The parties were dispatched. The backup was in place. The game was afoot and Miller was wrist-deep in a potted plant.
“Three sausages,” he muttered, digging his fingers into the dirt. “Or three per person? Stupid, stupid, Atalan. They have to cook them over a fire if they don’t get them from a dirty-aproned bartender. Obviously! You’ve read about this!”
“Miller?” said a slow drawling voice.
He spun around and hid his hands behind his back.
“What are— Oh,” he sighed, “it’s just you, Hitch. That’s good.”
“Are you alright?”
Miller shrugged and examined his fingernails, hoping the dirt made him look less like a stay-at-home-can’t-get-a- date-and-reads-magazines-about- birds loser.
“Cause he’s a bird. A real-life bird! Come on Hitch, use your head.”
“Ahh. Obviously,” the stout Aketsi said. “How does killing a plant impress him?”
“Cause I need to look tough! I need to look like someone who doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty for an investigation!”
“Dirty?” his partner said, taking the time to think through each word before letting it seep out like chilled molasses from a bottle. “Why literally dirt-y?”
“Cause, Jercash, he said that, like, they go to doctors! They go to doctors if they get dirt under their nails!”
“Losers!” he said, voice running together into one breathless tumble of anxiety, “Losers who can’t get dates, and embroider their underwear, and read magazine stories about birds!”
“Do you embroider your underwear?”
The Aketsi gave him a look.
“I don’t! Actually,” he paused, eyes losing focus, “Do you think I should show Jercash my underwear? But like, casually. Sag my pants, you know. Or bend down and show that I wear what a bird wears. Wait, what underwear does a—”
“Bye Miller, have fun,” his partner said, turning around at a pace that was (for Hitch) shockingly fast.
They left the Eyrie, and Jercash set off towards where his team had gone to eat.
“Miller, what with my delicate disposition and bird-like investigative skills, I wanted to ask; why the fuck are your hands covered in dirt? You trip into a plant or some shit?”
The diviner froze.
Whoa. Jercash had deduced the exact origin of the soil just by seeing some particulate on his hands.
What a bird.
“Uhhh?” What was a witty comeback? Fast, he had to be fast and snappy. And laconic (magazines always made them laconic). And tough. But mostly, fast. “Why don’t you have dirt on your hands?”
Jercash smirked from under the brim of his hat and shrugged off the blatant evasion, “Sorry son, only blood.”
They walked to a nearby place that had cheap food. While the raven gathered up his unit, Miller quickly ran down the street.
He came back to see the relatively small group huddled together in a circle. Altogether there were five of them, including Jercash. He was the raven, the leader, and he commanded three crows and one diviner. All of them were travel-worn, hard-edged, and looked ready to enact abrupt, jaded, and super laconic violence at a moment’s notice.
One of them must have spotted him because Jercash looked over his shoulder before he made it all the way down the street.
“What you got there, Miller?”
The skinny diviner hefted the twine-wrapped bundle of wax paper.
“There’s a good butcher down the street, so I grabbed some sausage for this sausage party.”
Everyone went silent. Then, with the sort of eerie unity you only see in people who have spent years together, they all turned to Isa, the lone woman on the team, and roared with laughter.
Kit, their diviner, caught his breath just long enough to gasp, “What do you say, Isa? You getting enough sausage in your life? Or do you need what Miller’s packing?”
That moment. That exact moment, was when Miller realized that he had fucked up.
Isa snorted before grabbing at her trousers, “I’ve got more sausage than the rest of you combined.”
Sausage party wasn’t about the communal eating of greasy, meat-based products in a way that (Miller assumed) tough and/or rugged people did to bond.
No. This was a sex thing. A genitals thing.
Isa pantomimed exactly how big her sausage was, with disturbingly evocative hand motions, and Miller felt his face heat up.
How had he not realized it was a penis thing!
Luckily, Jercash stepped in. He snatched the parcel of (obviously phallic) meat products from Miller’s hands and tossed it to Kit.
The dirty jokes continued, though Miller stayed silent. Far to mortified to even look up.
Was there an encyclopedia of sexual innuendos somewhere? He really needed to study. So he could curse like Crammerson, and to make sure something this embarrassing never happened again.
Actually, they would probably call that sort of encyclopedia a dick-tionary.
