Chapter 1: Sacred Mission
The young Firebird kept close to Dedan. Rina’s son hadn’t spoken since Inspector Dedan arrived to find the Firebird dead in her bedroom. Dedan had hoped that the murderer left recently; that they were still nearby so he could find and catch whoever it was. But Rina’s blood was cold, and her son knelt unharmed staring up at her apparition.
That part concerned Dedan the most. He had never known anyone to kill someone like that. Was Rina even dead? Her blood and feathers were on the floor; but there was no sign of a body. He saw a few of her familiars the same way. Some of them had partially melted; while others were nothing more than spheres of white light. Dedan refrained from touching the familiars. But when he saw the white, translucent form of Rina’s ghost, he had to find out if it was solid, if he could transport it somewhere to experiment on it and revive her. He sent one of the hawk familiars fluttering around him to touch it.
Dedan glanced at two familiars on his shoulder, working at reconstituting the hawk he lost that Rina’s ghost absorbed. He thought that her image became a little clearer just as the death of his familiar scratched his soul. Then Rina smiled and dissolved through a wall. It was stupid to have thought that he could save her. Only one Firebird could exist in the world, except for when the old Firebird cared for the new one until it was ready to be on its own. The Firebird shouldn’t even have a name since there was only one; or a gender since they couldn’t copulate. Dedan kept Rina’s name in the secret of his heart. She never learned it.
They were nearing Dedan’s estate. “Firebird. . .” he began.
“I’m not Firebird!” the boy snapped, jerking his hand out of Dedan’s. “Firebird was my parent.”
“But every Firebird–”
“Why should you call me the same thing? You knew my parent; and I’m not the same person. I want a different name.”
“Wh-what do you want to be called?”
The Firebird didn’t answer at first. He instead marched toward the home with Dedan following behind him. It wasn’t until Dedan opened the door for the boy that he answered.
“My name is Japhet.”
* * *
Smoke filled the halls. Dedan took Firebird – no, Japhet – toward a room upstairs with a large window. Neither of them could smell the smoke. It never had the chance to fill their lungs because machine arms picked each particle out of the air and took it away for processing. The place was more like a self-sufficient factory than a home. It burned paper for power, then took the ashes away to compress it into new paper that would be burned immediately, or used by Dedan.
Dedan opened the door to Japhet’s new room and said, “If you ever want to leave the house via flight, just open the window. Make sure to close it behind you. It, and other windows throughout the house can be opened and closed from the outside and inside. Don’t forget to lock them at night.”
“Thank you,” Japhet answered.
“Do you need anything from your house?”
“I guess . . .”
Dedan inclined his head and closed the door. Before he left, he needed to send a message to Queen Thysbe. Dedan went to the nearest window, flipping a switch. As he waited for the motors to open the large window, a familiar landed in his outstretched palm. Dedan concentrated, placing a hand over the hawk, then sent it out into the air. He would have flown after it, but the other two familiars were still on his shoulder reconstituting the third. They should be finished in time so that he could fly on his way back.
* * *
A messenger hurried into the throne room and knelt in front of his queen; his thin, gray wings folded politely back. The queen’s own wings spread behind her. They were transparent except for veins and a thick, red border that outlined them. Taut cords with clamps at the end supported her wings so she could keep them open as a show of her status.
“Speak,” she told the messenger.
“Queen Thysbe, another household has been attacked.”
Thysbe sighed, and the moth familiars on her shoulders fluttered. “Show me.”
“But your ma–”
One of the messenger’s own moth familiars flew to the queen. Two of her arms stayed on the throne while the other two reached for the familiar. She held it carefully, and closed her eyes, concentrating. What the messenger had seen filled her mind’s eye. Two white specters floated listlessly; one of them still looked like its former self while the other was shapeless. It seemed that one of the first specter’s familiar was still alive, and it could be revived. Whether that person would still be the same afterward remained to be seen.
“Our first survivor,” the queen murmured. She let the familiar fly back to its messenger. “Bring them to me when they are well. I would like to speak to them.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
“And if you require nourishment, you may find refreshments in the hall outside. You may go.”
Thysbe waited for the messenger to leave. Her familiars released the clamps on her wings, and Thysbe folded them, glad to relax. She went behind her throne to the balcony that overlooked her queendom. It looked peaceful enough from up here, despite the serial killer terrorizing her people.
A shape flew into view, interrupting Thysbe’s focus on her lands. It was a hawk. Thysbe opened a smaller slit in the window built specifically for familiars. Dedan’s bird landed on her finger. Thysbe scratched it as her mind listened to the message Dedan had sent. At the news, Thysbe’s antennae drooped even lower. It looked like the murderer was trying out new territory. A familiar drifted to her shoulder, full of her anxiety and fear. Thysbe added a more concrete message before it landed on the back of the bird. They flew back through the window. Thysbe’s antennae raised slightly as her worry flew away from her. If only she could always leave one or more of her familiars with Dedan so she might put herself at ease.
But ridding herself of worry would do nothing to stop the Beetle.
* * *
According to Queen Thysbe’s moth familiar, she wanted him to come to her palace to discuss the problem more thoroughly and question a witness to the Beetle’s destruction. Beetle, the ladybug. Now he knew the name and species of Rina’s killer. Should he tell her son? It wouldn’t be right to try to protect him after he’d seen the fate of his mother. But Japhet might not want to know . . .
I should ask if he wants to come with me, Dedan resolved. Then he would know if Japhet wanted to be involved in any way. Dedan went up to the Firebird’s room, finding Japhet twirling a feather in his fingers. The boy’s crest feathers barely twitched when Dedan entered. Bags that Dedan brought from Rina’s home sat unopened on the floor with one of Japhet’s red familiars sleeping on top of it.
