Kio allowed himself to shut his eyes for a count of thirty. No longer. Although the bright light on the clouds was burning his retinas, he had to figure out what was wrong with the aqueduct. If he looked away too long he risked forgetting critical information.
He thought they’d had it fixed after the first bone dragon attack. But their work had been hasty–easy enough to understand, with how thirsty they were. Something left up there had shifted about.
If anybody had been around to ask, he’d have said he wasn’t sure why he was doing chores himself the morning after he’d learned he had a god hanging around as a houseguest. But the Benefactor was off catching breakfast, and Kio felt he’d lose his mind if he didn’t contribute something.
The capturing food was the strangest part. Every favor the Benefactor had done him had begun with the god leaping off the side of the castle and falling out of sight. So he could fly, somehow, and didn’t want Kio to see. Maybe it just made him smell bad.
He refocused his eyes on the drip, which was pinging off the edge of the basin. If he couldn’t come up with a way to make a repair on this bloody thing stick…
I could ask him.
A shudder coursed over his whole body. Until now, he hadn’t even considered such a thought. Everything the Benefactor had done for him so far had been of the god’s own volition. To request favors from him, as though his family’s patron was some sort of genie he’d just let out of a magic ring?
Unthinkable. Besides, this was supposed to be Kio’s contribution.
But then a new thought stole over him–a product of sleeplessness, of stress, of the reeling he was still doing over Karla’s lies. No doubt a sacriligous thought he never would have had otherwise. He would allow it this once, but no more.
Kio sat down against one of the tower doors, shivering in the wind. Just a quick rest before he kept thinking…
…and the thought came again.
He raced across the basin to the nearest set of stairs and bolted down into the Outer Citadel. If he could just get warm, out of the wind, he could quit having this same ridiculous idea over and over. It was wrong to think this. It was wrong to think about thinking this.
“Kio,” came the rich voice from above.
He whipped around on his heel. The Benefactor strode down the stairs, clutching a dead seagull in each hand. The birds hardly hard a drop of blood marring the smooth grey of their feathers.
“Kio, is something wrong?” asked the god.
Although…I’m just going to keep thinking about this. About a year ago, Karla had read over his shoulder and immediately told him they were both going to start meditating: sitting in silent peace and letting their thoughts come and go.
Neither of them had lasted long. But perhaps this idea was one he had to let run its course.
Stop it! He slapped himself in the face hard enough to sting. Shook his head until he was dizzy.
The Benefactor stepped closer, concern crinkling his eyes. He set the two seagulls aside.
Ever since Karla left, something had felt unbalanced within Kio. He needed to get his head on straight. Needed to get back to normal.
The voice infecting his brain whispered, How do you plan to do that without Karla?
The Benefactor placed one hand on Kio’s shoulder. Again, as it felt like he’d done a thousand times already this morning, he marvelled at how good the deity was at everything. He knew exactly what to do to comfort Kio: stabilize. Give him time to let his world resolve.
“Lord Rokhshan,” the Benefactor said, with a half-smile as though the title were now their private joke. “I can’t help you unless you trust me.”
The solution made itself obvious. Kio must have been an idiot not to have seen it before.
The way he’d be normal again without Karla was by letting the Benefactor know everything. Even the thoughts he shouldn’t have been thinking.
“I had an idea…” he stammered.
The Benefactor nodded a go on and Kio’s throat locked up. Now that he’d started, he had to rush to the other side.
“I had an idea that if I asked you for help with the aqueduct, I’d get to see what you do when you jump off the castle. But it wasn’t fair, of course it wasn’t, because I know what you’re doing is–”
“Of course.” The Benefactor stopped him with a squeeze of his shoulder. The corridor warmed a few degrees. “I should have understood.”
“Understood…what?” Kio trod cautiously.
“Why you were still afraid of me. Still holding back.” The Benefactor rubbed his forehead. “I have not been honest with you.”
Kio couldn’t say anything. The god turned toward the stairs, beckoned him to follow. He did.
“It’s entirely my fault,” explained the Benefactor once they returned to the reservoir basin, raising his voice as the wind picked up. “I judged you incorrectly. I didn’t give you the credit you deserve. I have been watching you, as I said, and that alone ought to have been more than enough evidence that there is no truth too much for you to handle.”
Don’t be so sure, Kio thought, before the fear of what this new “truth” might be chased all words from his mind.
Out on the basin rim, the three towers suddenly seemed like much less shelter than they had before. The Benefactor backed up, two or three graceful steps. His demeanor had shifted: no longer a wise father, he had become an athlete, face set to strive for a goal.
“One more thing, Lord, before I make your repairs,” he said.
“Anything.” Kio nodded. Anything to get this over with. I never should have brought it up. Why am I so easy to read?
“Do you truly mean that we can have no secrets? Do you mean that we will always be able to talk, as equals, no matter what transpires?”
“Equals may be..a stretch.”
“But your answer is–”
“Yes,” he said emphatically. “My answer is yes.”
“Good.” The Benefactor smiled, less like a proud father this time and more like an excited competitor. More like Karla. “Then I will show you, Kio, that we truly are equals.”
His face changed again. For a moment, Kio couldn’t read it.
Then he realized: it was striving. Somewhere within him, the Benefactor was reaching for something.
What did a god have to search for like that? What could be so hard to find?
He remembered the last internal quest he’d gone on–the inadvertent adventure he’d been hurled into when he thought Karla was dead. He’d transformed so easily, without even trying. And after so much time searching for the right emotions to change himself into…
“Wait!” he yelled from outside himself. It was too late.
The Benefactor had already begun to change.
He’d observed the process once before with Karla. She had changed in a single fluid motion–folding into herself, growing feathers, shifting limbs into wings. It had been strangely beautiful to watch, and inevitable, like falling from sky to earth.
The Benefactor’s shift was not inevitable. He seemed to be suffering, fighting, with every step. He grunted when wings burst from his arms, let out a scream of pain–which he tried to mask with a grin–when a dozen twisted legs replaced his human form. A massive chunk of bone subsumed his torso, joining the wings and legs, leaving skeletal arms beneath them.
His smile was the last thing to warp. It hardly shifted as the face around it changed: from human skin and hair to a solid carapace. The set of teeth grew, but kept their grinning shape, sitting below a pair of blazing eyes like orange flames.
Karla became a Raven. Kio became a cat. When the Benefactor’s emotions loosed, he became a bone dragon.
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.