7 – Birdsong

Petra kept a small garden on the roof of their house. It started as a place to grow some of the more obscure ingredients for her work, but eventually grew to include tomatoes, hot peppers, two species of squash, and the few hearty fruits that could stand the wet springs and scorching summers of Mayfaire. Cosmin had never paid much attention to it. He watered it when she was away, and pruned the vines if asked, but he always did so without thought. They were tasks to be completed and nothing more. Until one day when he found a great green worm with orange stripes sitting on a tomato vine. He watched it for a long time and never saw it move. He poked at it with a broken stick and it shifted clumsy on its vine.

He mentioned it to Petra who said it was likely a velsin worm, a devourer of tomatoes, and if he saw it again he should kill it. A week passed before he found the worm again and by then it had sprouted clusters of shining white orbs from its back. Curious, he brought the worm to Petra who told him not to kill it after all. She said it had become infested with parasites and when they hatched they would kill the worm and then go flying in search of others of its kind. It was horrific, but the tomatoes would benefit from the horror.

It was then that Cosmin started paying attention to the garden. He began to see it as a place of balance. A place of life and consequence and no illusion of morality. It was a place of intention and outcome that required occasional intervention to thrive. The leaves fought slow wars for sunshine. The roots invaded and intertwined against one another. The soil was fed with dirt and shit, and sometimes even teeth and bones, but the plants grew all the larger because of it. There were nutrients in the mud and in the bones. There was sacrifice there as well. There was a cycle of life feeding on life. There were marauding hordes of insects, and there were insects who ate those insects and there were parasites that helped and those that hurt. There was balance and it was always shifting and there was no good and there was no evil.

And Cosmin knew Mayfaire to be the same. He knew foul men who had murdered for just reasons, and he knew generous men who gave only out of corruption and spite. There was love in Mayfaire and there was hate, but it was human love and it was human hate and it all existed in its own flawed harmony.

And then there was the Faith.

Cosmin had once watched a blight take hold in Petra’s garden. It started low on a tomato vine where it bleached the leaves and withered the roots then spread up to the flowers and the fruit and dropped them all to the ground to rot. The blight reached another plant and another until finally it had befouled the entire garden. It sought only to consume, to destroy, and Cosmin knew that if it was indeed a part of nature it was an abhorrent part and one to be despised and broken. It did not belong in the balance.

Such was his city. He knew the endless shifting lines, the flawed harmony, and he knew the blight that threatened it. And that was all. So when he left his dark house for a dark street and passed rows and rows of dark houses he could not understand where he walked. It was a city he did not recognize. There was no balance and there was no blight. There was nothing at all. No people, no fires, no light, and no sounds save the distant howls from the Vacant. It was as if the city had fallen in some far gone year and he was only there as a revenant, some detached spirit clinging to a vanished place that he was no longer a part of but merely an audience to.

He drifted along the streets of the High Circle and past the stately homes that occupied it. Each was faced in brick and trimmed in painted wood with doors and shutters to match and he knew them all to be shades of aqua green and blue but in the moonlight they were only a spectrum of grey. The cobblestone beneath his feet was grey as well. It was slick and shining wet in the night and a soft fog began to drift down his street and the moon vanished inside it and the grey deepend to near black. Cosmin slowed and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Twice he stopped to listen to the howling Vacant, and twice it sounded as though they were getting closer.

The houses grew tighter around him. Their brick facades became darkened and stained with age and the paint on the doors and shutters became chipped and broken. A smell of garbage drifted on the fog along with the reek of some distant sewer. The skeleton of a carriage lay overturned, one wheel split and the others removed. Cosmin knew the street. It marked the edge of the Circle and the beginning of what had once been the district of Hargate. It was little more than a squalid fringe below the Circle Market and would soon give way to the expanse of the Abandoned District that pressed in behind it.

The fog drifted in patches. It brightened the road then faded back then brightened it again. It was as if it the night itself were breathing and by the time he reached the Market he found the night so dark that he could barely see. He walked with a hand running against the building facades then stopped beneath a shingled awning to wait for the world to brighten once more. Something moved in the house behind him, but when he turned to the noise he saw nothing in the darkness. Another chorus of howls drifted in the night. Now closer.

