For the fourth time the bird protested its innocence, but I smelled its guilt as only a cat can. I was an arrogant predator, mistaking the prey’s nervousness for deceit. And in truth, I am still arrogant, but I admit I was wrong then.

(I, Shadowdrop, most exquisitely somber of black cats, am not wrong now.)

“I did nothing!” squawked the seagull in Featherfur. “Wasn’t there, can’t prove it!”

“You can’t prove you weren’t there?” I purred.

“I wasn’t there, cat! I was at the Weirdfeast!”

“What weird feast?”

“I think he means Quicksilver Midden, Shadowdrop,” said my partner Nightwise in his best attempt at a gentle tone.

He and I paced the little room in the drafty tower of the Vigiles Nocturni, his dark tail high and curved like a friendly shepherd’s crook while mine thumped the stones like a whip about to strike. Nightwise and I were enacting a little game we called ‘good cat, great cat’. (He’d originally dubbed it ‘good cat, bad cat’, but I’d improved the name.) Between nonchalant paw-licks he said, “You know, alchemists toss their leftovers into it, along with the mundane refuse.”

“Like this fellow?” I said, and gave the gull my best evil eye (a sliver of night in a dome of gold-fringed green.) “You know, bird, I have heard of that place. Some of the animals who visit it... change. They grow wise. Too wise for their own good. Much as the dragon did for us black cats—”

“Aw, peck your prideful eyes!” said the seagull. “I did nothing wrong!”

“You are a thief, seagull,” I said, with a hiss for punctuation. “A known nabber of food, from fingers high and low. You’ve even plucked sweets from the emperor’s hand—”

“That’s normal for seagulls! And it was another gull that time! And it wasn’t even a good sweet!” He blinked and added, “But I did nothing today!”

“Yet somebody did something,” I said. “And a bird on the wing sees and hears many things a cat may not.” I paused to lick my shoulder, as if grooming was just as critical as our conversation, instead of nearly as critical. “Or does, if he is not questioned in this room all day.”

He glared sidelong. Then he aimed an eye out the grey-stone window at the sparkling sprawl of Archaeopolis, full of the leavings of a hundred human cultures and a dozen nonhuman ones. I think I actually heard his stomach groan. Now, this was a cat sort of questioning, and what I mean is, it could conclude like a human interrogation, with answers demanded and grudgingly given, or it could break off on a whim, the only trigger being a breeze teasing one’s whiskers or a cloud pawing at the sun.

But we’d find him again. And he didn’t want black cats ruffling his feathers the rest of his days.

“So,” I said, “let us bat it around again, Purloiner-of-Chips. Witnesses beheld a human swarmed by thousands of crows at dawn, practically dragged up into the air before they lost sight of him in the morning mist. And this after days of strange behavior by things of the air. Flocks of starlings making giant bird-shapes in the sky—”

“Bats out everywhere by day,” Nightwise put in.

“Eagles stealing Choosing signs,” I added.

“Bees hovering but never pollinating,” Nightwise said.

“Clouds of flies chasing people out of buildings,” I noted.

“Pigeons nipping chalk from schoolrooms,” Nightwise concluded.

“Very peculiar behavior. But nothing dangerous. Until now.”

Purloiner-of-Chips scoffed, as he’d done since we’d invited him inside that morning. Or more accurately, cajoled him with a mixture of threats and greasy fried potatoes. “Who were these witnesses who saw the attack? Humans?”

“Cats,” I admitted. “Meekbreeds.” Cats of natural intellect, I didn’t add, as opposed to us dragon-enchanted freaks.

“Ha! Animals! Can’t trust animals!”

“We’re all animals, Purloiner,” Nightwise pointed out. “And you do have a reputation as a sharp-eyed fellow.”

“If this is about crows, ask a crow!”

“We cannot,” I admitted. “No one can approach a crow in Archaepolis these days. Or most birds. It’s worrying. And if birds are taking it in their feathered heads to attack citizens, no one is safe. Maybe not even you.” I remembered to be threatening and growled a little. “Unless of course, bird, you’re in on it...”

“Ha! I, Purloiner-of-Chips, am not ‘in on it.’ I am above it. Above it all! No one is quicker! No one is sneakier!” He favored me with a beady eye. “Not even the emperor’s pets.”

“We don’t belong to the emperor,” I said, my back getting up. “We belong to ourselves.”

Purloiner knew he’d stepped on a conversational tail. He nearly ascended with sadistic glee. “Emperor Rel made you black cats his personal snitches. But Rel’s a friend to no-one but Rel! You’ll see! One day you’ll cast bad luck on him, black cats, and then you’ll be meat.”

I hissed, raising an extended claw. “See how ‘above it all’ you are if you obstruct a murder inquiry.”

“Murder?” said Purloiner.

“Kidnapping at least. You’d best hope it’s no worse than that.”

I stalked out of the tower room, letting Nightwise be the ‘good’ cat. I couldn’t claim to feel ‘great,’ however.

In truth I regretted calling Purloiner “refuse.” In my time I’d done things far worse than stealing food and defecating on people. He felt guilt about something, I was sure, but feeling guilty is no crime. If it were, I would be languishing in a cat-sized oubliette.

I descended the grand old lighthouse’s main stairs, giving Nightwise time. It also gave me the space to reacquaint myself with feline equanimity. Purloiner’s taunt had stung.

“I am no pet,” I scoffed.

“Excuse me?”

The speaker was Aurora, a cat as young as I’d been when our order, the Nocturni, was founded. She’d been named for eerie lights that had begun manifesting in the far north a few years back amid volcanic eruptions, lights widely taken as a sign that we of the Eldshore had entered a new age. The Aurora Borealis, the sages at the Discreet Lyceum had named them, those archaic words guaranteeing hours lost explaining that no, they didn’t mean the Northern Lights roared or were boring. Our Aurora was one of the rare “black cats” of Archaeopolis who were in truth grey striped tabbies. She had all our powers and was one of us in all but color.

Aurora seemed a bit skittish now, and I was annoyed with myself at losing composure. I was supposed to be the grownup in this shadow-flecked, torchlit hallway, she the nervous youngster. “I’m... not done yet,” I said, as if repeating myself. “When I return, that seagull will reveal all he knows.”

“I hope you fare better than I with the firebug.”

“Still no pattern in the fires?”

Aurora looked grim. “Nothing that makes sense. Arson isn’t so rare—not with so many people possessing fire spells. But no one has gone on a spree like this and escaped capture. The crazy ones make mistakes. The cunning ones are out for personal gain, and their handiwork’s more limited. But these buildings that were burned have so many different owners there’s no clear cui bono. And no mistakes.”

“And no deaths?”

“None so far, but on that I think Dame Fortune’s carrying us by the scruff of the neck.”

“Well, good luck, Aurora. I know you don’t need it, of course.”

Aurora blinked. “Thank you, Shadowdrop, ma’am!”

Ma’am, I thought, as I padded down the stairs. That almost hurt as much as pet.

Five years ago, after we’d had a small—oh, very well, gigantic—role in defeating mad sorcerers who were attempting to level the city, Emperor Rel had given us misfits a former lighthouse, and a budget, and a mandate to investigate unnatural evil. But that did not make us pets. Who would not want such a fascinating job? The Imperial Lictors dealt with ordinary crime, the Underseers with monsters from the depths, the Overwatchers with creatures from the stars. But we Nocturni hunted somewhere in between. We, uncanny ourselves, investigated the weird at the level of street or sewer or rooftop. And although humans, goblins, delven, and even hellsnouts could serve with distinction, we black cats, with our intellect and powers of ill-fortune, were especially suited for the outré.

Thus as I descended the Tower of the Hidden Light I overheard from the rooms along the staircase such fragments of conversation as, “I’m telling you, this enchanted peacock quill must be recovered at all costs,” and “Countmaster Drear insists we surveil all mages possessing mental spells before the Choosing,” and “I say to you, when an alchemist owes me this much money, it is indeed a supernatural affair,” and, “Ambassador Sharga of Jargoskaraklarga insists that painting streets with blood is religious freedom,” and finally, as I reached the ground floor, our chief-cat Silfrena Chua telling my favorite human, our clerk Tru, “Inform the guard we are not interested in ordinary corpses, even gruesomely fish-nibbled and crab-eaten ones.”

Silfrena—some called her Silly but not here in our tower—was a bit of a mystery. She was a black cat (with white mittens and belly) but not one of the Archaeopolitan tribe. She’d arrived by ship from a far land, perhaps even as far as the fabled Country of Walls. How she’d come by her enhanced intelligence I did not know, but I knew she had the emperor’s trust.

Trust in Silly—pardon me, Silfrena—though I did, and although I needed to return to Nightwise, I always felt a certain protectiveness toward Tru. She had been my companion (not my owner) since my youth. I, at eight, was no longer a young cat, but she at thirteen was still a young human; such are the differences between our kinds. I had to acknowledge that although this sepia-skinned, brown-haired, green-eyed, many-freckled youth was still the girl I’d known, she’d become far taller and tougher in five years. I still felt she should not be exposed to such troubles, but she had volunteered.

“This here’s the closest official spot to where it washed up,” an irate city guardswoman was saying, her voice a good companion for the rough pitted stones. Her plumed bronze helmet glinted in the crook of one arm and her lined, grey-topped umber face fixed Tru with skeptical brown eyes. “Sooner I drop it off, sooner we’re rid of the stink. Why must I defer to a girl and a cat?”

Tru said, a bit breathlessly, “I don’t matter, Sergeant Zee, but these cats have seen things that could twist a human mind into knots. And not overhand knots either. I’m talking a double fisherman’s knot, or even a Contrariwise Rose—”

Silfrena Chua mewed, “Less is more, in metaphor.”

Sergeant Zee grunted her displeasure and told her squad over her shoulder they’d have to lug the guts down the hill to Scatterwind guardhouse. They, too, were furious about taking orders from human kits or grownup cats. To an extent, I could sympathize. Neither commanding nor being commanded sits well with me. But the idea of family doesn’t just sit well; it leaps. I’d never become a pack hunter, but the Nocturni had become family to me.

So when Sergeant Zee turned back to revive the argument, I paced between her and Tru. Zee scowled, dropped the matter, and led her squad away.

“What word, Shadowdrop?” asked Silfrena, and “How are things with you, Pepper?” asked Tru. Tru sometimes used her old name for me, the one she’d chosen before gaining the gift of cat language. I forgave her.

“I doubt the seagull knows much, but he feels guilty about something,” I told Silfrena, and to Tru I added, “and I am fine, and not a pet.”

Tru’s nose twitched. For her it was a gesture of surprise. “I never said you were—”

“Excuse me, chief, Tru—but I need air.” I found the tower, the emperor’s gift, suddenly confining. I had the urge to walk by myself.

I darted off down the hillside path to where Sergeant Zee’s troop were hauling the aforementioned body on a blanket-covered litter. Interestingly, Zee herself was holding one pole. Most humans in authority declined heavy labor.

“What do you want, cat?” Zee demanded. She probably saw little distinction between me and Aurora or Nightwise or Silfrena Chua or any other cat of the Nocturni.

But the question intrigued me. Aloud I mused, “Indeed, what do I want? Friendship, knowledge, skill, fish heads? An authority structure I might chew at from within? Justice for humans who’ve been swarmed by crows? The emperor’s respect? Sunbeams?”

“Meow,” was all Zee heard. She was neither a wizard, nor, like Tru, blessed with the capacity to speak to cats.

“Keep moving,” the sergeant told her people, as I realized all I wanted was to pay respects. Does not each of us, cat or less graceful creature, deserve that much? A sea-wind rippled the blanket and I locked the sight underneath in my mind: shredded black robes, perforated in many places, pinkie and ring finger of the right hand torn off, the light-brown face made unrecognizable by sea creatures. Whoever you were, sir, I thought, safe passage to whatever awaits. A part of my mind mewed, Sir? How can you be certain of that? But it was hard for me to leave that matter unspecific, so: Godspeed, sir. With my respects now paid, distractions beckoned. Zee shook her head and muttered something about the randomness of cats.

There was foot traffic down here, close to the bustle of Scatterwind Market. Ours is a maritime city and a naval empire, and the sparkles upon the sea were of one piece with the salt-spray and susurrus. My senses were heightened from the morning’s excitement, and thus I read the signs. A Raptor Concern construction gang with its talon-and-tower insignia was clearing old ruins for some new insulae apartments. There was construction everywhere these days; Nyx Raptor, gladiatrix turned magnate, must be doing well. And because it was a public contract, the signs were everywhere.

Wooden signs, like:

JOIN THE PACK—SAY “AYE!” TO THE LUPA CREW. (Beside the words was pictured a blue wolf.)

RIDE EQUUS TO VICTORY! (Likewise, here strode a red horse.)

A STRONG COHORT FOR A STRONG CITY: HANDS UP FOR BOVI. (Here a green ox raised its horns.)

OPTAT APRUM WILL GORE ITS FOES! (A black boar charged.)

I also noticed fluttering notices tacked in one corner of every sign, each paper cut into the shape of a golden eagle: AQUILA PARTY—FOR AN EMPIRE THAT SOARS ABOVE ALL! Those addenda probably broke the rules, but that wasn’t my department. The Aquilans were latecomers to the Choosing, and like many an underdog (overbird?) they felt entitled to cheat.

For the Sidereal Senate was up for Choosing, along with its little brother the Wheelhouse of Representatives. The moth-eaten republican institutions of ancient Eldshore had been re-tailored with egalitarian trappings by Pirate Empress Zayne fifty years ago, and officials were now Chosen every year by a thin slice of citizens. What used to be a windy social club for the gentry now had real ballast. Zayne had labeled those who were eligible to stand for office, and to participate in the Choosing of the officers, the Free Brethren, in model of the Spiral Sea corsairs she’d dallied with in exile before the Zaynite Restoration. She’d still been firmly in charge, but many decisions had been left to a consensus of the officers in much the manner of corsairs choosing their captains, or their targets.

This year Zayne’s son and successor Rel had declared all the city’s property-owning sapients Free Brethren, not just all propertied male humans. (This did not include vagabond me, for I had no property, unless you counted a basket and blanket.) With the number of Brethren trebled, new “Hulls” were being drawn. These were imagined ship-outlines superimposed upon the city neighborhoods in mimicry of vessels gathered at a pirate council. Each Hull chose a Navigator for the Sidereal Senate plus one Helmsman per thousand denizens for the Wheelhouse of Representatives. For the entire rest of the empire there were eight notional Hulls laid out like arcs on a compass. We were an imperial city after all. All Hulls pointed to Archaeopolis.

And just as in a pirate council, all was hubbub. The Hulls beyond the city would remain largely unaffected, but here in Archaeopolis, factions and their contenders for office competed everywhere across multiple neighborhoods, still unsure where the boundaries between the city’s brand-new Hulls would fall.

Beyond the signs rose our Nocturni tower. It was four-sided for two stories, then five-sided for its next story, and lastly eight-sided up where the old light was housed. What the architect was thinking as regards these particulars was unknown. We knew it was a convenient if drafty place for our business, with a decent view of whatever eldritch madness afflicted the city this week.

Rarely more so, I suddenly realized, then right now.

For a dark swarm coalesced over the tower like a boiling thundercloud.

“Eh?” I squinted.

A black squawking mass, it flowed into a third-story window—leading into the very room where Nightwise was questioning Purloiner-of-Chips.

“Foes!” I yowled, sprinting up and up. “Beware!”

We’d installed exterior ramps for cats, as well as tunnels for goblins and oversized doors for hellsnouts. We thus had the most widely sapient-accessible building in Archaeopolis. But at the moment I wished it had barred windows.

On the sill, Nightwise, joined by Aurora, was battling the dark froth of crows to save Purloiner from being dragged away to some avian judgment. “That’s my witness!” I snarled as I leapt inside the window. Beady eyes whipped my way; as I entered I crossed the paths of many.

Luckbane, we call it. The dragon who sleeps beneath our country granted this power to black cats—or the occasional grey—in order to unravel human hopes. But it works well enough on others.

Crows spiraled out of the air inside the room, wings spasming or eyes blurring. Crows collided with comrades. Crows shot out the window and hit the tower stones. Aurora, Nightwise, and I jumped and clawed and hissed, crisscrossing the murder of crows. Even so we could not disrupt them all. They clawed and pecked, and we bled.

Yet their real target was clearly Purloiner-of-Chips, who shrieked insults and challenges from a corner. Had this been a sporting event he’d have been our biggest rooter.

“Get him inside to Silfrena!” I yowled at the others. “I’ll hold them off!”

“Are you serious?” said Nightwise.

“Are you mad?” said Aurora.

“I am me.”

I have always been wary of power. My power—there is no use being modest—is the most dangerous of all my contemporaries’. But sometimes fangs must be bared. “Bad luck!” I screeched, for my reputation precedes me, and I launched myself once more into the fray, willing my luckbane to lash out as powerfully as it could. Old injuries reopened among wings and beaks; old fears re-emerged; old ailments resurfaced. Inexplicably loose stones chose that moment to fall from the ceiling. Sunlight blazed off the bay into many avian eyes. The wind moaned and gusted through the window. I saw one crow lose its composure and dive toward me.

For a moment I glimpsed a strange glow within its eyes, and an image took shape within—that of other eyes staring out, oval eyes rimmed in green, filled with orange, with centers like blue suns emerging from an eclipse. I knew not what it meant.

I leapt to one side and zigzagged back, risking contact in order to cross its path.

A coat-hook for human use came loose from the wall, dropping a cloak that smothered the crow. With an outraged croak it struggled out from under.

I leaped.

It should be noted that while our luckbane confers bad luck upon others, we are no luckier or unluckier than most. I missed. The crow, that is. The stone floor I made excellent contact with.

Through pain and swirls of color I saw the crow dart out the window. Once one fled, the others decided to be elsewhere. I lay gasping and reeling, alone with the wind.

Enough lounging, I told myself. Time waits for no mammal.

Out in the stairwell my aching paws brought me to Nightwise, Aurora, and the cowering seagull. I got myself nose-to-bill. “They were after you. If you have nothing more to say, maybe it’s time you left.”

“Fine!” Purloiner squawked, sounding truly shaken. “I’ll tell you what I saw! Crows flew a human toward the old city wall. There’s a stream there, leads down to the harbor—”

“Flew?” I said. “Truly?”

