The Courting of a Bird

These southern lands are strange—with their formalities, their caution, their thin skins, their lion god. They are suspicious of me, following me with eyes that are wary and uncertain—though a few rare seem drawn to me. That Walt, half a mute that he is, inviting me to join his Black Jacks, for one. And this one—this man I’m watching now, though my eyes are more incredulous today than they were yesterday. It is a surprise to even think I may have found a spirit kindred to my own in this place—kindred of a sorts. A spirit so strange and bird-like. Feathers and all.
Stranger still that I might be so intrigued by a bird.
To watch him walk today, however, he no longer seems a bird. Feathers gone, feet no longer such wings moving him to and fro, today he moves slowly, hunched, a dreary look in his eyes—dreary, not dread. I suppose this is an improvement from last night.
Though last night he was no bird, either. Last night he was resigned dread. How he stared at the ruined flesh of his arm while his own fresh blood still clung in the stubble on his cheek. No bird was he any longer, though his words were as wind. I only listened, and ground my teeth, and picked at the rough edges of my mace.
And pondered.
This Stragosa is a strange place, with its ruins and its Miracle and its monsters. I have been assured that these things are connected, though how? I am as intrigued by this stone that resurrects the dead as I am by this Balthazar, though I do not know how I will learn more about it. Of this bird, however, this Balthazar…
He has promised to test his mettle against mine. Today, he looks in no shape for such a testing. I chew my hard bread and drink my wine while he speaks with some mage about the disease he contracted during the attack last night.
Last night with all its monsters. How he’d rushed without armor and but one blade into the beasts—an attempt at suicide if I’ve ever seen one. And a brilliant one at that. No bird then, but still something wild, perhaps something…rabid. The kind of thing that, when cornered, becomes all claws and ravening teeth. But oh, how he bled on that floor, while I turned away and gathered my mace for the fight.
I would have eaten his heart first, for he did promise me his corpse.
When he was a bird.
Was it truly so recent?
Oh how his eyes lit up when I told him of how I’d earned my name at the bottom of a glacial crevasse, rending the flesh of my human enemy from his bones with my teeth. When I showed him the skull I kept as a token, and he touched it very lightly with the tips of his fingers and said, “Marvelous.” He had leaned toward that skull with eyes sharp and focused, lips slightly parted—like it were some long-dreamed of treat, finally laid before him.
And when he leaned back and put his fingers over his mouth, eyes gleaming as he assessed me, I delighted in his delight. In his musing fingers over his mouth.
“Should I die,” he said, leaning toward me, “I would be honored for you to eat my corpse.”
I smiled. Should he die, I would lay his body out and peel his skin back from the muscle beneath. I would make gentle work of it, and savor the last remnant of his scent off the nape of his neck. I would do it while the blood was still hot in his veins so that it would slip warm over my fingers. And I would take the flesh from his bones with care—but not before I reached into the hollow of his chest and wrested free his heart.
His heart I would eat first.
“I would be happy to make a feast of your flesh,” I told him, and watched his features alight once more.
It was not much after that—mere stories of sharks and werewolves later—that another of the Jacks, whom I had only seen in passing before, stopped to introduce herself. She carried with her a bouquet of blue roses—more strangeness of Stragosa I assume—and she offered one to Balthazar.
“Instead of Tresser Tag,” she said, “I have been offering these flowers. But—” She withdrew it quickly before Balthazar could take it. “This is only as a friend, Balthazar.”
“Of course,” he said, spreading his hands. “And what a good friend to me you are, Florence.”
Bestowing the flower upon him, she turned then to me. “I am Florence. I do not believe we have met.”
“We have not. I am Freydis the Undying.”
“The Undying?”
“It is a fantastic story,” Balthazar said.
“You will have to tell me sometime.” Florence looked on me with a bright gleam in her eye. I already like her. We would make good friends someday soon, I could tell.
“Perhaps I shall.” I nodded to her, but said no more.
“Would you mind,” Balthazar asked, gesturing with long fingers to the blue roses, “if I might have another? So I may give it to a friend—and then! You can keep watch for it, see if you can spot it.”
Florence had a beautiful smile. She gave Balthazar the flower before saying her farewells, and once she had slipped away Balthazar leaned toward me once more, offering me the flower. “If you would,” he said. I have never been offered a flower before. I have never been offered…well, anything but knives in the back. Or the stomach. And fists to the face.