The fog lifted entirely and the world was bathed in the cool blue light of the moon. It was bright enough to cast a hard shadow of the awning on the ground and Cosim stepped from beneath it and into the moonlight which shocked him with its clarity. He stood at the southern end of the Circle Market. To his right he saw empty carts and stalls along the edges of the road and the rows of shuttered shops behind them. To his left he saw the tiered fountain at the center of the lower market plaza. And off in the far distance, just a black mass on the horizon, he saw the dark climbing heights of the Reaches

He walked to the fountain. It was fed by a high cistern and it gurgled and spat in the dead night and Cosmin watched its flowing water for a long moment and found some peace in the movement. It seemed to be the only motion in the city besides his shadow creeping along the ground and the slow roll of the fog. He touched the surface of the water and watched the moon’s reflection ripple and dance on its surface. He looked to the Reaches, there growing like some tumor from the southern edge of the city, and any peace within him faded away. Again the distant Vacant began to howl.

***

 

Cosmin was twenty years old when the first of the Vacant came to Mayfaire. There were seven of them and they had been led to Mayfaire by a jovial priest named Hellig. The priest had travelled on foot all the way from the Pale City with the pack of Vacant tethered behind him. He whistled as he emerged from the New Forest and was singing by the time he had reached the East Gate. The guards had no idea how to react to his sudden appearance and refused him entrance to the city. The Vacant, dark clad and snapping at one another, tugged at their tethers and paced the edge of the eastern trench. Hellig was not put off. He simply said that he understood. That of course, of course he understood, and who wouldn’t be alarmed at the sight of such things. He called across the trench and asked for whatever authority the guard answered to. They sent immediately for Cosmin.

Hellig was once again singing to the Vacant when Cosmin appeared at the gate. He looked down at the strange gathering and Hellig stopped his song and smiled up at him. He greeted Cosmin by name and told him that he was at Mayfaire by the holy decree of Vellah himself. He said that there were things to be discussed and that they should be discussed face to face and not by shouting across a void. His smile widened when Cosmin asked about his charges. He said they were children of God.

They met in a guardhouse at the southern edge of the city wall. The priest tied the Vacant to a hitching rail outside and spoke to them in a soft voice to calm them. A group gathered some distance beyond and the Vacant sniffed the air and growled at them from beneath their hoods.

Cosmin led the priest to a small room inside the guardhouse with a single arched window and they sat opposite one another at a rough hewn table made of oak harvested from the Barrens. Hellig ran his hands along it and said it was lovely. His eyes were shining in the dim light. He carried with him the heavy musk of wild animals mixed with some cloying sweetness of incense and perfume. He spoke of the Angel Vellah’s displeasure with the pilgrims that were coming to the Pale City from Mayfaire and Cosmin listened gravely to his words. The priest expressed his sadness at the inherent sin inside the pilgrims and said that Mayfaire must, of course, be riddled with sin as well. For how could such miserable things come from a faithful city? He patted Cosmin’s hand and smiled. He said that Mayfaire needed a peace that the City Guard could not create. He said that the Vacant were the judicators of the faith and how fortunate it was that they were now welcome in the city. How very, very fortunate.

Their numbers increased ever since. They would come in ragged groups from the Pale City and soon they were patrolling the entirety of Mayfaire, from the southern docks all the way to the North Gate. They sniffed their way through the cargo holds of the merchant barges and scoured the stalls and shops of the markets. They entered homes at will. They punished without mercy.

Cosmin’s father, Avar Aurel, commanded the City Guard in those foul days. He watched helpless as his men and women clashed again and again with the Vacant. He watched as the markets and merchant docks grew quiet and the streets bloody. He watched as the city itself turned desperate and fearful. He became desperate and fearful as well.

And then Ambassador Osyth appeared from the New Forest carrying the torch. And the city went dark before him.

The year was 62 AG. Osyth had been gone for fourteen years and was returning for the Second Census. He was expected. The city knew what to do when he arrived and the horns cried out from the city walls and all the fires went dark as he rode his beast through the empty streets towards the Colosseum.

