Happy memorial day weekend, and thank you to all of those who served. Sincerely.
Here is a bonus interlude to celebrate them and because so many of you (like three people) seemed to love (have feelings slightly better than ambivalence towards) Miller. He will have a short run and a mini arc. We have a default release schedule in mind but let us know your preference. Or just leave comments in general, it really helps.
Speaking of; going to TopWebFiction and voting every week, or as often as you’re able, also helps a huge amount. If you would like to keep us in the weekly rankings them follow this link and click ‘boost’.
Atlan Jonson Miller was greeted at the entrance of the Istima Eyrie by a different person than usual.
A quick glance showed an apprentice bird’s badge. One that sported a single feather design compared to the two on Miller’s.
“Excuse me,” the sparrow said, trying very hard to throw his chest forward and seem alert, “are you Specialist Miller?”
He stared at the recruit and frowned.
His frown grew deeper.
“Uhh, I’m sorry…”
“Don’t apologize,” Miller snapped, taking in the perfectly ironed shirt and total lack of grime under the boy’s fingernails.“Not right,” he muttered, “not right at all.”
The boy tried to interrupt, but Miller clamped a hand over the other man’s mouth. He leaned in close.
“Shhhhhh,” he whispered, putting a finger to his lips.
The sparrow’s eyes went very wide.
Still muttering to himself, he guided them out into the street. Once outside, he threw a handful of dirt onto the sparrow’s perfectly shined shoes, snatched a pipe from a passerby, and forced it into the new bird’s hands.
“Sir, I don’t smo—”
“Stop,” Miller ordered, rubbing his chin and evaluating the boy with a critical eye. “Stop saying ‘sir’. You’re supposed to be a bird. A hard-boiled, gruff, bird-of-the-streets.”
“Gruff,” Miller nodded. After a few more seconds, he took the pipe out of the sparrow’s hand and returned it to the irate man he had borrowed it from.
“Roll up your sleeves and ruffle your hair,” he ordered.
“Oh. Well, I mean, is this part of—”
Miller didn’t respond. He didn’t even blink until the sparrow had complied.
But even then something was missing. He grabbed the boy again and dragged him back inside to the front desk of the eyrie’s lobby.
“Howdy there, Atlan,” said the attendant.
“Morning, Delores. Can I grab a jar of ink?”
“Will I be getting it back?”
“Will most of the ink be in the jar when I get it back this time?”
The older woman shrugged and gave him a stoppered jar with a faint smile.
Miller immediately took the cork out and got a drop of ink on the index finger. He grabbed the straight-laced sparrow (even thinking those words made his stomach clench) and carefully flicked his finger until there was a fine smattering of ink on the recruit’s hand.
“Hmmm,” Miller said, rubbing his chin. “Tomorrow, you will come in with stubble and red eyes. Understood?
“You may call me Miller, Hoss, Boss Man, or an expletive. Understood?”
“Good. Let’s try again.”
Without waiting for a response, the diviner grabbed his bag and walked more than three minutes down the street so he could re-enter the eyrie like he did every morning.
Atlan Jonson Miller was greeted at the entrance by a different person than usual.
A quick glance showed a bird’s badge. There was no stylized icon to declare him as being in leadership or in a specialized branch like the owl on Miller’s did. The boy’s badge only showed a single feather compared to Miller’s four: so a sparrow.
“Excuse me,” said the sparrow, a hefty lad with once nice clothes that had been ruffled by hard work and a long night writing reports, “are you Miller? The diviner?”
Miller sighed. The sparrow looked like a bird from one of the publications. “Yes,” he smiled. ”Yes, I am. You’re here to take me to the locker rooms?”
“I’m supposed to ask if you know the way there.”
“I’m fine today. But come with me anyway. I’ve got some pointers for you.”
Miller frowned, his fingers twitching, “Don’t ever call me sir unless you’re being sarcastic.”
“Ah, yes. Of course.”
“But,” Mordakai, the brand new sparrow, said from where he sat on the changing room’s bench, “how does one grunt laconically?”
“That’s the million-dram question, isn’t it?”
Everyone had cleared out of the locker room pretty quickly after they entered. Which had given Miller plenty of time to start teaching Mordakai the important parts of being a bird.
He, like Miller himself, was at an immediate disadvantage just based on looks.