Japhet accepted the offer to go see Queen Thysbe. The young Firebird had never met her before. Dedan once offered to take Rina along once or twice, but she refused. As a Firebird, Rina didn’t like meddling in the affairs of the powerful. If she merely became acquainted with a queen or king, she would risk getting caught up in something dangerous. She never wanted to be associated with Dedan, but at least he was more of an overseer rather than a king. It was difficult to keep a bird king over the different races that lived in Dedan’s lands since some of them migrated south every winter while others stayed.
Dedan and Japhet flew together to the queen’s palace. They passed a wing of guards who challenged them and, upon finding they came to see Queen Thysbe, had two of their number separate from the rest as an escort. The escort led them to the palace gates where Dedan took out his walking cane. Once inside the palace, Dedan’s cane clacked and echoed on the stone walls. The guards took them to the queen’s study where she waited for them.
“Queen Thysbe; Dedan Hawk and the Firebird,” one of the guards announced.
“Thank you. The two of you may go.”
The last guard closed the door. Dedan bowed to the queen while Japhet stared between the bird and moth, not sure what to do. When Dedan raised his head, he lifted a hand carrying the moth familiar, which flew back to its queen. Thysbe’s antennae lowered a fraction when the familiar landed in her hand.
“Dedan,” she said. “You brought the Firebird.”
“My name is Japhet.”
Dedan gave Thysbe a look so she wouldn’t mention that Firebird’s weren’t supposed to have names. “This is the new Firebird,” he told her. “Not the one who refused to see you in the past.”
“And why has this one decided to meet a queen?” Thysbe approached Japhet.
“Something killed my parent,” Japhet replied. “I think I should do something about it.”
“Hm. Pleasure to meet you, Japhet. Now Dedan, is there anything else you can tell me about the attack other that what your familiar showed me?”
“Not really. What about you? Do you have any idea why this Beetle would come after Japhet’s parent?”
She stroked the moth in her hand. The action calmed both her and the familiar. “The Beetle attacks randomly without cause. The only consistency with her attacks had been that she generally went after my people. However, I believe that has more to do with where she lives rather than what she prefers to kill. She went out of her way to go after the Firebird.”
“Could that help us identify her? The others may have been practice before she went after someone important.”
“Dedan!” many of Thysbe’s familiars jumped into the air and fluttered around her. Dedan’s familiars shrieked and did the same, grabbing onto his back and skittering behind his feet to hide from Thysbe. “All my citizens are important,” Thysbe admonished. “So are yours.”
“Sorry, I. . .” Dedan began, then he remembered how Thysbe felt about excuses following apologies. “Sorry.” He averted his eyes and, as he did, he noticed a red and black beetle crawling across a book. Dedan slammed a cupped hand over it, trapping the familiar.
“What was that?” Thysbe didn’t move.
“I just saw a ladybug familiar.”
Thysbe came from behind her desk. “It must belong to Harmonia. Let me see.”
Oh. Dedan had forgotten about Thysbe’s ward. She was a ladybug, too, but a different kind. How many spots did Thysbe say Harmonia had? He couldn’t remember; but her kind of ladybug was extremely rare. Dedan opened his fingers slightly so that Thysbe could see. “Yes,” she said, “that’s hers. Let it go.”
Dedan tried to coax the familiar into his hand and failed. The ladybug opened its elytra and hovered just out of his reach. “How many spots does she have, again?”
He sighed. How was he supposed to protect Thysbe’s queendom if he had to check every time to make sure that the he’d found the real Beetle? “Where is Harmonia now?”
“Behind you,” Thysbe answered.
The young ladybug sat in an armchair holding a book. While the book was meant for reading, Harmonia put it to better use as a mask to hide her face. Dedan thought she feared him. He gave her the best smile he could manage and bowed saying, “Greetings, Harmonia. My name is Dedan. Queen Thysbe has told me all about you.” He kept eye contact though his address, and discovered that she wasn’t staring at him at all, but at Japhet. Dedan prompted the Firebird to also introduce himself. The book went further over her eyes when Japhet said his name aloud. Then Queen Thysbe motioned to the ladybug, who stood, putting the book on a table beside her. “I am Harmonia, the ladybird,” she said, switching her eyes to Dedan. “They’ve been calling me a ladybird lately because ‘ladybug’ sounds sinister now. Ladybird makes more sense, anyway. Not because I’m a bird, like you, just because I’m a beetle, not a bug. . .” She trailed off.
Dedan decided it would be best to take attention off of Harmonia. “Thysbe, your familiar mentioned something about a witness to the recent attack here.”
“We will have to see him tomorrow. He is still healing. But about the attack on Firebird. From what your familiar showed me, it looked like the specter still showed an image of its former self. That has only happened once so far in my kingdom. In this case, someone survived. Are you sure that none of Firebird’s familiars were alive?”
“I am. I think that was only a side effect of her immortality, or at least had something to do with the durability of Firebirds.”
“Yes.” She stared at Japhet. “I’m surprised that the Firebird is still around while species such Harmonia’s are in danger.”
“Well, you two must be tired from your journey. Go rest. We can question the witness tomorrow.”
“Good night, my lady.”
Since Dedan had been to Thysbe’s palace before, he knew where to find both their quarters and the kitchens. They needed no escort. When they were a fair distance from the guards and the study, Dedan remarked, “She likes you.”
“She doesn’t know me.”
“Hm. I guess it’s better for firebirds to stay out of relationships. You do live a long time.”
Dedan laid awake. Long hours passed before Japhet started snoring. When Dedan felt sure he wouldn’t disturb the Firebird, he got up and went out to the queen’s quarters. Once at her door, a soft voice from within said, “Enter.” Dedan came in to find Thysbe at her window, staring outside.