While he thought, they had passed by the Eyrie, dropped off the food, and headed to the part of town where their quarry had slipped away.
It was right on the border between where the shops became expensive and where the poor people lived. The ones who stayed out of sight, and worked the unglamorous jobs that kept the wealthy patrons of these neighborhoods in peak comfort.
The last spot they had seen the suspect was in a confluence of alleys so overhung with awnings, laundry lines, and window boxes that the muddy gutters never saw enough sun to wholly dry.
“This guy is Spring Court, right?” Miller asked.
“Yeah,” Jercash grunted as his team slowly stopped joking and wordlessly spread out to cover all the entrances to the alley.
“What other types of magic have you seen him use?”
“Nothing much above the level of a control exercise. Float a knife behind his back sort of thing.”
They called the other diviner over.
Despite being an egghead like Miller, Kit was the largest and most muscular of the whole team. He deep set eyes under a heavy overhang of bone that looked like it was meant for breaking through doors. He sat right on the edge of how fit a normal person could be without magical intervention. If his hair had been a strange color, or his eyes were at all unusual, Miller would have bet money that he had paid to have his body altered.
“How have you been tracking him?” Miller asked.
“I had a marker on him. Sort of thing a circle jockey shouldn’t have been able to sense.”
“Soul’s magic?” he said, thinking of the types of magic that the Spring Court and their spell circles tended to overlook.
Miller’s mouth worked on auto pilot as he tried to imagine how someone could have slipped out of such narrow confines with a team of elite trackers after them. “Old word that the researchers like. It’s the soul bond, feeling-y, ghost sorta thing.”
“Yeah,” Kit nodded, “it’s that sorta.”
“Tell me more about him.”
“Short hair, had a beard, then shaved it. No one agrees on his height or voice. Steals new clothes all the time. People say he has a weird accent. Also—”
“Yeah yeah,” Miller interrupted, “but what does his magic feel like? How does he think?”
Kit just stared at him, but Jercash jumped in.
“He’s wrong in the head. His magic is smooth. Not technical, proper spell work, but advanced. Like Aketsi food. Recipe is all sorts of queer, but it still works anyway. But then, this guy, he deals with people and there’s none of that patience. None of the canny or willpower that goes into his spells. He just fuckin’ drains ‘em like a fruit and leaves the husks. At first, he cleans up, makes a den. But the longer he stays in one place, the sloppier he gets.”
“Is he getting lazy, or is he getting preoccupied?”
The raven’s face hardened, “It’s contempt. He doesn’t give a shit about people and doesn’t think anyone will catch him.”
From where he leaned against the mouth of an alley, Dentin, a crow with a missing tooth and the innocent, ruddy face of a farmer who just stumbled into town, said, “I’ve seen the bodies. Contempts right. Sick fuck likes the power.”
Miller nodded as all the information he had on their target swirled around his mind. The Bal DuMonte texts were supposed to be an innovative way to improve healing. But mixing healing with Night Court magic tended to make people go strange. The reality-bending beliefs you needed to change a person’s body could get poisonous. To have that level of conviction that you had the right to meddle in life and death, that you fundamentally deserved to control another person’s body… when it went wrong, it went badly wrong.
A picture of who their suspect was as a person started forming like a collage in his mind.
Miller reached for one of those holes he had drilled through his own sanity—a tunnel into the sort of fanatical, devoted belief that sneered at reality.
He let himself remember that all the world was one. Everyone was one. And any two added together were, in fact, one. There was a brief moment of dissonance as the model he held in his head, the psychopathic convictions of their prey, clashed with the profound emphatic unity of the universe that his spell required him to believe in.
If he had still been in classes, the clash of two worldviews would have made him lose the spell. But Atlan Johnson Miller was not in school. He was in the streets, chasing down a criminal.
And he was a bird. A real-life bird.
That trumoped everything. He summoned a massive surge of magic and threw it behind his convictions. For a second, the world resisted him. His own brain resisted him. But Miller clenched his hands and unbent his spine until it felt like he was physically growing larger.
With a final flexing of will, a synesthetic trail of colors and patterns appeared in front of him. It told the story of magic—both as it had been in this location and as it currently was.
