The Likely Subject
Sky whale cities flew in near random order. To know its location was the work of archaic chronodynamic technology and the machinations of learned navigators, but even then, predictions of proximity were an hour or two at best.
But he knew. He understood that seemingly indistinct order was in fact a pre-determined thing. The lines in time, so invisible to the naked eye, were as ever present as the winds. So when it came to a most mundane of deliveries, flying a love letter from a far fledged military outpost back to Jing Mon Ceros, he knew exactly where to go.
His black wings buffeted the turbulent wind and he tilted dangerously into a cluster of clouds. It came at him blindingly fast, and he dove headlong into its embrace, then another and another.
The view of the whale came after, just as he predicted. Dipping low into the headwinds of its massive form, he swept into the red city that lay upon its back.
The urban tops of it rushed underneath his feathers, blurry and crimson, and as he puffed out his wings to slow his descent he caught the sight of his destination.
It was a small cottage that sprung just of the outskirts of the city, where tiled rooves and iron walls fell away to a green expanse. The rays of dusk had just grazed the worn two story inn. Rumbling and drunk laughter echoed from many a patron.
There, where lights flickered upon one of a dozen windows, the bird slowed to a sill. He spotted his quarry serving at the nearest table. Leathers crossed her back, darkening the white blouse underneath. The edges of her dress twirled as she did and he caught her face. For a moment he was stunned, lost and sad all at once. She had him with a glance and he wished he could hold that sight forever. But forever was a dream. It was now that mattered.
He called her attention with a tap on the window and she came running, holding the edges of her dress as she did. The window zipped up and her happy face greeted him. Young woman that she was, her turn had not reached her countenance. She had wide eyes and crooked teeth that gave her a one of a kind smile. Black hair frizzled by her sides with the right half held back by a pin in the shape of a red lotus, and the left dangling tiredly.
“A curse I see!” she declared, thinking on her words. “No, not just any curse, it’s you again! Did he..?” she quieted, leaning close, “did he send you?”
The black bird tapped the windowsill a number of times while the barmaid listened intently. Her cheeks brightened to the taps that signaled her lover’s name.
By the end of it, the curse lowered his beak and unbuckled the letter tied to his feet. She took it carefully, appraising it there with a glow in her eyes. Then and there she had become a child with the most precious of gifts held in her palms.
“Thank you,” she hushed.
“Oi oi, whatcha doing talking to a bird miss?” heckled a patron.
“Come back to us, love!” called out another.
She waved them off with listless affirmation and addressed the curse who watched her curiously.
“How much do I owe you?”
She always asked that, honest girl that she was. The real question should have been what would a bird do with coin? Hide it in a hovel? Peck at it greedily? Or bring to the Arbiter in hopes that the man would change him back?
Gold meant nothing, nothing to that which felt empty. He could hardly sign that to the girl, grinning as she was now. So he did what he always did. He lied.
He tapped the words.
I’ve been paid.
“I see. I see! His Radiance must pay his soldiers well then I should think, much more than my honored customers would have me believe.”
The curse turned away, thinking the transaction done. Yet as he readied his wings for flight, she spoke again, “But… No you always do this. Here,” she reached to her chest and the curse looked away as she searched. The jingling of the coins alerted him back. He tapped furiously his rejection and when she refused that, he cawed.
Her fingers curled over the coins. Her hand retreated. Black hairs draped over her face as she dipped her head for a bow. “I see.” Her favorite words. She tucked her hair behind her ear “Well, I thank you again, sir curse.” She bowed gratefully. The curse ducked his beak.
She left with the slightest smile and the words ‘be safe’ and he wished to all the Hours and beasts and stars that he could do the same. But he could not.
He flew off to the shutter of the window, and, instead of taking the nearest updraft, he opted for a place near the front of the inn.
A lone lamp post served as his landing. The creak of old sign directed him to the words ’Heavy Hare’, which lay worn and fading with one letter missing.
He had been there once before his transformation, then countless times after. It was a happy occasion as he recalled fleetingly, a visit. But memories were memories. Even the sweetest of them hurt all the more as the bird who once a man tried desperately to make do with his life, that of a curse and the constant reminder of what brought him there. A bad gamble. An inopportune theft. The Arbiter’s swift judgement.