Miller was thin with boring hair. But not whipcord-thin or made-of-rawhide-thin. He was just reedy like someone who forgot to eat. The kind of thin that required suspenders because his body was naught but flat planes and provided nothing that a belt could catch on to stop his trousers from falling.
Mordakai was suffering from the exact opposite issue. He had a surplus of curves and an unfortunately acute eye for fashion. Which made him look altogether too soft and well put together.
A bird could be thin if it was hard-bitten and hiding the strength needed to sock a bad guy right in the jaw. And they could be fat, but only the kind of deceptive, ruddy-faced fat that hid the muscles needed to kick down a door or, better yet, sock a bad guy in the kisser.
Sadly, neither of their bodies projected the requisite face-punching potential.
But Mordakai would get there. He just needed a little help.
“One more time,” the diviner said, ”how will you be greeting Specialist Miller tomorrow?”
Mordakai stood so he could lean one shoulder against the wall and tapped a foot impatiently. “Miller,” the boy grunted before giving a tiny and reluctant tip of the head. “Can you make it to the lockers yourself, or do you need someone to hold your hand?”
“Yes,” the diviner whispered, eyes sparkling, “yessssssss. Now all you need to do is—”
Still frowning, Mordakai snorted through his nose and spit to the side, eyes fixed balefully on the imaginary Miller.
“Really?” the boy beamed.
“I mean,” Mordakai quickly slouched back against the lockers, “blow it out your ear.”
“Blow it out your ear, what?”
“Blow it out your ear, sir,” he sneered.
The reedy diviner shook his head and snorted. That was just, like, such a hard-bitten bird thing to do.
“Today really is a good day,” he said to himself, a smile warming his face even as he opened up his locker.
“Of course! Today is uniform day.”
“Like uniform inspections?”
“No. I’m not on divine and detect patrols today. So, I get to wear my uniform.”
Mordakai peeked over his shoulder as he started pulling out the well-polished shoes, a fine leather belt, and an undershirt.
“Do you have to—”
“Shush. This is the second-best part of the day.”
“Putting on your uniform?”
Miller didn’t say anything. Instead, he held up the trappings of a bird, a real-life bird, and felt something hot and fierce stir inside of himself.
This was the uniform of a hero. This was the uniform of an Istima Bird. Rue Delite, one of his favorite birds from the publications, was written for the panels in a small-time newspaper’s illustration section every Saturday. Rue wished he came from an eyrie that was well funded enough to have a uniform. By now, Rue would already be walking the streets, chasing leads, and hunting dark mages. All so he could protect the world. And also so he would have enough money to replace his father’s failing pancreas. And to support his twin brother who had quit the League of Evil and was struggling with the curse they laid on him. And to pay for his dates with the local journalist. And to pay for his dates with the eyrie’s secretary. And really to pay for a lot of the other dates that he went on in the course of his investigations. It was his go-to information-gathering tactic.
Come to think of it, did Miller go on enough dates? He felt like birds were supposed to have grim attractions with dangerous women or beguiling men. Maybe he should go on a date?
No. Stupid. He definitely needed to start dating. Someone who would ask him what he had been working on during all hours of the night with tears in their eyes. Then they could have a screaming match that resolved itself when an ominously bubbling potion was thrown through their window at the worst possible moment. That’s what real birds did.
And Miller was going to be a real bird if it killed him.
Still holding up his uniform, he felt determination seize his heart.
Atlan Johnson Miller was a screwup. He was a former Night Court student who had studied for a few years and jumped ship as soon as he thought he could try out for his dream job. He was a reed-thin, boring-haired, uninteresting shut-in who read too much.
Specialist Diviner Miller was a bird. A real-life bird.
Specialist Diviner Miller popped his neck to the side in a satisfying cascade of meaty cracks.
Maybe it was his imagination, but he could swear he felt the pops travel down the entire length of his spine as a burning ultrabright sense of determination filled his skull— one so intense it was almost exactly like magic.
“Holy shit,” Mordakai gasped, his voice sounding oddly far away. ”Are you okay? What’s happened to your back…”
In a series of forceful motions, the diviner pulled his uniform on. The over-large shirt and pants bagging around his weak body.
But as the weight of fabric and responsibility settled over him, he felt that inner fire intensify.
