The anthology contains my story, 'The Funeral, Ruined', which is the fourth in my Red Sun stories.
In the introduction to the book, Jess Nevins refers to it as a kind of sequel to my story, 'The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys', which is true, though you do not have to have read the first for the second. I do have a slight regret in saying that about the story now, for they share no characters or landscape, and in saying it's a sequel will hint that both did in fact, exist before. The truth is, all that they share is a war that operates in the background, and to which both casts are responding to. They also share a braiding technique for the writing, which, if anyone has been watching what I write, is my current little tick that I am using for my novel, Across the Seven Continents of the Underworld, also set in the Red Sun World.
(Aside: braiding takes a lot of fucking time to write. I wave at my self imposed deadlines as they pass me by. Then I tell myself quality wins over speed, because quality takes time, yes. So does weaving, seeding, and layering, but I am not sewing, gardening, or baking, am I?)
'Blackbirds' was originally published in Cat Sparks' Agog! Ripping Reads , and later reprinted in The Year's Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt. Both were published in Australia, and a lot of people seemed to dig it, which is always cool, and indeed, most people seem to react positively to the Red Sun stories. I suspect if I was to pull together all the nice things that have been said about me in the speculative fiction review world, the best of them would relate to those stories, and I must admit, it's a nice itch to scratch when I have it. The only rule I have in the world is that there's no obscenities, in part because it amuses me to not use them, and also because I've always found that a fuck and shit and cunt require a language that I'm not using in the stories. There's probably a larger post in that, but it's not the point here.
At any rate, like the top of the post says, Paper Cities has been released today, and I thought, really, that one of the things I could do to get people interested in my part of the book was to provide the story that 'The Funeral, Ruined', is a kind of sequel too. And because I'm fabulous--lets face it--I'm going to do so by putting it here, on this blog, for free, to read as you please. I will also use a LJ cut, because the story is quite long, though cuts are nothing but a nuisance to me. All that clicking.
Obviously, it'll be good if you buy Paper Cities, but if you also have a desire to snag the story below in hardcopy, you could do a lot worse than tossing a twenty on the collections that it is in.
The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys.
When I was twelve, my mother took me to see a doctor at the Samohshiir Medical Clinic. As We could not afford a private Doctor, we left early, and walked the two hours from our home to the clinic, and waited in the dim morning light with a dozen others who had traveled early and on foot, like us, in the hope of seeing a public doctor. In the roof of the world above the clinic were thousands of lights. They were the most lights that I had seen anywhere before and I was content to sit on the stony ground and watch them brighten. To my gaze, the white stones sitting in the roof of the world were like tiny, misshapen eyes, and looked as if the ground herself had awoken and was watching us living inside her. My father, a miner, had laughed when I told him this, once. The light was made from the empty world outside, he explained, and the red sun’s light filtering through long shafts of crystal and quartz to us.
The doctor that I eventually saw was named Osamu Makino. He was a small man with a thin, sad eyed, lined face beneath disintegrating grey-white hair. When he stepped out of his office and into the waiting room to call out my name, he was dressed in the doctor’s black pants, black jacket, the black gloves, and the doctor’s white collared and buttoned shirt. Under the bright white light of the room he appeared as if he were falling apart; that it was not only his hair, but his entire personage, that was crumbling into nothing before us.
“Sometimes,” I replied, quietly, for I had always been a quiet child. “It feels as if something is pulling at it. At night, mostly.”
My mother had brought me to the clinic after she and my father had found me walking around our house two nights earlier. I had never walked in my sleep before and, when they had stopped me and asked me what I was doing, I spoke about a life that I had not experienced, about things that I could not have known. I remembered none of what I said in the morning, but when they asked me if anything was wrong, I did not speak of the pulling on my skin. We could not afford for me to get ill, even with the public clinics. But after consulting the family history and agreeing that there was no lingering ancestor in me who could be the cause, my parents felt it best to take me to a doctor. When I told him of the pain in my skin, my mother shifted her thick, heavy body in her worker browns and pursed her thick lips together in a frown.
“You should have told me,” she said, finally.
I nodded, said nothing.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Doctor Makino said. He stood and brushed flakes of powder from his black pants “There’s no harm, so long as he doesn’t lie now. Tell me, do you have other pains?”
I shook my head. “No,” I said, for emphasis.
“No strange dreams that reoccur?”
“My parents say that I walk in my sleep.”
His lips curved into a sad, disintegrating smile. “I was not asking what your parents told you, but what you experienced. Do you dream?”
“Why are you asking him this?” my mother asked.