Avar and Cosmin travelled to the Colosseum the day after Osyth arrived. They were accompanied by Albed Hollis, the Magister of Mayfaire and they all met with the Ambassador before the dawn. Osyth greeted them like old friends. He held Cosmin by the shoulders and remarked on how much he had grown. He asked about Cosmin’s sister Lilith who had just turned eight, and he asked about Magister Hollis’s dear son Marcus, who was only five. He asked about them like a loving grandfather but his eyes were cold and Cosmin wondered a long time after if the Ambassador had already known all that was about to happen.

Avar and Magister Hollis greeted Osyth in kind. They bowed to him. They told him of the glory of Mayfaire, but expressed their displeasure with the Vacant. Avar said they were killing at will and without reason to which Osyth said they were blessed by the Angel and whatever reasons they found were reason enough. He said this smiling. Magister Hollis then said that their raids were disastrous to the trade routes to the Pale City, to which Osyth stopped to listen. Hollis knew the depths of Vellah’s greed. He knew the extraordinary appetites of the Angel and he knew Mayfaire’s position as the hub of the western trade route. He knew how to get the Ambassador’s attention.

The Congregation came from the Pale City seven days later. They were a motley parade of over two hundred Acolytes and priests and at dawn the morning after their arrival Osyth led the entire population of Mayfaire to the Colosseum to perform the Census. He gave a sermon where he told the city of his sorrow at the behavior of the Vacant. He told them that he had met with the leaders of Mayfaire and that a peace had been agreed upon and that on the eve of the Congregation’s departure the Vacant would all go to the Reaches where they would stay. The Reaches, he said, would become a holy site in Mayfaire. The streets would be sacred and all of the faithful were welcome to claim them as their own. The Vacant would keep the peace in this new holy district and any who lived under their laws would be blessed. The Angel would smile upon them. He said that the Vacant would hereafter only be permitted in the rest of the city during the Days of Darkness, the sacred days that foretold the coming of the Congregation. He praised the wise leaders of Mayfaire and their conviction. He said that he would ask only a small price in return for this great favor. He said that every good thing in the world had a price. That these costs were no costs at all but merely the harmony of life made manifest. He said that sacrifice and redemption were two sides of a single coin and that the one is inseparable from the other. That to ask for a gift of any measure free of cost is to ask for disharmony. It is to ask for a coin of a single side and there can be no such thing. Who could bear to ask for something so unnatural? And how should the world respond if you did?

So Osyth named his price. And Cosmin never saw his sister Lilith or Magister Hollis’s young son Marcus again.

Osyth left the following day with the Congregation and the horrible fruit of the Census. In his wake the borders of the Reaches were established. The trade routes soon flourished once again, and the Vacant abandoned the streets of the city, only to return when the torch returned and only then for seven days.

Magister Hollis retreated to his Palace in shame and hid in the duties of his office. He became despotic and solitary, a man devoted to greed and wretchedness and little else besides.

Avar Aurel killed himself the following winter. Cosmin buried his father in the frozen soil of the New Forest and said no words over the grave. The following day he put on Avar’s uniform and walked to the Barracks and before the gathered might of the City Guard he rose to the position his father abandoned. He was twenty-three.

 

***

 

The fog rolled back and swallowed up the moon. The world went dark once more and the unhealthy heights of the Reaches vanished into the distance and Cosmin wondered just how long he had been staring at them. He spat. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked across the plaza to where he knew the market ended but saw only the faint shapes of buildings in the near dark. He felt the letter in his pocket. He thought of the Lodge. The fountain beside him gurgled endlessly but there was no other sound in the night and Cosmin stalked to the edge of the plaza to leave the Market behind. He found the opening of a wide street and turned down it and walked without looking. He thought of the Congregation, of the Ambassador. He thought of his wife, his children. All the planning, the risk…

And the night lark sang out in the dark.

Cosmin froze.

Silence. Then two soft chirps, twip, twip, a pause, then two more.

Cosmin’s blood ran cold. The fog shifted. And six hunched shapes ambled down the road in front of him.

Shit.

He hadn’t heard them come.

Shit.

One of them howled, a deep cry that brought the hairs on his arms to standing. Another took up the cry and the rest followed and they quickened their loping gait and came for him.

