Benefactor 1

The gull called from atop the tower. Kio imagined wringing its neck.

Academically, he knew that it was expected, even encouraged, that birds should call. It was natural that the call should carry across the entire castle. Kio was even at peace with a sound he had once found comforting and beautiful–the very definition of serenity–suddenly reminded him of a drill being pressed into his temple and run backwards at a very low speed.

People changed. So did serenity.

What he couldn’t come to grips with was this bird feeling the need to call out news across the sky at all hours. He hadn’t had a decent sleep in weeks. And his bar for decent was lower than the Big Island to begin with.

He rolled over, pulling the blanket around his head. Everything was too loud and the sun was rising too early. He’d been sleeping indoors, in the room where he and Karla had met to discuss the implosion of their life support in the Inner Citadel. It was a cozy place, its windows not too large, its furnishings not too torn up by ten years of intermittent neglect.

And it was saturated with memories of her.

Kio threw the covers off, sat up and rubbed his eyes. He was trying to build a life alone, trying to be comfortable, yet Karla’s absence kept wedging itself back in, a thousand little ways over only a few hours. The chores should only have been twice as hard, but having to cover entire vegetable beds wore him out quickly, and when he turned to complain, he only saw clouds drifting far off. When part of the aqueduct slipped loose, he had to carry all his tools with him when he climbed up, without anyone to work the bosun’s chair they usually used. And at last, when the work was done, he hastened to the library to read so he wouldn’t have to listen to the wind.

He would never have slept in a bedroom with her nearby. Last night, though, when he’d tried to sleep in the mist garden, he’d woken up in the middle of the night.

Before even fully awaking, Kio had drawn his knees up to his chest. There were no walls to the garden–the sky­ was all around him, massive and dark and endless. Its dimensions had no limits. It had swallowed him, and he tumbled, spinning through a void so complete he seemed to be the only living creature in the world.

That was the moment he realized Karla had always been his wall against the sky. From then on, he slept indoors.

No, he thought as he pulled furs from the pile in the corner and haphazardly donned them, I’m not just lonely. Lonely was a whole, one whole. Kio had been halved. The part of him that knew how to be happy and joyful and brave had winged away into the sky, and he was left here to cope.

He grabbed a fistful of jerky from a drawer and left the room, trying to remember what he had to do today.

Pausing in the hallway to wait out a sudden rush of blood to his head, he reflected he still thought he’d made the right decision. He still would have told Karla to go.

Even knowing he’d never be able to follow her.

Stupid. Stupid worthless cat.

But it made him feel better, the tiniest ember of warmth, that she’d made it. His first few hours hadn’t been all grief.

Except when that damn bird kept squawking. Which was always. All the time. Forever.

This had happened before, with other birds taking a bizarre liking to some part of the castle. He hadn’t minded then. Notwithstanding the mushroom thing.

But with Karla around, everything was easier to focus on: just knowing she was elsewhere in the castle made it easier for him to grease gears or dig through the densest ancient tome the library had to offer. Now, the only things he wanted to focus on were the utter emptiness of the castle and the similar emptiness of the sky and how he really had no evidence Karla had even survived her flight to the surface.

And when he thought about that, he conjured up images he didn’t even want to repeat to himself. So the gull’s constant cries sticking in his craw could have been his brain’s defence mechanism.

After recovering, he made it a few steps before another chorus started up. Long cries. Short. No recognizable pattern except for the piercing volume.

Kio shook off another wave of nausea. Just like that, he had a job for the day.

He was going to assassinate a seagull.

He dismantled the Kiobot without shedding a tear. Proud of it as he was, he needed a mobile launcher with the damn spear still in it. Using their counterweight jugs, he hauled the launcher up the side of the castle, then clambered up the vines after it.

Mounting the edge of the reservoir basin, he checked for bone dragons out of habit, then craned his neck up. There, anchored to a battlement on the north tower and singing its heart out, was the enemy.

Kio buckled the spear gun onto his back, then shuffled silently across the basin rim. It wouldn’t do to frighten the bird off only to have it return half an hour later. He held his breath as he shifted the heavy stone door an inch at a time, letting it out only when he was safely over the threshold.

Heavy doors. Platforms you could only reach via gears or sacrilege. Oxygen from vines that would wither away if you didn’t tend to them daily. Why was everything on this castle so useless? Had the Rokhshan never once thought about making the place livable?

Benefactor! came a marauding thought. I want to leave!