“Your son’s skeleton is distorted.” Doctor Makino sighed and rubbed at the left side of his face with his black gloved hand, as if to erase himself. “There is a second shadow around his skeleton. It is the first stages of soul infection, I am afraid, but you need not worry. It is early. We can remove the infection—”
“Infection?” Mother interrupted.
“Yes.” Doctor Makino’s sad dark eyes never met mine, only hers. “Infected is probably not the best word to use. A soul is not meant to be an aggressive thing, but in your son's situation, the soul cannot stop itself. It is a lost soul from the war; there are more than a few in our city now, though the Queen and her department never speaks of it. The war—the attacks against us continue, despite our successes, and soldiers do die. The souls infecting our young are those Aajnnese men and women who have lost their soulcatchers, or who's catchers were broken by the enemy after their death, thus leaving their soul lost and scared.”
I wore a soulcatcher around my neck, my fourth. My father and I had made it from pieces of bone and silver on my eleventh birthday. He had shown me how to bond the silver with the bones of a blackbird we had purchased at the market, but it was I who had made most of it, and I who had killed the bird. I still remembered the blackbird watching me silently with its white eyes as Father and I walked through the narrow, crowded streets of our neighbourhood that evening. The roof of the world was lit with a weak scattering of eyes, and so most of our light had to come from the blue and green mushrooms people planted on the sides of the road. The blackbird did not utter a sound when, at home the following day, I had reached in with my hands and snapped its neck.
It bothered me, that last part, as if it knew what I was to do, and was allowing me.
“Who…” I hesitated.
“What is it, Mi?” Mother asked.
I asked, “Who is it?”
“I don’t know,” Doctor Makino said. “The problem is that these souls are falling into the bodies of our young and that their identities are completely unknown. Without knowing who they are, it is difficult to draw them out, and no one has yet been able to explain why it is happening. It is becoming more and more frequent, that much I know, however. Just last week a young girl was bought in with three souls—three, would you believe! She was in agony, souls pulling at every part of her. She had already gone blind, the poor child—”
“It can be removed, yes?” Mother asked. “This soul. We can remove it?”
“Not by me, no,” he said. “I am sorry. It is beyond my skills. You will have to write to the Queen and request a soulbird. I will provide you with a letter to accompany it.”
“What will happen if, if the Queen says no?” I asked.
“She won’t,” my mother said sharply. “The Queen protects us, remember.”
The doctor’s disintegrating smile was less comfort. “The soul in you has died violently. It was not ready for death. Few of those fighting are, I suppose. But it is important for you to understand that the soul is trying to live again—that it wants to live! It is trying to make you into itself so that it can have that life. Because of your youth it will eventually be able to dominate your own soul, to rule it, if you like. Your skin and bones will begin to grow into this old memory at an accelerated rate. It is happening now; that is why your skin aches.”
I did not fully comprehend the danger of the doctor’s words by the time he had finished speaking. I had not yet seen the boys and girls whose souls had been overtaken by lost souls—who would be called the Infected—and whose bodies were now monstrosities. I had not seen the extended arms, the twisted faces, and in some cases, limbs that they had removed in brutal, ugly fashions to fit the phantom memory of injuries that had been sustained before death. When she stood, my mother's face was pale and grim in a way that I had never seen before, and so I knew, then, and knew again as the doctor gave his private address to her “just in case,” that there was some danger. I had the sense then to be frightened and to realise that the words Mother spoke on the way home were hollow comforts, meant to assure both her and myself.
When we arrived home, the blackbirds were waiting with letters.
I want to go home. It’s cold. So cold. I’ve never been this cold. The wind pierces the thick army greys I am wearing, ignores my gloves, sinks into my bones. Kyo tells me that I will get used to it, that my duty will warm me, but I don’t believe him. I can’t. Everything around me is dark and damp. Everything is heavy with ash that is turning the ground an ugly black-brown.
This ugly empty world spreads out beneath the stilts of our watchtower like a stain. If not for the thin, stilted shadows of other watchtowers around us, I would think us alone and dead. I have not seen Aajnn for over a month. I am here beneath the empty red sky with a musket Kyo assures me I will never have to fire. Fire! As if it will in this damp! The powder for it is useless. I tell him this, teeth chattering, but he shrugs and tells me the Queen will never allow the enemy to come close to us, anyway.
I am writing in the fading light of the red sun. The sun—the sun is worse than we were ever told. It fills the emptiness day and night. At night, the sky turns an ugly brown black, never truly dark. To think, our clear, beautiful white light is draw from this!