“Maybe more bounced and dragged,” he said. “So many of them, like a black cloud—”

“They’d have to be amazingly coordinated,” Nightwise said.

“I don’t know!” Purloiner protested. “I didn’t get a good look, and I didn’t want to see what happened next. Later I saw crows fly to the fens north of the city. They’ve gone that way before. I watch them sometimes.”

“What do they do, when they’re not attacking people?”

“They fly over town, looking, looking...”

“For what?”

“I know not!”

“But you feel guilty about something, Purloiner-of-Chips. Tell me!”

“All right, all right.” Once again he looked at me sidelong. In a cat or a human it would seem furtive; in a bird it was earnest. “But protect me.”

“You have my word.”

“The word of a cat!”

“The word of Shadowdrop!”

And the way I said it had an effect, for he squeaked, “Before that human was attacked by crows, it said something to them.”

“What?”

“‘Tell the emperor he can mix the potion himself.’ Those were the words, cat. That is what I felt guilty about not telling you. Now keep me safe.”

I stared at Nightwise. He said, “Aurora, do me a favor? Take Purloiner-of-Chips, here, and get him something to eat.”

As the bemused tabby led the seagull away I announced, “I am going for a walk.”

“Don’t do it, Shadowdrop,” Nightwise said.

“Why? Walks are healthy.”

“Don’t go directly to the emperor and demand an explanation.”

“Now, why would I do that?”

“Why do you do anything? Because you think of it, and you have a quick body and sharp wit that can implement plans before most of us blink. But that doesn’t make it smart.”

“What would you do? Ignore it all?”

“Walk around the perimeter of the problem. See its shape. Remember we cats are both predator and prey. We need to know which of those is dominant at any moment.”

“Fine.” It occurred to me there was a nagging issue—besides Nightwise that is. “There was something in one of the crows’ eyes,” I recalled. “It looked like the images of other eyes.”

“Yes. I saw it a couple of times too.”

“Nightwise, I think something’s controlling them. Something with eyes like that. But where have I seen such eyes?”

“Nightmares?”

“Possibly, but I don’t know how to hunt nightmares. I don’t think we’re talking about a human eye, though, nor a cat’s.”

“Goblin? Delven? Hellsnout? Oldspinner?” He paused. “Dragon?”

I shivered. “We’ve both only ever seen one dragon eye, but it was enough for nine lifetimes. I doubt it’s a dragon. Or any of your other options.”

“Hm. Is there an Encyclopedia of Eyes out there?”

“I suggest you find out, Nightwise. You were once a wizard’s familiar. Book knowledge is more your style.”

“I agree.” False modesty was certainly not Nightwise’s style, but then neither is it mine.

I said, “I am going to do as you suggest and walk the perimeter. In this case, Quicksilver Midden’s. There may be something to learn. Let us meet at the north gate at sunset. I want to see where these crows go at night.”

“I agree. But take the seagull with you.”

“Are you joking?”

“He needs protection. I honestly think he’ll be safest with you, the most powerful of black cats, and the emperor’s—”

“Don’t say it.”

“—favorite. Meanwhile if you are minding him, you will be less tempted to confront Rel.”

“You actually believe Emperor Rel is implicated here? Do we even have the right to consider that idea?”

“The ‘right?’ Remember how things lie. The emperor decided to make us cats integral to a law enforcement agency. Surely the man deserves what he gets. Just stay safe, Shadowdrop.”

“When do I not?”

He actually stared at me when I said that.

As grumbling seagull and pensive cat departed the tower, we chanced to do so upon the heels of a lanky human in white robes and orange turban. This unusual figure strode downslope toward Scatterwind Market and the Eternal Esplanade.

The day Scatterwind Market was born was the day our centuries-old lighthouse became useless for its original purpose—and the cause was the same, the great storm of 744 E.Y. When it passed, a spectacular jumble of wrecked ships were piled high in the old harbor. Having its own ship graveyard there not only blocked the lighthouse’s view, it also made the beacon seem a trifle unlucky. Eventually the modern Tower of the Eye guided ships to the new Hourglass Harbor. The pile of wrecks was repurposed, in an example of Archaeopolis’s complex relationship with the dead, as an open-air market.

Today, the Eternal Esplanade, which winds from the market to Hourglass Harbor, hummed, buzzed, and babbled with activity. Sergeant Zee and her dead man were gone; here was a pamphleteer flogging a metaphorical dead horse. “You, sir!” she demanded of the turbaned man, slapping her pamphlet against a sign for the Equus Gang. “Have you heard of the Aquila Party? Do you want Eldshore to soar?”

The turbaned man said, “I have my own ways of soaring, for I am a scholar and an inventor.” I wondered if he’d been the visitor complaining of a shady alchemist back in the tower, or the one concerned about a lost quill. I couldn’t quite place his voice.

The pamphleteer blinked at the turban, ignored the seagull, and backed away when she saw me. At first I wanted to reassure her but she snarled, “Vermin!” and kicked me, tossing an “Outlander!” at the man.

I hissed, and Purloiner-of-Chips disappeared as efficiently as any mouse, but the turbaned human got in the pamphleteer’s way. He’d a brown face and long mustaches that shook with his anger. “It’s said the Testifier himself loved cats, and once even cut his own robe so that a cat might continue to sleep upon it when he rose for prayer.”

“They spread bad luck!” said the pamphleteer.

“You’re losing focus, friend,” a new voice said as a pale hand clamped the pamphleteer’s shoulder. If any manner, robe, and face could embody the dust of old paperwork and dismal offices, it was this fellow’s. This pockmarked, grey-robed man was a moon to the turbaned man’s sun. The only bright thing about him was the immaculate long-handled ceremonial mop he carried, golden yarn sprawling skyward upon a cherry-wood staff. “You may promote your faction as much as you wish, but you mustn’t kick people.”

“Drear!” protested the pamphleteer, staring at the mop of his office. She caught herself by adding, “Countmaster Drear. Master of the Choosing. These aren’t Brethren. They’re a Mirabadian and a black cat.”

Grey Drear studied her. He opened a hidden compartment upon the mop handle and took from it a lemon drop. “Candy?”

“No, thank you, sir.”

Drear sucked it in. “There’s an empty spot on the hilltop by the Jargo embassy,” he murmured out the corner of his mouth, lemon drop clicking against his teeth, golden mop jabbing northeast. “I suggest you take it.”

The pamphleteer looked from Drear to the turbaned man to me. “It’s bad luck consorting with cats, Drear. We don’t tolerate them in the Party.” I sensed a capital ‘P’.

“I don’t think cats are the source of your bad luck, friend,” said the turbaned man, taking a pamphlet with a bow. “Thank you for your literature!”

This combination of officiousness, politeness, and cattiness at last drove the pamphleteer off. I might have arrested her for harrying an officer of the law, but I was without an intermediary to speak for me—except Purloiner, who winged out of hiding to communicate in the language of well-aimed defecation before gliding out of sight again.

The turbaned man asked Drear, “Do you and our Aquila Party friend know each other?”

“She’s a lackwit, Haytham. All the Aquilan pamphleteers are. And speaking of Choosing Day...”

“It will be done. I lack only that one item.”

Drear grimaced. “Carry on. I have business with Silfrena Chua.” Drear looked down at me.

“I’m not her,” I said.

“Curse my inadequacy at magic,” said Drear. “I don’t understand you, good cat. Are you some Nocturni bodyguard?”

“Moon and stars, not that I know of,” said Haytham, my turbaned protector. “Are you following me, O cat?”

I made a decision and nodded.

Drear crunched his lemon drop. “Then I’ll find my own way.” He strode toward the tower.

“Mew?” I asked Haytham as I followed him up the street.

“You actually said, ‘mew?’” jeered Purloiner-of-Chips as he winged back toward us. “On purpose? You don’t find that a little demeaning?”

“You,” I answered, “have never harnessed the power of cuteness, have you?”

“Cuteness is a fish that swims deeper than seagulls can find. Though sometimes we manage poetic.”

“Ah,” said Haytham, cheerfully confused, pausing beside a small fountain along the Esplanade and beckoning to us to enjoy its coolness. We’d been getting more rain of late, but the hint of moisture was welcome. Of course the fountain was not so much a decoration as an entertainment made up of stone turtles who sporadically vomited water toward a central point. The engineers had set up a randomization method involving a weather vane, pressure plates, and a seismograph. Human children loved it. At dead center towered a wooden mainmast salvaged from a decommissioned ship. This marked the future Choosing place for this particular Hull. As I recalled, the original such mainmast, rising somewhere in the city, was from Pirate Empress Zayne’s flame-adorned flagship the Salamander. On that account, the business of drawing the Hulls across the city’s quarters was sometimes called Salamandering.

“Friend seagull,” the man said as he perused the pamphlet, “I do believe you’re an alchemorph. And you, O cat, are a city official, as am I, in my own small way! I am Haytham ibn Zakwan ibn Rihab. Perhaps you have heard of me?”

I tried to mew polite interest. Purloiner squawked something obscene.

“Or not,” Haytham sighed. “Fame is fleeting. In any event, I am off to Quicklime Street. Accompany me if you wish.”

As Quicklime Street lay beside Quicksilver Midden, I aimed my nose toward that direction. Haytham thought he understood. “I know cats of the Nocturni practice circuitous travel to avoid crossing the paths of others. I shall match your movements.”

He was correct, and to my surprise he did. As Purloiner soared above us, Haytham kept sight of me as I darted through alleys and onto rooftops and behind bushes, so that I might not darken worldlines, including his. Haytham seemed a veteran of strange encounters. “Perhaps you would be willing,” he asked, panting, “to join me in knocking at a door? A seagull might be of value as well.”

Purloiner fluttered beside me. “What is this fellow’s mental condition?”

“I do see what he intends,” I answered. “My presence might imply some official weight on Haytham’s side of the scales.”

“What about mine?”

“Well, many people are wary of being below seagulls.”

“So we’re stage props now?”

“He has done me a slight favor, in regard to that pamphleteer.”

“Oh, I’ll join you. I love the stage. I take in shows at the Discus. My favorites are the ones by Rattlestaff. Lots of blood and gore. Not real, alas, of course. If the audience agrees with my take on the play, I soar beautifully from above. If they disagree, I punish them from above.”

“You are truly disgusting.”

“Cats think all other creatures are disgusting.”

“Well, you are.”

We crossed a childish chalk drawing in the street—a bull maybe, or a sick minotaur?—and skirted past Fortunate End, a coastal promontory thick with gambling dens. The extreme edge, Windy Spit, sports an old shack holding a roulette wheel that might just be a godly relic. It manipulates luck, and the whole area influences the fortunes of visitors; they leave luckier or unluckier, a condition that lasts for days. (It’s said the Empress Zayne, exiled by an alliance of nobles that raised Mad Emperor Vorl in her place, began that exile by visiting Windy Spit and thereafter gambled everything on buying the good ship Salamander. Perhaps that’s why, when she raised the wooden structure of the Wheelhouse of Representatives atop the temple-like stone of the Sidereal Senate, its architecture somewhat resembled that of a gambling parlor.) Next we passed through Soothside, the fortune tellers’ quarter. How many soothsayers there are the real item? All, none, a few, many? What’s clear is that the true ones never give away the false, and vice-versa.

And something strange occurred as I passed Fortunate End and Soothside.

I felt unlucky.

One might assume that a cat who casts bad luck might sometimes be afflicted by same. Yet we are generally immune to our own power. That said, we have a heightened sense for when probabilities are tampered with.

It was happening now.

“I think luck is draining out of this area,” I mused.

“What?” asked Purloiner.       

He crashed into an alchemist’s sign bearing triangles symbolizing the four elements. I think he smacked his beak into “air,” and it was a little more solid than the usual kind. I had no standing to mock. I collided with the foot of a statue of the Lost God Allos, patron of alchemy, he bearing an ankh in one hand, a hammer in another, and a thoughtful expression on a bird-spattered face. “All according to plan,” I muttered, looking graceful. But I wondered why ill-fortune was afflicting this region. At least sign and statue told us we’d arrived.

Quicklime Street is a place unique even for Archaeopolis. For while magic is everywhere in our city, it is unreliable almost everywhere but Quicklime.

What might I say of our city’s magic?

Magic is: sorcerers who trade spoonfuls of their own brains for morsels of power, cackling so as to remember to breathe... enchanted swords so bloodthirsty they clink along cobbles hunting rats and ankles... alleys that twist a few yards through widderspace, perhaps leaving a pedestrian or three behind in exchange for iridescent lizards, purple hypercubes, or breathing balls of yarn... the embassy of the enchanted isle of Jargoskaraklarga, which has normal relations with seven lands but only one ambassador, whose tower materializes here just on Moonsdays... songs that ripple through the city, the first note hummed by a coiffeur, the second by a mugger, the third by a seamstress, the fourth by an undertaker, none knowing they are being touched by music seeking a composer’s lips.

Magic is a nightmare, hungry for fools to dream of awakening it.

And yet. In most contexts, alchemists wouldn’t seem a stable and dependable lot, but compared to most magics, alchemy is as chess to bloodsport. For magic passes through an alchemist’s fingertips but never directly through her body.

Alchemists pay no taxes. In return they’re licensed, said license imprinted upon a plaque of alchemical silver transmuted by the alchemist herself from base zinc. Their houses are either scorched or new-looking, but the plaques always gleam. They are forever accusing one another of arson, and Quicklime Street is as cutthroat as any pirates’ cove. Yet by a principle that one of their number dubbed the Gnash Equilibrium, alchemists’ homes cluster together, wherein they regard the competition and grind their teeth.

Haytham approached one of Quicklime’s homes, a pastel blue beside a pastel pink and a pastel yellow, each flanked by strange twisting black trees busy with serrated purple leaves. There was a cheerful not-rightness about Quicklime that made me want to hiss. Haytham rattled a door knocker in the shape of a brass triangle with a cross hanging beneath (“an alchemical symbol for the soul,” Haytham murmured to us). I decided to linger for an enigmatic moment and slip away to listen unseen.

For someone was following us.

I’d marked our shadow in Soothside, and despite our meanderings he’d stayed close. Human, northerner-pale, he wore a beige traveling cloak, a matching oval hat, and the blunt grace of a warrior. Cats are rarely so easily distinguished. Most of us do fight from time to time. Humans prefer to leave that to specialists.

This man was one.

He’d stopped to peruse some simple potions on a roadside cart. Amused talk bubbled along with liquids shining in reds and blues and yellows (How’s business, fine weather we’re having, that’s not a love potion so much as a friendship-with-fizz potion, the hair tonic is especially fine my hat-wearing friend, wink, wink...) but I could sense the wanderer’s real attention was on the blue house before us.

A dog barked inside, warning of either the greatest calamity known to history or solicitors.

A boy and a girl answered the door, bearing the chestnut-haired, sepia-skinned look typical of Eldshorens. The girl, perhaps sixteen, wore a large sword at her belt and had crossed arms that looked muscled enough to plausibly use it. The boy, who appeared closer to ten, wore a dagger but his hands were full restraining the dog, who unmistakably yelled, Cat! Bird! Cat! Bird! The dog was like a thunderstorm wrapped in well-muscled fur, amplified with long legs and snout, embellished with truly enormous pointed ears. My own ears folded back.

“Are you from the lictors?” the girl demanded. “Our aunt’s been missing since this morning.”

I eyed her with interest, dog and pursuer forgotten. “What?” I mewed. The dog stared at me, but the humans ignored me.

“I am very sorry to hear that,” Haytham said, with the air of one who hears a lie but is too polite to say so. “I am even sorrier to say she’s a week late providing a potion.”

“You!” said the boy. “I recognize you! How can you make demands?”

“She is vanished!” the girl said. “Our father died serving the Eldshore at sea, our mother fell to the Stone Plague, and now our aunt, who took us in, has vanished and none knows where. And now you come upon us, not to help but to shake us down. So be it! I will get the potion Auntie declared unready! I hope your balloon crashes!” She stalked into the house.

“Dog?” I said. I could sometimes communicate with them, though their thoughts tended to be very simple, dwelling on loyalty and food.

“Hello, cat!” said the dog. “I wondered if you’d bother to notice me! Yes, I speak Featherfur! Nice to talk to you. I don’t have many to talk to. Or, at least, many who really understand! The alchemist said I ate too much garbage at Quicksilver Midden, and I think she was right because I got very sick, but now I am quick and silver tongued. Call me Hope!”

“Never trust anyone who got smart at Quicksilver Midden,” I muttered.

“Hey!” said Purloiner-of-Chips. “Call us alchemorphs. That sounds smarter.”

“Hi seagull!” said the dog. “I like birds. I like carrying them in my mouth. Oops! Gosh, I shouldn’t have said that. Don’t worry, I only carry dead birds. Oops. Gosh. I mean—”

“You got smart,” I told the dog, trying to steer things back toward sanity.

“Hey, that means you think I’m smart!” Purloiner jeered aside at me. “You think I’m smart! I’m not letting you forget this.”

“I can imagine. Hope?”

“You betcha!” said Hope.

“It’s okay, Hope,” said the boy, not understanding all this. “It’s just a cat. And a seagull. And a customer.”

“My name is Haytham ibn Zakwan ibn Rihab,” said the customer.

“I’m Oni,” said the boy with a curt nod.

“Oni?” said Haytham, scratching his beard. “That’s an unusual name in this country.”

“I chose it,” said Oni. “It comes from the Five Islands north of the Karvak steppes.” He narrowed his eyes and puffed out his chest a little. “It means ‘demon.’”

“Why would you name yourself that?”

“Some people think alchemists’ kids are sneaky, dainty, unwilling to fight. I try to convince them otherwise. There’s a good girl,” Oni added, scratching Hope’s fur.

“‘Good girl!’” said Hope, though Oni probably couldn’t understand her. “Gosh, that never gets old.”

Oni’s sister returned with a vial of something gleaming, green, and glittery. “This is what you ordered,” she told Haytham, “but Auntie was clear it’s not ready.”

“I will take my chances,” said Haytham. “Thank you kindly, er...”

“Jyn,” she snapped, but Haytham’s hesitation was not to prompt a name. He eyed the street as if sensing trouble. I cursed myself for forgetting our shadow.

