Benefactor 2

“If you’re…reading this…”

Kio’s eyes fluttered. The glowstone split into three, then reformed.

“We have failed…to wrest…”

He became aware of how loud the quill was, scratching against the silence. His skycraft of thought lost altitude and plunged into the sea.

In the dark window, he could see the pool of light from the stone spilling over the mess of pages on his desk. He’d copied lines from the letter onto fresh sheets, scratched notes all over them until they were illegible, then started over. One was filled with esoteric events in Rokhshan history he’d only been able to find one reference to. One page had the words “trees” and “jellyfish” scrawled above all the information he’d been able to find in any book on those two topics–had they been a code?

One was torn to shreds, the shreds soaking with ink spilled in sheer frustration. Come to think of it, more than one. And many upset inkwells, and one ruined quill. He’d have to hope he came across a sky kingdom soon if he wanted to keep doing this.

“What are you doing, exactly, Kio?” he said to himself, suddenly dislking what he saw in the reflection. Having a vendetta against a bird had been weird enough. But this…

…well, this was Karla. The person he trusted even when he trusted nothing. The source of all his faith. Doubting her would be doubting a part of himself.

Never had a problem with that before.

His first thought, upon finding the letter, was that Medwick in Sunton must have planted it to sow discord between him and Karla. The fact that the lettering was clearly a commoner’s, not a priest’s, didn’t rule that theory out.

But around the twelfth time he read it, doubts surfaced in Kio’s mind. If Medwick had written this letter, how would he have known the name of Karla’s mother? The priest had clearly witnessed the Harpooneers’ attack on Nashido ten years ago, maybe even close enough to identify Karla by sight–he’d built a coherent narrative about a landling saboteur around her. But he hadn’t been in the thick of battle. Hadn’t known any names.

Aside from that, he would have had to sneak aboard Nashido, do nothing to apprehend his hated enemy Karla, plant the letter under the loose floorboard…and somehow, while trying to convince Kio of his story on the sky kingdom, not have mentioned the most damning piece of evidence. He could have done it between Kio’s escape from Sunton and now, but the kingdom had only been drifting farther, and Medwick had not had access to a flying machine.

Too many variables didn’t make any sense. The only answer that did was the one he’d been trying to avoid for hours: that Mara, Karla’s mother, really had stashed this letter in the castle while she was attacking it, and that Karla had hidden it still further away.

That both of them had been, or still were, Harpooneers. Landlings. Saboteurs.

Thus had begun his current project: transcribing several copies of every line of the letter, picking it apart, searching for answers it didn’t hold, in order to stave off mad despair for another few minutes. His stomach felt ready to cave in, his eyelids fought to close, but he kept on, losing track of how many times his eyes had started and stopped watering.

“Why didn’t she tell me!?” he burst out to the empty library.

A wave of nausea burst over his head. Sunset turned the world outside pink. Kio had the absolutely certain sensation that something in the sky was looking in at him, revelling–glorying–in his pain.

If he stayed in his chair any longer he would pass out. Springing to his feet, he paced the library, talking to the books.

“She should have trusted me. She should have told me when we were five years old. She lied in the Heartsphere, said she was Rokhshan.”

Why would she have? replied the spines of the books. In those first days, cooperating with each other was paramount. If you hadn’t learned to work together, you both would have died.

“All the more reason to be honest! I told her everything I knew!”

She was five years old, said the books. Not the age at which one can be expected to exercise long-term judgement.

“Then she should have told me when we were eight. Or twelve. Or the day she flew away. Or any other day. Instead she chose to hide this away from me. She kept making that choice every single day.”

Did she really? Remember how it felt to keep the secret of the decaying runes from her–something they still hadn’t dealt with, Kio reminded himself enragedly. Secrets armor themselves. Every day you don’t tell one, it becomes harder to tell.

“What about me, though?” Kio yelled. “What’s wrong with me that she didn’t think I could handle it? I’m hardly Rokhshan at all! I wouldn’t have cared if she was a landling ten years ago!”

But you care now?

“Let’s recap,” Kio snarled at the books. “A guy who claims to know the truth tells me the Benefactor told him Karla’s up to no good. I ignore him because I trust her. Now I learn I shouldn’t have trusted her at all–that–”

To stay standing was too much effort. He buckled to his knees, bracing his arm against a shelf, and said the next words to the ground.

You have to do what it takes, Karla.

“–that her mother told her…to…to kill me.”

The moment he fell silent, a loud impact resounded high above his head.

Something had landed on the library roof.

Bone dragon, his instincts told him immediately. They didn’t tell him to retch, but he did so anyway–he was in the perfect position for it, after all.

He was dead. Doomed. Had no weapons and was in no condition to fight. If the dragon found him, his choices were to jump through the window, or get torn apart.

Scrambling to a sitting position against the shelves, he crumpled into a heap, forcing himself not to hyperventilate and doing it anyway. A wooden slat dug into his back.

More impacts on the roof, rat-a-tat-tat. They sounded smaller than they should have been. Was the dragon feeling out its prey, stalking ever closer? Did it know it had all the time in the world to bring him down?

Kio dropped his head onto his knees. Did he want to survive? He thought about days and weeks and months, alone, waiting for Karla to come get him, not knowing whether she even could.

Not knowing whether she would. Could he trust that she wouldn’t just stay, among her people, in her world?

More taps. Heading now down the stairs that would take it to the library door.

I don’t want to be alone, he thought.

And then, I want it to take me. A day, a month, forever, it doesn’t matter, I’m done. I can’t handle any of them.

His dim memory of talking Karla down from this same ledge was very far away now. Yet, amid it, came one new thought: that it might be possible to speak to the bone dragon. They’d never tried to reason with it before.

The library door creaked open. Kio’s whole body wracked with shakes, head to toe, with all the chill of the sky. He slipped the first time he tried to stand up, made his way to his feet the second.

The door swung shut.

Kio stumbled into the corridor between shelves…

…and met the eyes of a tall man, with deep black hair, wearing a gray wool suit.

A man he remembered, from a long-ago dream.

It was as though warm sunlight had bathed him. Each one of his limbs grew light. Forgetting his hunger, his nausea, Kio stood up.

Then just as quickly dropped to his knees.

“Benefactor,” he murmured, and the man smiled.

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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