He would be a real bird, no matter what the cost. He would not disgrace his uniform while he drew breath.
Despite having just shaved, stubble rasped against the collar of his jacket, and as he cinched his belt, he felt like he was growing taller. Like his shoulders were filling out his uniform. Like his skin was writhing to settle on a new frame. The hard-boiled, grim-jawed, brooding-eyed frame of a bird.
He would not disgrace his uniform.
And suddenly Miller found himself fastening the last button and tugging his perfectly tailored jacket into place. He put his civilian shoes into the locker. They felt oddly small in his hands. Then he turned to Mordakai.
“Wha— hurp,” the sparrow gagged, “what happened to your body —”
Miller blinked and found himself several steps further from his locker than he remembered.
“What?” he rasped, throat clicking as the deeper and grittier voice of a bird issued from it.
Mordakai’s eyes went horribly wide, and his face paled. He raised a finger and pointed to the diviner. But, before he could speak, his eyes went dim and fluttery. Miller moved with the strength and surety of a bird, covering the distance between them in a few long-legged strides. He made it just in time to guide Mordakai to the ground as he fainted.
“Don’t worry, pal,” he said, “I fainted my first day too. Same for most sparrows that I’ve seen.” He patted the unconscious apprentice’s shoulder and chuckled. “It’s just something about these locker rooms, about realizing that you’re going to walk into an eyrie full of birds. Burn me if every new recruit I’ve seen in these changing rooms hasn’t puked or fainted at least once.”
He escorted the pale-faced apprentice to a clump of birds that were waiting for them outside of the changing room.
They took one look at the boy, and Al, a recently promoted crow, called out, “Puke or faint?”
“Faint,” Miller said with a grin.
Half the crows started cursing violently while the other half whooped with joy and rushed forward to smack Mordakai on the back.
“Good work Miller! You just won me five drams,” Al called.
“I didn’t do anything. Just caught him when he fell.”
Millie ‘The Machine’ yelled something rude about his body, but Miller couldn’t hear it over a sudden, inexplicable ringing in his ears. He checked one last time on Mordakai, who was too embarrassed to meet his eyes. Then he left the apprentice to the friendly ribbing of his new brothers and sisters in arms.
He kept his eyes on the ground so he wouldn’t get distracted by the eyrie and made his way to the first-best part of his day. A one-on-one meeting with his hawk. Not even a raven in charge of a team of crows or a heron. A full-on hawk of the Istima eyrie.
He knocked on the man’s office door and was immediately called in.
“What’s all the noise about?” said Crammerson.
His superior looked like what Mordakai should aspire to become. His hair was shorn short and steely gray. The man himself looked like he was made out of blunt-edged rectangles covered in a thin layer of clay. His forearms were so thick that he barely possessed visible wrists, and his stomach bulged out like a retired heavyweight boxer who had covered his muscles rather than losing them. He projected a constant air of annoyance and stubbornness that was complemented by blunt fingered hands, a neck wider than his head, and tiny eyes hidden under a heavy brow.
Back in the day, they had called him the ‘Bloody Barber.’ And every once in a while, a contract would come out that required heavy-duty magic. When you needed the sky to open and a tangled knot of intrigue, criminal alliance, and dark magics to be cut out wholesale, the Bloody Barber would take wing from his office and answer the call.
Miller had also found out, with some off-the-books extracurricular investigation, that Crammerson had a vegetarian husband, was something of a gourmet, and even with all his culinary exploits, the Bloody Barber was still the best in his recreational bowling league.
The diviner was thus, understandably, star-struck. The man could do anything.
“Oh, ahh,“ he said, still feeling a bit overwhelmed, ”well, the new sparrow passed out in the locker room.”
Crammerson frowned, “Did they have the new kid escort you in?”
“Dammit! I told them to stop using your shape—”
Miller found himself sitting in front of Crammerson’s sprawling and chaotic desk without any memory of moving there, his ears once again ringing slightly.
“I’m sorry, say again, sir?”
His hawk muttered something under his breath, but rather than respond, he waved the whole thing aside.
“Forget about it. You and I need to talk, again, about when a diviner should instigate a capture. So, Miller, tell me, do you know when a diviner risks confrontation?”
“When the honor of the eyrie demands it, sir!”