The sky reminds me of how much I have left behind, how much I loved the narrow, twisting passages of our home. How much I miss the cool, clean smells. Everything is so mixed up here. Ash and meat. Meat and trees. Trees and waste. Why did I come here? Why did I just not ignore the Queen’s conscription and go further down, to the deeper towns, to where the lights are blue and green, and it draws nothing from this awful, awful red sun?
My only pleasure comes in watching the blackbirds. Day or night, they pass through the red sky. They settle on our towers. They scratch. They look for food. Later, they fly away, either behind or in front, to Aajnn or towards the thin, thin plumes of ash that signal the approaching enemy. The birds, at least, are free.
It is wrong of me to write that the blackbirds were simply there when my mother and I returned from the public clinic. In truth, they were there for the entire walk home. The dark feathered birds sat alone on the sloping roofs of houses, sat on the wires across the roof of the world in twos and threes as they often did, and landed on the sidewalk, to peck at the glowing mushrooms, or in the cracks of the road. They were silent, as always, but there was never anything strange or untoward about these birds until we emerged from the narrow tunnel and into our neighbourhood.
I was born in the neighbourhood called Yokto. For most of its existence, it was beneath the notice of anyone who did not live in it. It had been built only seventy years ago in a small cavern that could hold fifty families comfortably, but which held more than two hundred, now, in cramped, narrow streets. In Yokto, the roof of the world hung so low that none of the houses could ever grow beyond one storey, and those at the corners of the neighbourhood had to do without the steepled roofs that were in fashion, and which blackbirds favoured. The poorest of the poor lived in flat roof houses. Yokto was a dim, chill neighbourhood in comparison to others, for across the roof of the world was the lightest scattering of eyes, a hundred and thirteen, none of them bigger than my fist at the age of twelve. We relied upon up fungi and portable stones for light, and it served, but with only so many lights in the roof of the world, Yokto also kept a certain chill, as it never drew enough of the red sun’s warmth for us.
By the time of our return, hundreds of blackbirds had covered the neighbourhood to such a point that their presence was noticeable, but not the curiosity that it would eventually become. My father, who had returned from the mines at midday, said that the birds had migrated one at a time. They emerged from the tunnel’s black like an inky drop of water falling from a tap. As he was illiterate, he did not use such language, but you will forgive an old man this quirk in his own memoirs. Yet still, emerge the blackbirds did, and they came with scraps of paper in claws and beak, which they dropped on the streets and the houses of Yokto. Burnt and dirty and caked in dried blood, these letters lay, unmoving, until the soul-infected children of Aajnn arrived to retrieve them.
An order today. An order? I don’t know if I could call it such. They’ve told us to capture blackbirds. As many as we can. Any way we can. Alive or dead. It matters not. The musket in the tower up from us lets out a crack every so often, proof that they have the same order, for there is no enemy to shoot at. No birds fall from the sky, however, and there is no sense that they have hit anything, so far. And why should they? You don’t catch blackbirds, Kyo said after the order was delivered. If they’re wild, you just don’t. It’s the Queen’s law.
Our musket has proved useless, but we are trying despite ourselves. Orders are orders. We are using a blanket. When one of the birds lands before us, we throw it, trying to toss it over the bird to catch it alive. So far, we have succeeded only in throwing the blanket off the tower and into the ash and mud below.
My mother wrote a letter to the Queen, asking for a soulcatcher. She included Doctor Makino’s letter, but there was no immediate response, which my father said was unsurprising. No one in Yokto could afford a soulcatcher, and the Queen’s mercy was not as infinite as it had once been. My mother ignored him and more blackbirds arrived, and more paper filled the streets. Stories of people trying to pick up the letters reached everyone, and my father tried it himself, to know if it was true. Like the stories, my father found his hands pecked by sharp beaks, but it could have been worse, as there were stories of blackbirds suddenly falling upon individuals, their black wings beating and claws scratching at their faces silently.
“There are over three thousand now,” my father said, staring out the window, a bandage around his left hand. He was a short, stocky, unshaven man in worker browns. He could not read, it is true, but he could gauge numbers and lengths and widths with a glance better than anyone I knew, and no one disputed his estimation now. “There’s no sign that they’re going to stop, either.”
“The Queen will send somebody,” Mother replied from the small dinner table. She was writing a third letter questing a soulcatcher, and had a third letter from Doctor Makino, who supplied them each time she went. A blackbird’s feather scratched across paper. She did not look up when she added, “It will be explained soon enough.”