Hope commenced barking. Her humans might not know it, but she meant Intruders! Intruders! Surprisingly she wasn’t looking at our pursuer—who had vanished from the street—but at the sky.

Because one cloud wasn’t behaving itself. It was dark and flecked with gold. It roiled at the edges like a potion.

Or so I thought at first glance, until I realized it wasn’t a cloud at all. It was a swarm.

“Bees!” Hope warned. “Bees!”

They buzzed down, filling the street with a sound that set my fangs vibrating. I fear little (this is not a boast but a confession—it is stupid to feel no fear) but a swarm of this sort was a quandary. Crossing a handful of individual bees mattered little if a hundred of their sisters filled me with venom.

Bees have a special place in our city. The greatest bankers of the West buzz about their business in the Vault of Heaven, mightiest pillar of commerce. If you can believe the legends, the bees grew wise from tending the nectar and ambrosia of the Lost Gods. I suppose they could be considered the first alchemorphs. “It couldn’t be those bees, could it?”

No one answered. Purloiner-of-Chips squawked and fluttered. Jyn pulled Haytham inside to safety. But Hope went berserk and escaped Oni, jaws snapping. At first I thought she was seeking some bizarre vengeance upon me, but then I realized she was snapping at the bees.

Amidst the chaos the pamphlet Haytham had carried blew across my field of vision in the buzzing breeze.

Free Brethren of Archaeopolis!

Do you like an Eldshore

that cowers in fear

from Swanisle or Mirabad or Jargoskaraklarga?

Do you like bowing & scraping

to sneaky foreigners with strange accents

& peculiar foods?

Do you like watching the flea-bitten

scalawags treat your homeland like a stable

& your taxes like a feeding trough?

If you do—say ‘Aye’ for them!

IF NOT, CAST THEM OFF

AND SOAR WITH AQUILLA!!!!!!

The exclamation points fluttered by. I did not soar but ran, calling to Purloiner. He followed, chicken-like, on shaky wings. “Rise!” I told him. “Your soaring height is greater than theirs!”

“You sure?” the seagull answered.

No, I thought, realizing this was the kind of “fact” born of unexamined assumptions. This was the sort of thing Nightwise thought about, not me.

“Yes!” I answered with a voice of total conviction. Perhaps I was learning about politics. Purloiner rose.

“Bird!” shouted Hope. “Cat!”

“What?” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“My humans shut the door. I figure they’re just leaving me to handle the situation. It’s probably your fault, cat. I’d better grab you by the neck and shake you.”

The dog Hope said this with such earnest cheerfulness it took me a moment to understand. Then I hissed.

“What?” said Hope.

“It’s not my fault! Someone else sent these bees!”

“Gosh! Okay!” Hope said agreeably. “I’m willing to trust you for now. What do we do?”

I’d lost sight of Purloiner-of-Chips, but Hope, it seemed, sprang ever by my side. “Into the midden!” I called.

“Okay! Why?”

“There are strange smokes and fumes that bees will not like!”

“Will we like them?”

“Yes!” I lied.

“You’re not very convincing, I have to say! I hope you’re right about this!”

We dove past the ebon trees between the houses. Their branches snapped at us. I slipped through a thicket. Hope jumped it; Purloiner reappeared and winged across. We slipped over a low brick wall onto which someone had painted a bull in some rusty-looking brown-red paint. Down we stumbled into misty miasma.

Quicksilver Midden had been the bullseye of a meteor back in 313 E.Y., one that left a quarter-mile crater of glowing purple crystal, blood-red metal, fissures of blue steam, green stones that hovered, and other disconcerting residue. Rain turned various sickly hues before gurgling down into bedrock, often reappearing as billowing steam. Peculiar mushrooms grew on the rim in a rainbow of hues, humming to themselves.

Naturally, humans flocked to the place. The alchemists loved the crater rim, no matter how many of them disappeared, turned green, or began to babble in alien tongues. Over the years they gobbled up the crater’s esoteric material, paying it back with alchemical residue, strange glowing slurry gurgling downstream alongside the contents of kitchen buckets and piss-pots. Here and there piles of mulch outgassed in noisome yellow or sickly purple. Trees grew, hardy blue and black things, beside golden-flowered bushes of great beauty and unusual hungers. The humming mushrooms remained.

“Lots of smells!” Hope said. “I’m never supposed to come back here!” she added.

“No one is!” I said. “That’s the plan!”

“Cats have interesting plans,” Purloiner said, landing on something that looked more-or-less like ordinary ground. “So here I am, back at the Weirdfeast.”

I glanced over my shoulder. “They’re still after us! Whatever is controlling them doesn’t care about their well-being!”

“Ha! Ha!” said Hope.

Her sudden bellow made me fan my limbs and dig claws into the dirt. “What?” I hissed.

“Well BEE-ing! Ha!”

I’m going to die beside a canine punster, I thought. I looked around and spotted an immense pile of organic Something that included carrot tops, animal fat, and cracked crucibles. It fumed something purple that blotted out the sky.

I raced up the pile to lure the bees.

The purple stench defeated me. I sputtered and winced, turning my face away from something that combined the sting of cut onions with the scent of rotting fish, spiced with vinegar and horsehide glue.

“Can’t—” I began.

A human voice muttered in an ancient language perhaps best forgotten. In response to his words, the purple cloud billowed downslope and kissed the swarm of bees.

For a moment the bees swirled like fish in a bowl, though in every way less appetizing. They grew sluggish. Half of them dropped like rain to the dubious ground. The other half dispersed in all directions, weaving drunkenly.

The speaker went silent, releasing his hold over the cloud. It too dispersed, wafting upward and coiling out like some spasming ghostly hand.

I looked around and spotted Hope giving slobbery kisses to our rescuer. I yowled and tumbled down the pile of garbage, assuming a wavering fighting stance at the bottom, imitating a crouched panther in spirit if not in size.

Our rescuer was our shadow.

Close up, he’d the look humans called ‘square-jawed,’ though why the shape of his mouth mattered to anything but his food was beyond me. He had a forehead some might call ‘aristocratic’, but again I don’t really know what that’s supposed to convey. He had the bronzed look of a very light-skinned human who got a lot of sun, which at least suggested something about his behavior. So did the scar on his chin, and so did the whip and light crossbow on his belt.

“I am Shadowdrop,” I said, by way of experiment.

“Greetings, Shadowdrop,” he said. “Hello, dog and bird.”

“I am Hope!” said Hope.

“I am hungry,” said Purloiner-of-Chips. “You got food?”

“Alas no,” said the man. “I am Morgan Slate, son of Balthasar, of many places, most recently Swanisle, Mirabad, and Amberhorn.”

“Those places are quite distant from one another,” I observed.

“I agree! And yet from a higher perspective, perhaps not as distant as all that.”

“If you’ll pardon the question,” I ventured, “how is it we’re talking?”

“I think,” Slate said, “it has to do with vocal cords and symbolism.”

“What I mean is... I am a cat.”

He smiled. “I appreciate your informing me.”

I flicked my tail. “The point being, normally only wizards can understand me, or other cats, or animals who can master the jargon we call Featherfur.”

“Ah. I do indeed have a little wizardly training, my friends.”

“Huh!” said Hope. “You don’t look like a wizard.”

“Or a friend,” said Purloiner.

“I did not attend the Discreet Lyceum,” said Slate, “or the Old School, or the Island-that-Swims, or any other such institution. My family is old and strange, and such matters are passed on by curious custom. Let it be for now. You have enemies.”

“Indeed,” I said. “Thank you for disrupting that swarm.”

“I just happened to know a spell to harness the breeze.”

“Why were you following us?”

“That man you were with. Haytham ibn Zakwan. He’s a thief.”

“He seems honest enough. He is working for the city.”

“Even so. He was nearby when my quill disappeared.”

“A quill? Were you recently at our Tower of the Hidden Light, speaking of this?”

“Indeed.”

“What is this quill? What are its uses?”

Slate sighed. “I see little further harm in telling you. Along the trade route of the Braid of Spice, one finds many innovations linking East and West. This is a device developed by the wizards of the merchant city of Qushkent to experiment with the art of feng shui.”

“What?” said Purloiner-of-Chips. “Foong’s Way?”

“Who’s Foong?” said Hope. “Are they a bird?”

“I’ve heard of feng shui,” I said, trying not to sound too superior about it. “It is a far Eastern art for arranging objects, buildings, and landscapes, so as to tap harmonious natural energies.”

“Magic, then,” said Purloiner.

“In a sense,” I said, trying not to sound overly lofty, just lofty enough. “Although its practitioners need not be casters of spells. It is the objects and constructions that shape the power, not the people directly.”

“Indeed,” said Slate. “But magic can come in handy when employing feng shui. My quill bears two enchantments. First, if used to draw maps and diagrams it will guide the drafter’s hand in the shaping of auspicious patterns. Second, it allows for the control of flying creatures to aid in surveying. The quill’s owner can see through the animals’ eyes and guide their movements.”

My tail twitched almost of its own accord. I could feel a rattle grow in my throat. “Could such a quill,” I said, “cause flying creatures to attack a target?”

Slate grinned mirthlessly. “It might. I require the quill, Shadowdrop. And it seems you owe me.”

“I am an officer of the law, above bribes, and you are not even a citizen. And a cat can reject all notions of debt.”

“Ah, but you won’t—not you. I’ve heard of you. You have loyalty, passion, a sense of honor. You’re practically a dog.”

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey!” Hope said with a wag.

“Ha!” said Purloiner-of-Chips.

“I think you will repay me for my help,” Slate continued, “and what I want is the quill. Or knowledge of its location.”

I said nothing except, “I don’t even know your purpose in my city.”

“‘Your’ city?” Slate’s eyebrows had risen.

“Mine, but I share it with all black cats. All others are here—even emperor Rel—at our sufferance.”

“You know,” he said with a grin, “I believe you. Very well.” He wove his fingers together. “I’m a scion of a powerful dynasty with covert influence in many places. We are currently engaged in a complex family drama in which all tactics short of murder are fair game. Depending on whom you ask, even that last bit is negotiable. The prize is leadership of our clan. And given our esoteric propensities, our tactics can be peculiar indeed. I have sworn an oath to succeed my grandfather as patriarch and rule over a shining city that is hidden from ordinary eyes.” A certain lilt entered his voice as he spoke of this place. “I am conducting extensive travel and research to find new weapons in the struggle. In a distant desert I acquired the quill, and I have come to this great seaport to acquire allies. Together they will help me outflank my cousins and uncles.”

The major difference between us was one of species, yet this female felt compelled to ask that male, “Are not your aunts in the running? And must your clan be led by a patriarch?”

“It is not necessary, no. But for various reasons it is likely.”

“How familiar. What manner of allies do you seek in my city?”

“Beings useful in a scrape, once I’m sure I can trust them. I feel no need to be more specific.”

“I feel no need to help you.”

Slate smiled. “Nor can I compel you. But we are both aware of your debt. Adieu.”

As he turned to go, I called after him, “What are your next actions?”

Over his shoulder he said, “I will undertake to find Haytham. I may offer gold. I may offer blood. The future is always complex.”

“Vigilantism is not allowed in my city.”

He smirked. “Are you saying you’ve never practiced it yourself, Shadowdrop?”

“I am saying it is not allowed.”

He nodded. “Message received. Is that all?”

I answered by leaping away. My feathered and furred colleagues followed.

“What are you doing now?” Purloiner asked me as I strode through sickly rainbow mists.

I banished concerns about Slate and focused on my prey. “I must see where the crows have been going.”

Hope said, “I will join you!”

“You won’t be missed?”

Hope thought about it. “Once, on Victory Day, fireworks scared me. I ran here and was gone two days. They feared I was lost. It was sort of true. I think I’ll be missed if I go. But it’s happened before. And I’ll be back within one day, right?”

“Absolutely,” I said—and “If you aren’t dog meat,” Purloiner said at the same time.

“That wasn’t helpful, gull,” I said.

“I’m a witness! Witnesses are supposed to be truthful!”

Hope blinked. “Okay,” she said.

The mists mocked my sense of direction, but I could sometimes discern the marbled Hill of the Infinite Forum, or Embassy Hill with the Jargoskaraklargan embassy a corkscrewing ruby spire on its heights (rumor had it the corkscrew extended deep underground as well, at least when the embassy was in town). The two hills were to the midden’s southwest, and this fact helped me aim north.

The sky dimmed. Tempers cooled.

“So which victory does Victory Day celebrate?” Purloiner asked. “Never could figure that out.”

“All of them,” said Hope. “Victory against Swanisle. Victory against the Bladed Isles. Victory against the Jargos. Victory against Mirabad...”

Purloiner scoffed. “They didn’t all happen on the same day, did they?”

I said, “I believe they took the average day of all extant victories.”

“Like, dates from one to three-hundred-sixty five, that sort of thing? Huh. Is there a Defeat Day?”

Hope said, “The old mistress said every day was Defeat Day.”

“Oh,” Purloiner-of-Chips said.

“But I don’t believe it.”

“Oh.”

“So what’s a chip, huh?” Hope asked. “Is it like a gambling token?”

“You haven’t had chips?” Purloiner scoffed. “You haven’t lived. We have to bring the evil ones to justice. And find you chips.”

“Yes!” said Hope.

“This isn’t right,” I confessed out loud. “I am putting a witness and a bystander in danger.”

“I’m already in danger,” said the seagull.

“The bees worried my humans,” said the dog. “I will help by fighting what sent them.”

Yet my disquiet deepened. Hope had attained sapience. Arguably all dogs had sapience to a degree. Exactly to what degree I, speaking as a cat, could not say. But Hope had attained something beyond that, something akin to the mentality of Purloiner or humans or even myself. Why then was Hope still subservient? Slavery was outlawed in the Eldshore, and indenture was a practice with a time limit. It made my claws itch for furniture.

“Hope,” I ventured, “what would be your ideal job?”

“Job?”

“A task for which people would compensate you so you would earn your living.”

“Like food and a roof?”

“That might qualify.”

“I have a job. Jyn and Oni’s dog! I am a good dog. I hope. Do you think they miss me?”

“We haven’t been gone long.”

“Haven’t we? Are they calling for me?”

“I don’t know. Hope, have you heard of the concept of an invisible chain? A chain within the mind?”

“Nope!”

“Perhaps you have one.”

“I would not have a chain, I would have a leash.”

I could glimpse streets again now, but I led gull and dog along the edges of the Midden. Based on Hope’s explanation, her long-ago ingestion of this place’s bizarre flora had heightened her intelligence. Likewise, Purloiner-of-Chips, a frequent visitor to the “Weirdfeast,” had surely had his mind enhanced by the feasting. Perhaps even breathing the vapors had an influence. They were both alchemorphs, as Haytham had put it. So in a sense, this was their mental birthplace. For me, however... Although the Midden afforded good cover, I hesitated to go too deep, for fear of losing my own mind to some bizarre mist or mutated strain of catnip. Nothing terrified me more than losing autonomy, becoming a slave or a pet. I realized also I was terrified that my trust in Emperor Rel might be misplaced. Nightwise was correct. I truly did want to confront Rel, so as to either reassure myself of his benevolence or to claw out his eyes. The mists were clearing and something too was clearing from my mind. I stopped atop a boulder rising from a sea of purple moss, lit by dappled afternoon sunlight. Someone had chalked an animal picture on it—a dog, maybe. Dogs were apparently not something I could escape.

“I’ve been a fool,” I said.

No one contradicted me. I felt a bit disappointed.

I persisted, “Our office needs to be open to all manner of strangeness, but I’ve been thinking too narrowly. Hope, your mistress, the missing alchemist... how many fingers did she have on her right hand?”

“Three,” said Hope.

“Is that counting the thumb and pinky as fingers?” Purloiner said. “Because I’ve never been sure whether they actually—”

“Pinkie and ring finger gone,” Hope said. “Alchemical accident. Boom.”

I growled. “I believe I saw your mistress’ dead body this morning. It was so ravaged I could not tell it was a woman. For reasons statistical or prejudicial I assumed a violent human death would be male. I was too obtuse to take it in.”

“Oh no,” said Hope.

“She’d washed up in the bay, covered in perforations. I thought it was sea creatures that did that, but I think it was crows.”

“Why would crows kill her?”

“I doubt it’s ultimately their fault. I think it was less a murder of crows than a manslaughter. Because I believe wherever we find Morgan Slate’s quill, there we’ll find the one who turns crows and bees into weapons.”

“But why?” said Purloiner.

“For the last two attacks?” I said. “That’s easy. You are a witness, and together we’re getting close to something. But you’re right, and Hope’s right—the real question is why the alchemist had to die. Someone is up to something worth killing over.”

“Okay,” said Purloiner. “So either we find the quill...”

“Or we discern who would want to kill the alchemist. Hope, did your mistress have enemies?”

“No!” said Hope. “Nice person. Everyone liked her.”

“Guess not everyone,” said Purloiner.

“Was she working on anything unusual before she disappeared?” I pressed.

“Two things, I think,” said Hope. “There was the potion for the balloon man. One drop makes a gust of wind so he can steer his balloon.”

“Nice trick,” said the seagull.

“And the other thing?” I said.

“Something about ink,” said Hope. “Magic ink, to make a special map.”

“A feng shui map?” I said.

“I don’t know.”

“A treasure map?” Purloiner said.

“No,” Hope said. “A map of the city but with neighborhoods marked on it.”

“Neighborhoods?” I asked. “Like Soothside, Whisperwall, Ghostside?”

“No. These neighborhoods looked kind of like ships.”

“Ships? The Hulls? For the Choosing?” My mind raced. “Did they have names like Salamander, Hydra, Griffin?” The pirates of Empress Zayne’s fleet had been partial to magical creatures.

“Nope. Nothing that wild. Ordinary stuff. Like Horse, Ox, Wolf...”

I licked my right paw, thinking. “Neither the Hulls nor the neighborhoods have names like that.”

“I just know what I heard, cat friend!”

“Sorry. I must have sounded cross.”

“You’re a cat,” said Purloiner. “You always sound cross.”

“Do I?”

“Yup!” said Hope, sounding cheerful as usual. “You’re a black cat. Always crossing!”

I sighed. “What happened with this magic ink?”

“Think my mistress gave it to Drear on time. No problems.”

“Drear?” Purloiner and I said simultaneously.

“You betcha!” Hope answered.