“You’re not sleeping either, I see,” Dedan said.
“I’ve slept little since the Beetle started killing my people.”
“How many lives has she taken now?”
“Seven, including the Firebird.”
Dedan swore. “Why didn’t you tell me until now?”
“I had hoped that I could take care of it myself, and it hasn’t been long since I’ve known. The authorities were trying to take care of it themselves, but after the third death, they had to tell me.”
Dedan’s feathers puffed up and back down again. “And you’re sure that Harmonia has nothing to do with this?”
Thysbe turned sharply. “What do you mean?”
“She looks like a ladybug.”
“She has nine spots. The Beetle has more.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I checked Harmonia myself.”
“Because you knew about the serial killer before she came here?”
“Because I wanted to make sure she wasn’t conning me for free lodging.”
They kept silent, looking into the darkness together. “Have you asked if this has something to do with any ladybugs she knew?”
“Not yet. I would expect more of a pattern to the murders if it did. The Beetle might have killed guards or their families, perhaps some of the few people Harmonia met in town.”
“Does anyone know she lives here?”
“Yes, quite a few citizens do. All the Beetle would have to do is ask someone while she was in disguise.”
“Do you think she’s in disguise?”
“Either that, or she lives somewhere in the outskirts. I’ve sent scouts looking for her, but they’ve found nothing so far.”
“She could be in hiding with one of your citizens.”
A moth familiar jumped off her shoulder and fluttered erratically. “You think one of my citizens would harbor a serial killer?”
“Not willingly. She could have threatened someone.”
The familiar landed on Thysbe’s bed, stretching its wings. “I hope not. It pains me to think of the suffering she causes that we know about.”
One of Dedan’s familiars flew to Thysbe’s shoulder and lowered its head. She smiled and scratched it. “What about the young Firebird, Japhet? You know that they’re not supposed to have names.”
“Will the world fall into chaos if one of them chooses a name?”
“I suppose not. I just wonder if they will keep it or go back to being Firebird after they heal from their parent’s death.”
“I will support whatever Japhet decides.”
Thysbe’s finger migrated under the bird’s chin. The hawk’s eyes closed contentedly. “What name would you have chosen?” she asked softly.
The bird’s eyes opened and it jumped off her shoulder. “What do you mean?”
“If the Firebird were your child, what name would you have chosen for it?”
Dedan coughed. “Adrien.”
Chapter 2: The Room :-)
Queen Thysbe, Dedan, and Japhet visit a witness to the Beetle's attack.
“His familiar was having trouble reconstituting a second,” the doctor explained as they walked down the hall. “I had to help him.” The doctor stopped at the door to the patient’s room. “Don’t let him near his familiars. He was trying to kill one of them.”
Thysbe, Dedan, and Japhet entered; leaving the doctor behind. A moth lay on the bed, staring listlessly at a cage hanging from the ceiling. His two familiars were inside it. One relaxed on the cage floor while the other threw itself against the walls, trying to get out. The cage shook from the familiar’s efforts.
Dedan knelt by the moth’s bed, blocking his view of the cage. “Hello. My name is Dedan. What’s yours?”
The patient’s eyes moved from Dedan to Thysbe. “Queen,” he said weakly.
“Yes, your queen is here. She’s very concerned for you.” Dedan motioned to Thysbe, who knelt beside him. “Can you tell her your name?”
“Emil,” the moth said. “Please help me,” he reached for his familiar.
Dedan took the hand, setting it gently on the bed. “We will help you however we can, just not like that. Would you like water or food?”
“I want my familiar.”
“Why don't you tell us about what happened that night? You might feel better.”
“ No . I don’t want to remember.”
“Dedan,” Thysbe said. “Open the cage.”
“But–” her familiar landed on his beak, telling him what to do. “Yes, my lady.” Dedan stood. Three of Thysbe’s moths hovered outside of the cage, waiting. They dashed inside when Dedan opened the cage, surrounding the familiar on the floor. Emil’s other familiar sped out. Before it had a chance to reach its master, Dedan’s familiar caught it mid air, taking it to the ground. The bird devoured Emil’s familiar. A rush of memories and feelings filled Dedan’s mind. He fell, clutching his head.
Emil relaxed with the weight of his sadness gone, falling asleep. His remaining familiar, with the help of Thysbe’s, crafted a new familiar out of his dreams. When they completed the familiar, the three moths flew out of the cage and back to their queen. Thysbe closed the cage door.
“What did you learn?” she asked Dedan, helping him up.
“I need time to sort through it.” He rubbed his head. “Let’s go back to the palace and talk there.”
The door opened, revealing Emil’s doctor. “Is everything all right?” Dedan took his hand off of his head and made his face blank.
“Everything’s fine,” Thysbe said. “Talking appears to have calmed Emil. He’s sleeping now.”
“I thought I sensed something from my familiar.” The doctor checked the cage and Emil first, then the familiar sitting on the windowsill. “Well, you’d better let him rest.”
Thysbe hired a carriage to take them back so that Dedan could rest. She asked the moths pulling it not to fly. They hurried to Thysbe’s study where Dedan would have somewhere comfortable to sit.
“Can you see the memories now?” Thysbe asked.
“It’s not clear.” Dedan frowned. “Emil corrupted them as much as he could, trying to forget.” He closed his eyes, seeing the Beetle. She made the three rings, sending them onto Emil’s beloved. Ivan . The rings squeezed, and the Beetle cracked her weapon over Ivan’s head. The memory stopped before Dedan could see Ivan become a ghost. He described what he saw to Thysbe and Japhet. “She wanted to ‘purify’ them. Not sure what she meant by that.”