He spun and made for the plaza. He stumbled for the fountain and the Vacant poured from the mouth of the street behind him. The fog lifted once more and did not return and in the sudden light Cosmin could see the frightened staring faces that crowded the windows above the plaza. They were all drawn by the howls.

Shit, shit, shit.

The night lark sounded again. A silhouette moved against the night sky. It ran across a building just south of Cosmin. It called from a lightless alley. There would be no windows there, no faces to watch.

He backed away from the fountain and made it halfway across the plaza before they were upon him.

SIN,” cried one in a wet growl that broke the tomb silence of the night. Its voice was ragged, clipped. “SIN.”

Cosmin raised his hands, palms out, and kept backing towards the alley. The Vacant began to circle and Cosmin considered running through them before realizing how foolish it would be. They would show no mercy if they were goaded. They would beat him to death.

“I am Cosmin Aurel,” he called as they closed on him. “I command the City Guard.” He took another step backward toward the alley. “I am heading for the outer patrols. I mean no harm.”

They carried with them some deep animal stench, heavy and soiled. One stepped close and sniffed at him. He could see the edges of its wild, ravaged face beneath its cowl. The inverted tear drop carved into its forehead. It raised its club up and pressed it into Cosmin’s chest. The thing was shaking. They were all shaking.

“Commander,” it said in its trembling low growl. “What does it command in the Days of God?”

“Death!” another cried. “No command. No commander. Only death for its sin.”

One of them let out a moan at the words. The pungent reek of urine rose in the air.

“Peace, brother,” the first replied as it snapped its jaws. “Not death. Not death for this trespass. To walk God’s streets at night is not death.”

“He walks in sin,” another voice cried, this one high and graveled. “Sin of its feet, sin of its flesh.”

“Yes, yes,” the first replied. It turned to Cosmin and clicked its teeth. “We bash the feet. We kill the feet for their steps in the Angel’s night.”

“You will not!” Cosmin roared. The robed, hunches figured stepped back briefly at his voice, and he took another two steps in its wake. “I have passage. Find your master and they will confirm it.”

Another chirp came from the night lark.

“Master?” the first of the Vacant cried. “No master tonight. We are the master.” It pounded its chest. “I am the master,” it said. “And he, and he. All are the master.” It raised its club to Cosmin’s face. “But not you. You walk when there is no walking. Not in the Days. It is sin, and to sin is to bleed.” It drooled at the words. “You bleed for us. You bleed for God.”

A flash of silver caught briefly in the moonlight. Something small and spinning flew from above and hit the first of the Vacant in the side of the neck. It winced and dropped its cudgel on the ground and brought its hands clawing to its throat and the knife that was suddenly buried there. It opened its mouth to cry but only a weak gargle came and the others stepped back as it fell to its knees in the darkness.

Cosmin shoved hard against the pack, pushed from between them, and shot into the alley. He reached for the dropped club as he ran and grabbed it by the barbed end by mistake. He grunted as it sliced into his skin, but didn’t loosen his grip.

Another flash of metal whipped by his face, close enough that he could feel the wind come off it. He heard a cry from behind, but didn’t turn.

He took another few steps into the alley, and shifted his grip on the club. His hand was wet with blood, and burning, but he held it tight and raised it as the pack roared towards him.

They came thrashing mad down the narrow alley, clubs swinging blindly in the dark, striking every surface they could reach. The lane was tight and forced them into a column. The front two came side by side, screaming towards Cosmin who stood his ground, hands tight on the club.

A slender shadow fell into the alley behind the pack. It made no sound whatsoever. It made a single stride then fell against the two Vacant in the rear. A flash of metal, then another, and the things were on the ground. The sudden silence caused the first two to falter. They turned and Cosmin raced towards them and brought the cudgel down hard and loud on one of their skulls. It made a hollow sound, grim and satisfying, and the thing collapsed. The shadow descended quietly on the last of the Vacant and Cosmin watched as its head simply rolled from its shoulders. The body stood for a short moment longer, as if in disbelief, then toppled to the ground at Cosmin’s feet.

A slight man, dressed all in black, stepped into the thin moonlight that fell upon the alley. He walked to the bodies, and knelt among them to wipe his blade on their robes. He stood and bowed to cosmin.

