Story time done but plenty left over, riches of fishes and fancy comestibles heaped on the table within; a toast, friends, to the slow servant! No master for me. One of the oldest professions, mine, and right honorable, too. Here in the dark this old bird darkly flaps, falls on the board—scritch, scratch—quiet or we’ll wake the drowsies from silken repose.
Be they abed? Indeed they be. Hush hush, my brood, pay no mind to the burglar out there, he’s just come round for the cheeses and nibbles. Shinies in the cupboard but for now a bit of the belly stuff. Tarts for the taking, succulent bread crumb peckings, gooseflesh and gizzard.
Hold a moment, a rippling behind the tapestry and toes beneath—where there’s toes there’s a nose and I knows a rat. Secret passage, should have guessed. I can make it back to the window but—awrawwk—he’s a fast one, this lad, and I’m trapped inside like a bee in a bottle, like wind in a cave, like a raven in a writing desk.
“I know you can talk,” he menaces, ghostly in his nightgown. “Speak, bird, like you did before.”
I flutter my wings at him, shhhh, you’ll wake the others, but the young strummer doesn’t follow. “Out with your story now. Why did you bring me here? Out with it!”
Hopeless. Pestering the bird only makes him flap about, and when cups spill and chairs knock, of course the others will awake and search out the ruckus. There in the lantern glare they find a mess with a boy and a raven on top, and I’m not doing the talking.
“It must have flown in through the window,” he says.
Good, stick to the truth. I should peck your spying eyes out.
His Curseship doesn’t buy it, suspects some skullduggery, does he. Takes the boy by the collar and grabs a knife from the table, puts it just there, under the chin, a fine shiny blade.
Basil holds his breath now. Savor it, kid, might be your last.
“I told you, Lodovico,” the cursemaker growls. “That bird’s been following us for days, since Farthing maybe. Your minstrel can tell us why.”
Lodovico puts his hand up, trying to calm the scene, but the cursemaker’s an angry old character and the knife just presses harder. Now it’s the boy who’s urged, Speak, tell your story.
They believed your talking fish, old gall, so they’ll swallow my tale. Can’t let the boy die, I’m not through with him. Says the raven, “Let him be, he’s just following the rules.”
The knife clatters to the floor and everyone stares; seems I’ve stolen the show. Only the mermaid isn’t surprised. She asks, “What rules?”
“Story for story, that’s the bargain, isn’t it? Tit for tat shady dealings. A trade if you like, but I call it mutual theft.”
Gather close, I shan’t be long. Soon you’ll be making peace with your pillows and I can finish tucking away these most delicious morsels, these epicuriosities, these scraps. For now to the map. A mustard yellow bead from the bowl, placed there on the downs, marks my village.
Well, not my village alone. We were a triumvirate, Grind and Orolo and I, and held our parliament up on the church steeple. None of us particularly pious, just no perch with so fine a view. To my left was Grind, a most corpulent fowl, and on my right all scrawny and tottering was Orolo. Leaving me in the middle, Sculler by name, the one with the gleaming feathers and shapely beak, a truly fine specimen of corvus corax.
Natural thieves, we ravens. We’ll take your shinies and your eatables and your mumblings, too. Why we sound like the things we hear. Grind, nested in the old mills, spoke in creaks and rumblings. Orolo, gone a bit cuckoo to be honest, had a nervous tic and whirred like the gears of the clock tower where he spent his nights. In those days I lived in a gutter of the bakery roof. Everybody in town came that way, thus my patter pastiche.
Matters of state were simple then—ruling is taking, and that’s what we do best. Raven, ravening, ravenous, you see the connection. But the council does not readily agree on a plan. Three corbies makes an unkindness.
“Food, food, food,” grumbled Grind, “all you ever think about.”
I’d recommended a fly by the baker’s to snatch some scones, lift some loaves, make off with a muffin, burgle a bun. Vittles were my specialty, but Grind didn’t think much of munchings because he didn’t have to, fat as he was on miller’s grain. Orolo could have done with some meat on his bones, but the flighty fellow was usually too nervous to eat.