I leaped off the boulder. Troubled thoughts swirled inside me like mist or ink. “Come on,” I said, “Nightwise will be waiting.”

We re-entered what passed for the normal city and traversed its northern extents into the district of Whisperwall. These were quiet places, as they were linked to trade on the northern road, a less prosperous path than those west and south. Here commerce ebbed in the evening as farmers departed along the long causeway through the northern fens. Some streets were in ill repair; I tripped on a broken cobble. Hope got briefly snagged on an overgrown blackberry bush. Purloiner got grazed by a nasty child’s thrown rock. How unlucky we were!

And I realized then that the feeling of ill-fortune I’d been experiencing had vanished in the Midden. Out here it had returned. Curious.

Distant crows swirled over the fens as we encountered Nightwise near the northern gate, a place so little-guarded it was a simple open archway. Through the arch, we could see the crows flocking toward an enormous faraway oak that twisted like the offspring of an octopus and a lightning bolt.

“Indulging our deputizing powers, are we?” Nightwise said, strolling up.

“We’re deputies?” exclaimed Hope.

“I’m a prisoner,” said Purloiner-of-Chips, “but you’re welcome to join me in that. Shadowdrop seems to think ‘safe in jail’ and ‘wandering all over creation with evil sorcerers after us’ is all the same thing.”

“I’d rather be a deputy,” Hope said.

“This is Deputy Hope,” I said, because I suspected the alternative was prisoner Hope and I already had enough of those. “And Purloiner you know.”

Nightwise licked his paw and cleaned his forehead as if he’d nothing better to do. “What have you learned, Shadowdrop? I mean besides that you’re good at making friends?”

I prowled him through the afternoon’s events.

“Interesting,” he said. “Let me be brief. I took myself to Underseers’ Tower with Tru and sought the advice of your brother the familiar. Whiskerdoom sends his studied indifference.”

“Sweet of him. I will have to pass visibly by his door sometime, on the way to somewhere more important. Did he offer anything of use?”

“He informed me there was not, to his knowledge, any Encyclopedia of Eyes.”

“Helpful.”

“But he was aware of a Color Bestiary of Exotic Beasts, which the wizards find useful for pest control. And we found in it a match for the eye we saw.”

“Helpful! What was it?”

“It belongs to a peacock.”

“Our enemy is a bird?” Hope said in delight.

Purloiner inched away. “No way is that a peacock eye. I’ve seen peacock eyes.”

“You’re right,” said Nightwise. “It’s part of a peacock feather.”

“A quill?” I guessed.

Hope noticed something, or rather noticed that we hadn’t noticed something. “Listen!”

“I hear nothing,” Nightwise said.

“Yup! Where are the crows?”

We peered out beyond the Lost Causeway, as it was known, and over the fens. The great dark oak was empty of birds. They’d been there not a minute ago.

“What are we looking at?” Purloiner said.

“A curious incident,” I said, “of a dog barking about crows that did not crow. Let’s investigate.”

The Lost Causeway began just beyond the crumbling arch in the city wall, where a sign upon a guard shack declared, Beware! No more than ten grown humans, or one grown human with a horse and cart, shall cross the fens here! Someone had pinned an Aquila flyer to this sign. The afternoon shadows were long, and our odd party of cats, dog, and bird slipped unseen onto the wooden path. The Causeway, slightly elevated above the wet ground, creaked at the padding of twelve paws and the occasional slap of two webbed feet. Someone had chalked a dog-shape on the first plank and then embellished it in dark red paint (or perhaps blood?). Or was the shape a wolf?

“Have you seen any children drawing with chalk?” I asked Nightwise as we advanced. “Or blood?”

“I don’t think children drew that; they do better work.”

We followed the causeway about a quarter mile out of the city. At times the marsh looked muddy but walkable. At others it seemed more a lake camouflaged by a spattering of grass. I was grateful for the wood beneath my paws and the foot of elevation above the damp. Here and there the land was more solid and supported trees like the huge oak we were nearing, its ominous bulk clawing at the crimson sky. The causeway continued past the oak on the right and proceeded on for another half-mile until touching farmland. Actually reaching the oak would require dropping from the causeway and traversing a few hundred feet of relatively dry red mud bounded by shallow, reedy waters. Many single-file human footprints in the mud pointed both toward the tree and toward the causeway. Caked mud lay upon the causeway as though many walkers had climbed onto it and knocked their footgear clean.

“Two directions,” I mused. “But which was the more recent? Are there humans out there now?” If there weren’t, we might risk a visit.

“Huh?” Hope said. “Easy. Out to the tree.” She looked at all our stares. “The scent from the footprints leading to the tree has a last-hour glow. Hot swink. The scent from the footprints coming toward us has a yesterday glow. Warm muskow.”

“Those must be dog words,” Nightwise said.

“You don’t have them? Gosh! Guess I never thought about that. But yeah, there’s a bunch of people out there. Maybe twenty. All humans. Grownups. Two-thirds men. And I don’t think they’ve only been here today and yesterday. I think they come here a lot.”

“Holy offal,” said Purloiner. “I don’t suppose you can tell us what they had for dinner?”

“Well, they didn’t all have the same thing—” Hope began brightly.

“Never mind, that’s okay,” I said. “So where are these twenty humans hiding?”

“Let me look,” Purloiner-of-Chips said. He cocked his head. “I won’t try to escape.”

“Okay,” I said, and Nightwise nodded. Purloiner took wing and circled once around the tree, diving between its branches, before returning to us.

“It’s a lair!” he announced as he swooped down. “Underground compound, reached with ladders in a hollow trunk. Lots of crows, and along with them lots of humans with Aquilla badges, pins, and signs. Funny thing, though, a lot of them look like Jargos. You know, really pale skin, blonde hair, white robes—” He went silent as if choked. His eyes flared, with the colors of peacock feathers.

He pecked at me, and I was so surprised that I stumbled shrieking off the causeway into reedy water. Nightwise yowled, and Hope barked of calamities unguessed at in the doomsday prophecies of a thousand ages. Also, I was wet.

Purloiner dived at me again. With him in the air and I in the water, I could not plausibly cross his path.

Nightwise leaped. He collided with Purloiner, knocking the gull away but at the expense of hitting the water himself. “Bleh!” he spat. “Bleh! Bleh! Bleh!”

Hope lunged off and bit at Purloiner. She was less successful than Nightwise, but her jaws and the vast splash she made into the water seemed to trigger a decision by Purloiner’s controller. The gull flitted back toward the dark tree.

“I’ve lost my witness,” I sputtered. “And my wits.”

“Shadowdrop,” Nightwise said. “If my sense of doom is—bleh—anything to go by, the sky will soon—gah—be filled with crows.”

“Not crows!” said Hope. “Bats!”

“What?” I said.

But she was right. Against the horizon’s red smolder swirled a swarm of things too massive to be crows, moving in disturbing silence. “Go!” I yelled, swimming for the muddy path between the causeway and the tree, my companions rising behind me. Hope shook, making a small weather pattern. “Back to town!” I added, setting a good example by climbing onto the causeway and heading south.

This time the guards at the shack noticed us; two armored men made to block my path. “That’s my game,” I hissed, coming to a halt. But they seemed to know it and made no move to press on. I couldn’t cross them. Nor did they speak. This boded ill. If they knew about my luckbane, they should guess I was Nocturni. Why did they not make way?

Nightwise and Hope caught up. Seeing how matters stood, Nightwise said, “There’s another big tree out there, across fairly dry land, with a crack in its trunk. If we can squeeze deep enough into it, maybe we can endure the bats.”

“I can’t hide in there,” Hope said, “but I can lead them off!”

“No,” I said. “I can’t lose a witness and a deputy too. Maybe together we can rush—”

“Bats can’t catch me,” Hope said. “I’m a dog.”

Hope turned and darted north up the Lost Causeway, away from the gate, back toward the lair.

“Come on,” Nightwise said. “She made her choice, Shadowdrop!”

“It’s my fault.”

“No, it’s not. That’s not what ‘her choice’ means.”

“Semantics!”

“Bats!”

He hurtled toward the tree he’d indicated. Humans may say we cats are indifferent to each other, but Nightwise’s example made a better argument than words. I followed.

After a disconcertingly long traverse of squelching mud, we reached this tree and scaled the trunk, finding cracks where a mighty limb had long ago groaned earthward without entirely falling away. We cowered inside as bats swirled like a seething of deeper darkness. Our ears winced and our teeth itched at vibrations we couldn’t interpret as sound. But they could not reach us, and at last the winged tide flowed away.

Luck had been with us, even if the odds hadn’t. A strange thought, but I was sure of it—the gracelessness that had afflicted me in Whisperside, and before that in Soothside, had gone. By now the moon was up, and by its light the trees were shadowed silver and the marsh was almost like a cat’s milk-bowl with reeds in place of plunging whiskers.

Orange-red blossomed in the night: across the fen two fires bloomed in the city, each remote from the other. The work of Aurora’s firebug? I wondered. Regardless, not a good omen. Nightwise and I were two souls in the dark, and there are things that are easier to say in darkness with but one listener.

“My back aches,” said Nightwise, “and I’m cold and hungry.”

“Listen, Nightwise,” I said. “I feel as though a great shadowy beast is stalking us. Not swarms of bats or birds or bees. Not conspirators in swampy hideouts. Not arsonists or political signs or bodies in the bay. Not loci of ill-fortune. But some sense that all these things build up to a larger pattern, a vast predator, formed, not of blood and bone and muscle, but of events. And we are all its prey.”

“We are predators too.”

“I will not forget. Nor will our adversary.”

“Well then, where to now? And is there food there?”

“Survival is the first matter. And we must report.”

“To Silfrena Chua? The wizards?”

“To Emperor Rel.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“Be direct, Nightwise. Do you think the emperor is our adversary?”

He thought about it. “Well, he can’t be the one attacking us from the air. He likes you too much. Which is one reason I plan to stick close.”

“How flattering.”

“But the dead alchemist clearly thought the crows were working on the emperor’s behalf. So, someone in Rel’s orbit?”

“Or someone pretending to be?”

We heard along the causeway the voices of men, the thunk of their footfalls, and the clink of their weapons.

“Pretending successfully, perhaps,” I said, “because at least some of the city guard are involved. Those two at the guard shack blocked our way, even though they should have at least suspected we were Nocturni. That suggests to me they were given orders by a plausible authority.”

“Maybe,” Nightwise said. “But why these guards?”

“Possibly to protect suspicious gatherings at that tree? Gatherings that include many foreigners?”

“How are these Jargos involved?” Nightwise asked.

“They could simply be magical mercenaries,” I mused. “They are quite accomplished in that area.”

“I wonder. But I think it’s risky to draw too many conclusions. Right now we’re just cats chasing squirrels up a tree.”

“Nevertheless, it’s prudent to assume someone close to Rel, someone with authority, is up to no good.”

Nightwise sharpened claws on tree bark. “If so, getting to Rel may be dangerous. Our tower may even be barred to us now.”

I heard a roaring in the dark as of distant thunder, and I batted the problem around. “Sergeant Zee. She seems honest.”

“The grumpy sergeant from Scatterwind guardhouse? She hates us.”

“That’s one reason I trust her, Nightwise. She’s honest. She knows we’re under the emperor’s protection and she still doesn’t pretend to like us.”

“All right. I will go mew at the angry guardswoman. Especially if she has a fireplace and food. But we still have to get out of here.”

“Agreed.” I studied the silvered landscape, looking for some hint of a safe route back into the city.

I saw a bite taken out of the moon.

“You don’t see that every day,” I said.

Nightwise looked up. “A giant invisible cosmic monster eating the moon?” He feigned utter indifference to the idea.

“A balloon. And I think I know the balloonist. Here! Over here!”

“Thank you for attracting the people who want to kill us.”

“I am calling for our escape.”

“What if the balloonist wants to kill us?”

“We’ll know soon.”

“I hate you. Does the balloonist carry food?”

There was a soft booming sound from above, as if from a muffled drum, and the balloon drifted overhead in defiance of a slight counter-breeze. A rope plunged down among the branches. But a cry went up from the causeway, and frantic footfalls left the wooden planks and approached our tree.

“You first,” I told Nightwise.

“Why, Shadowdrop? Is this some strange chivalry?”

“I am more powerful than you and stand a better chance of surviving our enemies.”

“What if the balloonist is also our enemy?”

“Go for the eyes.”

“You are so comforting.”

Up he went.

The men reached the exposed roots of the tree and began to scale the trunk. Not just men, I realized. I heard our pamphleteer yelling, “Kill the cats! Kill the cats! In the name of the Party!”

I took a moment to ascend beyond the end of the rope and dash back and forth amid the branches. As I was the humans’ destination and thus squarely in their path, I was rewarded with the sound of cracks and contusions and curses. Sufferably pleased with myself, I clawed my way up the rope. We had all practiced such climbs at our tower.

I’d little experience with balloons, however, though I had spied a few over Archaeopolis, and I knew Karvak nomads had begun exploring the world in such craft. This one was a yellow orb (pale in the moonlight) with a sort of parasol-shape beneath. But where a parasol would have a handle, this one had a gondola, with an array of wide fans sticking out like wings, plus two oars and a propeller. The basket had room for two humans, though only one was aboard.

“Greetings, cats!” The turbaned aeronaut seemed pleased to see us, though not so definite as to who we were. He said, “I am Haytham ibn Zakwan, inventor and master of this conveyance. Alas, I am not privileged to understand the feline language. Nor indeed am I sure if we’ve met before. I have met a few of Archaepolis’ estimable black cats—”

“Meow, meow,” I said, slapping my paw on the basket to reinforce the idea of haste.

“—but,” he went on, “I lack the cunning to tell you apart—”

I swatted at the air in frustration. At least he clearly wasn’t hostile!

“You are, if you will forgive me, O cats, adorable. Join me! I would have you sign a waiver but evidently time is short—”

Someone yanked the gondola rope and tilted us. Haytham sighed, brandished a knife, and cut the line. There came a sharp thud, a cracking of branches, a softer thud, many curses. These fell away.

The balloon rose.

Haytham pulled forth the vial given him by the girl Jyn. He tipped a drop over the edge. There came a thunderclap and a strong wind.

The balloon spun and the gondola shook, and one of the wings upon the basket tore free. “We are in the All-One’s hands, my friends!” Haytham said, though he seemed more giddy than alarmed. Nightwise and I dug claws into wicker. At last, the conveyance stabilized and I peeked over the edge. My mad wondrous city spread before me in gleaming moonlight like the bones of fallen dragons. The Veiled Lake gleamed like silvery dragon’s blood through gaps in its eternal shroud of mist. The Jargoskaraklargan embassy, work of a tyrannical land even more magical than this, glinted like a dragon’s tooth. The city’s blazes, work perhaps of Aurora’s firebug, burned like the last gout of a dragons’ breath.

“Yes,” Haytham said, as if I’d spoken and he’d understood. “There is nothing like this vantage. But understand, balloon travel has all the inherent dangers of being far above the ground, and lacks the security of knowing you’ve climbed something solid.”

For a moment I forgot about all the madness. We were passing over a spot where the Nimbus, the most inconspicuous of government buildings, surely loomed in the shadows below. The sound of nightingales reached us, a sweet chorus with its own clicking percussion. For once in all my years I felt at peace.

But I recalled I had work to do. I wondered how to convey our desire to reach the Scatterwind guardhouse.

“You may have heard of me,” Haytham continued. “In my limited sphere I am one of the primary sources of hot air, if you will. The Karvaks have me to thank for their airships, even if I’m as likely to get an arrow as an award. I have not only experimented with ballooning but with the harnessing of djinn to guide such vehicles. Alas, I lack any such companions at present.”

I stared at him and puzzled over his phrasing, briefly picturing the harnessing of an angry teenager (Jyn) or a bottle of cheap liquor (gin.) At last I remembered tales of beings of pure magic inhabiting lonely deserts.

“This potion of winds, though flawed,” Haytham continued, “will at least allow me to complete my task for the city.”

I mewed, and though he surely didn’t understand, he replied, “My task? To sketch the city for Countmaster Drear. He is drawing up your new Hulls—a process called Salamandering, I gather—and he is running out of time. A fascinating business, your method of picking officials. I have read about your Pirate Empress, how she found among the pirates an echo of the long-lost practices of your old Republic. In the old days, two elected tribunes ruled Archaeopolis, much as a pirate ship elects a captain and a quartermaster, nearly equal in power. And as the ancient city expanded, it brought conquered peoples into the realm with a promise of further plunder, much as pirates would invite captured sailors. It was sometimes even the case that people would carry ballot slips over a wooden pons—walking a plank, in other words! Today your Hulls call for a show of hands below the mast, and the Hulls as a group elect a Senate and a Wheelhouse, much like a pirate council. ‘Swabocracy,’ I believe Zayne called it, with the officiants waving ceremonial mops.” He sighed. “But the Choosing is tomorrow, so I must sketch quickly. Luckily Drear has simplified the process this time—the ‘ayes’ will be tallied according to factions, not the names of the would-be officers. In a given Hull, each faction will gain seats commensurate with their share of votes. Thus the Brethren can vote for a faction without needing to know exactly which Hull they’ll end up within. After the Choosing, the factions can pick which of their people to install in which office, presumably people known to the neighborhoods, although the Brethren can write suggestions in.” Haytham gestured toward a picture map he was creating. His quill was a simple white-feathered one. He said, “So complicated! But one must make a living, so as to fund further inventions!”

The wind seized us and blew us west, and we drifted over the area of one of the fires. I saw there was an old insula of apartments burning down in Emberchill. The fire brigade was out in force. And helping out as well was a throng of people in the white-and-brown livery of the Raptor Concern. I wondered if Nyx Raptor’s people were also at the fire over in Fogwalk.

“Why is a construction gang joining firefighters?” I said out loud.

“They are civic-minded?” Nightwise mused.

I studied Haytham’s map and noticed quite a few spots were circled in red and identified with the claw-and-castle symbol of the Raptor Concern. Almost as interesting, there were also red lines marked as conjectured “Hull” boundaries. The places where the Raptor Concern was operating were always somewhere along the new boundaries.

This Salamandering was suggestive of something but I couldn’t quite put my paw on it. The outlines certainly did not look like ship hulls anymore. Nor were they compact in the way most national borders or spheres of influence were. They had a twisty, animal-silhouette look, like something that grew or wriggled.