He knew the girl to. Knew she had an older sister who worked with her. Knew two of them had gone there searching for their father and returned for work when the owners let them stay. While her sister turned to more humanitarian efforts, she remained stubborn. Even now she had not given up. She used to say it every day to anyone who would listen. Of how her father would return there. Less so these days, but still she said it. He knew she deserved better than a life of fruitless searching. He knew she had found it when a charming young soldier returned her woos. He smiled in his thoughts. She would forget him, slowly surely and she would be happy.
Grasses crunched when he prepared to fly. The curse shuffled on the post instinctively, following the stranger with a newfound curiosity. Then dread.
The steps belonged to a man and his smaller companion. The man was big, foreigner too. The companion, who clutched his red robes anxiously, remained draped in a black cloak that hid it entirely. But it was the robes the big man wore that gave the curse worry. For those robes and the hat that he wore were blood red, and with red he carried trouble.
Trouble came when the door opened and closed, when those heavy steps settled and a question asked went unanswered. Trouble came when plates crashed and chairs toppled.
Trouble came when the laugh of patrons died.
Half turns giggled nearby.
Jing Mon Ceros had a number of notable attractions. Not least of all a hotel in the likeness of the royal palace with its lion figurehead looming at the front gates. A fountain spewed crystal waters in the courtyard prior and a florid garden of pinks and yellows peppered the front of the inn. In Jing Mon Ceros, all the uplands perhaps, as Tig thought, the people enjoyed sitting cross legged on roads instead of warming benches. Seeing this, Tig and his companions did the same on the cobblestone.
“Viceroys dying, a rebellion plotted, it makes sense now. He’s the one,” said Gemjo.
“You think Mor’de hired my family?” scoffed Tig.
“Not think, chitik. I know. It’s obvious. Who else would desire it?”
Franco was less convinced. He wave his silver palm ahead of them. “Politicians vying for greater power, an uplander emperor, a provincial terrorist, any number of candidates really,” said Franco.
“While I say your family’s been dealing with the very man who brought us here,” restated the seawolf.
Gemjo frowned and crossed her arms, staring accusingly at the noble girl who just talked, “Ofcourse you’d say that… wait. Did you say ‘agree’? You, a pampered parasitic princess, agree with me?”
The girl nodded once more, “Mor’de cannot be trusted, nor can Tiguak’s family. If one works to undermine the Empire and the others plots its end, their motives align. I agree with your conclusion.”
Gemjo stood, amazed and confounded, “Well it was obvious,” she muttered at last. “Tig, your family’s involved in this somehow and whenever your family’s involved it only means trouble. So we lie low. We stay in the most comfortable inn and wait out this week.”
Tig swore he saw her light up as she grazed the comfortable inn part. He shook his head, “I highly doubt my family’s here.”
Gemjo looked dubious, “They were in Kura were they not?”
“Kura has a viceroy, Jing Mon Ceros does not,” countered the boy.
“Kura had a viceroy,” said Remy.
The four of them turned to the noble.
“I confirmed the reports with messages relayed to my troupe. It happened shortly after we think Vene left the isle.”
“After, mate? D’you mean there was another of Tig’s kinsman there. Hours. Tig, you must have missed a reunion of sorts.”
Tig lowered hi head, and recalled the incident with a kind of bitterness. He had not imagined what he saw after all. She was there. He glanced up to see Franco jerk his head away.
“Mayhap that is good thing?” suggested the navigator. “More of them there means less of them here.”
Tig nodded, cracking the faintest smile, “Agreed.”
Gemjo stood up with a roll of her shoulders, “Well, the traitorous admiral’s given us leave. Better take up his courtesy as guests before he turns us back into prisoners.”
Franco and Tig spied at each other then Gemjo.
Tig asked first, “So you’re still continuing that plan of yours? To escape?”
She puffed, lazily flicking her eyes by way of Franco, “Just who do you think I am?”