From my position on the floor, I saw my father’s back straighten, the thick muscles around his neck tighten at the mention of the Queen’s name. The war had changed my father’s relationship with the Queen. He had mined before for new neighbourhoods, to find minerals, to help advance Aajnn, to help it grow. But with the war, his job had changed, and now he mined for metals and minerals that could be turned into weapons. His job, he said, was not to kill, or to aid in the construction of weapons that would, but when he complained, he was told that all resources in Aajnn were being directed to the war. He could work or starve.
The argument was an old one between my parents. The more pressing concern was the need for a soulcatcher. During the week since my return from the doctor, I had not slept well, and needed to be drugged after the second night. It happened, on that night, just as I was drifting off to sleep, that I felt my bones and skin moving. At first, I thought that the doctor’s words had come back to frighten me, that it was just the lingering hint of a nightmare; but when I touched my right arm, the skin shifted, and phantom fingers pushed up against it. I screamed. It was not, perhaps, the most masculine response, but it felt—I remember it now as clearly as that moment when I first felt it—as if a hand had been trapped beneath my skin. That it was caught in the meat and the muscle and the veins. That it was tangled against the bone. That it was struggling for freedom, trying to force my body into the right size and shape for it so that it might be able to move freely.
My only response was to scream. When Doctor Makino arrived in his doctor’s blacks, appearing from the dim night light as if he had been waiting in the dark for this to happen, he wasted no time in sedating me. I was to be sedated, likewise, each night, and in that haze I was only dimly aware of the second body pushing against my skin. But in the morning, I was sick and groggy, and unable to attend school, but there was no presence of this soul, except in my mind. I followed my mother on her errands, or sat in the main room, or worked at some other task, but at no point did I stop thinking about whose soul was inside me.
They tell us that the enemy makes blackbirds from brass. That beneath the black feathers, beneath the beak, beneath the hard skin of claws, there is nothing but brass machinery. That there is no blood. That there is no soul. That the birds are nothing but the machines a man made. The machines a woman made. The machines that have been sent to spy upon us, to tell the enemy who we are, where we are, and how to kill us.
The plumes of smoke draw closer and I ask myself, “Will the enemy be of blood and bones?”
My left arm, to this day, is longer than my right. I am right handed, and so my right hand and arm are used more, yet my left is thicker, stronger, the arm of a man who would always be more active than I. It is not something that you will notice upon first meeting me, but it is the physical reminder of my infection, of being Infected, and it is the only way by which I can now gauge what the owner of the soul inside me once looked like. Yet, in comparison to many other children in Aajnn who were Infected, my deformity is not even worth mentioning.
The Infected came into Yokto in the second week after my visit to Doctor Makino. It was they who picked up the burnt and bloody letters off the streets.
The first who I saw doing this was a girl, no older than six. She was walking down the narrow lane that my parents’ house was on, following a blackbird. The bird was jumping from letter to letter, occasionally flying, but clearly leading her, and she was hurrying along behind it. Behind her came Doctor Makino in his doctor blacks and a tall woman in worker browns that, I assumed, was the girl’s mother.
When the girl was outside our house, I walked down to her. The right side of her face was lopsided and still to the point that even her right eye did not move. Through her worker browns, I could make out the swell of a breast on her right side; it was an ugly thing, too big for her, and made more prominent next to the flatness of the rest of her chest. As she saw me approach, she did not speak, but remained still and quiet, a sullen girl.
Before I could speak, her blackbird leapt, and flew down the lane. The girl ran in a limping run, one leg larger than the other. Her mother moved quickly behind her, but Doctor Makino turned to me, his dark fading gaze resting on me, and then over my shoulder. When I turned to follow his gaze, a black blur startled me. Looking back, I saw that a young blackbird had dropped to the lane and stood on a narrow letter, watching me intently.
“I think this one wants you to follow it,” Doctor Makino said.
“How can you be certain?” I still remembered the dark blood down my father’s hand. I would not risk that.
The doctor sighed and rubbed at the right side of his face with a black-gloved hand. He looked tired, and sounded tired when he spoke: “The letters are meant for those like you, Michio. The Infected. At least, that is what we think, and certainly the birds are only allowing those like you to pick up certain letters.”
It didn’t take much to make the connection between the letters and the soul inside me. Would it really tell me the identity of the person trapped within me? Would it help? Before I could talk myself out of it, I stepped out into the street, picked up the letter the blackbird had moments before stood on. Tearing its dirty envelope open, I read quickly. “It is from a man called Yoshio.”
“Is the next?”
I followed the bird, picked up a second letter, opened. “Yes.”