“Qurork, tok! All your loot gets eaten,” said Orolo, clutching to keep his balance in the breeze and sounding ridiculous as always. Could never let on that you noticed, though, that’s when the springs really flew loose. He’d start pealing and clanging like the tintinnabulum at the end of the world, and if he fell from that height he’d have broken something, probably that already cracked brain of his. “Ti-tick, never anything to show for yourself.”
The old argument again. Prizes, treasures, both my corvine cohorts had them. Tucked into Grind’s nest was a silver spoon he used as a looking glass, swiped from some priest’s hand just before the padre could dig into a bowl of rice pudding. Orolo’s trophy was a watch pilfered from the constable’s own pocket. It still ran and he insisted on sleeping beside it, as though his condition needed worsening.
But I had nothing at all, no trinket to hold in my claws and call my own. Every testimony to my skill was devoured within seconds, or was seconds. Usually unflappable in the face of their tauntings, something snapped that day. I think it was when Grind puffed out his feathers and said, “I suppose not every nestling was meant to be hatched,” and Orolo responded, “Or remembered, Trork tick.”
“I’ll be remembered,” I said, “after I steal the Duchess’s ring.”
All of us were startled by what I’d said. No doubt they were thinking, as I was, of the days when our triad had been a quaternity, of those glorious times under the governance of a bird whose exploits will not soon be forgotten, a swindler whose swindles never failed to astonish, a prowler without peer, a larcenist the like of which never before cast wingèd shadow over the earth. Picti, who had inspired the formation of our infamous little band. Picti, whose nest was no mere bundle of sticks, but was the whole of a hollow elm in the park. Picti, whose treasure outshone spoon and pocket watch combined, outshone the dreams of the most craving, rapacious raven.
His inner lair, his sanctum sanctorum, was bejeweled, bespangled, bedecked, but not with any common baubles. Thousands of coruscating shards, dangling from twine and string, reflected into infinity the worth of that great fowl.
Mirrors. Each a polished world of its own. Even when old Mr. Glumbert, the duchy’s only glassblower, packed up and moved away, multiplying the value of glass a hundredfold, even then Picti annexed more of that numinous, luminous, scintillescent territory into his realm. He always worked alone, but gladly shared the tales of his adventures with us, describing how he skulked through the boudoir of many a countess and baroness to shatter their hand glasses and snatch up the finest piece.
When Grind asked why he’d never robbed our very own Duchess, Picti took it as a challenge. And that was the end of our illustrious leader.
“The Duchess?” Grind harumphed. “You needn’t go that far.”
“Ti-tlick quork tok tok quorowk,” essayed Orolo, the last of his wits frightened away. But I’d already said it, and shiny is shiny after all, so off we flew to the ducal estate.
The ring which adorned the fourteen-year-old finger of the Duchess, given as a birthday present by her now deceased father and mother, was of unparalleled craftsmanship, a single tear-shaped pearl embedded in a band of the finest silver. The only prettier thing in town was the Duchess’s own two eyes, blue and bright, the sort of eyes you’d like to sink your beak into.
Don’t worry, she would have deserved it. When the Duchess wasn’t ordering her steward to prepare fabulous parties and feasts in her honor, she would sit on her balcony, armed with a slingshot, and lay waste to any flying thing which dared draw near her hereditary domain. Her victims lay sprawled across the lawn, hanging limp from the statuary and hedges, some rotted to nothing more than dry bone and feather. The gardeners were told to leave each where it fell because building the collection was part of the fun. And what a collection it was! A dule of doves, a tiding of magpies, a host of sparrows, a pitying of turtledoves, a covery of partridges, a murder of crows and, of course, one raven.
You might wonder why Picti sought the Duchess’s ring rather than another mirror, and the reason is simple enough—there wasn’t a mirror in the palace. The Duchess hated seeing her own reflection. All her life she’d been told she had her father’s chin, her mother’s eyes and nostrils. When her parents died while on safari (it was either a stampeding elephant or some messy disease, depending on which story you believe), she ordered every mirror buried in the cellar. The young Duchess was taking over, and she would tolerate no ghostly reminders of her progenitors, not even in her own face.