Tig and the Professor grinned to that, while Remy kept her gaze ever fixated of Gemjo’s neck. Franco seemed none the wiser.
The seawolf frowned and drew her hand over her shoulder, “But before any daring escapes, I suggest we rest.”
Between the five of them, there was little disagreement upon that notion. The afternoon sky promised an oncoming darkness and their weary bodies, mechanized or no, hung heavy from days of fighting and inopportune imprisonment. So when the five, worn foreigners first tread into Jing Mon Ceros’s finest inn, two polar forces of an extraordinary difference collided.
On one side, now stunned, stood an extravagantly perfumed entourage of vaunted dignitaries and nobles by a glittering gold lounge. On the other, with painted faces fixed upon them, stood the smelly, sweaty, blood crusted band of mostly pirates. They had barely managed to best the rotary doors when their mucky boots trudged unmentionables upon the priceless carpets.
The Professor stepped forwards and made a bow. Tig had very nearly completed his retreat when the idiot spoke.
“We demand a room, mates. Best ya got. Mor-what’s it’s orders.”
“Mor-what?” whispered a disgusted noble.
“Uhg, not this again,” bickered another.
Concerned whispers followed. Various employees, dressed in red tailcoats and gold epaulets shuffled.
“You know,” began the Professor again loudly. “Mor’de, the foreign military leader stationed a half an hour’s walk from here.”
The quieted conversations silenced. One full turn at the registry fumbled at a scroll and as he zipped it open. Two of his colleagues leaned to read what he did.
His jade eyes bounced between the paper and the Professor.
“Ah.” He coughed nervously in the quiet. “so you’re the ‘honored guests whom we should spare no expense in serving’? We were under the impression you were given the courtesy to visit any inn in Jing Mon Ceros. Of course we could hardly deny you... or the others who fit the description.” He muttered to the side. “But I digress. What brought you to our humble house, The Royal Rabbit?”
The Professor gave a disconcerted shrug, “I quite like rabbits.”
“Ofcourse you do,” quipped Gemjo.
“I… I see,” said the man. “Well by all means you are most welcome, on this rather… short notice. Pray, Rantsu, please direct our guests to their rooms.”
“Fifteen and Twelve, Rantsu.”
The man on his left bowed his head and gestured for the guests to follow. As they did, many of the well-dressed guests fashioned out of their way, much further than they needed to. With pinched noses and upturned bows, Tig gathered that he and his were not welcome here. He spied at the sea wolf who walked besides him with her head resting on her palms and her elbows pointed up.
She yawned pleasantly. None of what the rich thought mattered to Gemjo. Though he imagined a comfortable bed did. Then he realised what the first man had said. Rantsu opened the first of two doors.
“Two rooms,” said Tig.
The Professor peaked in tellingly, “Two beds per room.”
“Is something ever the matter, honored guests?”
Gemjo shrugged, yawning as she spoke, “Not really.”
“I won’t leave him,” said Remy.
That gave pause to Gemjo’s yawn, “Hold on. Not that I care, but out of necessary concern for how I may get involved in this, know that you’re asking to sleep in the same room as a drunk. The same metamorphasizing, constantly intoxicated, full turned male drunk. Do you follow, ric-- noble?”
From Remy, lot of them turned to the Professor. The man in question had been busy digging at his nose.
Franco stepped between the Professor and Rantsu, “Don’t mind the metamorphasizing bit, eh?”
Rantsu frowned, “You smell.”
Remy had already shifted to the Professor’s side when Franco sniffed himself.
“I’ve made up my mind,” she said in her quiet voice, “I will not leave his side. Not again.”
Gemjo made an annoyed grunt and started tapping a foot, “Ah yes that. The self-same reason you’ve failed to give a reason to. Tell me, what is it that you find so alluring about him?”
“I won’t say.”
Gemjo crossed her arms, “Does it involve his rabbit form?”
Remy lowered her brows.
Gemjo was getting impatient now. The tempo of her foot tap ramped to a crescendo, “His inexplicable powers? His speed? Dexterity? How he can predict nigh any outcome?”
Frano seized his sniffing, “Outcome?”