Thysbe put a hand to her mouth. “I had thought that this was an attack against me or Harmonia; but this.” Several moths flew around her. “She must have some warped sense of morality, and she’s going after the ‘impure.’”
“Looks like we won’t be able to reason with her, then.”
“She’s murdered people,” Japhet blurted. “Why would you want to reason with her?”
Several of Dedan’s familiars took flight. He didn’t know how he should respond.
“Japhet is right,” Thysbe said. “I would not reason with someone who murders my people.”
The hawks settled reluctantly, averting their eyes from the queen. “Yes, my lady. Do you have any suggestions for how I may help you with the Beetle?”
“Return home. Keep as careful a watch over Japhet as I have over Harmonia. Look for clues as to why the Beetle decided that Firebird was impure. If we can find any reasoning behind her attacks, we may be able to predict the next one, and stop it.”
* * *
Japhet didn’t speak at all on their way back to Dedan’s estate. He put too much force in his flaps, and wouldn’t look at Dedan when they stopped to rest. Dedan allowed Japhet to simmer until they got back. Once inside, Japhet immediately started upstairs to his room. Before the Firebird got too far, Dedan said its name.
“I’m sorry I upset you.” Japhet didn’t answer. “While Thysbe wants me to protect you like she protects Harmonia, I don’t want to keep you cooped up here. Do what you will. I’m sure you know how to be careful. Just come to me if you decide you want a bodyguard.”
Japhet continued upstairs without even turning his head.
* * *
Dedan gave Japhet a few more days before reminding him of his enrollment in the local school. Japhet agreed that he should go back. This relieved Dedan; Japhet barely went out since his mother’s death. He needed the fresh air.
While Japhet was out, Dedan came back to Rina’s house. He couldn’t imagine what he might find now that he hadn’t seen the last two times he came. But he was upset before. Perhaps he would see something new with his sadness dulled.
On the way, he met some of the citizens who lived near the Firebird. There was the young cardinal, Kim, who proudly showed Dedan his improved archery skills. Xavier was preparing his garden; with the help of his children. He had high hopes to finally grow something this year. Mireille came out of the sky and reported that, while it was wet today, the sun should come out and dry everything tomorrow. Dedan thanked her before entering the Firebird’s house.
It was small and plain like the other houses Dedan encountered in the neighborhood. He didn’t want to go to Rina’s room first. He had to mentally prepare himself first. There wasn’t much to see in the hall, kitchen, and living room. Dedan tried Japhet’s room, even though he knew he wouldn’t see much. The boy had few furnishings. Just the necessary bed and a desk with a chair. Japhet had few belongings left after Dedan cleared everything out.
Dedan couldn’t avoid it any longer; he went to Rina’s room. There was hardly any indication that there had been a murder. No blood or body soiled the floor. Only Rina’s feathers sat peacefully on the floor; as though they merely came off in her sleep. Dedan bent down to pick one up and, as he did, he noticed that one of the feathers was black. He continued taking a feather, which he pocketed. Then he drew his sword from his cane and thrust up at the ceiling.
“CAW!” A black shape fell; Dedan sidestepped so it wouldn’t hit him. “Hello Azúcar.” He sheathed his sword.
“H-hello Dedan,” the crow said, getting off the ground and brushing dust off her clothes. Azúcar spotted a bit of jewelry she dropped, and she tried to pick it up. Dedan grabbed it first.
“Doesn’t this belong to the Firebird?”
“It belonged to the old Firebird.” Two crow familiars landed on her shoulders, spreading their wings archly. “The new one doesn’t want silly jewels, does it?”
Dedan examined the necklace in his hand. “Japhet hasn’t said anything yet.”
“The Firebird has a name, now?” The two crows’ heads tilted to one side.
“It does.” Dedan rubbed a jewel. He couldn’t decide whether Japhet wanted this later; if his apathy ever faded. “I might consider giving this to you. If you show me what else you’ve taken from the dead Firebird.”
“Why would I take things from the Firebird?” A crow hopped toward one of Dedan’s familiars, lowering its head to be preened. “I was just cleaning up in here.”
Dedan’s bird hissed at the crow, which flew away. “Then I’ll just help you by taking this back to Japhet, along with whatever else I can find in this room.”
“No, I wasn’t fin– I mean–” Azúcar sighed and jumped onto the ceiling again, holding onto it with her feet so she would be upside-down. Every trinket she’d picked up fell to the floor. Dedan poked through the items with his cane, handing the necklace to Azúcar when she came back down. She stared hungrily at her exposed hoard. “Do I get to keep any of them?”
“Only if I can find what I need.”
Azúcar groaned. Several of her crows pecked the ground angrily. “What do you want? Why are you here?”
“I’m trying to figure out why someone wanted to murder her.”
Azúcar busily polished the necklace. “Well they didn’t steal anything.”
“What makes you say that?”
All her crows stared at her. “No reason.”
“Humph. Doesn’t matter. I know it wasn’t a thief.”
“Yes, it’s some psychopath wanting to ‘purify’ people.”
“‘Purify’ hmm? Perhaps what you need is this.” Azúcar held a book in her hand.
“What is that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a diary, maybe a gift from an old lover. But you have to let me keep my loot if you want it.”
His birds shrieked angrily. “There’d better not be anything else important here.”
“Well, there certainly aren’t any more books.”
Dedan’s eyes narrowed. “Fine. But you should give me anything else that might be important. Firebird’s killer could become your problem, too.”