So the ring would have to do. Ignoring the tidings and murders below, Picti had soared from the garden wall toward his adolescent adversary, wings flapping like some dark angel, claws outstretched to wrest the prize from her finger, unstoppable, inevitable, screeching to wake the dead, but a pebble landed right between his eyes and landed him, dead as the rest, in the mildewed birdbath.
Now it was my turn to try. “Tluck-a crawk g’luck,” Orolo managed. Grind nodded, out of respect perhaps, though we both knew that with me out of the way his authority would be unrivaled.
I was flanked by Mugin and Hugin, Odin’s ravens of memory and thought. Memory, along with the stench of a hundred decaying carcasses, urged me to return to my nest above the bakery, leave the quest that not even our greatest hero could complete. But thought, the thought of continued torment balanced by potential glory, implored that I consider more carefully my choices. Finally I abandoned them both and took to the air.
A swoop, a sweep, a dive. The Duchess was poised and ready, one dainty foot up on a stool, her blue dress billowing out over the edge of the balcony. I kept my eyes fixed on the ring as it followed her lily-white hand to the pouch at her side, rose with a smooth pebble to the slingshot, steadied, pulled back. I had her, easy as bread from a basket. Seconds more and she’d loose her shot, I’d dodge, grab the ring and disappear over the rooftop.
Then I looked down and saw, cradled in the grimy palm of the birdbath, my predecessor’s skeletal remains, perfectly intact but for the shattered skull. I stalled. I choked. My friends, forgive the ornithological discordancy, but I chickened out.
Reeling and backflapping I careened downward, slipped under the balcony and spun myself about, headed for freedom. The Duchess’s shot whizzed past me, taking a few tail feathers with it before I was coasting high above the estate, beyond the reach of another attack. Grind and Orolo waited on the garden wall, but I could not return to them, shamed as I was. It was either abandon the flock or resign myself to its endless persecution, so I took one last look at the town I loved and bent my bill toward the forest.
The woodland ravens are a peculiar lot. Speak like the wind in the trees, or the gurgling of a brook, but sometimes cry like thunder. I circled with them for a time, but failed to earn their trust. “What’s a town bird doing in our skies?” they wanted to know. A question, of course, I could never answer.
I became a scavenger. I wasn’t welcome to feed with the others, marauding the kills of wolves, so I befriended the carriages that sped along the forest roads and trampled a dimwitted rodent or two. When the maggots got to the vermin before I did, it made for a moderately tasty meal.
Some nights I scrounged only beetles and berries, hardly sufficient for a gourmet such as myself. I longed for a more civilized cuisine, and my hunger often compelled me to lurk at the edge of campfires, hoping the wayfarers might toss aside some scrap—a crust of real baked bread, a rind of cheese, giblets. Once, a fat friar frying some liver in oil and garlic took too long relieving himself in the bushes, so I relieved him of his supper. There’s a certain thrill in stealing from the pious; every good Christian knows less is less.
That particular achievement was a rebirth of sorts. I vowed never again to eat anything which hadn’t been properly purloined, whether tenderloin off a skewer or tripe from a table. An outlaw, a brigand, a highwayman, I darted through moving carriages to snatch a crumpet before it reached a waiting mouth, I looted wagons of grain and fish, I opened travelers’ packs and saddlebags without them noticing, made off with bags of raisins, dried apricots, figs, rutabaga sandwiches.
It was this line of work that led to my meeting with Mr. Zither.
The scene was almost too good to be true. A carriage had rolled off the road and lay on its side with wheels broken. The horses were gone, either run off in fright or taken by their owner to find help. From within the carriage wafted a most scrumptious scent, like seasoned sausage, or a meat pie. Alighting beside the window I peered inside to see what sort of supper was waiting.