Gemjo waved him off, her gold eyes intent on Remy and more so on how she had stiffened.
“That’s it, isn’t it?”
Remy swallowed hard, “No…”
It was a doubtful answer but clearly not what Gemjo wanted. The seawolf sighed heavily.
“Fine,” said Gemjo wistfully. “It’s decided. I’ll take the room the Professor and the noble go to.”
Tig pointed at himself, “Then I’m--”
Franco threw an arm around Tig’s shoulder and pulled him close.
“Tib! You’re with me, old chum.”
Tig’s face, now half pressed against Franco’s odorous muscles, croaked the word, “Why…?”
“Aha! You just wanted to sleep in the same room as the girls, eh? Can’t blame you. Why when I was your age, I happened to--”
“Wet yourself in a puddle?” chided Gemjo.
“That…” Franco paused for a suspiciously long minute. “Had that happened, my dear seawolf, I would have developed a different trauma.”
“So it was the sea then. Ah, so that’s why you’re afraid of it.”
“If you would so dutifully recall, it was because I almost drowned had the Sixth Hour not saved me.”
“Rooms?” Rantsu had expertly broken all converse, now looking more irate than before. Though Tig could hardly blame the man. He and his had the unwelcome pleasure of ushering in guests who had no place being there. Especially, as Tig sniffed his coat and gagged, since they stunk.
“Which room is closer to the bar, mate?”
“We’ve got no bar, sir.”
“Outside then?” asked the Professor whilst scratching his face.
“Fifteen. And no, there are no drinking establishments close lest you take the alley paths to Lion’s Way.”
“No bar, nor one close by? Mate. You charge a bloody fortune and you’ve got no bar. With a scam like that you’d make a better pirate than me.”
Rantsu’s left eye twitched, “You’re. Not. Even. Paying.”
“I hate you.”
“Room Fifteen,” declared the Professor. “It’s half of my second favorite number, but I’ll take it.”
With a quick rest in the rooms, dinner served for the half turns, and more than an eventful foray into the Royal Rabbit’s shared public bath services, Tig retreated back to room twelve to find Franco already on the opposite bed and dutifully reading a scroll on Chronodynamics.
The room itself was moderate in size with two rollout wool beds side by side and separated by a nightstand. The stand was shallow thing, made short to accommodate the floor hugging beds.
Tig carefully navigated to his own bed, finding the taps of his steps pleasant against the polished maple floor.
The last of the bath steamed off his skin as he let all but the walls and ceiling steal his fancy. This was not Verace, nor the Hungering City, nor kura, nor a navy vessel. This was a land above land, where they built houses out of hollow woods and painted the walls in miraculous designs of flowers and the beasts they worshipped.
Tig spied passed Franco and caught the very design of a black lizard creature splayed frighteningly upon the walls.
It was long and blocky and rendered flat to fit the depiction. While red lilies stole the corners of the wall, the beast held his attention and refused to let go. It had two small back legs, and two larger fore legs. A single wing stretched from its back which Tig assumed to mean two. Two eyes of yellow embedded the head and Tig wondered if the same convention followed. White teeth that pushed its lips up completed the design.
He squinted hard at it. He was in a foreign land, in foregin building and yet that creature felt familiar.
“Where have I seen you before?” he queried aloud.
Silks shuffled as Franco turned on his side.
“Ah Tif, when did you come in?”
“You didn’t notice?” asked the boy.
“I was enthralled by the uplander’s take on chromodynamics,” he said tapping his print. “As you are, no doubt, enthralled by the dragon upon our wall.”
“Aye, one of their twelve beasts. Heard a lovely maid down the hall talk about it. Well, less so heard and more so listened to… directly… suffice to say the local women here aren’t accustomed to my, uh, more direct methods of courting. I was expecting a swoon from my old wall slamming technique, instead I got nervous facts about her culture.”
Tig thought back regretfully to his encounter in the bathhouse and remembered seeing a distraught young maid shuffle past him in the hall before he entered.
Franco continued with his jaw on his palm, “This robe, for example is worn by almost every man in the sky in times of comfort. It is his armor against the arrow of dishevelment.”