“I’m sure anything you need will find its way back to you.” Azúcar strode to the window, and opened it. “Fetch.” She tossed the book. Dedan ran and jumped out, barely managing to catch the book before it fell in the mud. When Dedan looked back at the house, Azúcar had closed and locked the window. It sounded like she was taking care of other possible openings. Dedan stood, glaring in disgust at the mud on his tunic. He’d have to bathe when he got home.
Dedan was in his study looking for a good place to put the book when Japhet arrived. “What happened to you?” the Firebird asked.
“Well, I was looking for clues as to why the Beetle targeted your parent when I had a run-in with Azúcar.”
“She’s the queen of the crows.”
“I thought you oversaw the birds.”
“I do. Some of the crows and other scavenger birds have their own separate groups dedicated to thievery.”
“Was she stealing from my parent?”
The hawks closest to Japhet fluttered away from him. “Er. . . yes. Do you have a key? Azúcar locked me out before I could stop her.”
“Just forget it. She’s probably gone with all of my parent’s things by now.”
“Japhet–” But the Firebird had already left, slamming the door behind him. Dedan leaned over the book on his desk, too exhausted to stand but unwilling to get mud on his chair. He opened the book, flipping through the pages. A book on flowers? This was worthless. Dedan just wanted a bath, but one of the pages had been marked by a corner fold. It was on the flower genus “orchis.” Though he was sure it wouldn’t help, Dedan read the whole page. He saw nothing important. Dedan closed the book then and, just in case, he checked the inside of the front cover. It looked like a child wrote something in red ink. “To my new friend, from Hugo.”
Chapter 3: Claws Out
A hawk flew through Thysbe’s open window. It bore a message from Dedan that told of the book he found from Hugo. He had asked Japhet, who said that he knew nothing of this Hugo that his parent met. Perhaps the previous Firebird received the book before Japhet’s birth.
Thysbe created a return message, informing Dedan that she had never met anyone by the name of Hugo who might know the Firebird. She would look into the matter. Before Thysbe sent her familiar off, it occurred to her that she could ask Harmonia about Hugo first, since it would take no time. Thysbe kept the familiar close so that it might take note of the conversation if Harmonia had anything significant to offer.
The ladybird paced down the hall for exercise. Perhaps Thysbe should send a guard or go out herself so that Harmonia could walk outside for exercise. The queen could accompany Harmonia after she sent the message to Dedan. “Harmonia, have you heard of someone named Hugo?”
Harmonia accidentally knocked over a vase. This came as no surprise to Thysbe. The ladybird was rather clumsy, and tripped over her own feet all the time. “Hugo?”
“Dedan found a clue that indicates the old Firebird used to know someone by the name of ‘Hugo.’”
“Ah, no, I’m afraid I don’t know anyone by the name of Hugo. And if I did, I’m not sure that I would know whether that Hugo knows the Firebird. I’ve never met any kind of Firebird before.”
Thysbe didn’t bother telling Harmonia that there was only one Firebird. “Would you like to go outside? I might accompany you after I’ve sent a message to Dedan.”
“No thank you. It’s not the best day for outdoor walking. I should go.”
Harmonia skittered away, leaving Thysbe confused. It was sunny out. She doubted that Dedan would have sent one of his familiars bearing a message if the weather were too bad. Something about Hugo clearly scared Harmonia. Could he have something to do with the ladybugs from which she fled?
Whatever the reason, Harmonia wouldn’t be telling Thysbe any time soon. Thysbe went outside to release the familiars, then went for a stroll since she was in the mood. She tried her best not to think; to just appreciate the day. But unbidden thoughts strayed to her mind, and it occurred to her that she should go visit the survivor, and the graves of the Beetle’s victims. What was the survivor’s name? Dedan would remember. She asked the doctor before she went up so she could call the survivor by name. Ah, he was Emil. Thysbe spoke with him for a time before going out to visit the graves. Many of her citizens asked where she was going as she walked. When she answered, they asked to go with her. She soon had an entourage with her at the graveyard.
Thysbe looked down upon the stones, thinking over the empty graves. She was never sure what the Beetle did with the bodies. That angered Thysbe. The lunatic probably had them stored away somewhere like trophies. Thysbe sighed, willing her familiars to calm, and she faced the gathering of citizens.
With all the people around her, Thysbe felt compelled to speak with them. Not too loud, she told herself, she was still in a graveyard. “Thank you all for coming. I know that everyone is saddened by what the Beetle has done. I’m sure you’d rather stop like the dead have, that you’re not sure that it’s right to be happy, or to continue as though nothing has happened. In just a few weeks is our annual Unity Ball where citizens of the other provinces gather to celebrate friendship and kindness. Even if you may not feel up to it, we must not show the Beetle that we are afraid to continue living.”
The citizens’ familiars fluttered hopefully in place of applause, since the sound would disrespect the dead. Thysbe bowed to her people. Then she made her way through the crowd, showing individual thanks through a peck on the cheek or a handshake. They followed her through the city. Each of them left her one by one to go back to their daily tasks, until she was alone on the path to her palace.
* * *
“The Unity Ball this year will be a masquerade,” Thysbe told Harmonia. “Do you know what costume you’d like to wear?”
“You should decide soon. You may find you want something that could take some time to make.”
“What are you doing?”
“Just drawing.” Harmonia leaned into her work.
“Is it an idea for a costume?” Thysbe came over to look. Harmonia covered it before Thysbe could see what it was. The queen only got a glimpse of feathers. “We’ll have to go to Dedan’s province for feathers if you want them on your costume.”
“It’s not for a costume; I’m just drawing.”
“Fine, I won’t make you talk about your costume. What about me? Would you like to help me decide on something?”
Harmonia tucked the drawing away. “What did you dress as last year?”
“I merely wore a gown. It wasn’t a masquerade last year.”
“It changes every year?”