The iron bars of the cage closed around me like jaws. I croaked and hollered, stabbed with my beak, flailed with my wings, but could not escape. My captor was a tall and lanky man, his face dusty, his hair tangled, his ears far too large for his thin head. He wore a fine suit but the sleeves were short.
“Not much of a thief, are you?” he asked. “Have to be more quiet than that to sneak by old Mr. Zither.”
He set the cage on a rock and hunkered down beside it. “Pretty bird, no-word, from where have you flown?”
I screeched; he winced and covered his ears with his hands. “Please, my pet, I’m quite sensitive. So serene out here in the woods, these days I can endure only the most delicate of noises. Here, let me show you.” A black case appeared on his lap and the lid popped open with a twang. “Mr. Zither,” he declared, “music merchant extraordinaire, trader of tone and timbre, importer of sounds both rare and strange.”
The case was stuffed with shinies, metal strings and rods, whistles, flutes. He drew out a pipe and put it to his lips, fluttered a tune short as a sparrow’s call, fingertips dancing. Next he found a music box and wound it up; as the song tinkled out (Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream), a little silver girl, much like the Duchess, spun in circles on the lid. Then came tiny tin cymbals and tinkling bells, a string of chimes, a triangle.
“There is more,” he assured me, digging deeper. In his hands appeared nine hinged crystal eggs. “My most mellifluous wares. Listen.”
He opened them one after the next and allowed a different sound to emit from each, but closed them quickly again, as though to keep something from escaping. Ripping paper, a child’s laugh, steam from a kettle, a pebble dropped into water, an ox fart, creaking door hinges, an axe striking wood, glass shattering. The last was empty, silent. “That’s where you come in,”Mr. Zither said, his smile suddenly gone wicked, “or rather, that’s where you go in.”
I screeched again, out of real fear this time, but Mr. Zither ignored me, speaking aloud while arranging his instruments and contraptions, seemingly pleased by the sound of his own voice. “You never can tell what people will want to hear these days. How could I have known that raven squawking would become so popular? Personally, I like the mandolin. Amanda Lynn played a mandolin, but she was a viol lyre. My friends will be here soon. Fix those wheels and it’s off to the next town.”
He’d put away everything except the empty crystal egg, which he opened and held close to the cage. I backed away as far as I could, but already I felt its hungry pull like a wind tunnel. Even my shrieks of protest were gobbled up by the void, and the bars of the cage, now my only protection, began to buckle outward.
The egg snapped shut. “I am a man of commerce,” said Mr. Zither. He sat back and observed me, humming to himself. “Perhaps we can make a bargain. You bring me two sounds to replace the one I lose in letting you go. Then I will give you something to make you the thief you obviously are not. What do you think, little bird?”
“Good.” He hopped up and went rummaging through his case again, pulled out a spoon. “Wonderful instrument but useless on its own. Fetch me one to match.” Next was a watch from his vest pocket, the face broken and the hands bent. “Didn’t survive my accident as well as I did. I miss the quiet ticking against my chest, so like a beating heart. I must know the time if I am to meet my friends when they come to rescue me.”
He unlocked the cage door and grinned. “Hurry back, little bird. I will find you if you fail to return.” He nudged my beak with his forefinger. “And then I will keep you.”
When I left that place I was trembling, not from the horror of what had almost happened, but from the excitement of what was to come. I’d never stolen for anyone but myself. Now I was a hired professional, and when I held my wings stiff I was a sleek black bodkin, when I flapped them I was a cloak brushing against the night. The lights of the village sparkled like a handful of scattered jewels and I thought, This must be how Picti felt when he saw a mansion or villa he’d chosen to rob.
I already knew my marks. Grind’s mill was on the waterfront, his nest built into the rafters of the storehouse. To infiltrate without him noticing would be no easy task, since he jealously kept watch over his hoarded grains. I would need to distract him long enough to grab the spoon.
The bane of Grind’s cushy life was a fox who lived just down river from his mill and often came hunting for stray chickens in his territory. Grind had repeatedly told how he’d awake at night to find her slinking toward him across the beam, her grinning muzzle just inches from his nest.