The muscles in Crammerson’s jaw clenched, “No, Miller. The answer is maybe, maybe, twice. Twice in their entire lives. Twice,” he said, voice rising into a tooth rattling bellow, “IN THEIR GOAT-GROPING, MOTHERF—”
Crammerson proceeded to describe things to Miller that would have given a healer night terrors. The sorts of things that involved sexually transmitted diseases you could only catch by carnally pounding a termite colony. He waxed poetic about death by office equipment and stupidity so profound that it may cause contagious illiteracy.
Just like in the publications.
In prose fit to traumatize a full-grown man, his hawk described sexual acts so explicit they would require alchemical lubricants, a complex series of pully’s, months of cardio training, and a crack team of priests willing to cover what was left of your body in salt, sage, and fire.
Miller smiled the whole time and nodded eagerly. He took notes in his mind so that one day he might revisit and dissect the virtuoso display of profanity.
Because, by all reasonable measures, putting that combination of words together should have just been a jumble of vaguely offensive sounds, not even proper language. But somehow, through sublime artistry, not only did Miller understand each sentence, he had a painfully clear mental image of what they described. That and a visceral understanding of just how weak his moral character must be for him to be capable of picturing such a scene.
Crammerson really could do anything. What a man. What a bird.
In a sudden crescendo of obscenity, his hawk slammed a fist on his desk, and Miller couldn’t help it; he leaped to his feet and started applauding.
Crammerson stared at him, face red and veins popping.
“Sir,” Miller said, mouth open and eyes wide, “thank you. I am honored. Just hearing that…” he shook his head. “I feel unclean. I feel like canceling my holiday plans, so my mother doesn’t have to look at me. I feel… I feel— Wow.”
“Miller,” Crammerson growled, his voice dangerously soft, “would you happen to also feel repentant?”
“About being born?”
“ABOUT STARTING A FIGHT WITH STREET TOUGHS!”
The diviner put a hand to his ringing ears and smiled. What. A. Bird.
“I’m sorry, what?”
Crammerson deflated and fell into his seat.
“You didn’t hear a word I just said.”
“I engraved each and every one of them into the vaults of my mind.”
“Of course. Tell me then, having chiseled, (‘chiseled,’ Miller whispered, clenching his fist) my words into your heart; are you going to do anything differently?”
“Yes, sir! I’m doubling down. I’ll listen to more caravan guards. I’ll take notes on locker room talk and interview a courtesan so I can expand my cursing vocabulary. Also, I’ve started a new initiative in my training as a bird: I’m going to try to go on dates. Lots of them!
That way, someone will be waiting while I work deep into the grim hours of the night. And we can argue about how important my work is and if I’m taking care of myself. It. Will. Be. Fraught. And it will be dramatic. There will be multiple pauses with me staring out the window and plenty of desolate silences. Just like a real bird-of-the-streets.”
Crammerson put two blunt fingers on the side of his massive neck and glanced at the Summer Court timepiece hanging on his wall.
Miller waited in silence until the hawk spoke.
“Now, I’m going to speak very calmly and very clearly. There will be no obscenity. I will neither bark commands at you nor tell you to extend a full measure of effort towards getting your SHIT TOGETHER!”
Crammerson closed his eyes and breathed deeply, fingers still pressed against the big vein in his neck, “I’m sorry. That was unprofessional. And this is purely professional. No drama at all. Just simple management of an employee. So, please, please listen closely.”
The diviner nodded his head eagerly.
“Good. Delightful. Wonderful, “Crammerson said, looking at the ceiling and taking a deep breath, ”Miller, you’re an owl, correct?”
“I prefer Specialist Diviner.”
The grey-haired man just stared at him, so Miller took it as an invitation to continue.
“I accept that slang is important. Very hard-bitten. Very streetwise. Very bird-like. I get it; I really do. But there’s this thing with thematic nomenclature schemes. You see, if A equals B and A equals C, then A isn’t effective in differentiating B and C. You can also think of it as a graph. The vertical axis is rank, like hawk, and the horizontal is specialization, like owl—”
They summoned Hitch into the office and tried again.
“Miller,” the hawk said, “you are a specialist diviner, correct?”
“Good. Now tell me, when has a diviner last executed a capture?”