With his senses open, he immediately felt Isa with a painful sort of intensity. By far, she had the greatest amount of raw power. Also, she was an elementalist naturally dialed into a subset of water threaded with influences of fire. Being near her felt like a mist of burning, liquid flame dewing against his skin.
Jercash was also a powerhouse. So much so that Miller thought his skin must be buzzing to contain it all. Kit on the other hand was obviously a professional tier mage. Ordered, focused, and in possession of the sort of talent that brushed aside tricks able to fool ninety percent of the magic population. But, he was also clearly the weakest of them. And the enchanted items hidden underneath his clothes stood out like a beacon to Miller’s magically enhanced sight.
If not for the feeling of purpose flowing through him, he might have stood and stared at the infinite complexities of magic for hours. But he was on duty.
Also, for all his evil training, and unnaturally long life, their target was about as subtle as a fire in the library. Which was a real bummer.
Miller had brought his ‘A’ game out. He was ready to tear through the ether. To do complex analysis on every strand of power until he found one that matched their target’s personality and style.
But he probably could have followed this guy (and Miller could taste that their target considered himself to be a guy) with his ‘C’ game. Maybe even his ‘D’ game.
Amidst the jumbled impressions of power like a burning river, and disappointment with their prey, Miller made a decision. Nay, a covenant. To never utter the phrase ‘D Game’ aloud.
Not after the sausage party incident.
“Got him,” Miller growled, his throat feeling thick. Almost like he had just gotten over a cold.
But, rather than getting an answer, he heard the sound of harsh whispering and someone spitting onto the street.
“Listen,” Jercash hissed to one of his people, “it’s a reality bender thing. Crammerson said he literally isn’t able to notice; even if we talk about it. So shut your mouth, buck up, and stop freezing him up.”
“It’s fucking weird,” Gordo said. He was their artificer and was one of those people who managed to both be skinny and have a protruding gut at the same time.
“They’re all weird.”
Miller cleared his throat, “Who’s weird?”
Kit, who had been bent over in the corner of the alley, turned to face him while wiping something off his chin, “You! You with your kape kifting.”
“My hoop hefting?”
“YOUR SHAPE SHIF— ”
Miller put a hand to his head and winced. Something about his spell must not be balanced. He was getting an absolute beast of a headache. Also, he didn’t remember his jacket feeling so tight across the chest. Even his face felt weirdly stretched out. That was one of the reasons he didn’t like divine and detect patrol. When he was on the hunt, his civilian clothes always seemed so confining and claustrophobic.
“Sorry, what? I didn’t hear the last bit.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jercash interrupted, glaring at Kit and Gordo. “You just, ahh, you get a different look about you when you’re on a trail.”
“Yeah,” Jercash grunted. “Just a whisker different around the eyes.”
“I don’t know what everyone’s complaining about,” Isa said, coming up and looping her arm through his. “This is a good look on you. The—” for just a second there was whining in Miller’s ears that made it hard to tell what Isa was saying, “ — process wasn’t the best. But maybe we can talk about that sausage party idea again.”
The diviner froze.
“But, ahh” he swallowed, throat suddenly dry, “you’re a bird.”
She grinned up at him, “I am. And do you know what a hawk eats when it gets into a chicken coop?”
“The biggest co—”
Jercash probably saved the skinny diviner’s life. If he hadn’t interrupted then Miller’s might have died of a heart attack right there.
Would have been worth it though.
“Miller! Move your ass!”
He blinked, trying to think past the shock and cacophony of magic around them, “I really need to go on more dates,” he muttered to himself.
“You had better focus on finding our man,” Jercash said, ”or you’ll have a date with my boot.”
“Yeah,” the wiry man gave him a smile that was not in the slightest bit kind or reassuring. ”You’ll treat it to dinner and wine, like a gentleman. ‘Cause if you don’t start moving, we’re gonna see just how far up your ass my boot will go”
It was such a bird thing to say. So much like Crammerson that Miller found himself grinning. It helped anchor him. Made him feel a little bit more grounded amidst all the intense sensory information benign channel into his brain.
“Not the sort of action I’m into, sir,” he said, quoting a bit of dialogue from one of his favorite Rue DeLite stories.
A quick glance showed him that their guy had used some ugly-looking magic to jump onto the roofs. Miller nodded his head towards the exit and took the lead.