“Yes, sometimes. Last year it was just an ordinary ball. And it was in the cat province. We switch around who hosts the balls.”
“How are the cats as hosts?”
One of Thysbe’s moths fluttered by her antenna. “I don’t remember. They must have been pleasant enough, but some strange person kept bothering me; trying to sell me things. It wasn’t one of the cats. I couldn’t figure out what species he was. He wore a frog mask, but he wasn’t a frog either.”
“I hope he doesn’t come to this ball. Or, if he does, I hope he stays away from me. Perhaps you can help if you happen to notice him.”
“You could be the frog this time and try to confuse him.”
Thysbe chuckled. “I don’t know if he’s the kind of person that can be confused. Now I want to see how he’ll react if I do. This had better not backfire and attract his attention.”
* * *
Chloé hurried through the streets, weaving deftly through crowds of people. One of her familiars clung desperately to her shoulder while the others hid in the safety of her pockets. She soon smelled the scents of the bakery, which put speed into her step. Chloé heaved open the door when she came to it. She discovered the adults inside having a conversation.
“. . . cares about us. I was with her when she went to visit the graves of the Beetle’s victims.”
“I was there, too. And I believe that she cares about her image more than she cares about us.”
“But she wants to help.”
“And she doesn’t know how. She doesn’t know us; she is too used to her royal, pampered life.”
Chloé peeked over the counter to get the baker’s attention, but he was too distracted by the conversation.
“Can you really fault her for that?” he interjected. “Why don’t you try speaking with her about it so she will know what she needs to do for us.”
The young moth put two of her hands onto the counter. Tom, the baker, still didn’t see Chloé.
“How am I supposed to speak with someone I don’t know? Besides, you’ve heard of her temper. Remember when she was so angry with Inspector Hawk that she avoided him at the ball?”
“She got over it.”
“And she knows the Inspector. What do you think she will do about someone she doesn’t know?”
Chloé heaved herself up and put her second set of hands on the counter. Tom noticed her this time. “Oh, I’m sorry Chloé. Would you like some bread?”
Tom went into the back to find baked goods that he hadn’t managed to sell yesterday. Chloé waited patiently, bouncing on her toes to keep herself occupied.
“How’s your father doing, Chloé?”
The moth who sided against the queen had spoken. “He’s still sick; but he’s getting better.”
“Oh good, I hope the bread will help him.”
Chloé nodded in agreement. Tom came out with the bread, and Chloé gave him a bag to put it inside. As soon as she had her bread, Chloé dashed out of the bakery, and back onto the street.
She had wanted to speak with those moths about the Beetle, but she was afraid of what they might say. It might be better to speak with her father first. Most other people thought she had strange ideas that they said she should keep to herself. She once asked why there was a division of lands if all the kingdoms and provinces were supposed to be friends. Couldn’t everyone be inside of one big kingdom living together? The moths she spoke to at the time said that was ridiculous. The different races had so many kinds of food that each one would have to walk through several blocks of a market to find the kind of food they needed. Chloé didn’t believe there were enough kinds of food to cause that much of a problem. Besides, there were so many species of moths in their kingdom that they already knew how to handle different food appropriate for separate moths. She didn’t have a chance to say this aloud because the moths moved on to the rulers. How were they to pick just one king or queen? The individual would have to be one of the races, and choosing one out of the many would set one race above every other. Chloé thought that several rulers could work together; just like Queen Thysbe and Inspector Hawk when one of them had a problem and needed help. But then the others admonished Chloé, telling her that the Unity Ball should be enough for everyone, and that people could meet new friends from the other lands and send letters back and forth and visit each other. They didn’t need to live next door to be close friends.
None of them understood, so Chloé went home to her father. Some people were too poor, too sickly; they couldn't afford to leave their jobs long enough to take the journey to another kingdom. While everyone was welcome to the ball, not everyone in every land could make it. Chloé wasn’t strong enough to fly on her own to go to the balls in the other provinces. She couldn’t leave her father alone, besides. The first time she went to a Unity Ball was several years ago when it was hosted at Queen Thysbe’s palace where it was closer. Chloé came to the gates in her rags with her father. They had clothing inside for anyone who could not afford nice things to wear. But Chloé and her father were late. Most of the clothes were gone by then so that only she had something to wear inside while her father had to wait. And even the clothes found for Chloé were baggy so that she had to hold them up to keep them from falling down. She wanted to leave; but because it was her first Unity Ball, her father insisted that she stayed for at least an hour. Chloé tiptoed through the ballroom on her own, peeking at the queen’s wings, and other strange creatures that littered the dance floor. It was the first time she’d seen any of the other races. They scared her.
Chloé didn’t make any friends at the ball. She probably wouldn’t meet anyone new this year either. Perhaps she could try. Maybe someone else would share her vision. Then again, none of them would be as poor as she was. None of them would know how hard it was to make the journey. She’d have to go to a different province if she were able.
These thoughts flew out of her mind when she spotted her father. He sat leaning against a wall in an alley. All their blankets, moldy as they were, covered his body to keep him warm. His eyes opened when he heard Chloé arrive.
“I brought some bread for you papa.” She set the bag into her father’s lap.
“Thank you, Chloé,” he rasped. He looked down into the bag at the rolls. “You should eat, too.”
“I already had one,” she lied.
“But you should have another so you can grow up strong.”
“Yes papa.” She grabbed a roll from the bag. “But I’m not going to eat until you do.”
He delicately took a roll out and looked expectantly at Chloé.
“I’m not going to eat until you do.”
Her father nodded and took a ponderous bite. They both ate slowly together, saying nothing as they focused on their food. It was hard for Chloé not to gobble it up. She couldn’t show her father how hungry she was, otherwise he’d make her eat another roll before he finished his first.