“Oh wow, boss,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “That’s a big question. Do you want me to answer by year, region, or eyrie?”
Hitch raised a hand, and Crammerson nodded to him, jaw clenched shut.
“Miller,” his partner said, speaking with the boundless deliberation of an Aketsi and his own slow drawling pace, “what’s the difference between crows and owls? Generally.”
“I really prefer specialist diviner.”
Crammer’s eye started to twitch.
“That debate,” his partner said, “is too long.”
“No, no. I’ve been thinking about it, and I think the crux of the issue is really—”
Before he could continue, Hitch lifted a finger, “Remember,” the Akestsi said, “a hawk is watching.”
“Damn it, you’re right!” With a conscious effort, Miller gathered himself back up. He made sure that he was slouching in his seat and put a hard-boiled scowl on his face— a hard-boiled bird scowl.
In the publications, birds were always sparse with words when talking to their superiors. A real streetwise bird wanted to be pounding the cobbles, feeling the pulse of the town, and working over a suspect, not explaining their methods.
“Diviners, they’re the eggheads, amiright?” he said, using some hip new slang he had heard on patrol. ”And crows, they’re the muscle.”
Hitch nodded, “You’re an egg head. Correct?”
Birds, he reminded himself, did not frown petulantly, “I’m a bird.”
“A bird who is a specialist diviner. And a specialist diviner is an egghead. Correct?”
Miller’s only response was to scowl.
Crammerson jumped in, “Crows capture dark mages. And even crows prefer to go in with a plan and research. Or with potions. Or with backup. Or with any actual combat training at all. Owls,” he continued, “are the ones who give crows the information they need so they do not die horrible deaths.”
“I’m not afraid of dying in the line of duty.”
“Yes!” Crammerson said, smacking his hand against the desk, “Exactly! That is exactly the problem.” He turned to Hitch, “Are you afraid of dying on a capture?”
Hitch barely paused at all, which for him meant he waited until a slow count of three before responding, “Yes.”
“Good. That’s reasonable. That’s downright prudent. But how often, when you’ve been with Miller, have you been able to calmly approach a target after doing the proper planning and preparation?”
“Not,” Hitch drawled, “very often.”
“I don’t see what the issue is,” Miller said. “Magic gets abused. Birds see the abuse. Birds stop the abuse, and then there’s less abuse.”
“Diviners see abuse,” Crammerson said. “Crows stop abuse, and then birds get paid because there’s less abuse. Do you know how much money we made on your street toughs?”
“Just desserts are the only payment—”
“Shut your mouth, you mud-munching illiterate son of a snaggle-toothed sheep fucker!” Crammeson roared, jumping to his feet and jabbing a finger at Miller. ”We need money! Holding your panty-waist, useless captures lost us money! Not to mention, you are the only person on divine and detect patrols who needs a crow assigned to them. Do you know why?”
Miller opened his mouth, but the light around Crammerson literally warped under the weight of his anger. Which hinted to the diviner’s well-honed and delicate magical sensibilities that interrupting the Bloody Barber at that particular moment was, perhaps, not the best idea.
“Because,“ his superior growled, “the others spend their time divining and detecting. Then they spend their time reporting and going the fuck home. Not dicking around with half-assed pickpockets that wouldn’t be worth the guards time, let alone a vulture’s.
So, here’s the deal, Miller. We have a raid and can’t spare you a babysitter. If you didn’t have the spells you do, I would shove a steel wool brush so far up your ass it’d get caught in your teeth. Then I’d grab you by the throat and use it to scrub off the Cage’s floor. Instead, you’re going to help someone. Their diviner will be in charge, and you will follow. Every. Single. Order.”
There was a faint rattling conducted through the wood of Miller’s chair and straight into his eye sockets a the smallest hint of the Bloody Barber’s magic slipped past his control, ”You will learn from them,” Crammerson continued, ”and if I hear a word about you running off halfcocked, then I’ll find you a job with a horse breeder who needs a fluffer. Am I clear?
There was a lump in his throat, and Miller had to swallow several times before he was able to answer, “Yes, sir. Crystal clear.”
“Good. Jercash!” his hawk roared. “Get in here!”
The foreign raven walked in and said… something. Miller didn’t pick it up. He was too distracted.