That night I found the fox sleeping under some bushes; I landed nearby and pretended to peck at bugs in the dirt. She stood lazily, stretched her forepaws, and sat watching me awhile.
Fearing she wasn’t at all hungry, I wandered closer and closer. Finally she pounced and I flew to a branch just beyond her reach. The thrill of the chase had already overwhelmed her, so I coasted just above the ground and always a little ahead. We arrived at the mill and went in through the window.
Startled by the noise, Grind peeped over the edge of his nest, “What, hello?” Spotting the fox he took off and headed straight for the window. If he noticed me at all, he certainly didn’t care.
Now, the fox is the second most clever creature alive and when it sees two meals, one much plumper than the other, it knows which to pursue. So when Grind escaped through the window my unwitting accomplice spun about and followed after, nipping at his tail as she leapt. With both of them gone I was free to pluck the spoon from the nest and even had time to pause for a quick nibble.
I hid my booty on a shingled rooftop, then flew across town to the clock tower. Entering through the rear of the belfry, I could see Orolo’s nest at the far ledge. His head was swaying like a pendulum, synchronized with the rhythm of the clockwork beneath us. The bells has truly taken their toll—it seemed he never slept.
The pocket watch would be tucked under his breast. Creeping toward him, I came across a coil of thick rope. I snatched it up by one end and dragged it to an open trapdoor, fed it dangling into the darkness of the clock’s innards. Something caught hold and the entire length of rope slithered into the gears. A jolt, a high-pitched whine, then all was silent. Orolo wobbled jarringly and was similarly still.
I scampered over to make sure my old crony wasn’t dead but found that he slept in peace, maybe for the first time in his life. I dug between his feathers and found the watch, slowly drew it out by the fob chain. With that clutched in my beak, I retrieved the spoon and headed back across the downs.
Here was slow going, weighted as I was by both my prizes, and I arrived in the forest as the sun rose. Mr. Zither was cooking breakfast, two eggs in a skillet over a fire. “Partridge,” he said to me, “easily frightened by a very loud whistle. Care for a bite?”
I set down the plunder and shook my head.
“No, I suppose not.” He put the skillet aside, picked up the spoon, tapped it against one knee. “This will do nicely,” he said. With the watch pressed against one ear and eyes closed, “Another lovely piece.” He tucked it into his pocket beside the broken one. “Now for my side of the bargain.”
The black case reappeared and he rummaged through it with a jangling racket. “Let’s see. D chords, piano cords, ah, here we are. Vocal cords.” He opened his palm before me to reveal a collection of minute metal wires.
“Down the hatch,”he commanded.
I tilted my head.
“Really,” he said. “Made just for someone your size.”
Earnest Mr. Zither, how could I mistrust him? I pecked away at the wires and swallowed them one by one. They scratched on the way down, but were surprisingly warm and flexible once they settled in.
“Everything all right?” he asked. “How’s the throat?”
Quoth the raven, “A trifle sore.”
“To be expected,” he said, and gave me a gentle pat. “Fly away home, now. Our deal is concluded.” With the new spoon Mr. Zither began eating his breakfast of partridge eggs.
I was spotted within minutes of entering the town, but only because I wanted to be. Grind swept up beside me and tried without success to snap at my wing feathers. “You have no place here,” he blared. “I should tear you apart for coming back.”
He was tired from having been chased around the previous night, and I easily kept a few flaps ahead. Orolo saw us and followed, flying like a series of hiccups, scolding, “A mean ti-tick trick you played, Sculler.”
I flew on, though they continued to threaten and pester until I alighted on the Duchess’s garden wall. I took a few deep breaths and surveyed the battlefield. The death toll had risen, a number of starlings and a pair of bright red cardinals dangled in the bushes. I wanted to make sure the Duchess saw us, so I croaked out loud a few times. She came onto the balcony, set down a glass of lemonade she’d been sipping, and armed herself.
Grind chuckled and prodded me with a wing tip. “Go on. If she doesn’t finish you this time, I will.”
“Tlork tok,” Orolo pronounced with finality.