“Those boundaries,” Nightwise said. “They remind me a bit of the borders of the Eldshore.”

“That’s it,” I agreed. Our nation, now shorn of most of its colonial conquests, has a sinuous north-south profile, occupying a long coastal plain bordered by a parallel mountain range. Some claim it is a country invented by poets. But if one hearkens to the pattern of forests, hills, rivers, glaciers, bays, and islands and then squints a little, its shape mimics that of a vast dragon lying sideways, one grown so huge over its sleepy eons it’s now a significant part of the continent, with Archaeopolis sited in its “eye.”

These new Hulls that Haytham sketched didn’t resemble dragons but suggested creatures nonetheless. I thought I saw a distorted horse, a wolf perhaps, and two more four-footed things I couldn’t place.

And five more shapes, twisted and perverse in a way but each one something like a mockery of birds. Not a murder of crows. Perhaps a kettle of hawks?

The wind changed again, driving us southeast. Ahead we could see a third fire blazing in Ashenspan. Haytham frowned and added a red circle to that spot. It too was on a border.

Haytham noticed our gazes. “Yes, I am noting fires and other disturbances. I’ve found that Nyx Raptor’s construction concern is taking on many projects, as well as volunteering for fire control. If I have time—which I surely won’t!—I am considering asking Madam Raptor about her plans. She often seems to be operating at the projected Hull borders. See?”

I did see. I washed my nose, thinking.

Then the attack came.

A sharp twang! coincided with a deep vibration in the air and a sudden hiss overhead.

“The balloon!” Haytham called. “Someone is shooting at us! This contract has been nothing but misery! Why attack me? It’s not as though I’m collecting taxes!”

We were passing the Discus Theater, and a cloaked crossbowman upon the moonlit dome resolved himself to my eyes: Morgan Slate.

“Stop!” I yelled at Slate.

“No need to panic, feline friends,” Haytham said, a bit of agitation entering his voice.

“Shadowdrop!” Slate called out. “Excellent. You can ensure I find my quill!”

“He doesn’t have your quill!” I yowled.

“I am no ‘Shadow-drop!’” Haytham yelled. “And as I told you before, my quill is not your peacock quill. I would certainly love to see it, but I’ve never had that honor!”

“I will determine that,” Slate called back, “when I search your balloon!”

“Humans!” Nightwise snapped.

And down we went, shadowed by Slate. There was one consolation: as we dropped to the level of Oldmarket’s rooftops we quite by accident crossed Slate’s path. Slate was afflicted by both my and Nightwise’s luckbane. He lost his footing and slid out of sight.

We were hardly out of danger, however. We plunged over Scatterwind Market and beyond, into what humans think of as the worst part of the city—Ghostside.

Luck was with us. The winds sucked us into a cul-de-sac where our stop was abrupt but not fatal. Slowly the balloon slackened the rest of the way.

Silvery shapes watched from windows and walls and rooftops.

I forced my gaze away and nosed around the basket, making absolutely sure there were no errant peacock feathers here. I found much in the way of maps, paper, and ink, but not Slate’s feng shui quill.

Haytham didn’t notice, for he was quickly scooping up as many of his belongings as would fit in a pack. “It’s been some time since I’ve needed to make such a hasty retreat,” he said. “Alas for the Princess Corinna! I never managed to steer her except with the alchemist’s potion, but she was a good craft. Perhaps I can recover her later.”

“Good luck finding a work crew that will enter Ghostside,” Nightwise said, but he wasn’t understood.

“Do ghosts attack the living, in your experience?” I asked Nightwise.

“Not often. But there is a phenomenon called ghost lightning—”

“Friend cats,” Haytham said, looking around. “We should be gone.”

“I think I know the way to Scatterwind guardhouse from here,” I told Nightwise. “Or at least in a vague sense. Or maybe not at all...”

“You’re doing as well as I am,” Nightwise said. “Lead on. That way at least we may get to Sergeant Zee. And food.”

Through feline body language we conveyed to Haytham absolute confidence in our path. He followed, and we pressed on under translucent glowing gazes. I recalled what I knew about Ghostside, beyond of course Stay away.

The Mad Emperor Vorl, after his removal by the mops of the swabocracy, had been haunted; whether by ghosts or a bedevilment within his own mind, accounts disagree. Regardless, he came to believe that the spirits of multitudes slain at his orders had come to torment his retirement. He set about reconstructing his mansion in a manner that would confuse ghosts. It had one-way staircases, doors leading to nowhere, windows opening onto brick walls, and other such fancies. But even this was not enough. Vorl purchased scores of nearby rundown properties and set to renovating. City officials thought the district would be reconstructed as insulae, or shops, or warehouses, or really anything that made sense. But no. Vorl was building Ghostside.

Ghostside had entire trick buildings. It had exterior staircases that led halfway to the roofs. It had windows that opened only onto narrow passageways leading to other windows. Ghostside looked at first glance like a living neighborhood. But it was a trap, for ghosts.

And it had worked. Even at high noon one could sometimes see spectral presences shuffling up and down the stairs, peering through the windows, passing through the doors, or milling around back alleys spiraling into lonely dry fountains. Indeed, it was such an effective ghost trap that the city sent stalwart carpenters and bricklayers to maintain it, for only the most devoted haunters still remained to trouble any other part of Archaeopolis.

There was an even sadder reason for Ghostside’s reputation. As no one made an actual home here, it had become a hiding place for the lawless and the destitute; people who wished to avoid living eyes. Some were dangerous. Others were so frightened they feared even charity. Not a few of both types became had become permanent fixtures among the whispering ghosts.

We entered a region where tents and cookfires made it seem almost a forest camp. The way the destitute humans and goblins studied us made me worry I might be roasted on such a fire.

Yet the living of Ghostside, with their smells of rotted food and urine and desperation, made me feel a little guilty for fearing them. A little. They might have been unfortunate, but to me they were luckless giants. The concern was mutual. None seemed eager to lose their dwindled fortunes by accosting a black cat.

Then came the exceptions. A beige-cloaked man rounded a corner, a crossbow in one hand, a whip in the other. There were two young people beside him, the girl Jyn and the boy Oni.

“You!” said Haytham.

“Me,” said Slate.

“Do it,” Oni said with the pure bright intensity of a human ten-year-old. “I will back you up. You’re a worthy ally, Slate.”

“Wait for Slate’s lead,” Jyn said, raising her sword. “But we’ll have satisfaction for Auntie’s death.”

“Don’t advance,” Slate warned the children. “Be wary of the black cats.”

“We’ll kill them too,” Oni said. “I think they’re the ones who stole our dog!”

I felt a claw of guilt, wondering what had become of Hope.

Haytham drew his own blade. “I had nothing to do with any death or dognapping. And you’ve destroyed my property and interrupted a civic project. Things may go poorly for you all.”

Slate smiled. “I’m not lacking for resources. What I do lack is that quill.”

“Then we have something in common, sir.”

“You can have the quill when we kill him,” Jyn said.

“Yes!” said Oni.

“No!” I hissed. “Morgan Slate, you can understand me. You called me a vigilante. But I have only killed rarely, by accident, and always with regret. I cannot allow this! I will lay down my life for Haytham ibn Zakwan, and Nightwise will do likewise.”

“I will?” Nightwise said.

I hissed at him.

“I... certainly,” Nightwise said.

Slate stared at me as though he’d seen a mouse suddenly sing an anthem.

“You can understand these cats?” Jyn said.

“I can,” Slate said frowning. “They will fight for the inventor. Black cats of Archaeopolis can make considerable trouble.”

“Our aunt—” Oni began.

“Was killed by someone with that quill,” Haytham said. “It was not me.”

“Then who?” Jyn said.

“Search me.”

“That may be necessary,” Slate said.

“I mislike the assault on my dignity. I would mislike a genuine assault even more. I don’t have your damned quill!”

“You still maintain you don’t have it? Even though you’re engaged in a feng shui mapping project?”

“That term... it’s from far Qiangguo, isn’t it? I believe I’ve heard it...”

“Nonsense! You know all about it!”

Haytham seemed lost in thought, saying, “The harmonious placement of buildings and furnishings...?”

“Aha. You do know!”

“Stop!” I told Slate. “This man no more has your quill than I. I think he’s been used.”

Slate twitched his jaw. “I may just trust you, Shadowdrop. If you and your friend Nightwise will give Haytham a look-over, I will concede.”

“Not I!” Oni.

“Hold, Oni,” Jyn mused. “The Nocturni are said to be trustworthy... I will wait and see.”

I blinked three times and studied Haytham in Fatesight. From this perspective I could perceive shimmering worldlines extending from each being around me, splitting into alternative futures like icy tree branches stretching into fog. Hyatham ibn Zakwan seemed a being of much potential, with a particularly radiant timeline of wildly spreading probabilities. At times, Fatesight could give me a sense of magical things, for these too sometimes possess their own worldlines. I peered very closely, but the only branchings I saw were Haytham’s. I looked at Nightwise for confirmation, and he shook his head.

“I do not believe he is lying,” I told Slate, adding, “unless you are.”

“I don’t follow,” Slate said.

“If he carried an artifact as powerful as you claim, I should be able to sense it. If you are overstating the quill’s powers, however, perhaps it could remain hidden.”

“I’ve been honest,” Slate said. “I accept your judgment.”

Jyn said, “Provisionally, I do as well.”

Oni fumed and said nothing.

“But,” Slate said, “we must find it. Perhaps you know something, Haytham. Even a guess will do. Give me a name.”

“I am sorry, friend,” said Haytham evenly. “But I have no knowledge of this theft.”

“I can give you a name,” I said, for the realization had crystalized like a pond freezing in winter. “But you must swear to let us take him in, not to kill him.”

“The name,” Slate demanded.

“Your oath,” I countered.

“Why do you think my oath would matter?” Slate said with a laugh.

“Because of the quality of your voice when you spoke of your oath to rule the shining city. Your home means nothing to me. But it clearly means much to you. What is its name?”

Slate blinked. “Some call it Elektrum.”

“Swear by Elektrum then, that you will not kill the man I name.”

“You ask much, cat. My ilk are not accustomed to taking orders from outside our clan.”

“You are not in Elektrum but in my city. Swear.”

Morgan lowered the crossbow with a humorless grin. “Very well. I swear by the topless towers of Elektrum that I will not kill the bastard. No matter how bloody I leave him.”

“Unless I’m much mistaken his name is Drear, the city’s Master of the Choosing.”

And as I spoke the name, it was as though night fell.

The starlings of Archaeopolis are famous for their murmurations—which is akin to saying the crows of Archaeopolis are now famous for their murders. A murmuration of starlings is a grand flocking of thousands of birds, filling the sky with such peculiar shapes that the monks of the Lost Gods have divined the future by them, with mixed results. “Taking the auspices,” it’s called. But the future for us—as a dark raptor-shaped cloud crossed the moon—did not look auspicious. The cloud was descending.

“Throw me,” I told Slate.

“What?” he said, his composure gone for once. I’d finally surprised him.

“Throw me over your head toward Haytham. Don’t worry—even if he doesn’t catch me I’ll land on my feet.”

Slate scooped me up. “Ah, Haytham... friend. I’m going to throw a cat at you.”

That made Haytham look away from the astonishing mass of starlings. I wasn’t sure if the cat-throwing or the word friend was the more shocking to him. “What?”

“Just catch her.”

One man threw, the other man caught, and I did my best not to extend my claws. My luckbane would do damage enough to the world.

In my short airborne journey I’d crossed perhaps a hundred starlings’ paths.

Birds careened away, Ghostside’s winds betraying them. They collided mid-air, their flocking instincts failing. Sparks from the nearest fire inexplicably careened into their mass. Bats chose that moment to fly through the murmuration. Oblivious ghosts picked that juncture to fly around the corner. The starling flock fractured like ice beneath a boot.

“You have my professional admiration,” said Nightwise.

“How about your help?” I said, purring my way out of Haytham’s arms.

“You are doing fine thus far... but I do see they are re-forming.”

“Run!” I said. “This way to Zee’s guardhouse!”

We ran, skidding on starling feces, past startled ghosts. The murmuration re-grouped overhead and once again resembled a raptor. It dove against us. Nightwise and I were largely proof against their assault, escaping with only a few pecks while our luckbane encouraged collisions with cobblestones and walls. But our beak-bloodied companions looked as though they’d crawled across broken potshards.

“I have good news for you, Haytham!” Morgan Slate said.

“What is that?” Haytham replied.

“I am now completely sure you don’t have the quill!”

“How far to the guardhouse?” Jyn demanded.

“Six blocks!” called a woman’s voice up ahead. “Come on!”

It was the very Sergeant Zee we were seeking. She looked scolding and angry, as if she’d come looking for a bite of trouble and had gotten a banquet. “You the people who just crashed an airship? Serves me right for checking it out on my break, with no backup.” She waved us along.

“So you aren’t afraid of ghosts?” Morgan Slate asked her.

“Stop flirting, Morgan,” I said, but Zee could not understand and replied, “I’m mostly afraid of the living! Are you Nocturni? You should’ve talked to me about that corpse. Bird-pecked, we think, before it got crab-nibbled.”

“How far is it to the guardhouse?” Jyn demanded again. “Really?”

“About five-and-a-half blocks now,” Zee answered.

“We won’t make it!” yelled Oni, and I had to admit he was right. “All that’s left is to drop as many starlings as we can!” He actually stopped and bellowed a challenge to the birds. “Hear me, unseen master of the starlings. I am Oni! Your servants will perish, and then you! Your blood will coat my knives!”

Jyn stood beside her brother, sword drawn. “Well, that ensures they won’t spare us for being children.”

“I don’t care!” he said.

“Ha, I suppose I don’t either.”

Zee swore and stopped running. Slate and Haytham stopped too.

“Idiots,” Nightwise said. “Remind me, are these are the beings who built this civilization?”

“We cats were with them all those centuries,” I said with a sigh. “That’s the only explanation. But I suppose I won’t run either.”

As we drew close to the children, Nightwise said, “Well, certainly we will live regardless, Shadowdrop, but it’s somewhat depressing when humans die. I wish they would stop doing it around me.”

“Hush.”

Slate incanted something and raised his hands, and the first wave of starlings was dispersed by a gust of wind. Haytham drew a flask from his robe and threw it, and a thunderous explosion of air shredded the next murmuration.

At each disruption we advanced half a block.

“Any more tricks?” Zee demanded.

Morgan and Haytham shook their heads.

“We should do some cat tossing,” I told Morgan, and he nodded, though as we looked around I could tell he’d come to the same calculation: with some luck and some luckbane Nightshade and I might hold off the starlings another block or two, but the humans were too bloodied to reach the guardhouse.

The starlings descended. As if their master knew the score, the flock spelled out the word AQUILLA against the moon.

“Well, you just lost my ‘Aye,’” Zee spat.

Light blazed on a cornice of a false building. A robed woman formed of traceries of silver light stood transparently above us, raising one hand. The hand had only three fingers.

“Your reckoning is coming,” said the ghost to the sky, in a whisper that somehow filled the street.

I had never seen a lightning bolt composed of moonlight before. Such a thing must surely be an illusion only, yet it was an illusion that terrified the starlings. They shook the quill-master’s control and flew off in a hundred directions.

The ghost looked down upon us.

“Auntie?” Jyn said, and Oni knelt with lowered head.

“Ah, my sister’s children,” said the ghost. “I did what I could. I was given a little crumb of time in which to help you along your way. But no, look not at me, a fool feeling pity for herself, who needs it no more. Look instead at you, two flames rising in the night country of this existence. A girl who will see the world more clearly than a hawk on the wing. A boy who will be braver than a bear guarding a den. There is so much I would tell you and there is no time. What words are there? I was not prepared... No, no pity... Know this. Do not forget your strength is greater than you know. Do not forget the beauty in the world, and that you are a part of it. Know that good and perfect aren’t cousins but foes. Know that I love you, ever. And if it is permitted to me, I...” The voice faded like a memory of wind.

Oni and Jyn stared at the darkened cornice. All their ferocity seemed to have departed with the ghost. I wanted to pick them both up by the scruffs of their necks and take them somewhere warm and safe.

Haytham said, with surprising gentleness, “Perhaps it is the nature of this district that allowed her to manifest. Perhaps it was the threat to you two. But now we must use the time she’s bought for us.”

Jyn nodded, and Oni rose.

We ran. We’d hit the final block when the starling mass re-coagulated and plummeted behind us like a cyclopean arrow at our backs. We reached Zee’s guardhouse at the seam of Ghostside and Scatterwind, where startled-looking sentries watched with slack jaws. Zee bellowed, “We go on lockdown! These people are with me and the cats are Nocturni!”

They waved us inside. Doors were barred and windows shuttered. Guards clutched weapons and waited at every entry point, although someone found time to fill a couple of bowls with meat scraps. It sounded like rain outside for a time, with thousands of beaks tapping on the wood instead of droplets and feces dripping down the walls instead of water.

“I’m both disgusted and terrified,” Nightwise said, hiding his anxiety and his nose in the bowl.

“Bird droppings are especially nauseating,” I said, “especially at this volume.”

“Agreed. Though, you know, it’s not a choice for them. Something about a less-complex digestive system allowing for reduced weight, so they can fly. It doesn’t hurt to keep an open mind, Shadowdrop.”

“Since when, Nightwise, are you such a live-and-let-live cat?”

“Since my belly’s full,” he replied, licking his jowls. “Also, we’ve seen a bit of actual villainy, you and I. It puts my prejudices in perspective.”

Zee swept a miscellanea of mugs off a staff table and rolled out a map of Archaeopolis. It was no artful aerial depiction nor a feng shui diagram. It was crowded with her personal notes about the state of the city, including notations like DON’T TRUST THE MAN IN THIS MANSION or DON’T EAT THE FOOD HERE BUT THE BEER’S GOOD or DON’T GO HERE EXCEPT IN PAIRS or DON’T GO HERE UNLESS YOU TAKE A SQUAD or DON’T GO HERE UNLESS YOU TAKE A SQUAD AND A WIZARD.

“I know,” she said to my look, “I have Opinions. I don’t like smooth-talking foreigners. I don’t like foreigners in funny hats. I don’t like cats; they make me sneeze. But it doesn’t matter what I like. I don’t like flan or avocado either, but people get to eat them.”