Jercash looked like he had fallen out of the news sheets. He was thin like Miller wanted to be thin. The kind made of whipcord and sharp angles. The hollows under his cheeks complemented the shadows cast by his wide-brimmed hat.
The man slouched into the office, a bare trace of magic wafting off of him. He wore loose civilian clothes, just wrinkled enough to seem like a working man’s outfit, and his skin was red from exposure to wind and sun.
Miller would bet money that he socked street toughs right in the kisser. But, like, on a regular basis. He probably called them pal and grumbled one-liners while shaking off his fist afterward. In fact, he probably did it often enough that he had to hide the bandages from his significant other(s).
Yeah, Jercash was the real deal. He was a bird’s bird.
“Miller!” Crammerson yelled. “Focus!”
The diviner jumped to his feet and saluted, the lines of his arm so sharp they could have been used to cut fruit, or cheese, or maybe bread. Point was, he had a picnic’s worth of sharpness in the gesture.
Bet you that Jercash’s salute was laconic and sloppy.
At the thought, Miller collapsed into his chair and tried to keep his face from twisting in shame. How could he be so stupid!
Now everyone was looking at him. Crammerson closed his eyes and sighed. Hitch considered for several seconds before electing to frown and tilt his head in confusion. Jercash, for his part, darted a glance at Crammerson and smirked at the man’s ire.
“Miller,” the gray-haired hawk finally said, “I need you to kindly leave my office. I find myself disturbingly sympathetic to the plight of spree killers at the moment. And I have no desire to see how many people I could kill by mounting you on a coat tree and using your skull as a bludgeoning weapon in what, I absolutely assure you, would be the most prolific murder-rampage this city has ever seen.”
“Bigger than the Night of Screams?”
“Bigger than the Elementalist who got turned into a chimera?”
“By an order of magnitude.”
“Wow,” Miller said.
What a bird. The Bloody Barber really could do anything.
“Are we clear?” growled his superior.
“Perfectly, sir. No coat trees in the office. Understood.”
Jercash let out a harsh-sounding laug. He clapped Miller on his shoulder and guided him to his feet.
“Come on. Can you still recognize the signature of that life stealer?”
“The one who tried to hide a body in a wall?” he said as they exited Cramerson’s office.
“That’s the one.”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s real generic; everyone who finds the Bal DuMonte forbidden texts figures out pretty much the same thing. But that won’t be a problem.”
The raven’s eyes flashed, “Bal DuMoney what?”
Miller shrugged, “It’s an older healers’ text that talked about merging Night and Autumn Court magic. Effective, from what I know, but the method was forbidden.”
“The White Rose Plague.”
“What about it?”
Miller tried not to frown, “The Breath Stealer Cabal?”
The raven blinked at him.
“It was about two hundred years ago. Everyone was dying, no one wanted to die, and enough hedge mages came together that they were able to crack two healing techniques that only the magic academies should have been able to teach.”
“Ahh,” Jercash said, nodding his head even as his eyes habitually scanned the halls around them for threats. “The two mixed and turned into dark magic.”
“Very dark magic. One that left bodies with similar signs of death as the White Rose Plague.”
“Which just so happened to be the plague they were in at the time.”
“Exactly,” Miller said, “they stayed secret for longer than most cabals do and were real trouble when the birds found them.”
“And you know all of this just from looking at the scene?”
“Of course,” Miller said carefully, not mentioning that Grim Noir, Rue Delite, and Mori Ennui had all stomped out long-hidden remnants of that cabal in their stories. It was one of the most common tropes in popular fiction. And, back when he had access to the school’s libraries, he had spent a good chunk of time reading into the backstory while he waited on new editions to come out.
“Miller,” Jercash said, a predatory smile cutting across his face, “you’re going to tell me everything you know about this, and we are going to nab this son of a bitch.”
“Can I be there when you do?”
The raven laughed, “Oh, believe me, you’ll be there. We’ve been following them for the last two months, and I will be burnt if I’m letting them slip away again.”
Jercash patted him on the shoulder, “He knows that we needed someone to follow the trail. But if the situation is urgent,” thin shoulders shrugged from under a wrinkled jacket, “We may just not have enough time for backup. And our poor little life-stealer may end up with a few less teeth than he remembered having if he makes it to the Cage.”