“I hoped it would not come to that,” the man said as he sheathed his sword. His voice was soft and quiet.

“It’s good to see you, Isaac,” Cosmin said, his heart hammering in his chest. “I was hoping you were the little bird I was hearing.”

 

***

 

They dragged the bodies into the alley. Isaac, though he stood barely as tall as Cosmin and substantially thinner, pulled five of the bodies before Cosmin could manage one. He sat them into a neat row then attempted to help Cosmin but was scolded away. He retrieved the severed head instead and rested it in the lap of its former body. He turned it so it faced away from him.

Cosmin knelt to catch his breath, his forearms resting on his thighs. Blood ran from his torn hand. Isaac watched the bleeding then took a knife and cut a length of fabric from the bottom of his cloak and gave it to Cosmin who grunted his thanks. He wrapped the hand starting around the thumb and pulled it all tight and tucked in the loose end then opened and closed his hand several times. He took a deep breath. The hand was already throbbing. He pushed himself to standing and winced as he did so. Isaac watched him and said nothing.

Cosmin looked at the row of bodies and shook his head. “Damn.”

“I watched you leave,” Isaac said. “I thought you might need my help.” He gestured to the Vacant. “Their blood is up. I’ve never seen them so agitated.”

“Neither have I.”

“I was at the wall when the torch came. I couldn’t believe it. I ran to your house as the fires went out to keep watch on Elias. Sasha was already there. She said she could watch them both so I followed you. Elias is safe with her there.”

Isaac stood before Cosmin with his head bowed like a man condemned. As if he had committed some trespass that begged forgiveness and Cosmin found himself wondering if there had ever been such ferocity housed in so humble a person.

“I would not have left my watch if Sasha had not been there,” Isaac continued as he stared at his feet. “I feared that something could happen tonight, so I came to the house. I know to not let him from my sight if there is some threat in the air. I know that. But I couldn’t leave you to the Vacant. Not when they are wilding like this.”

“Isaac…” Cosmin began, then stopped and shook his head. He put his hand on Isaac’s shoulder. “Elias is safe with Sasha watching over him. He is safe.” Isaac did not look up. “I forgive you for leaving his watch.”

Isaac nodded, then raised his head. “You’re heading to the Sovern Lodge,” he said. “To find Baltar.”

“I am.”

“I’ll stay here. More of the Vacant may come if they smell the blood. I can deal with them if they do.” He said this casually, as if the enforcers of the faith were no more than flys to be swatted away.

“I’ll send a few of the Sovern to help you get rid of the bodies.”

Isaac considered this. “Most of the Sovern are brutes,” he said at last. “They lack subtlety.”

Cosmin grinned. “There are a few of them who know how to stay quiet. I’ll send them and they can help. Be nice to them.”

Isaac nodded. “There is a lot of blood,” he said. “I’ll drain the bodies into the sewer, but there is already a lot on the street. I should have been more careful.”

“Do what you can,” Cosmin said. “I’ll do the same. Break their necks if more sniff their way to you. Don’t draw anymore blood.”

He walked to the row of bodies. One lay with its cowl down and its face caught in the moonlight. It stared at the sky with dead, milky eyes. Matted hair was stuck to its face and its mouth gaped stupidly from the dark nest of its beard. Its lips were gone entirely, likely chewed away by the gnarled teeth they should have been covering. The inverted teardrop on its forehead was cut deep and the edges of the flesh were pulled back and smooth from scarring. The exposed skull was the color of old parchment.

“Strange to see them beneath the hoods,” Isaac said as he stood beside Cosmin. “Strange and sad.”

“Sad?”

“It’s just a man,” Isaac said. “And barely that. He couldn’t be more than eighteen. Look at him.”

“I am looking. I see a monster and nothing more.”

“I see both,” Isaac said as he bent down and pulled the cowl over the Vacant’s face. He then reached under its arms and carefully slid the body a short distance down the alley to a sewer grate. He leaned it forward and rested it on its knees then dropped its neck down and sliced open the artery at its throat and held it there so the blood could drain into the sewer. It looked like he was helping the thing to pray.

Cosmin watched them for a long moment then turned and started down the alley. He could hear the blood as it fell through the grates. The sound chilled him more than the night air and he walked without turning back.