“What do you think of the Beetle, papa?” Chloé asked after he ate.
“I think I don’t have to be afraid of her when I have you to protect me.”
“But do we have to be afraid of her at all? She hasn’t attacked any poor people like us, has she?”
“Maybe she’s not very bad. Maybe she just wants to get rid of the richer people who aren’t nice to people like us.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be bad to other people just because they are unkind to you.”
“What should I do, then, papa?”
“Hm. I don’t know.” He yawned. “Ask me about it in the morning.” Her father closed his eyes.
Chloé frowned. He never remembered anything when he said that. If she tried to ask in the morning, he would forget what they were talking about and she would have to explain everything to him again. But at least he listened instead of dismissing her like the other adults. Chloé decided that she could do something heroic, like the Beetle, but she would do it her own way when she could find someone else to take care of her father. She snuggled next to him so he would stay warm, and went to sleep.
* * *
Dedan was reading through Rina’s book when he heard urgent ringing from the front door. He hurried over to open it. A wounded bluebird fell through it into his arms.
“Please help,” she said. “My husband, my daughter.”
“Let’s get you to a doctor first.” Dedan picked her up, glad that bluebirds were a bit smaller and lighter. His familiars helped hers, picking them up and depositing them on her belly. Dedan left her with the doctor, asking for directions to her house before flying back out to find it. Once there, he found the corpses of her spouse and child. Red blood stood out against the male bird’s vibrant blue feathers. Dedan looked in vain for life in the child’s body. She was Japhet’s age.
Dedan searched for clues about who or what did this. It wasn’t the Beetle’s work. She left ghosts, not corpses. Dedan thought he knew what kind of animal left these kinds of bites and scratches; he hoped he was wrong. The wars ended a long time ago. Dedan had no desire to resurrect them.
When Dedan came back to speak with the living victim, she confirmed his suspicions. He walked back home with his head low. Familiars perched wherever they could on his body, in no mood to fly. As he travelled, the same thought went through his head, but he did not act on it.
He needed to send a message to the Judge.
Chapter 4: Arboreal Atheneum
Cats do not have any form of queen, king, or ruler of any kind. They cannot tolerate authority. However, they set apart one cat known as the “Judge,” who settles any disputes that the citizens of the cat province may have. The Judge never gives his name freely, and his friends and family take care not to mention his name and title in the same sentence.
Dedan had to word his message carefully. Cats were unpredictable in their reactions to serious news like this, and Dedan had trouble reading their emotions. The Judge himself smiled constantly. But was he truly smiling or baring his teeth as a threat? Dedan supposed that the answer to that question changed with the circumstances.
While forming his message, Dedan was careful not to sound accusatory. He kept to the facts. The resulting message felt cold and informative, causing Dedan to feel uncertain as to whether it would be appropriate or whether the Judge would interpret the coldness as anger. Even though messages sent by familiar were more personal than written ones, individuals had their own ways of perceiving the world, and could still read someone else’s thoughts as something other than what was intended.
Dedan threw in concern for his people, and an entreaty for the Judge’s help. There, Dedan hoped that the message wasn’t too accusatory or too flattering. He couldn’t ruminate on it any longer or else he might contaminate the message with his anxiety. Dedan sent the hawk out as soon as he could. When it was gone, Dedan paced his halls, waiting. He shouldn’t be waiting all day for the Judge’s response; though it was hard to think about anything else to do. A short flight should calm his nerves. After that it would be best to read more of Rina’s book. He still wanted to be home when the Judge’s reply arrived; especially in case the Judge came himself. That ever-smiling cat had a habit of showing up unannounced where he wasn’t wanted and didn’t belong. However, the Judge was fickle, and didn’t always show up when he was wanted; so it was equally likely for the Judge to send a familiar.
“Greetings, Inspector,” came a voice from behind Dedan.
Several of Dedan’s hawk familiars scattered into the air, despite his efforts to stay calm. The Judge stood behind him, his tail caressing the ladder next to him. “Hello, Judge. You got here fast.”
“You are aware that feline entities, such as myself, are capable of transporting themselves across great distances with remarkable haste.”
The Judge was scratching Dedan’s messenger hawk with a sharp claw. “Do you mind?”
With a wave of his paw, the Judge released Dedan’s hawk so it could fly back to its master. “You imparted in your correspondence that you suppose a member of my species perpetrated a misdeed within your zone.”
“Not just any ‘misdeed.’ Two people are dead.”
“May we go forth and view what is left of these unlucky avians?”
“They’re being prepared for burial.” A cat familiar sauntered by Dedan, its tail brushing his legs. “Were the images conveyed through my familiar not enough for you to identify what killed my people?” Ugh, the Judge’s strange way of speaking was rubbing off on him again.
“I had plenty of information to deduce that a cat slaughtered those birds. I merely wished to see the corpses with my own eyes. It is rather bizarre to see from your perspective, since your eyes are on opposing sides of your face.” The familiar allowed Dedan to scratch its head. “But I did not come here to discuss racial peculiarities. You would like to locate a murderer.”
“Do you know who did this? Do you recognize someone from the description I gave you?”
“You intimated that the bluebird described a frowning cat, one who could be considered my opposite. I know of only one individual who fits that description, but I cannot imagine what reason he could have to injure anyone, bird or otherwise.”
“My brother, Valerie.”
Dedan pulled his hand away from the cat familiar. He didn’t know that the Judge had a brother. If Dedan had known what the Judge’s sibling looked like, he might never have put the bluebird’s description into his message to the Judge. What now? Should he ask whether Valerie had been acting strangely lately or should he ask whether he’d done something to annoy the bluebird that she might accuse him? As much as he wanted to side with his people, he didn’t want conflict with the cats. “Would anyone have a reason to disguise as him in order to frame him? Or do you think this was meant to be an attack against you? How many people know he’s your brother?”