Making sure to brush my wings across both their faces I leapt into the air. No fancy maneuvers this time, just a steady unhurried flight straight toward my prey. She smiled in recognition, perhaps surprised that I’d returned, and trained the slingshot on me, her knuckles whitening, her eyes reduced to slits. The gap between us closed, and we both knew (another mismatched metaphor) that I was a sitting duck. The Duchess prepared to release her shot and I prepared to receive it, wings open and inviting the deadly bullet.
Then I flexed my new voice box, said to her, “Don’t kill me,” and landed on the balcony railing.
Her slingshot still taught and aimed at my head, the Duchess asked, “What did you say?”
“Don’t kill me,” I repeated. “I only want to talk.”
She lowered her weapon and squinted mistrustfully.
“Look, I had a hard time getting here, and …”
“Are you a prince?” she interrupted. “Transformed into a bird by some cruel witch’s spell?”
This was going to be easier than I’d thought. “Yes,” I said, “a prince, very handsome, with raven-black hair. I will be restored to my true form only when a beautiful maiden, such as yourself, pledges to marry me.”
She was melting faster than the ice in her lemonade.
I asked, “Will you marry me, Duchess?”
A pause, then, “Yes,” she declared.
We were quiet a moment, and she frowned. “You’re still a bird.”
“You haven’t given me your ring yet.”
“Then I show it to the evil witch, she undoes her spell, and I return to you riding my royal charger.”
“Oh.” She slipped the ring off her finger and I took it in my beak. “Hurry back,” she told me.
I bowed as regally as I could manage and flew off. Leaving the garden behind I heard her call to me, “I love you. I can’t wait to see you again.”
I would have responded, really I would have. I just couldn’t open my beak with that ring in it.
Back on the steeple my subjects lowered their heads in obeisance and waited to be pardoned. But there were matters of business which required my full attention: meals to make, heists to hatch up.
“I’ll bring grain from the mill,” offered Grind.
“No good,” I told him. “I’ve a hankering for fresh baked bread, maybe some steak to go with it, well seasoned. Orolo, are there plans to repair the clock tower?”
“Yes. The mayor’s organizing a se-se-srork quork brataration …”
“A celebration, wonderful. Plenty of shinies to swindle at such a to-do. I’d like to redecorate a bit.”
“Redecorate?” Grind asked.
“Tor tatror tuck,” trembled Orolo.
“Tore quork utrup,” he tried.
“Grind, could you help out here?”
“Tore it up,” Grind mumbled. “When you left we tore up your nest.”
“Oh, that old thing. I was speaking of the elm at the center of town.”
Grind kept his eyes lowered. “Of course.”
Everything was just as Picti had left it on the day of his unfortunate demise, though we had to chase away a few squirrels who’d been lurking about and the mirrors needed some polishing. I settled myself into the nest at the base of the tree, which Picti had wisely lined with scraps of cloth and fur.
“Comfortable?” Grind wanted to know.
“Yes, though I’ll be expecting dinner. You may leave me now.”
And so they did.
Our triumvirate, now under my rule, soon performed feats to rival even Picti’s most glorious exploits. We owned the town and none were safe from the administration of our justice.
One night the village constable, a known supporter of a plan to level the park and make room for a new jail, was late at the pub and deep in his cups. The vengeful spirit of a murderer hanged years earlier, now dwelling in the body of a talking sable-feathered bird, chose that night to pay him a visit. While the constable pleaded for mercy, two more darkling shades plucked the badge from his chest, the handkerchief from his pocket, and a few coins from his purse.
At a garden party later that week a certain dowager, Lady Frowsty, discovered that her pet spaniel’s diamond collar was gone, and in its place he wore the constable’s handkerchief. She was scandalized by the event, and often told of the wild, harried look that never left her poor pooch’s eyes. The constable, revealing his drunken lunacy in a story about malignant specters who haunted the tavern house, was subsequently relieved of duty.