Tiptoeing up the stone steps, he felt a sudden surge of resentment for Karla. How dare fortune fall on them so unevenly? Who decided he’d be stuck as a housecat, while she got wings?

At the halfway point of the spiral staircase, he crept into the wide open room around the violet crystal. His breath caught. His counterrunes remained scratched into the crystal’s base, over the runes that charged it with its original power.

He and Karla had nearly died three different ways in this room, in the span of a couple of minutes. One bore the line Karla had scratched across it to drag their atmosphere back after the bone dragon had been thrown away.

Of a sudden, the launcher grew intolerably heavy on his back. He set it down, wary, weary. What had he been saying to himself? How messed up was it that he was chasing a bird right now as a weird subornation of his resentment that Karla had gotten out, had left him behind? How much more messed up that he was skulking around thinking these things while she could be–

“It’s not weird,” he said aloud to the crystal. “The bird is annoying. And I want to kill it.”

The crystal glowed back, unmoved.

“I’m the lord of the Rokhshan!” Kio shouted. “I’m part of a noble line going back a thousand years! I can do what I like with any birds in my territory!”

The crystal glowed.

At the top of the stone staircase, he stopped again, making sure the tip of the spear didn’t clang against the trapdoor and announce him. Satisfied he was stalking well, he eased the hatch open with his shoulder.

His heart skipped three beats, then crammed them into one. The gull was there. It looked him dead in the eye, let out one more hateful squawk, and spread its wings.

Kio had the spear gun in hand without recalling taking it off his back. Dashing across the tower top, he braced the gun against the battlement, and sighted down at the bird gliding hard down across Nashido’s lower spires.

He breathed in, breathed out, and then fired.

He knew he’d landed the shot when he heard a squawk much shorter and sharper than the one he’d come to hate. Kio pumped his fist. “Yes!”

But his pride went sour when the seagull’s gray body failed to hit the ground. His prey was still alive!

Without pausing to think, he sprang up on the battlement. The bosun’s chair was dangling in the middle of the web of aqueduct pipes, past which the bird was fluttering its way to a landing.

He forgot the launcher in the jump. It fell the three stories into the reservoir, sloshing water across the basin. Kio himself hit the dangling plank of wood with both arms, which fell quickly–just quickly enough that any faster would have broken his legs in the fall.

Kicking off one aqueduct pipe, twisting away from another, Kio dropped to dangle with his arms and swung to reach the carved tile path among the towers.

His feet struck. He threw the chair away and looked around. Where was the bird?

A cry from below the stairs–it was fleeing into the Outer Citadel. Kio tore off. He wouldn’t let it escape.

Down the stairs, into the halls, past his bedroom. Where next? His home had grown more confusing in the lonely quiet, but a day on his own wasn’t enough to totally disorient him.

Was it?

The family’s rooms in the Outer Citadel had a few important windows in them, but otherwise hardly anything useful. He hadn’t gone in there since he was eight years old and ascertained none of them contained any books.

He really had no idea whether he was lost or not.

Another squawk called him onward–the bird was trapped. All he had to do was find his way through this warren of rooms.

He left the windows behind. Without sun, wishing he’d brought a light, Kio squinted through the dimness. He was in a small labyrinth of storage rooms, long since denuded of anything useful. Every step tossed up a thin layer of dust. When he sneezed, the bird cried back at him.

Using his right hand, Kio felt his way along the walls, mentally marking off every dead end. Surely there couldn’t be that much space in here–

–his foot crashed through the floor. Something hard scraped his leg, and he felt blood seep along it. The same instant a cawing, slashing mass of flapping feathers hurtled past his head, scattering fuzz and drops of blood.

A wound. Where the spear grazed it.

The bird was long gone before Kio remembered where he was. Absently, he reached down to touch the cut on his leg, and winced. But it felt shallow. He was out of poultice, though–would have to make more to wash it out.

A second later he realized what light he was using to examine himself: a window too small for the bird to escape through was letting the sun in. With its illumination, he could see where he’d stepped.

Kneeling confirmed his suspicious. The wooden floorboards had rotted through with all the moisture back here. When he tried to pull his foot out, however, he heard a strange rustling sound.

That’s not loose wood.

After freeing his leg, he reached into the hole. His fingers closed around a sheath of papers.

Perhaps he’d missed a book after all. Heart hammering for a reason he couldn’t name, he read the first line of ink he found.

Dear Karla, it said. I am so sorry.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

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