“Many know what my brother is called; but they do not also know that I am the Judge. I would rather concentrate on locating him, instead of conjecture about who may wish to injure him or me.”
“Right. Where did you last see him? Or, where would he normally be right now?”
“He ordinarily would have traveled anywhere. We cats tend to meander wherever our whimsical fancy takes us.”
Dedan sighed, running his fingers through his crest feathers so that they stuck out oddly. A familiar landed on his shoulder to smooth his plumage.
“We could seek him out at the Arboreal Atheneum,” the Judge offered.
“The ravens’ library?”
“It has quite the riveting history. I shall recount it on our way there.”
The Arboreal Atheneum was built inside an enormous, hollowed out tree. According to the Judge, the tree was originally a popular scratching post for cats, and ravens gathered wood shavings left behind to press them into paper and bindings for books. When years of scratching created room, the ravens put their first shelf of books inside the tree. They encouraged cats to continue scratching the tree so they might expand the library.
Before the Judge told him this story, Dedan had noticed that the library walls had been carved by what he first assumed was raven talons, and he’d seen a few cats scratch the sides, ravens picking up any mess they made. He’d thought that the ravens didn’t mind since the cats weren’t ruining the walls, and that the ravens merely picked up the shreds to keep their library clean.
They passed a frog on their way inside. He wore a shirt with a heart sewn onto it and a backpack bulging with goods. The Judge pointedly ignored the frog, making Dedan wonder whether they knew and hated each other, or this person knew the Judge’s name. Despite the Judge’s rudeness, the frog nodded amiably in their direction. At least, Dedan thought the frog was being amiable, his expression didn’t change . . . was he wearing a mask? Dedan turned his head to stare at the frog as he left, finding that the frog wasn’t a frog at all. It was hard to determine what species the not-frog was, what with the tuft of black fur on the back of his head and the smooth skin of his hands. Perhaps he was a shaved cat.
Dedan tore his eyes away from the stranger. He could worry about the Judge’s secrets – and the mysterious people who might know him – later. He needed to focus on finding Valerie.
The Judge and Dedan approached the head librarian raven. Another of his kind bent over in front of him so that the librarian could write on its back. The library had no desks or chairs, just bookshelves. The librarian finished his notes, gave the paper along with a handful of books to the other raven, and sent it off.
“Yes, may I help you?” the librarian asked.
“I wish to locate my brother, Valerie. Has he visited this establishment recently?”
“Ah, he’s the one who frowns all the time?”
“That is correct.”
“He was here sometime last week. I believe. Yes, I remember seeing him chasing after a rogue familiar.”
Rogue familiars were remnants of other people that couldn’t be used to revive their former masters. In Emil’s case, his ghost was just enough to allow the moth to be restored. Some bodies could become too damaged in death for a familiar to rejuvenate them. In other cases, one or more living familiars were lost at the time of death, and then too much time passed before revival was possible. Sometimes, a familiar merely represented a youthful spirit, and it lived on even after its master's natural death of old age. It was difficult to tell which case applied to familiars in the wild, even if someone were to do what Dedan had, ordering his familiar to consume another to absorb the familiar’s experiences. The rogue familiars didn’t always hold the right memories, if they held memories at all.
“You sure this was rogue?” Dedan asked. “What kind of familiar was it?”
“A cardinal. We didn’t have any cardinals in the library that day.”
“Ah. Any idea where Valerie went after that?”
“He seemed tired after chasing the familiar. I think he was looking for some place to sleep.”
“We are grateful for your assistance,” the Judge chimed in. “Have a good day.”
On their way out, Dedan spotted the assistant raven from before. When he recognized one of the books the raven was shelving, he grabbed the raven’s arm.
“Where did you get that book?”
“Professor gave it to me.”
Dedan strode back to the librarian and repeated his question to the assistant.
“Just came in today. Got it from, er, Zacharie.”
“He wears a frog mask.”
Dedan rushed outside even though he knew it was in vain. He and the Judge had spent too much time talking to the librarian for Zacharie to still be around. Dedan flew to one of the high branches of the great tree and still didn’t see any sign of a masked figure. Sighing, he came back down to the Judge.
“You behaved most erratically,” the Judge remarked. “What caused you such distress?”
“I saw a raven with one of the old Firebird’s books.”
“Oh, perhaps they donated it to the Atheneum.”
“No, this one had been at her house, I saw it there before Azúcar took it. I guess she supplies this . . . Zacharie.” Dedan was about to ask whether the Judge knew that not-frog when he realized it would be best not to do so after the Judge’s behavior earlier. “But this is about your brother. I guess we’ll be looking for a good place where he might sleep.”
“As it happens, I know some of the more ideal places for siestas. Come!”
The Judge led Dedan through the forest; passing by hollows, fallen logs, and rocks where Valerie might have slept. They came upon a spot in the sun with several pale cat hairs. A puddle of blood rested off to the side. Dedan supposed that it belonged to the familiar, but did not voice his thoughts aloud. The Judge sniffed the blood.
“Dedan!” the Judge exclaimed. “This blood is my brother's.”
“What?” Dedan knelt down to examine the blood, then glanced around, looking for a trail. He saw none. “Well, he couldn’t have been too badly hurt. Maybe this has something to do with the attacks. He could have been coerced, or someone else may have attacked him.”
“This necessitates another conversation with the bluebird, I’d say. Shall I accompany you?”
“You may ‘accompany’ me. Whether I will let you into the room with her is another matter. I don’t want to upset her.”