At the end lane, the blackbird stood on a third letter, waiting. The narrow buildings and dim light from the roof of the world made it seem as if I would be following it into the unknown, and I suppose I was, though I did not feel frightened. The doctor said, “Follow it and collect your letters quickly. The more you have, the more you will know about this Yoshio, and the easier he will be to remove when—if a soulcatcher arrives.” He paused, then added, “Quickly, Mi. Do you understand that?”
I didn’t, and said so.
“The queen will not like this,” he explained. “The letters of dead soldiers are problematic enough, I imagine, for the secrets that they will reveal about the war. You hear rumours—you are too young, but I hear them. The Queen and those around her deny them, but they have been busy telling us all that we are winning the war for years now. What if these letters say otherwise?”
I had no answer, but the doctor did not expect one. He thrust his black gloved hands into his black jacket pockets, and began walking down the street in the direction of the young girl and her mother from before. It was in the opposite direction of where my blackbird waited, and when I turned to see him again, he appeared only as a dim outline, illuminated by the mushrooms beneath his feet.
Heeding Doctor Makino’s words, I collected the letters that the blackbird landed upon. Even in my haste it took me all morning. Once, I tried to collect a letter that the bird did not land on. For that, I received a sharp peck on the hand. It did not draw blood like the bird attacking my father had, but I did not touch any letter other than that my bird landed on afterwards.
When I returned home, it was late in the afternoon, and my mother had been looking for me. I was scolded, but not harshly, for she had seen the streets fill with Infected and watched as they picked up the letters, and had been able to deduce what had happened to me. In her hand, she held a fresh green envelope that lightened her mood. It was a letter from the Queen, informing her that a soulcatcher would be arriving in two days time, and that we would not have to pay for its services.
The enemy is made from brass. It sounds insane, but it’s true. I saw it with my own eyes. Commander Takahashi showed me. Well, not me, not personally. I have never spoken with him personally. He won’t speak to any of us individually. No, he told us all, together. He called all of us on the Northern Line into the Forward Command so that he could show us the enemy.
It had been laid in the middle of the tent, its skin sliced open, and we could clearly see that it had been built from pieces of tarnished bronze. It was a man, though, no matter what anyone says. A man. We could clearly see that. A pale man. A man with brown hair and deep set eyes. A man who had once lived and breathed, you could believe, but he was now a man made from brass.
The Commander did not give him a name. He was the enemy. Just the enemy. A man from The Shibtri Isles. Not even a man, if it could be helped. A thing. A thing from the Shibtri Isles, the Commander said, more often than not. He compared him to the birds we shot. Told us that they were not our blackbirds, just as this was not a man like us. They were both things. Things made by the enemy to be our enemy.
We had expected men and women of blood and bone, just as the Queen said, but no. They, the Commander told us, will not fight. They will send these machines, these replicas of men and women to fight, and leave the casualties as a burden for us.
We were silent after that. Shocked. Confused. Offended? A little, but it did not matter. There was only silence. Silence in which we all heard, clearly, the click, and then the faint hum of the brass machinery starting. A gentle sound almost. A humming.
And then the thing—the man thing—sat up.
The soulcatcher wore the catcher’s dark blue pants, jacket and gloves. Like Doctor Makino, the soulcatcher wore the white, high-collared shirt that her occupation demanded she wear. To my twelve-year-old gaze, however, the soulcatcher was much more attractive than the doctor had ever been. She was a woman and I was immediately besotted, though in hindsight, I imagine that it is more correct for me to write that she was a girl, no more than six years older than me, having only recently been appointed to her position. No family in Yokto warranted a veteran soulcatcher and experienced soulbird.
My soulcatcher’s name was Mariko Ohara. She was a small, dark haired girl, and curved in ways that I had not noticed before. It is, therefore, with some amusement that I write that her first words, after the courtesy of saying hello, were spoken to me with a knowing smile on her lips and amused light in the dark eyes that were behind her thin, silver glasses; those words caused in me such utter shock that my immediate response was to blush like I had never blushed before, and to tell her that she couldn’t possibly mean that.
“I’m sorry, but I do. You have to take your clothes off.” She was trying to be firm but failing. “I’m sorry, Michio, but my bird cannot search you if you’re wearing your clothes.”
“Must he take of all of them?” Mother asked.
She was making the situation much worse and it took all the willpower that I had, then, at twelve, not to spin around and shout at her.
My distress must have been plain to Mariko, for she said, “He can wear shorts, of course. Of course. He just needs to leave his chest, arms and legs free, so that my bird can search him. You’ll need to take off your soulcatcher too. The birds do not like them.”