“You’re right,” mused Nightwise, knowing most of his audience couldn’t hear him. “Most human food is disgusting.”

“You are right about the avocado,” said Haytham, “but wrong about the flan.”

“It’s the other way around,” said Slate.

“Focus!” I mewed, and this they all seemed to understand.

Zee nodded. “Did you know I was named for Pirate Empress Zayne? It’s her Eldshore I stand with. An Eldshore of Free Brethren. The Brethren have passed laws. The laws say you can eat disgusting food. And they also say even the most hated criminal, even the most suspicious looking foreigner, anyone, has some basic rights. More so for actual citizens, no matter how funny they look. But what really scorches me is when powerful people like Drear get their own law, and people like these kids’ aunt get another. And if Drear wants to sway a Choosing? Let him use his off-watch and shout atop a barrel like any other idiot. The hell with it. Rolling over for the big dogs is part of every guard’s job, but I’m done. Let them exile me to Coldfang if they want.”

She jabbed a finger at a building labeled ‘The Nimbus.’

“We’re going after him.”

As she began describing the approach, I edged up to Slate and said, “There is an additional way to thwart your enemy, but I need your expertise.”

“What do you propose to do?”

“Cross Drear’s path. In a sense.”

Drear’s lair was so inconspicuous, focusing on it almost hurt the eyes.

As I see it, everyone mislikes a government building that is merely a government building. They may admire such edifices dressed up as cosmic temples, like the Sidereal Senate. They may respect coldly pale fortresses like the Lunarsenal. They may appreciate such structures if they are wings of soaring palaces, as with Castle Astrolabe. They may even get cold satisfaction shaking their fists at self-consciously grim slabs like Eclipse Spire with its debtors’ prison and taxmen. Humans love drama, and they will appreciate architecture that inspires love, hate, or the impulse to check their coin purses.

The Nimbus evokes none of this. Rising from a modest hill, it is a moderately large building of grey stone that somehow evokes the sort of cloud mass that briefly looks to be brewing a storm, only to drift off and fade with an air of only kidding. The structure is a slab perforated with square windows and a spattering of wispy decorative columns. From a cat’s-eye view it has a lack of interesting corners and alcoves. It seems designed to deflect the eye, and knowledge of what’s inside only reinforces the desire to move along.

Nightwise, Haytham, Zee, Morgan Slate, and I crouched in an alley nearby. “What is in there?” asked Morgan.

Zee said, “The building is full of paper-twisters—census takers, surveyors, inspectors, minute-writers, complaint-filterers...”

Morgan frowned. “What is a ‘complaint-filterer?’”

“They take complaints from the people and listen sympathetically. They then write down reports and file them in the appropriate places.”

Haytham’s eyebrows went up. “What are the appropriate places?”

“I think nine out of ten go into the Basement of Complaints,” Zee said. “The remaining ones go to another desk in the building. The clerk there puts nine out of ten into an above-ground Library of Rue. The remainder go to another clerk. That clerk puts nine out of ten into a sunlit Archive of Angst. What remains goes into a basket to Castle Astrolabe.”

“And does the emperor hear those?” Haytham asked.

“It is said,” Zee groused, “they are read aloud to him as he sleeps. In this way he dreams of the empire’s problems. Later an equal number of statements of praise are read to him. In this way he dreams of the empire’s glories. Balance is maintained.”

“And that is what happens when the people try to reach him?” Haytham said. “Even the caliph of Mirabad is more accessible than that.”

“Ah,” said Zee, “that’s why the Brethren also elect a High Tribune, something like a pirate galley’s quartermaster, who represents the crew. But really I think Rel is pulling her strings. The Tribune has audiences with petitioners that are largely stage shows, because Rel believes the appearance of caring is better than actual caring. If you appear to care but actually do what is relentlessly, brutally logical, everyone wins. The sufferers get a sympathetic ear. Meanwhile the empire gets policy meant for the greater good. It’s tradition.”

We were waiting for the changing of the guard, because Zee knew the sentinel who was up next. We’d left the youngsters behind over their objections, but the meeting with their aunt’s ghost had slaked some of their thirst for vengeance. The starlings had backed off; Morgan suspected the quill-master had exhausted his concentration.

As two of the humans couldn’t understand Nightwise and me, this waiting made for strange conversation. I put in, “Rel cares in his own way. He cares about an abstraction called ‘The Eldshore.’ He is much less enamored with individual Eldshorens.”

“I see,” Morgan said.

“You’re talking to the cat now?” Zee asked him.

“Yes.”

“I’m right here,” I said, though it was just ‘meows’ to the sergeant.

Zee snorted. “I suppose the cat is annoyed that I mocked Rel.”

Morgan repeated my meaning and Zee laughed. “Oh, but he likes you,” she said. “His pet cats.”

I almost hissed but controlled myself. “I think he would like you too. He does take a fancy to certain beings, but it’s a whim. It’s strange. He cares deeply about the common people, but I don’t think he likes them much. They sense that. They preferred his heir, dead Prince Hale, lost at sea—who drank in their pubs and hugged them and kissed their children and put them to death. Good or bad, they felt they understood Hale. Rel keeps them at arm’s length, except when he wanders out into the city under watch of his personal assassins and plays solitaire and has odd conversations with passers-by. Prince Hale was much worse for them as a whole but Hale liked them, and so they would have followed him over a cliff. Yet they watch Rel, who schemes tirelessly for their welfare, with beady eyes.”

Morgan declined to repeat all this. “You don’t respect humans much, do you?”

“I am a cat.”

“So no one in your government listens, Shadowdrop? I mean, listens and does something?”

“That’s what the Senate and Wheelhouse are for. Are supposed to be for,” I amended. “It still matters. It’s still worth struggling for.”

“That’s why you’re here?” Morgan mused. “To make your swabocracy be fair?”

“That’s too much to ask for, I think. But maybe we can keep it from being monstrously unfair.”

“Quit your caterwauling,” Zee said, though I’d been mewing at most. “It’s time.”

She led us to the guard post at the front door. The new guard, a weedy young cadaverous-looking fellow, was just getting into position when Zee strode up. “I need you to let me through, Vil. Higher-up business.”

The guardsman thus addressed looked us over. He gave me the impression of being a touch infatuated with Zee. “Evening, Zee! Hello, Master Haytham.”

“A fine evening,” said Haytham with a bow.

“You can both go in,” said Vil. “I think Countmaster Drear was actually looking for you, Master Haytham. But I’m sorry, we have orders not to allow animals or foreigners inside.”

“This man is with me,” Zee said, elbowing Morgan in a way that seemed to hurt. “And the cats are Nocturni.”

Vil scratched a stubbled chin. “The orders don’t make any exceptions.”

“Use your common sense. Would Emperor Rel forbid them?”

“That’s just it, the orders came in Rel’s name.”

Zee frowned. “But who did you directly hear them from? Countmaster Drear?”

“Actually...” Vil looked a bit abashed.

“What is it, kid? I’m not out to get you.”

“It was a little irregular. The order came from Nyx Raptor.”

Zee glowered. “You’re letting Nyx boss you around?”

Vil shrank a bit. “The Raptor Concern’s been doing a lot of work in here lately, and around the city, and we’ve... we’ve sort of gotten used to taking their instructions. Because Countmaster Drear always vouches for them, and it always seems all right.”

I meowed for Morgan’s attention. “Tell them it’s not all right,” I said. “Nyx Raptor’s been reshaping the city to fit Drear’s plans.”

“Vil,” Zee said once this was relayed. “Listen to me. They’re contractors only. They shouldn’t even be passing messages along, let alone handing out orders. No matter what Drear says. He’s warping the chain of command.”

The guard reddened. “I... they just talk so authoritatively... and it’s always worked out okay...”

“Vil, listen. Some people bluster so well they’re like skeleton keys to the locks inside our brains. Bar the door, Vil.”

“To my brain?”

“Yeah, but to this place, too. Don’t let any more contractors in, not even Nyx Raptor herself, until you hear differently from up the chain. As of this moment, Drear doesn’t count.”

Vil gulped and nodded.

As they spoke, I told Nightwise, “You’d better get our plan started.”

“You may need more luckbane than you’ve got,” he said.

“I know,” I said, though it pained me to admit it. “But mine is stronger than yours. And I don’t know how much trouble it will be to get the other Nocturni to side with us. It will be like herding... an apt metaphor fails to materialize, but you take my meaning. By now Zee’s messenger should have reached Rel. You should follow up with him first, and soon.”

“And if he’s in on Drear’s scheme?”

“Cross his path.”

“Ha! And I was the one who told you to avoid him. Stay safe, Shadowdrop.”

“I sense the luck’s good in this part of town.” I bit him playfully on the shoulder. “And, Nightwise, when do I not?”

He didn’t even take that as a real answer, more as a salute, which he replied to by flicking his tail flamboyantly as he bounded off. Was I that predictable?

I stayed close to Morgan, the only one here who could understand me. On the way into the grey stone corridors of the Nimbus, I asked him, “So what magics can you perform?”

“A gentleman doesn’t answer such questions.”

“I am a cat.”

He smiled. “And not a gentleman, therefore?”

“There’s more than one reason.”

“Ah.”

“I should know the capabilities of you humans. Zee and Haytham—the warrior and the inventor—I think I understand them. But you are a mystery, except that you can cause a wind.”

“I’m fond of tobacco, and I’m told I snore too. All right. I have some influence over natural processes. Wind, waves, fire. But it’s harder if the process is inside a living thing, like blood flow. If a natural process is in motion I can sometimes manipulate it. I can accelerate or diminish its activity, and I can affect its motion.”

“It sounds a bit unreliable.”

“It is. I prefer steel. But we do what we can.”

We ascended stairs, Zee and Haytham leading, Morgan and I trailing and talking. “You said your magical training was unconventional. Can a gentlemen explain such things?”

Morgan chuckled. “Perhaps to a cat.” He lowered his voice. “In our primary estate there lies a curious library into which each child of my family is locked at age ten.”

“What?”

“Oh, the children are quite safe. There is a water pump in an antechamber, and a small dumbwaiter for food. Within the library are tools to master many sorts of knowledge, including the counterspells to the enchantments around the doors and windows. If the children cannot escape in a year they are whisked away to a country mansion far from the family’s city holdings and encouraged to live simple lives, far away from intrigue. I envy them, in a way.”

Morgan said this with a curious ease, as if this were some innocuous family tradition like celebrating a first birthday with a mouse hunt or going without catnip for forty days. But a certain hardness in his eyes belied his tone.

The implied cruelty angered me. There is little in the human world that truly kindles my outrage. Human greed and prejudice, bureaucracy and business, invective and violence, all evoke yawns. But unkindness to kits? It makes me yearn to claw eyes.

“So,” I said, “you are one of the ones who made it out. How long did it take you?”

“A day,” Morgan said.

“Indeed! And have your skills advanced beyond that point?”

“Not by much. I have the knack for magic but not the obsession. There are so many other intriguing things in the world. So I require tools to do anything truly interesting. Thus my anxiousness to recover the quill.”

“Drear’s office is on the top floor,” Zee was saying, “beyond a small administrative library to which he controls access. Look for the door marked Ministry of Bureaus.”

I scouted ahead. The hallway presented no challenges, and I approached the double doors marked as Zee had promised. “What is a ‘Ministry of Bureaus’ anyway?” I asked, a question that must have come out as a curious “mew.”

“In the time of Mad Emperor Vorl,” Zee answered once Morgan explained, “every official in the Eldshore had to get their desks from this office. They were equipped with many special quirks, like hidden compartments, poison pens, and the like. But now this is Drear’s place. He’s fond of the desks. Something of a collector.”

Haytham poked at the lock with a set of angular tools. There came a click. “Ah,” he said. “I know people in the field of nocturnal artifact acquisition. Not exactly a scholarly skill, but handy at times.”

The doors swung open. Beyond was an empty library with a large number of wooden work tables, each with quill and ink. (None of the quills were from peacocks.) The shelves were filled half with scrolls and half with codices. We stepped lightly between them.

But not lightly enough. A case of scrolls shuddered without visible cause and spilled in their multitudes onto the floor.

“Is that your doing?” Morgan asked me.

“No, yours?”

“No... uh oh.”

The scrolls, marked with words like births, deaths, marriages, incarcerations, fines, plaudits, and metamorphoses, spun around as if in a whirlwind, though the chamber’s air was dusty and still. Each scroll was tied with a red ribbon and wrapped around a wooden rod with knobs at either end. Now the knobs began linking up like pieces of magnetized ore.

“Whatever this process is,” I said, “I suggest we skip its conclusion.” I dashed around the dancing scrolls, the others trailing. We found ourselves confronted by an iron door marked Drear. There was no handle or lock.

“It’s magicked,” Haytham said with an uneasy look over his shoulder at the scrolls. “But if he’s expecting me...”

The scrolls were forming discrete shapes. Two dozen or so together shaped a spindly humanoid figure, and there were six of these. They had a distinctly pale, bony look. The scrolls forming the foreheads of each figure split their ribbons and unrolled a bit, though I could not see what was written there.

Haytham knocked at Drear’s door. “Haythan ibn Zakwan!” he called out. “Here to report!”

The scroll-things turned. Each one had a “face” that was a sprawling inkblot. I perceived the blots as suggestive of particular things—a skull here, a screaming figure there, a hand with a bloody dagger yonder.

But mostly they just suggested that anything and everyone could be blotted out.

The scroll-things advanced, flinging aside the scrolls from their “arms” to expose the wooden rods within.

The doorway cracked and groaned inward.

“Well done, Haytham,” said Morgan.

“It’s not my doing,” said Haytham uneasily. “I suspect my appointment is known to the door.”

“Let’s not argue with it,” said Zee.

We scurried inside, Zee leading. The humans slammed the door and blocked it with a vast table covered with a detailed model of the city. A paper drifted off the table. Paper was not so cheap that most folk would jot quick notes upon it, but Drear was not most people.

The door rattled. I mewed at the note, which read:

My dear H.,

You are late. In more ways than one. I do apologize for the necessity of silencing you. Please set down your current map and await the mercies of my whorlmen.

Assiduously,

D.

            Haytham shivered. The door shook. He said, “I believe the door recognizes those constructs—those whorlmen—too.” We were obliged to the rear of Drear’s office, where many desks were crowded with civic charts, and where the most fanciful-looking desk I’d ever seen rose like a miniature version of Embassy Hill, covered with little towers, pyramids, domes, and a corkscrewing spire for the Jargoskaraklargan embassy.

No one was sitting at it. We were alone except for the scroll-beings scrabbling against the door.

“Curious—” said Haytham, breathing deeply to keep his composure.

“Not the word I’d use, Mirabadian,” snapped Zee.

“Let him speak,” said Morgan.

“Thank you,” said Haytham. “The model city on this most useful table is marked in much the same way as my aerial maps. With one important exception. There is a red dotted line leading from the Nimbus, where we are, through Embassy Hill and the Veiled Lake, out through the gate at Whisperwall and into the marsh. It stops at a tree—the only tree warranting its own marker in the entire model.”

“Another Hull?” said Morgan.

“No,” said Haytham. “This cuts across Hulls and extends beyond the city. It must be something else.”

Zee peered at me. No, I realized, she was studying the fantasia of a bureau I’d leaped upon. “Vorl-era desks had plenty of tricks. And that must be Drear’s favorite.”

The doors ratted more strongly now. Improbably, the whorlmen seemed to be ramming them with a table.

Morgan was tapping his foot, thinking hard. “This is Drear’s place of work, yet it seems clear his lair is elsewhere, in the marsh. Embassy Hill is on a line from here to that lair. The red line—a secret passage? Everyone, search the walls!”

Meanwhile I nosed around, pawing at this and that. The colorful bureau had many nooks and crannies to explore. I slunk into the dark amid tiny drawers, my whiskers sending me a tactile map of my surroundings. There! Up in a hollow, impossible for a human to find without great effort, was a patch a trifle sticky from fingers fond of candy. I lunged at it with a paw. A panel clicked inward.

A rumbling shook the room as a bookshelf behind the desk slid aside. I jumped out to discover a hidden stairway.

“Not bad, cat,” said Zee. I feigned indifference to the praise and licked a sticky paw, tasting lemon.

At that moment the whorlmen burst in, and the vast map-table screeched aside with a sound ignorant humans would probably compare to cats. I leaped into the stairwell, and my tribe of humans followed. Haytham managed to get the bookshelf closed behind us, but our exit was surely seen.

We were plunged into darkness, but my earlier glimpse of the stairwell, and my whiskers, made me confident. Then I blinked as Zee lit a lantern, and Haytham some manner of alchemical glow-stick, and Morgan a pale moonlit glow upon his right index finger. The humans grunted at each other at this embarrassment of luminal riches, but none seemed willing to part with their light. Thus I descended ahead of them, in the company of three cat-shadows.

Down the stairway, we traversed what was surely the whole height of the Nimbus, and what must be its basements, and yet no other door revealed itself until we were, I’d warrant, a hundred feet below ground. However, along the way were a number of plastered-up arches, and from time to time we had to navigate small hallways to pick up the stairs again.

“This was not always a secret stairway,” Morgan concluded. “It’s been modified.”

Once, my whiskers alerted me to another piece of paper, this one crumpled beside the wall. I patted it and mewed. Zee snatched it up.

“It’s an old work order from Drear’s department,” she said, “to the Raptor Concern. ‘Miscellaneous construction.’” She tucked it into her armor.

Soon we were at the base of the stairs. This last section was far more roughly hewn and ended in a similarly jagged passage.

“If I judge direction correctly,” Haytham said, “this matches the red dotted line. It leads north.”

A rumble and a clatter far above alerted us to pursuit.

“Well, let’s not sightsee,” said Zee. “Hopefully they’re slow.”

The tunnel had a newness to it, though Archaeopolis is ancient. This was not my first visit to the city’s underworld, often cheerily dubbed “Crypttown.” I was accustomed to seeing many branching passages, whether they were sewer routes, remnants of old streets or buildings, sanctuaries for forgotten cults, or smuggler’s paths. But this tunnel was single-minded. On either hand we would pass branching ways filled with collapsed masonry or else bricked over. The temperature was chillier than that overhead. I recalled my brother Whiskerdoom telling me that underground places took on the average temperature of the lands overhead. It was usually colder in Archaeopolis than now, and the cool tunnel reflected that fact. I hated to admit it, but I wished I had Whiskerdoom with me now.

