What the Little Bird Told Me Part I
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There was a party outside the window.

All of the Tyrant’s dancers were whirling through the streets, waving the banners of House Totch in honor of the conqueror’s recent victory.

The smells of meat and spices wafted up from the streets. There was laughter, drinking, everything a person could want out of a celebration.

I quashed the envy in my chest. None of that mattered to an old slave like me, save that it meant another hard shift bringing down extra furniture for Lord Totch’s victory banquet.

I tried to remind myself things could be worse. Lord Totch was fabulously wealthy and his servants never went hungry. Those of us who worked in the house were dressed in such finery that without our bronze collars you could mistake us for petty nobility. The whippings were not ideal, but after feeding his lordship's lusts we were always bandaged and given extra rations.

At the end of the day, things were fine. Frankly they were better than a convict's child like me could ever hope for. All I had to do to keep it going was to haul hunks of priceless wood, and that meant time in the palace’s attic.

Geyre had granted me strength enough to lift three at a time even in the twilight of my forties, so I was making good time sorting the usable furnishings out the debris of a hundred nobles' conquests. There was a brace of bronze swords, there was a vase born in a kiln far to the South, there were dresses and furs I dared not touch with unwashed hands…

And there were chairs. Many chairs, but not so many as to stop the Tyrant's petty nobility squabbling over the honor of who got to sit in them.

But as I was climbing the wooden steps to the tenth load, I heard something.

There was the tiniest squeak coming from behind a homespun draping.

Normally, that would hardly bother me. I was too busy to bother with the rats in the palace when there was a banquet to prepare, but there was something about the squeak that was strange to me. It almost sounded like a word.

I don’t know why the flight of fancy overtook me, but I couldn’t help but put down the chairs for a moment and see what had made the sound. I knew it was something living, because I could make out the faintest wheeze coming from a darkened corner.

I pushed a small chest aside and found myself in front of the most curious sight.

It was a strange, covered dome, like the temple I’d attended oh so long ago, but in miniature. It was covered with a filthy layer of cloth and I briefly wondered that we hadn’t been told to clean here before.

Now, all propriety demanded that I leave well enough alone and ask the head butler if he wanted it swept later, but I suppose I should come out at this point and admit to my defect.

You wouldn’t think there was much wrong with me at first glance, after all I have fine dark skin, fair hair for my age, and I’m missing naught but two of my teeth, but my defect lies in the mind.

I’m curious, and I have a hard time stilling my hand and biting my tongue (though Kalef knows how long I’ve practiced). If I'd become the scholar I'd longed to be before I knew my place better this would have been an invaluable asset. Unfortunately, it did me no good in my station.

So after a brief internal war, and a glance to see that none of the other slaves had followed me up here, I parted the sheet.

I have seen many terrible sights in my day. I watched my father lose his head for stealing bread in the square, I saw the aftermath of the bloody charge that took Lord Toch's new city, and I’d seen more cold dead babes being clutched in their disbelieving mother’s arms than I could count.

But there was something viscerally awful about what was under that sheet. Something ugly and wrong.

It was a cage filled with bones, cracked and withered with the scent of feculence and rot covering all of them… and on top of it all was an ugly, emaciated little bird. It could have been no bigger than a starling, but it was clearly deformed, with claws on its wings as well as its feet and a layer of rubbery skin over its eyes.

The worst part was that it was breathing.

The red, rubbery flesh parted, and the creature locked eyes with me.

And then, to my shock, it spoke. “Please… Help…”

There was absolutely no reason for me to do anything but back away. This creature was clearly a monster, and I knew what happened in the tales…

But something in me broke looking at it.

I opened the cage, picked it up and carried it to a water basin. It was lucky I’d brought up one in case I needed to clean any chairs before moving them. I brought it’s head to the water and it plunged it in instantly.

I swear it guzzled half the basin before it pulled back its head. All the while its feathers grew back, turning from pins to silky black as the creature swelled to the size of a pigeon.

I found myself frozen. It turned back and looked up at me. “Th-Thank you. Miss…?

I shook my head. “I’m not giving you my name, creature. I’m just the maid.”

It nodded. “That’s wise.”

It coughed. “I think I’ve been asleep for a very long time.”

I tilted my head at the thing. It stood up. It almost looked like it was smiling at me. “I’m the- well, I can’t say I know my number now. I’m a Wandsman. Do you know what that means?”

I shook my head, taking a step back. I didn’t know if it would do any good, but I wasn’t about to take any chances with what I was more and more convinced was one of York’s demons.

The bird nodded. “I suppose that was too much to hope for. Look, if I’ve woken up, that means my Map is near.”

I blinked at him. “Your Map?” as per usual, I couldn’t help but ask.

He nodded. The bird cleared its throat. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a small silver scroll case around here…?”

Shockingly, I had.

The Tyrant was always eager to display the spoils of his conquests… Under heavy guard of course.

I crossed my arms. “What do you want with it?”

“It will help me get home.” It said. “I think I’ve spent far too long in this place already.”

I admit, I was torn. My master could kill me with ease if I betrayed him, but I had no idea what the demon could do to me if I refused. I was cursing my kindness already.

The creature sighed. “Look. I know this is a lot to take in, but I could really use your help or at least some directions. Maybe we could make a deal?”

A shiver ran down my spine.

Deals were dangerous. Deals were between kings and gods or sorcerers. They were so far outside what I had a right to in my station that I couldn’t imagine what would happen if I struck one.

“What are you offering?” I asked cautiously.

It tilted its head, eyeing my collar. Its eyes seemed to brighten as though inspiration had struck it. “How about freedom, power, and the chance to see the worlds?”

The bronze of my collar chafed. The lashings on my back stung.

And he'd said "Worlds", plural.

“What do you need me to do?”

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