Her soulbird was the biggest blackbird that I had ever seen, twice the size of those that had made Yokto their home. It—I could never think of it as a he, or even a she—was both wider and taller than those, and it had a thick barrel chest. Its black feathers, usually so sleek on blackbirds, were shaggy, as if to suggest a wildness to the bird that could not be tamed, as did its long, dark slash of a beak. Yet, despite its appearance, the soulbird perched in its narrow cage quietly, drawing easy breaths. It was not bothered by the fact that the black bars of its cell pressed in like a fist against it.
Once I had changed in my parents’ room, Mariko told me to lie on my back upon the narrow, single bed that dominated my own. Once I had done this, the soulcatcher and my mother tied my arms and legs down with heavy leather straps. As they did this that I felt, for a moment, ashamed of the room that I occupied. It was the first time that I had ever felt ashamed, and that, indeed, shamed me. Compared to others in Yokto, I was not suffering: One of my parents worked, I did not share my room, I had a table and chair from which to do my homework, and I even had a few books and toys. I could read. My own father could not do that. Yet, in this position, I was able to compare my mother’s faded brown worker clothing and Mariko’s new, thick white shirt, and the silver studs in her ears—three in the left, five in the right—and the glasses she wore. My family could afford none of these things, I realised. Even the bed sheets I lay upon were old and threadbare and had been mended more than once. It caused in me a sudden bout of self-consciousness. If I could have hidden our poorness from this beautiful girl before me, I would have.
But there was nothing I could do. Indeed, when Mariko lifted the soulbird’s cage above me, her slender fingers opening the door, those thoughts evaporated quickly as the soulbird stuck its black head out. Mariko bent down and placed her mouth beside it: “We are looking for the soul of Yoshio—he does not belong.”
The soulbird’s white gaze fell upon me. It was an oddly empty gaze, one that I did not like. In its cage, the big black bird shifted. Its feathers ruffled. Its long sharp beak opened and closed in silence. Then, slowly, it’s body scrapping against the bars, feathers falling off as it pushed itself out, it dropped lightly onto my naked stomach. Its cold claws pinched my skin. Its white gaze returned to mine. The emptiness in there was slowly becoming frightening but it was not something that I could look away from—
Its sharp beak plunged into my skin.
There was pain, but worse, I realised, was that it had ripped a piece of skin off my stomach.
He sat up!
I did not move. No one did. The brass man’s brown eyes were wide open. In the moment that they glanced over me I knew, knew, that he was alive. Alive as you or I. But it was only for a moment that I could think that. The next, shouting, screams, and chaos. The brass man had leapt off the table.
In the confusion round him, he had no trouble reaching Commander Takahashi. Men in soldier’s grey stepped back from him. Men that were meant to fight him. To stop him. Men who had been assured that the brass man was dead. They stepped back. They yelled for him to stop. But they were frightened and confused and did not think to stop the brass man’s thick, mechanical hands from grabbing the Commander by the throat.
We attacked him, then. Men threw themselves at him. Others smashed chairs. Anything. But it was not enough. Not nearly. Commander Takahashi’s neck splintered. We heard nothing, but when the brass man tossed him away, the Commander landed in a bent angle that no living man could make.
I do not think the brass man expected to live. Whoever had sent him, whoever gave the order for him to die and come back to life, must have told him that there was no way to survive. And so he made no attempt to do so. Instead, he attacked the officers. He attacked only those with rank. He ignored anyone else. Even as we attacked him, he ignored those of us in simple grey.
I broke one of his limbs off. I had a hammer. A big, long hammer that they use in mining pits to break rock open. The tools were outside the tent. They are giving new recruits hammers, Kyo and I had joked when we saw they. We made jokes about how we would apply for them, for they were weaponry we were both more capable of using. And when the brass man was attacking, we had no choice but to run for them. Yet with that hammer I took an arm off. With another Kyo smashed open the brass man’s leg. Together we broke open his head. Together we killed it. We could not have done this with a musket. Yet still, even having done this, the brass man had killed five of our officers with his own hands.
We are back in the watchtower now. They sent us afterwards. Send us back to watch the lines of ash draw closer. To shoot blackbirds. To await this enemy.
“It is not Yoshio.”
Mariko’s voice. It was faint, however, as if it was being smothered or pushed away, and could only be heard from a distance. I struggled to hear as she continued to speak, straining as much as I could, but her words were simply incoherent to me. I wanted to open my eyes and look at her, to assure myself that she was there, that she was a person I could recognise, but another voice told me not too. Don’t open your eyes, it said. It did not explain why, but the voice sounded like mine in all but the subtlest of tones, and there was such an unquestionable authority in it that I did not dare disobey. Not yet. Not until I knew more.