We were just hearing clattering far behind us when we encountered a new-looking ladder leading up. But the tunnel continued straight on.

“I judge we’re not at the suspicious tree yet,” Haytham said.

“I think you’re right,” Zee said. “But it’s worth a peek.”

“Allow me.” Morgan slipped up the ladder, almost quick as a cat. He pushed open a trapdoor and raised his illuminated finger like a sailor testing the wind.

Then he closed the trapdoor and leaped down. “It was a storeroom full of crates,” he reported, “with the trapdoor in an obscure corner. I recognized the writing on the crates. Western Cochleate, in the Jargoskaraklargan style.”

“Then we’re under Embassy Hill,” Zee said. “Beneath the Jargo embassy. Does Ambassador Sharga have something to do with this?”

Haytham told her, “Both your land and mine have tangled with Jargos.”

“Do we explore the embassy?” Morgan said. “I think those whorlmen will catch up if we do.”

I mewed, “I think we should press on. If the tunnel does end in the marsh, that is where we’re most likely to find answers.”

“I agree,” Morgan said, and relayed my opinion. I was gratified that soon we continued down the tunnel, now and then peering behind at one unnerving sound or another. The tunnel cooled still further. The air became moist, and there was a sound of dripping.

“I’d reckon we’re under the Veiled Lake,” Zee said. “Fancy sailboats and nobles’ soiree barges are probably right overhead.”

I passed over an unusually smooth portion of the floor, just too late to take note of a subtle rectangular look to it. “Wait—”

I lacked the weight to trigger this pressure plate, but Sergeant Zee did not. There was a groan of stone, a click of hidden mechanisms, a clank as a panel upon the wall opened—and a torrent of water spilled onto us, swiftly flooding the tunnel.

“Run, Shadowdrop!” Morgan said. “You cannot help us, and you have the best chance of escape!”

I would like to say he persuaded me, but the truth is my feet were already carrying me away. I have a longstanding dislike of water, and a long-running desire not to stand beside a flood. And what could I do, cross their paths?

I know not how long I fled down the tunnel. Once or twice a rush of cold water kissed my heels, but I yowled and from somewhere within my dark heart there sparked a hot refusal to die. At last it seemed to me the tunnel rose. The air warmed and the sounds of water ebbed, and I paused. Toppled, more like.

By now there was a dim light ahead of me, though a human might not have noticed it. Behind was a sloshing darkness. I listened, but all sounds were liquid and indistinct. Almost I turned back to investigate my companions’ fates, but then voices echoed ahead of me, and my curiosity was aroused. Some might think me heartless. But my sense of proportionality values the present far more than the past.

Ahead the rough tunnel became a flight of twenty steps leading up to some torchlit space, and I dragged myself up them. The voices became distinct. One—Countmaster Drear—argued with two others.

“There is nothing more to fear, Nyx! And nothing more to be done tonight. It’s unfortunate Haytham was too late to deliver his final map, but what we have is good enough. The newly drawn Hulls already favor the Party.”

Again I sensed a capital ‘P’ in Party.

“I still don’t fully understand this Eastern magic Sharga goes on about,” said a second voice, a woman’s. “For all that my crews have been building and burning based upon it. I’m always happy to take your gold, old friends, but I do not take your meaning.”

A third voice, that of another woman, replied, “My approach to ‘Salamandering’ is not primarily magic. It is true that feng shui principles are involved in making the Hulls resemble the animals associated with particular factions. Chalked and bloody markers indicate the territories. And sometimes, fires and new construction. Thus what happens to those territories will affect the luck of the factions.”

By now I had crept near the top of the stairs and the tunnel mouth. I allowed myself a quick peek. This place was a rude counterpart of Drear’s office back in the Nimbus. Its walls were not stone but earthen, reinforced with wood, but again there was a city model, and again a gigantic desk. The three speakers—all human, judging by my quick glimpse—were standing just outside an open door to this chamber. I ducked down before they could notice me and thus didn’t get a good look.

I heard the third voice continue, “But beyond that, we have also made these animal shapes twist and turn to avoid areas where many Aquilla supporters live. Thus we have created multiple new Hulls—in roughly the shapes of eagles—that contain majorities of Aquillans. The other factions, we’ve isolated into their own small domains. Their power will shrink, even though together they have superior numbers. Our feng shui manipulations will intensify the effect. Supporters of other factions will feel unlucky, clumsy, discouraged, ill, and inclined to stay home on Choosing Day. I estimate the Party will win Sidereal and Wheelhouse control despite representing only a fifth of the Brethren.”

“I don’t really understand,” said the first woman, “but keep those contracts coming and I’m content.”

Although part of me was listening, another part was calculating. The trio was lingering by an entrance, as humans so often do, but I didn’t know if that meant they were ultimately headed inward or outward. I took a chance and dashed beneath the table supporting the city model, beyond sight of the doorway. Now I had a better view of the big desk. This one mirrored the Discus Theater, which seemed appropriate given Drear’s dramatic approach to politics. A golden mop leaned against it.

The desk was surrounded by a circle of six huge hanging cages. Four were empty, but one very full cage held the dog Hope, and a roomier one the seagull Purloiner-of-Chips. I risked a second dash over to the desk, where I leaped up and peered over the top at my companions. “Purloiner!” I hissed. “Hope!”

“You took your time,” one quietly squawked, and “Hey!” boomed the other.

“Hush! How are you two?”

“Oh, fine, fine,” said Purloiner. “Just hanging around.”

“I’m—” Hope began.

“Quieter!” I hissed. I didn’t know if any of the humans comprehended Featherfur, though from the sound of it, Sharga—surely Ambassador Sharga of Jargoskaraklarga—was a wizard.

“I’m fine,” Hope said from the side of her mouth, looking like she was gnawing an invisible bone but managing to woof quietly. “But what about my humans? That bad human Drear said he swarmed them with starlings.”

“Your humans are well,” I said, “but I think your captor is responsible for the death of your mistress the alchemist.”

Someone approached the desk. As I’ve said, it was huge, a miniature theatrical empire in wood, with its own little flags atop the great dome. I dove into its innards like a groundling hunting good standing room.

Peering out I saw Countmaster Drear sit down at it, flanked by the two women. One was very short by human reckoning and with pale blonde hair fading to white, wearing a white robe threaded with golden waves and spirals; her appearance and attire matched that of Jargos I’d seen in the past. The other was tall with a tumult of raven hair with streaks of grey, and she wore a black cloak over a chain tunic that reached to her knees, emblazoned with the winged emblem of the Raptor Concern.

Grey-clad Drear was showing them a chart upon the desk. “Here you can see the new pattern.” He removed a peacock quill from an inside pocket and tapped it against the chart. “A horse, an ox, a bull, and a wolf—all harried by a convocation of eagles! Fantastic artistry, that Haytham ibn Zakwan. Soon we’ll command the swabocracy, and afterward the empire.”

“Then the world?” said she who must be black-cloaked Nyx Raptor, with an ironic note in her voice. “Where have I heard that before?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” white-robed Ambassador Sharga said. “But it is true that the energy flow will bring the Aquilla-controlled Hulls good fortune, draining not only the land but the subterranean dragon itself. It’s the same as is done with the Heavenwalls in faraway Qiangguo, though of course on a smaller scale.”

“Smaller,” Drear put in, jabbing toward her with the quill, “but no less important!”

“Of course,” Sharga said easily. “And secret Raptor Concern warehouses will be the foci of the power, each controlled by Party leaders.”

“Listen to yourselves!” Nyx Raptor said with a laugh. “It really is all a game to you.”

“This ‘swabocracy’ is a game, Nyx,” Sharga said. “A foolish game. Your emperor is a fool, sharing power in this way. But we can make use of his foolishness. We Jargos are better at magic than you Eldshorens. When the Party is firmly entrenched and Rel passes on—perhaps with a bit of encouragement—we the Party will claim a mandate from the people to choose the new emperor. Rel has no heir, so this will be simple enough. We’ll bring more Jargo agents in to smooth things over. We play to win.”

“You’ll never stop Shadowdrop!” Hope boomed then. “She’s caught you all!”

I pulled my head back. Perhaps none of them knew Featherfur.

“Shadowdrop?” Drear said. I heard him rise and pace the room. “Where? The notorious Shadowdrop... the emperor’s right claw? We’ve met, but I didn’t know it. Come on out! We can talk. I lack my friend Sharga’s power, but I do know a little magic; we can converse freely. I don’t want to kill you, you know. I don’t want to kill anyone. The beauty of the Party’s plans is that violence isn’t required. Acceptable, yes. But not required.”

Hope answered, “Then why did you kill my human?”

“Not I!” Drear said. “My overzealous corvid compatriots. My control over them is limited. It was simply a tragic mistake. Haytham expressed exasperation at the alchemist’s perfectionism and delay. So in my zeal I expressed a desire that the alchemist be frightened into haste. What happened is the crows’ fault and her own. She struggled in her pride. Craftspeople. So arrogant.”

Hope barked, “You! You will pay!”

“Unlikely. The Party will win. And we are its nucleus.”

“What do you win?” Purloiner asked. “A vacation villa? A pile of gold Blazons? Chips?”

“A better Eldshore. One more responsive to the people. The human people.”

Purloiner made a choking sound. “Don’t you mean the male, landed human people?”

“I suppose I do,” Drear said easily.

“You ladies all right with that?” demanded Purloiner. Sharga chuckled and relayed the question to Nyx.

Nyx yawned. I heard her move around toward the cages. “I personally stand to benefit, bird. I and my progeny. What else matters?”

Sharga followed. “And I am not even a citizen of this country. My homeland makes no foolish pretense of majority rule.”

Hope had been chewing on something for a while, metaphorically. “What’s a nucleus?” she asked. “Is it better than an oldcleus?” Sharga chuckled and passed this along.

Nyx laughed. “The center. Party within the Party you might say. We were always a party—what is sometimes naively called a ‘dungeoneering party.’ Ah, to be young again! We began our career as teenaged fools looting the maze of Foghenge, where the billowing mists were long ago enchanted into pale columns, hiding ancient druidic experiments and treasure. We’d meant only one such adventure, but the ruins of Brightcairn and the caverns of the Soulmatrix beckoned. Ah, those were dark days and yet bursting with bloody illumination! Amaltea the priestess of the Swan, the wizard Sharga, Drear the acquirer of anything—and I, the only one who could really handle a sword. But after Amaltea died in the halls of the necrocrats, we knew we needed a new line of work.”

Hope wasn’t interested in explanations. “You will pay! You will pay!”

“I don’t think so,” said Sharga. “We have come too far. We have taken our dungeoneering party and transformed it into the Party. We brought our fortunes and our daring the to dark maze of politics. We stuck together in its lightless depths, and we split the danger and the rewards. And when you look through the eyes of the Party, everything else is just terrain. Or lackeys. Or loot. Or opponents to crush.”

“Shadowdrop will stop you,” Hope said.

“I don’t think she’s even here,” Drear scoffed.

Something clattered up the steps I’d taken. For a wild moment I hoped it was my human companions, but soon the sound of wood clacking on stone was impossible to ignore.

“The whorlmen!” Drear said.

“And they’re dripping,” Sharga said.

“The trap must have tripped,” Nyx said.

“Reveal your blots,” Drear commanded. “Show us your quarry.”

There was an unfurling of parchment.

“A black cat!” said Sharga.

“Shadowdrop!” Nyx hissed.

“Told you!” Hope said.

“Where is she?” Sharga demanded, and I heard steel clatter against the bars of a hanging cage. “Tell me, dog, or I will read the seagull’s entrails.”

“I’ll never tell!” said Hope.

“She’s in the desk,” said Purloiner.

“Where’s your honor, bird?” demanded Hope.

“Not sure,” said Purloiner. “Probably somewhere in my entrails.”

Hope’s loyalty warmed me, and I mostly forgave her for mentioning me. I like being mentioned. For that matter, I didn’t take Purloiner’s betrayal personally. I was, strange to say, rather enjoying myself. “I am the haunted desk!” I screeched. “Give me treats!”

Nyx said, “What is it caterwauling about?”

“She is insane,” Sharga said.

“She is Shadowdrop,” Drear said, “Rel’s favorite agent, and not to be underestimated. Cat, I commend your stubborn audacity, but it’s too late to stop us. Rel’s idealism has to be curbed. This is a human country and will always be a human country.”

“I don’t know about the country,” I said, “but this city belongs to us cats. The sleeping dragon said so.”

“Did it really?”

“You’re welcome to go ask him.”

“Enough,” snapped Drear. “The Party might have had a place for you as an enforcer. But you are hopelessly bound to mad Rel.” I heard him grab the mop. “We humans are inventors, and we must craft our destiny. Just as I crafted this mop to ensure I always had a weapon at hand.” I heard him twist something on the handle, and with a click the crackling of flame danced in my ears. Drear chuckled. “I must do this for the people.”

“What if the people don’t wish it?’”

“Then the Party of the Eagle will feast on them.”

“You speak of it like an actual living thing.”

“Is it not?” Drear laughed. “A political faction uses humans as limbs, muscles, eyes, ears. But its brain is the churn of the Party, a combination of doctrine, ambition, blood, adrenaline. It is fundamentally nonhuman, greater than its members. Great enough to command this city, and then this empire. It will prey on the likes of you. Eagles have been known to snatch up cats.”

I heard footfalls and hot crackling. Drear was approaching the front of the desk. I judged he’d try to reclaim his chart before burning me alive.

“If so,” I said mildly, creeping toward the light. “it will find me bad luck.”

“Ah yes, the mighty Shadowdrop! Your legendary power. Confronting us will do you no good, even if you harm us personally. The plan is already in motion.”

“So am I,” I said, and made it true.

I darted to the visible part of the desk. Drear fell for the bait, lunging at me one-handed with a golden mop crowned with writhing orange flames as though he were a swabby from hell. Thus I was able to cross his path without leaving the wood.

He stumbled and screamed with a face full of fire.

In that moment I leaped at Drear and bit the peacock quill out of one hand as with the other he futilely waved his mop of office. I scratched my way up his front and over his shoulder and bounded back over his head into the innards of the desk. “Mine,” I murmured, mouth full of feather.

“Cat!” screeched Drear. I heard him toss the mop. Below me the wood grew warm.

Nyx began hacking at the desk. But Sharga, near the cages, screeched as Hope made sounds rather like the clamping of jaws upon unwary fingers.

My victory would soon fade—or perhaps ignite. Thus I concentrated on the quill. Show me Archaepolis, I thought. Give me someone watching from a height. I need to know what’s happening out there. And irritating though it is to admit, I need help.

Yet I perceived nothing but the shadows of the desk, the taste of feather, and the half-imagined flutter of distant wings.

“Purloiner-of-Chips!” I called, spitting out the feather and pinning it with a paw.

“Eh?”

“I need your help!”

“Really?” he squawked. “Are you the one in a cage?”

“Listen. I need to know what birds I can rely on now. I think I can sense their minds by using the quill. Barely.” Sensory flashes came—glows of torchlit buildings swirling like duelists’ blades... scent of late cook-fires and sewage stink and rooftop dust... the taste of fireflies in the beak. “But I can’t narrow them down. It’s all just a jumble of impressions. And flying sensations that make me want to vomit.”

“It’s not for the weak, being a bird.”

“Who should I make contact with? I need a view from a height.”

“Why would you want a stupid thief like me to help you?”

“Arg! I am sorry I ever mocked you, O magnificent Purloiner-of-Chips.”

“That will do for a start. Can you concentrate on me? If you can reach my mind, maybe I can give you an impression of the other birds you might reach. Nighttime’s not my domain, but I’ve seen some species up and about under the moon...”

“All right,” I said, as Drear struggled to grab me and I squashed myself deeper into the desk. All right, I thought, concentrating. I pictured Purloiner as carefully as I could, imagined all the ridiculous things he’d said but also the moments of courage and grace. Yes, there he was.

Welcome to my mind, said Purloiner.

What? I said, taking in the vision.

For although I was cramped into the darkness of the bureau I was also in a seagull mindscape: a great coastline of magnificent cliffs and surf and salty spray, blazing sun searing mountainous clouds, and a delightful reek of garbage and carrion everywhere. Delightful? I had to ask myself.

It is, though, came Purloiner’s voice as I saw him soar above my own thought-self, which was standing uneasily between waves and offal.

Yes, I replied, though I cringed. In here, I must respect that it is. It’s like... hating a type of music until you stand side-by-side for a night with the cats who enjoy it.

Glad you approve. We’ll have you scrounging middens yet! Now here are some birds you might use... owls, crakes, nightjars, nightingales...

And I saw regal dark-eyed birds, slender quick birds, grey and brown birds nearly invisible in the dim, and birds that sang for mates in the moonlight.

I tried to reach out, but each time I recoiled. For I felt nausea on the wing, and revulsion at the manner of bird digestion, and incredulity at their obsession with song.

Ha! came Purloiner’s voice at my metaphorical ear. Shadowdrop, you’re angry at Drear’s prejudices, but look at yours!

Why should I? I am a cat. Even my prejudices are superior.

I feel the same about being a seagull. But if we don’t let go of all that, I can’t steer your mind to the flocks of Archaeopolis.

How does Drear do it then?

He feels superior without a single speck of guilt. You are different.

You’re calling me soft.

And fluffy!

You’re lucky you’re locked up.

You’re never going to really be the ‘bad cat,’ Shadowdrop.

Excuse me, that’s ‘great cat.’

You have to accept it. You’re kind.

Cat-kind?

I mean you’ve got kindness. It’s all over you, like fleas.

I don’t have fleas. Or kindness.

Accept it. You treat beings as equals, even if part of you thinks you’re better. Because you care about us all, despite yourself.

Not the starlings!

You care despite your prejudices. But to really act on that caring you must learn to shed them.

I only shed fur.

Surrender to the flock, Shadowdrop.

Not the starlings.

Even starlings, if only just for now. Learn to love us all, Shadowdrop, just for a minute, in whatever crazy cat way you can manage. Here we go...

In hindsight, because I was not chopped up or immolated or ensorcelled by Drear and company, my mental communion with the birds must have lasted mere seconds. But for what seemed hours I flew.

