove yourself much more effectively if you stay alive."
Without listening to Kestrel, Cloud went up to the fire, grabbed a dowel that had not yet burned through, and jumped at Visitation. Visitation leapt before Cloud could touch him, and he succeeded only in setting more of the room on fire.
Kestrel turned towards Cloud and shouted, "I do not have time for this," and then turned to Visitation. "You're a nimble bastard aren't you. But you ran out of knives about thirty seconds ago. What are you going to do now?"
Visitation Smiled, "Why, fight you with my bare hands of course." Visitation brought around his left hand, which he had been hiding behind its back. While Cloud and Kestrel had been talking, Visitation had used one of this Charms to turn his hand into the common sewing tool, and had filled it with needles. Kestrel learned in that moment that though the eye of a needle was not as sharp as its point, it was still very sharp compared to a lot of other things one could be hit it the face with.
Kestrel could not get his sword up in time to stop the repeated blows that Visitation was hailing down on him. For a few moments he was panicked and helpless against his opponant. And then, he was saved. Cloud actually managed to bring the flaming dowel down across Visitation's back.
And Visitation was distracted for just long enough.
Kestrel decided to trust Cloud to find his own way home after that. Besides, he was worried about Cricket. He laughed a little to himself when he found that she had decided to rest at the monument of Flax and Crow. He walked up to her softly, tired from the long night.
Cricket didn't seem to notice him. She was looking at one of the carvings that adorned the mausoleum, running her fingers over it. Kestrel thought about trying again, but instead he just sat down against the stone wall, and waited.
"Thank you for your help," Cricket said finally, without turning towards Kestrel.
"No need to thank. It turns out they were after me, anyway." Kestrel sighed himself into silence. After a few minutes he spoke again, "You know Cloud really showed himself back there. But I can see where the trouble came from now. He's very stubborn for one so young."
Cricket looked at him, finally, "Young? You look barely a day older than he does, Kestrel."
Kestrel laughed. "I've aged well." he turned his head back towards her. "It looks to me like you will, too."
"Yeah." Cricket looked back to the wall.
"Did Sky get home all right?"
"Oh, yes, I got her into bed fine and then came here. You were worried?"
"Surprisingly enough, yeah. She's a good egg."
"Yeah, she really is."
"You know you are too, right?"
Cricket looked at him again, "Kestrel..."
Kestrel frowned. "Sorry. Did I say something wrong?"
"No. It's just. Thank you." Cricket managed half a smile.
"You're welcome." Kestrel smiled back.
Cricket turned away from the wall, sitting back against it now, next to Kestrel. "You know, I just realized it probably wouldn't be safe to sleep back home."
"No, especially not now. The whole house is probably gone. Oh well, I'm in the same boat. If someone is after me, I can't very well just go back to an inn. But you'll do fine; can't Sky put you up?"
"Yeah... she offered already. Home is just comfortable."
"I hear that."
"I think I can find you somewhere to stay."
"If it's with either Sky or Cloud, I don't want any part of it. I've had enough of that drama already."
"No, no. It's just that a very influential man owes me a very big favor."
"And he wouldn't mind the risk?"
"Oh, I expect it will be a selling point."
"All right then, I suppose I can let enough of my pride go to accept your friend's hospitality. But I'm not ready to go just yet."
"As you said, the sun will be up soon. It's probably safer to stay here for a while, anyway."
"Mmmm." Kestrel let his head fall back against the wall and closed his eyes. As he drifted off to sleep, he felt Cricket's head fall gently against his shoulder.