So I took it, and found the smile on my face as strange as the rest of this place.
The flower is on my belt now—two blue flowers, side by side—while I watch Balzathar move about the tavern like a de-winged bird. Sagging toward the floor. When he spots me I look away.
I had thought to be interested in the man, but last night…
Last night when his eyes could focus on nothing and his voice moved like a breeze through the air. Speaking of this sister of his.
A wretched bitch she sounds, like someone who could make trouble in the future. For Balthazar clearly, for myself, for the Jacks. She sounds like someone who must be put down.
Where I might find this sister of his though, I have no idea. I have only just arrived to Stragosa, and only just begun to learn of the strangeness here. It may take some time to learn enough of the sister to track her down, let alone to put her down, and besides…there are so many things here yet to be explored.
For a moment last night, I had thought of simply putting him out of his misery. His suffering was so great, I could feel it like spilled acid on my skin. By the looks of her, Florence could feel it, too—while she looked away from him and drank her wine, and he spoke of not even knowing if he was real, or just a figment dreamed up to be played with by his sister.
And the man had wanted to die. Rushing into battle without armor. It would have been easy enough to go to him where he laid in his bed. To sit beside him and say farewell to whatever possibilities he might have offered and slit his throat so that he could be done with it. I wonder what Walt would have thought. What Florence would have thought.
I take another bite of the hard bread as Balthazar eases himself into a seat at the table, moving as though every bone within him aches. “Good morning,” he says. His voice sounds more solid than it had last night, though rough around the edges. Not drifting like the clouds, but…rattling. Like the leaves in the trees.
“How are you feeling?”
“Better,” he said. “I still…need to have this—this disease, tended to, but…I feel quite a bit better than last night.”
Good. It is good that he is recovering, and quickly. It seems, at least. It is yet to be seen, I suppose, what strength still lingers within. “Tell me of this sister of yours.”
He is quiet a moment. I am unsure if this quiet is hesitancy, or if it’s a careful choosing of words. When he finally did speak, he told me of his sister—his twin, who was trained in the same arts as he, who never came to him himself but sent mind-controlled people to him instead. “Meat puppets,” he called them. The phrase made my spine feel as though it were full of worms. I assessed him again while he spoke.
Air mage. I still not quite understand what that meant. I still was not sure that I wanted to.
“She is powerful,” he says. “She’s the most powerful person I know.”
He said it as though she has no weakness. But even the most powerful of people have weaknesses. They have only to be uncovered.
“And what do you plan to do about it?” I asked.
A frown passes over his face. “There is nothing that can be done—”
“She must die.”
Balthazar withdraws—the smallest of motions—and the frown on his face deepens. “She is more powerful than me, and—and her mind, it is connected to my own. She can hear what I think, and I can hear what she thinks. It doesn’t happen as frequently as it once did, but it does still happen. Anything I plan against her, if I even think about it, she’ll know. And, besides—” He shakes his head as though disgusted. He would not be the first to be disgusted by me. I only met the man yesterday, so I grit my teeth refuse to care. “—she is my twin sister. I will not kill my twin sister.”
A fire flares in me. I refuse to have been tempted to be interested in a man whose spine so easily bends.
I refuse.
“Tell me,” I say through my teeth and a curling sneer. “Are you a weak man, Balthazar?”
His body goes rigid, and for a moment he stares into his breakfast. When he lifts his eyes, they are dark. His mouth—smiling so fiercely yesterday—is set in a hard line. His jaw is tense, his shoulders stiff. With barely parted lips, through gritted teeth he says, “I am not weak.”
I lean closer and stand, my body bending over and toward him as I snarl: “Then make your choice, Balthazar. You, or her. I am going to make sacrifice. You make your choice.”
Before he can voice a word to break in, I leave, bringing my unfinished breakfast with me. I throw wide the door and let myself into the chill and the snow. The sound of it crunching beneath my boots brings me peace. I close my eyes, I breathe in the cold and breathe out mist.
My fingers pluck the blue flower from my belt. I lift it as I turn toward the forest. I eye it while I walk, but only for a moment before I press it into my pocket.
I will not have been tempted into being intrigued by a weak man.

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