The first thing I had to understand was that starlings could never be citizens in the literal sense, because they could not belong to cities. They were migratory, and thus for all the drama they brought to Archaeopolis they were not of it, for it was but one stop on their way to Kpalamaa for the winter. The journey was everything. There was no help there. I tried not to feel too relieved.

Perhaps a cat could find no rapport with a bird, after all? I sought out my fellow mammals, the bats—

I flew in the blurry dark, awash in a world of echoes. The reverberation of my own chirping painted a picture of buildings, people, horses, rats, and the sweet insects that were my prey. I could communicate with my fellows with similar utterances and not disrupt the tableau. I had to avoid raptors. And cats. I felt wariness at my own presence. Perhaps I should try elsewhere, someone cats never preyed upon—

And I found myself dozing in honeycombed hives scattered across the city, some crafted by humans, some hidden in out-of-the-way places. I found my mind touching drowsy workers stationed at the entrances of a hive. They were older bees and could be sacrificed for guard duty while the youngsters slept. Drones deep inside shifted nectar and fed larvae and tended newborns—

Awake! I hissed. Your city needs you!

Hive before city, they seemed to mentally yawn (though yawning was not in their idiom). Hive before self.

But there is a human out there who uses you, abuses you, commands you!

What can be done? came thoughts of bee resignation, and my mind was flung out into the darkness, where I yowled in frustration.

And then my mind latched on to a sound of similar despair. Birdsong again. It was the song of the nightingales. I had never wondered before as to its meaning, but as I mentally communed with the singers, I knew it for a mating call.

Perhaps I could reach them, desperation to desperation.

O lonely males of the nightingale clan. I, a humble raucous she-cat, seek your help.

And across Archaeopolis the song of the nightingales went cold as the singers noticed my presence. Get out! they said. Time is wasting. We sing, for we have no mates and the number of our heartbeats is finite. Let us be, that we may serenade our lovers-that-may-yet-be. For to burn with the potential for love, and have no one to bestow it upon, is an agony worse than wing-clipping.

And as I’d learned to briefly love carrion, so did I feel the anguish of these nightingales, so alone together in the night. Although I could force flying things to obey, as Drear had done, I hadn’t the heart to enslave anyone.

Here was the nature of the quill, I realized. One had to be in strong rapport with the contacted thing, be it bird or family or flock or full migration. You could act as king, queen, pontiff—or supplicant, servant, martyr. But most difficult of all was to be a formal equal. Across such a primal gap there could not readily be a concept of peer, colleague, comrade. I hated this realization. In this situation there was, it seemed, only power, and your only choice was who dominated whom.

Or was there another way?

We are both predator and prey, I remembered Nightwise saying.

“I am a cat,” I said, making it clear to all who heard, “and I walk by myself. I will neither rule nor be ruled. But I can give.”

And on that instinct I opened myself to the bird thoughts, darting from one mind to the other. You are magnificent, I told the male nightingales. I am proud to be among you. I, a coal-lump of compressed neuroses and fancies and grievances and jewel-bright flecks of joy, caught like mice in a dusty sunbeam. I have nothing to give you except perceptions—life on the ground, in the alleys, on the rooftops, amid the strewn castoffs of human civilization. Moments of stolen beauty. I have been among you but never of you. I play the game of ‘citizen.’ Does it mean anything to you? Does this place matter? There are those who would squeeze the city tight for one more drop of blood, never mind how much flesh is ground in the process. Such have ever been with us. But today I want to break their grip, at least for a time. They have grasped at you as well, O flying ones... does this please you? Is revenge a grubby groundling concept, or do you, up in your box seats, appreciate it? I offer my prose for your poetry, O birds. Let me free you. Help us to be free.

And the voices of the male nightingales came to me, distracted and moved. And more. For I realized that my thoughts had gone out to all manner of winged beings, and it was a chorus of flocks and watches and camps and swarms that responded to me.

This cat has learned to love birds, chirped some.

What madness! squawked others.

But she seeks to prevent a greater madness, came a screech.

Would you consent to be slaves? added an ultrasonic shriek.

Those monsters and knaves! buzzed a voice.

They capture our sight! croaked another.

Help me, I told them all. Help me defeat the Party tonight.

And my mind’s eye filled with wings.

In the moment before I returned my roving mind to the desk, I had a fleeting glimpse of the world outside. In the fens I saw the tree overhead begin burning, with agents of the Aquilla Party abandoning the “nucleus” and fleeing down the Lost Causeway, chased by Silfrena Chua, Aurora, and Nightwise. In the city I saw the glows from self-luminous alchemical slurry drawn by cat-paws, blotting out hundreds of chalk marks and blood-drawings. The glow also marked several new Hulls appearing in the midst of the existing ones.

All the new Hulls looked nothing like the old ship-outlines, nor the new meandering ones. They were lean, elegant, and in the shape of my kind.

Oh, sometimes the cat silhouettes were a bit contorted, but they were always recognizable. Black cats, of course, thanks to the darkness. And all were drawn crossing the paths of Aquilla’s eagle-shaped domains.

If we’d planned this correctly—Nightwise, the alchemist’s niece and nephew, and I—if we’d learned the basics of feng shui from Morgan well enough, the luck-siphoning effects of Aquilla’s new Hulls would be blunted.

The fortunes of this black cat were a little more dire, however, as I considered I was below that very burning tree, smelling smoke, hearing shouts, and shaking as someone hacked away at the great bureau in which I hid, all while a flaming mop ignited the desk from below.

Then the shouts faded, replaced by gasps. The assault on the bureau ended. I peeked out.

The Party was falling before a whirlwind of wings, a blizzard of beaks, a storm of stingers. And amid the airborne chaos sped the sodden forms of Zee, Morgan, and Haytham, battling Nyx, Sharga, and the whorlmen.

Drear retreated to the corner nearest the desk, his hair blackened by fire, his face livid red, his sword clutched in a white grip. He frantically waved the winged horde away. As the futility of it all sunk into him, Drear fixed me with mad, bulging eyes. “Free advice, Shadowdrop! Liberty is a door rattling in a storm. You can’t just crack it open and let in a little wind! Unlatch it—and the gale flings it open and dashes your brains against the wall. That’s what you and Rel face! You think you can have this little toy swabocracy, but what you’ll unleash in the long run is the mob. Blood and fire. Don’t think you’ll be spared because you’re a cat! Don’t think you’re safe!”

“I’ve never been safe,” I told him, and as he continued backing up I leapt down and moseyed along the wall behind him.

With his path crossed, he slipped on bird feces and toppled forward against the great shattered desk, slumping thence beside his smoking mop of office. Our winged avengers withdrew. Nyx and Sharga lay unconscious. The whorlmen were splinters. Silence came to Party headquarters.

I climbed onto the groaning Drear’s chest, knowing well this was a nightmare image for many humans. I murmured, “Some of us are arrogant enough to think we don’t need very much safety,” as I kneaded my claws into his soft chest. “Just freedom from beings like you.” And, before my friends hauled him and me toward the relative safety of the tunnel, I curled up upon my wild-eyed enemy as if for a catnap. For I am, indeed, not a pet cat but a great cat.

There’s never been a Choosing as startling as that of 1096 E.Y. The existence of a heretofore unknown “Black Cat Cadre” was the shock of the day, even for the black cats. Nor had Oni or Jyn or Tru known they had stood as Black Cat candidates. They were write-in suggestions, scribbled down by thousands of folk for whom the names surfaced like old sweet memories. Such was the power of the quill, feng shui, and a little hasty alchemy. I vowed such tricks would never be used in a Choosing again.

As Oni, Jyn, and Tru were citizens and there was no law establishing a minimum age, they were seated as Helmsmen in the Wheelhouse of Representatives.

Morgan and Haytham got some write-ins amid the chaos, though the outlanders were ineligible. I, Nightwise, Aurora, and Silfrena Chua likewise. (Modesty prohibits me saying how many write-ins I received.)

The Black Cat Cadre was uncertain what it stood for, but at least it was not the Aquillans, who managed to snarl their way into only a few seats per chamber. With their leadership gone, they were a bit listless. Sharga had diplomatic immunity and her embassy vanished the next day. It has not yet returned. Nyx, ever the businesswoman, sold out Drear for a year’s exile. Drear himself awaits trial in the deepest gears of the Temple of Clockwork Justice. I’m told they grind slowly but implacably. I am not certain how much of that is metaphor.

We discussed these matters when old Emperor Rel came to the Tower of the Hidden Light for a post-Choosing post-mortem. He nodded often, grunting occasionally as the sun pursued the sea. Rel, always thin, was almost an apparition now, but you could still see hints of the big, energetic, dark-brown man depicted in portraits and coins. He wore a purple toga two sizes too big, a wispy grey beard, and a spattering of scaly rash here and there upon his face and bald pate. Physically there was nothing imposing about this human. He looked as though a kitten might kill him. Yet we hung on his every cough and gesture.

When we’d finished our tale, Rel sighed and said, “Although the current situation has its advantages, naturally the High Tribune and I have to inform the Brethren. I will declare a special Choosing for the near future, a fully honest one. A group of villains lost, yes, but so did our swabocracy. Next time we must ensure the swabocracy wins, no matter which officers ascend. Trickery and mind control are such tempting tools, but we must abhor them.”

“What if villains win the Choosing next time?” Silfrena Chua asked.

“If they did not cheat,” said Rel, “then we make the villains our officers. And wait until next time.”

“When will we cats be able to join the Brethren?” Aurora demanded.

“The time will come,” Rel said. “Silfrena Chua, Aurora, Nightwise—I would like a moment alone with Shadowdrop, if you please. Thank you for your great efforts on this, on Choosing Day security, and on the arsonist—which all turned out to be pieces of the same puzzle.”

Silfrena did a thing with her tail that might have been an arched eyebrow in a human. “As you please, majesty,” she said, as she followed her officers out of the room.

A small degree of suspicion returned to me like an unwise moth. I paced the table.

“I am sorry I’ll not learn what you’d have done as a Navigator of the Sidereal Senate,” Rel told me with a thin smile.

“Take naps, surely,” I answered. “I have seen the place. Nice sunbeams. I have a question, though, Emperor.”

“Indeed?” The smile was still there. “And here I thought I was the one detaining you.”

“Oh. Yes. What was your question?”

Rel rolled his eyes. “Oh by all means, let’s hear yours first.”

“So be it.” I pointed my nose out the window at our long-shadowed city, the ever-great and ever-crumbling. “Be honest, Rel. You can rule it all by fiat. The Eldshoren Republic long ago faded like the memory of a sunbeam. You’re the emperor. Why bother with this game of swabocracy?”

“Aside from honoring my mother’s invention?” Rel chuckled. “The real game, Shadowdrop, would be telling ourselves we can simply rule by fiat. I would lose that game. The world is changing. All manner of people are finding their voices. As my mother used to tell me, even the most blood-soaked tyranny requires some cooperation from its subjects. Why do you suppose Jargo XIII of Jargoskaraklarga executes so many opponents? Why the Karvaks of the steppes burn cities to the ground? Fear breeds cooperation—to a point. But there are better ways. Bread. Circuses. Sport. And arguing over the future of the bread and circuses can be the best sport of all. The swabocracy makes the argument so fascinating, and the stakes so high, that it may yet become the best way of securing cooperation.”

I had to say it. “But would not the ultimate end of the Choosing be the removal of—emperors?”

He smiled. “That’s the beauty of it, Shadowdrop—yes it would.”

“You’ll have opened the door a crack... to find it slamming open.”

“Yes. But if I survive the transition with my head still on my neck, the Chosen leaders will need my ‘Aye’ just as they need everyone’s. And, I flatter myself to think, some voices will always be more eloquent than others. Ultimately what I wish for Eldshore is not utopia but an alternative to civil war and assassination. A better way. A way to have power struggles that end in tears, but not blood.”

“‘Tears but not blood.’ Not an enticing campaign slogan.”

“Shed some of your own blood and see what you think then.”

“I have some experience in that area. Would you really give up power?”

“Ah, that is a second question, and I am owed one of my own.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you happy, Shadowdrop, as an officer of the law?”

“Happy?”

“Yes. I feel I owe you on several counts, O cat, and I am feeling a certain sentimentality in my autumn. If there’s a different post I might grant, something that would please you more, make you feel less morally compromised, perhaps... Well, I might contemplate doing so.”

I licked my paw and cleaned my face to buy time. What was he playing at? “Not long ago I was accused of being your pet, Rel. It upset me. If I accept any further commission from you, I am open to the same accusation. And in some dark corner of my mind, where the sunbeams never strike, I will believe it.”

“Hm. Perhaps then I should answer your question first after all. You see, I am considering staging a situation in which I’m confronted by a handpicked bunch of nobles and merchants and priests and then ‘forced’ to surrender some of my power, sign a great charter of some sort. Perhaps the Black Cat Cadre can become an anti-imperial faction, hm. We need to do something with it...”

“You want me to arrange a mutiny?”

“Not exactly. I would like someone to draft articles of agreement, a sort of new Pirate Code for the Brethren. Something clearly thought-out, to organize the government-to-be in a way even more responsive to the people. Something concocted by an astute observer of human nature, perhaps, who also knows the ways of other kinds. Who understands plays of fortune and power. And who knows her way around words.”

“I lack hands.” And modesty, I didn’t add.

He chuckled. “It seems you are nevertheless handy with a quill.”

“I would still be your pet.”

“Like a ship’s cat! But only in the beginning. Afterward, there could then be a Chosen executive or executrix to serve my non-ceremonial functions. A true Captain of the Brethren. Meanwhile—poor me—I will have to content myself with vast wealth and prestige, so long as it lasts.”

Something became clear to me, like a mouse emerging from mist. “You are dying.”

Rel grunted. “Perhaps. My physicians are looking glum. And, Shadowdrop, I don’t want everything to burn when I’m gone.”

“Is there no cure?”

“It is a malignancy that has spread throughout my body. Eliminating it at this point, even by magic, would likely eliminate me.”

“I regret this.”

“I, too. Thank you.”

“Admittedly,” I could not help but add, “you will still have lived many more years than I can expect to. And you’d have lived them in the most privileged of positions, in the most exalted of cities.”

“I appreciate your efforts to console yourself, O cat.”

“Also, you have experienced much that your fellows have not—”

“At this rate, you’ll finish by concluding that my death is a fine thing.”

“Well,” I mused, “I can’t really judge that until I’ve seen it.”

He laughed outright. “You are a unique companion, Shadowdrop.”

“I may consent to be scratched now. Just as I may consent to your offer. In time. Ah. Nice. You are done now. Rule your realm well, emperor.”

“And you yours, Shadowdrop.”

I decided to skip the rest of the staff meeting and leaped out into the afternoon, thinking of feathers and quills. What was my realm? I pondered this as I weaved among the revelers of Timberchar Bridge as it groaned over the Dragondraught, and pattered upon the roofs of Overbridge and through the edges of Ghostside with unseen voices whispering of things old and sweet. I thought about it as I scrambled through Scatterwind Market and greeted black cats about their prowls and nightingales bragging of their role in the Choosing and crows cawing about freedom and seagulls shrieking beautifully about the joys of rubbish. I wondered at this as I scrambled my way onto the Eternal Esplanade, glimpsing Haytham’s balloon opposite the tower of the Nocturni, shadow against light, a seagull circling it, a man in brown peering out from the gondola. Perhaps Morgan Slate had found his allies for his venture to Elektrum. I remembered misjudging Purloiner-of-Chips the other day in the tower, and I silently wished them all well.

I made for Soothside and on up Quicklime Street.

“Copper-shiny-thing for your thoughts?” said Hope, bounding out of her house for my side (but not my hide).

I stopped and licked my paw. I made it clear with my whole body that I was stopping entirely for my own cat purposes and not at all because I might be almost-friends with a dog. I think this subtlety was wasted on Hope. A bit of drool fell on me. I inched my ears backward, but I don’t think she noticed that either. Well, there were worse things in this world than dog-drool. A few.

“I rule this city,” I declared. “That is what I’ve been thinking about. It’s not the dragon. It’s not Rel. It’s not the Senate or the Wheelhouse or the guilds or the Tower of Heaven. It’s not the Rat Mayor or the Shadow Carpenters or the Very-Dark-Grey Market. This is my realm. It’s me. Because I give a mouse turd. And because I say so.”

Hope thought about this. She wore about the most serious expression I’ve ever seen. Finally, “Okay,” she said. “I won’t challenge your rule. Except. You can have all the places except 74 Quicklime.”

“What’s at 74 Quicklime?”

“My house and the two kids, idiot cat. The Empire of Hope.”

“Okay,” I said seriously. “I rule the City of Cats and Associated Hangers-On, except for the Empire of Hope at 74 Quicklime, which is its own realm with all the power and privileges due a sovereign state.”

“That’s okay, then.”

“Do you want to stay a deputy?”

“No.”

“No?”

“One loyalty—happiness. Two loyalties—misery.”

“Is that a dog saying?”

“Don’t cats say it?”

“I’m still sort of chewing on the ‘loyalty’ idea.”

“Ha! You are a loyal cat. You are almost a dog.”

“No need to insult me.”

“You’re not really insulted. You like me. You like everyone who isn’t cruel. And I like you.”

“I don’t believe I care.”

“Dogs don’t argue about beliefs. I’m not a deputy. And you are definitely not a pet. But if you need my nose again, I’ll be there.”

I had once disdained birds and dogs. I was arrogant, you see. In truth, I am still arrogant, but I was wrong, then.

I, Shadowdrop, am not wrong now. I am not arrogant enough to think this condition of rightness will last long. A year, perhaps. Two. But a year is a long time for a cat.

“Hope, this could be the start of a beautiful—”

“Yes?”

“Mutually beneficial transactional series of encounters—”

“Awwwww!”

I leapt away.

Dusty sunbeams light my path through the thickets of life and the crumbling Old City wall. I will cross them all.

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Chris Willrich's work has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Tales from the Magician’s Skull, and multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including the Gaunt and Bone tale “The Sword of Loving Kindness” in BCS #1 and “Shadowdrop” in BCS #261. His books include the Gaunt and Bone novel The Scroll of Years (Pyr, 2013) and its sequels. A librarian by trade, Chris lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family.
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