“But the letters are from him.” My mother’s voice spoke this time; it was loud and clear, as her voice always was. “How do you explain them, then?”
“A lie, maybe.”
“There are over ten thousand blackbirds in Aajnn. What kind of enemy could send so many?”
Mariko’s voice was still faint: “An enemy winning.”
“The Queen says otherwise.”
“I do not wish to disagree with the Queen.”
“You just did,” my mother said. “Your soulbird is not helping my son. You tell me that these letters are wrong. That this Yoshio is not inside him. You are even suggesting to me that the blackbirds in our neighbourhood—in our entire city, even—are not real. The only way that this could be true is if the Queen has been lying to us about this war. That is what you are telling me, is it not?”
“The Queen protects us!” Mother interrupted.
Don’t open your eyes. I wanted to, needed to. I could feel the silence around me, thick and angry now, and opening my eyes, I knew, would diffuse it. I would prove to them that it was Yoshio inside me. That the birds were right.
It was my father’s voice, distant as Mariko’s was.
“She is a guest, Mu,” he continued. “More than that, she is trying to help our son. It’s been three days. It’s as she says—this Yoshio is not in him.”
Don’t open your eyes.
My mother’s breath was heavy and ragged. “I know. It’s just—No, I am—I am sorry.” Her tone was rigid, angry, but the anger was directed at herself, not Mariko. I could not hear the soulcatcher’s voice reply, but my mother said, “No, please, I shouldn’t have said that. I have believed in the Queen since I was born. She sent you, you must understand. She sent you for our son. She has never—to think that she might be lying…”
“She’s just tired.” My father’s voice grew stronger, clearer. “Mu, You need your rest. You can’t be with him all the time.”
“What if he wakes up?”
“That’s why Mariko is here. You’ve barely slept in three days.”
“I want to be here for him.”
“You need rest.”
I opened my eyes. There was no one in the room. There was no room. Rather, there was only whiteness and a faint, faint pecking, coming from all directions about me. I tried to sit up, but I could not move. The pecking grew. It sounded as if it were coming from a sharp beak that was being scraped across hard stones. My arms and legs were immobile. I could feel straps holding me down. The pecking continued, steady, coming from all around me. I struggled to raise my head. I felt a stab of pain. Then another. I looked down and saw, standing on my stomach, its claws a wet red, the shaggy, wild soulbird. Its long, sharp beak had just pierced my stomach and plunged into the bloody mess that already existed. As I watched, it drew back, ripping the wet, raw contents of my intestines with it. As it rose its head, the soulbird’s white eyes met mine and I realised, with horror, that they were no longer a clean, crisp white, but that they were stained red.
Its beak opened, and in a voice that was mine, it said, “I told you not to open your eyes.”
The tower to the North exploded today.
One moment, it was there. The next, its thin legs were all that remained, and its broken wreckage smoldering beneath the morning’s red sky. I had been on watch when it happened. Kyo was sleeping. I had gotten us dry powder for the musket and so I had it sitting on the rail of the tower. Sitting ready. Kyo had helped me, even, after what happened in with the Commander, though as we stood and looked at the wreckage, I knew that our new musket was useless.
The explosion began in raining fire. It’s the only way to explain it. A soft sprinkle of fire began to fall and then, suddenly, the tower exploded! It burst apart. Ripped apart. It was shredded. I don’t—I can’t explain it to you. The fire rained down and then, suddenly, the slowly bleeding mid morning had opened up like a wound, and there was a broken tower on the horizon and no sign of the enemy. No brass men. No brass animals. Just the plumes of ash, drawing closer. Ever closer.
I know more fear every day.
When I awoke, Mariko was sitting in my room. Her blue jacket was hanging off the back of my chair and she was sitting at my table, reading the dirty, burnt letters that I had collected. I was no longer strapped down, though my limbs felt sluggish, as if they had not been used for some time, and I was tired. There was a thin white blanket covering me and, before I said a word to Mariko, I lifted it. I was completely naked, but to my relief, there was no other mark upon me.
“How do you feel?” Mariko picked up a stone pitcher from the floor and poured a cup of water, then came over to me. “If your throat hurts, drink.”
I did and, after watching me take my first hesitant sips, she said, “It took five days. You’ve been in a sleep, of sorts, for five days, but you won’t feel rested.”
“Where—where is your bird?” I asked, my voice soft, scratchy.