With a sharp whistle, the raven summoned their team.
“Might not be what you’re into,” the man rumbled,, ”but you go empty-eyed like that again, and it’s the kind of action I’ll be ankle-deep in, you hear me?”
Miller shook his head.
Vulgar, threatening, snappy, and coarse.
What. A. Bird.
Which made him more sad that this mage was so easy to track. He would have paid good money to watch a team like this scour the streets for a lead.
They walked to the far side of the building. Miller could immediately see where their target had expended an (unnecessary) amount of his energy to jump to another roof before clambering down into the street.
“Sir,” he said, as they walked (no, stupid. They were birds. They stalked) down more streets, “why is it that Isa seems shorter?”
Jercash and one of the crows looked at him.
“You really don’t know, do you?” the raven asked.
“Don’t know what?”
The bird just shook his head and readjusted his wide-brimmed hat.
“Focus on this hunt. I want to be out of this town as soon as I can.”
Miller frowned, “You don’t like Istima?”
“Whole place puts my hackles up. Nothing about it is real. And the money,” even with his senses as wide open as they were, Miller could not sense emotions. But the hatred that the man next to him exuded was so strong it almost felt like he could. “Money means more than life here. And I can’t abide by that. This whole place is just a—” the man grimaced. “It isn’t right.”
Their team paused at an intersection and looked at him expectantly.
To him the trail was so obvious it almost hurt his eyes. Really, considering how inefficient their guy was with his power, it wasn’t a surprise he needed to eat so many people.
Sure, the specific types of magic the criminal used had switched, which might make it hard for other Diviners. But Miller could see the transition like a single ribbon shifting colors as it unspooled. It being red before and blue now didn’t stop him from seeing one long line pointing right at their prey as he had shifted from making himself stronger to moving his flesh around to look different. Which was clever. Most people assumed that shape shifting was the sole domain of the Night Court. But there were creative ways to get almost the same result with different court’s spells.
Even so, despite the style of magic changing, the energy still had the same tainted flavor. And it still had the same odd mixture of complex structure with poor fundamentals. To him that was an easy trail.
Maybe if the guy had the common sense to not use magic for every little problem like a first-year who just learned telekinesis, he would be harder to track. As it was, the only reason they had paused at all was to wait for a passing line of carriages.
Once they could cross the street, there were two options. They could follow a road on the left that would eventually lead into the Side Market, or go to the right down a pretty road full of successful and pristine-looking shops.
To the right, people paid to keep the homeless away and for trash to never sit in front of their shops more than a few hours. It was where Miller’s preferred post office was.
But, a few hard-to-spot turns away was the Side Market. Or at least one of the locations where the multi-headed market popped up. It was the place where you found less than licit goods. The people there provided for the fancy shops, gave them discounts on rare goods, supplied them with toughs when they needed guards for their shipments, and tried to hook as many of the store’s owners on wakefulness potions as they could.
“It just isn’t right,” Jercash sighed one last time, eyeing the opulence around them. Then the wide-brimmed hat tilted upwards just enough for Miller to see the Raven’s steely gaze. “But maybe you can change my mind, Miller. Impress me with what a fancy Istima bird like you can do.”
The thin diviner clenched his fists and looked across the street. The trail very clearly went to the right, down the main avenue towards the beautiful shops and perfect restaurants. But they could, hypothetically, go into the Side Market and then exit right at the other end of the main avenue. Worst case scenario, they would walk back towards the intersection until he saw the trail again.
And Miller had studied the Side Market more closely than anyone else in Istima. There were so many raids, so much dark magic, and so many reports filed by his favorite birds in the Eyrie. He and Hitch rarely came this far, but after reading all those reports, he felt like he had lived here for years. There was hardly a shady shopkeeper whose name, business, favorite color, and preferred drug he hadn’t memorized.
It would be grimy, and tougher, and more bird-like. But it would take longer.
So, the question was, what would impress a real bird-of-the-streets? Demonstrate his skills with a fast, efficient, effortless hunt through one of the most beautiful parts of the city? Or show his street savvy and expertise with a drawn-out, tiring, dangerous crawl through the underbelly of sin?
“Well,” he said, eyeing the two options, “I don’t know about impressing you. But…”