His garb was a blue one piece robe that crossed at the chest and left only the crest of his neck visible. A loose sash of similar fabric kept it together. Tig had found the same accommodation awaiting for him after his bath. Only his was a pink.
He turned away from Franco at the thought of the bath.
“Never again,” he muttered.
“Ah, I’ve also heard a delightful rumor that the baths here are shared between men and women. Can you imagine!? Well, out of my enthusiasm I may have visited them too early. All I found were rusted old full turns. You?”
“Either the best timing or the worst.”
“What? Speak again man, you’ve make no sense!”
“Franco,” he sighed, desperate to turn the conversation, “Aside from the baths, I’ve been wondering. Had I… had we not been there today when Mor’de offered, would you have joined him?”
Franco relapsed to his back. He furled up his scroll and balanced it on his chest. For minutes he strayed from answering.
“Do you remember my fight with that witch doctor fellow the other day?”
“I honestly thought I would lose.”
That made Tig turn to his side. There he saw the now thoughtful Franco appraising the ceiling.
“Hah,” laughed Franco. “Damned skeleton had me reeling with pain and near the sea. With a single gesture he could force me to my knees. With another he’d make me regret standing back up. But then,” Franco reached high, playing with the light of the ceiling lantern with his silver hand, “the fool himself gave me the reason to keep going. ‘if ya can’t be besting me, ya be hopeless against da admirals’.”
Tig scoffed at his flawed impression.
“You laugh now, but that’s what did it,” Franco’s hand lowered. “I’m weak Tik. Really really weak. Perhaps we all are. Realising that was my first step. That’s why I say what I do. Say enough times and it’ll come true. One day I will topple the navy and one day I’ll be strong enough to do it. That day was the second step. I surpassed myself the when I defeated a man I thought I could not. That day I got stronger, and while joining Mor’de may have served me in my goal it would only be fixing one problem with another. After all, I’ll be the one defeating the Navy, Mor’de can have the rest. Which is why I have you.” he said turning, “I see you’ve gotten over that fear of yours. Taught that witch doctor good.”
“It’s not a fear,” puffed Tig.
“You’re afraid of hurting others.”
Tig tried to protest, but before he could Franco spoke again.
“Just as your family does. Ah, but healing won’t remedy that you know.” He unfurled his scroll. “It’s all here. Your problem is as the very laws of time. An acceleration of time will cause a deceleration of it and vice versa, it does not change the fact that an alteration occurred. You can heal wounds but you cannot heal how they happened. Lest of course you fight.”
“I don’t want to fight.”
“It’s not about what you want.”
“This world has enough fighters.”
Franco smiled at him, “Look at you, fighting yourself right now.”
“I’m not-- gah,” Tig sat up. “I tried before. Back on the Hungering City I planned to learn the Timebender’s magic, but he said I would fail. And I did. Vene proved that handily. Even had I a power I could never use it for harm.”
Franco rested back. Hs eyes trailing back pointlessly to the ceiling. “Do you… do you have anyone dear to you, Tib?”
He did. It took less than second to think of her and the smile she always wore around him. It made him smile. She and her brother were the only good to come out of Verace. He nodded, thinking that.
“Then what would you do had a gun been pressed to their back? Had you a gun facing that enemy?”
“You fire. Simple as that. Had the same happened to my mother I would not hesitate.”
Tig shuddered, covering his eyes with his hand. He saw a very different smile to that of Wilma’s. Unclear, fading, painful, he fought it back.
“Nothing,” he said after a moment’s reprise. “Just light headed from the bath.” He lowered his hand and studied the blue glow that traced the edges of it. He recalled his enemy with the gun. His had a face. “And what if it was someone you knew?”
“How do you mean?”
Tig turned to him, “What if it was someone you knew—some one you loved—that held the gun? Would fire?”
To that, and finally that, Franco faltered. He started with bumbling lips, “Tig I…”
The door thundered with a report of knocks and the both of them shot up.
“Tig. Franco.” came Gemjo’s muffled voice. “Get up. The drunk’s gone.”