“At home. He finished yesterday, so there was no need to make him sit in the cage for the return journey. Are you sure you’re fine? Five days is a long time to be under, so if you’re feeling nauseous, or you hurt, you should tell me.”
I shook my head. “Just tired.”
“Where is…” I hesitated, the memory of what I heard while under still fresh in my mind. “Was it Yoshio?”
“Who was it?”
Mariko sat on the edge of my bed. “That took a little while to figure. You’re only my third patient, Mi, and I still have much to learn. Forgive me. My soulbird had found something, but it was difficult to remove. It wasn’t Yoshio, as I said, but that does not account for five days. Even an unknown soul should be able to be removed within two. But yet still he worked by a third and fourth. Only a suicide is so difficult.”
“Kyo,” I whispered.
“Yes, Kyo. It took him five days to pull Kyo out—if I had read the letters, it would have taken less, perhaps. But I thought they were fake. I’ve only just read them now. In fact, I was just reading Yoshio’s final letter now, where he finds Kyo.” She stood, and picked the dirty piece of paper off the table. Aloud, she read, “I found him this morning. He had done it in his watch. In the time when he was meant to have his gaze on the dark red sky. When he was meant to be watching the plumes of ash. To report if they came closer. When he was meant to be watching for the first touches of flame falling through the sky at our outpost. But he hadn’t been doing any of those things. He hadn’t been watching. His eyes were open, but he would not see anything. Kyo had done it early in his shift. He was stiff when I touched him. Cold. So cold. Colder than the wind that cut through my clothes.”
She stopped, but I knew how the rest of it went.
He lay against the wooden wall with the musket next to him. The musket that was now stained with his blood. The musket that we had been given to defend with. To share, one between two. The musket we had just only gotten dry powder for. That musket that he had used, finally. The musket that he had used to crush his soulcatcher so that his soul could return home to Aajnn, so that it could find a sanctuary that he could not here.
And I wondered, as I helped the doctor take Kyo away, how it is that I will return home?
I never saw my soulcatcher again, but we only remained in Yokto for another month, so it was to be expected. Yoshio wrote in his first letter that he should have gone deeper into the world rather than taken part in the Queen’s War; that he should have gone into the cities that were lit in blues and greens and, I learnt later, purples and yellows and much, much more, but to places where the red sun and the Queen were not known. It was into these cities that my parents took me.
I remember the morning that they told me of their decision well. For weeks, we had heard rumours that cities neighbouring Aajnn had fallen. That they had fallen as much as six to eight months ago. But it was not until a queen’s messenger, wearing the pale green that signalled his service, came around and spoke in Yokto that it was finally confirmed. The letters the birds brought, he said, were from real soldiers. The Queen was now attempting to establish a peace with the forces for the Shibtri Isles and we need not panic. Or words to those affect. On the morning after that, I woke in my bed, chilled, the lights on the roof the world dimmer than usual. Outside, blackbirds sat quietly, as they always did. Yokto was a neighbourhood of blackbirds now, and Aajnn a city of them. Climbing out of bed, I walked down the cold hallway to the living room, where my mother stood at the small, stone, dining table, crying.
I had never heard my mother cry before and so I approached her, quietly. As I drew closer, I could see the outspread wings of a blackbird on the table. They were still. As still as the wings of the blackbird on my eleventh birthday. My hand drifted up to my soulcatcher, to feel the warm bone and cold silver. I hoped that I would stay in it after I died. That I wouldn’t become lost like some many others.
“Mother?” I asked.
Ignoring me, she picked up the long knife that was in front of her. The blade was old and scratched, but sharp, and there was blood over it. Angrily, she stabbed the blade into the blackbird’s stomach, then twisted it, further ripping open the cut she had already made. When her sobbing grew louder with each twist of the blade, as if her grief were being strangled in her throat, I realised, finally, how much she had lost. How she had become her own lost soul, even with her soulcatcher firmly around her neck. The knife fell to the floor and Mother thrust her hands into the bird. She dug into the blackbird’s stomach her hard fingers clawing through organs, breaking bones, all in a desperate attempt to find one, tiny piece of brass in the slippery organs that would return her faith. That would return her Queen.
“Mother.” She had begun breaking the blackbird’s wings. I called out a third and fourth time, until finally, on the fifth, my voice pained from screaming, her hands stopped, and rested, trembling, on the table.
Her voice was soft, frail, hurt. I had never heard it like that before and would hear it again, only once. Wordlessly, I took her hard, red hands into mine, and led her away from the bloody table.