What tales we three inspired! The parish priest who threw away his cache of gold rings and necklaces when a miraculous talking statue of Christ chastised him for his greed, the mayor’s birthday feast which disappeared off its platter in the dark passageway between the kitchen and the dining hall, the inauguration of the newly restored clock tower at which every gentleman present reported his cufflinks missing. And, of course, we must not forget the Duchess.
I was drawn to her estate one day by a strange and unexpected sound—birdsong. The garden was full of fowl, all of them alive, some even perched on the balcony outside her room. By this time my fame had spread to every flock in town, and the others nodded reverently when I joined them. Inside I saw the Duchess dressed in a wedding gown and seated before a mirror, weeping.
“Been like that for weeks,” one crow explained. “Cleaned up the yard for the wedding party and even ordered all the mirrors replaced. Somebody’s stolen that girl’s heart. At least there’s water in the birdbath now.”
Afraid she might see me, I ceased spying and returned to my tree. There I amused myself with my favorite trinkets: the diamonds, the badge, a pair of opal cufflinks. But something troubled me—I couldn’t enjoy myself as usual. Hopping about the tree, examining my face in the mirrors, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was out of place, something was skewed.
I know what you’re thinking: guilt, the pang of remorse, ayenbite of inwyt. Fear not, friends, we ravens are far too superior a species to be burdened by such a thing as conscience. All things considered, I’d gone easy on the girl. But seeing her reminded me of that first great misdeed of mine, and my bargain with Mr. Zither.
A fine deal it had been, everything working to my benefit. To fetch what he wanted I’d learned to become a true thief, and in return he made me a rogue unrivaled, providing the tool that made it all possible.
There was the rub. He’d willingly given to me what I should have stolen in the first place. I’d been made a thief with a stuff I didn’t thieve. I needed to find Mr. Zither in order to take something away from him.
I had a few hours before sunset, and knew well the way to the forest. Alighting in a tall pine, I could see that the carriage remained where it had rolled off the road, wheels still broken. Whatever friends Mr. Zither had spoken of, they hadn’t yet arrived.
After minutes of waiting I failed to catch a glimpse of my quarry, so I moved closer to investigate. The charred fire pit was still there but there was no skillet, no music, no mysterious black case, no trace of melody merchant. Except for one thing—the scent that had brought me to that spot in the first place, that sumptuous odor from the carriage, an aroma like a prime cut of steak.
I crept to the window, alert in case of an ambush. No surprise attack this time, though, no disgraceful caging. I was alone with the darkness of the carriage, and with the smell which rose not from any squirreled away snack, but from a putrescent corpse. I kept my wits but lost my appetite.
The unlucky fellow was several months dead (I’m a natural at gauging decay), and was in real need of a proper burial. Crawling with flies and still clinging to the horseless reins, a broken tree branch protruded from his chest.
Was this the real Mr. Zither? Had the man I’d spoken with been a ghost, an apparition that haunted the site of its death? No. Even in its half-rotted state I knew there was no resemblance. This man had been plump, short, with much smaller ears. I’d been deceived from the very beginning—this wasn’t even Mr. Zither’s carriage.
Farther inside, I realized the darkness was not as complete as I’d thought; hundreds of tiny lights glittered at the back of the carriage, like shattered glass. Not just ordinary glass, mirrors. Dozens of mirrors had been smashed when the carriage overturned, and this was what remained. The corpse was Mr. Glumbert, the glassblower. He’d left town months ago, and apparently never got to where he was going.
Deceived—first by the living and now by the dead. Picti, in his long nights away from town, had neither burgled a baroness nor conned a countess. He’d come here to pick at a dead man’s losses, just another scavenger.
Mr. Zither had defeated me. I came to that place intending to take something from him, and in his absence he’d taken more from me than I knew I possessed. The bird I had become was a lie.
I never returned to town. By now Grind has taken over and the tree is infested with squirrels. For months I’ve followed Zither’s trail, and when I see a tin whistle in a child’s hand, or village folk dancing to new castanets, or a set of silver chimes outside a window, I know I have not lost him. When I hear stories of inexplicably disappearing sounds, of a canary snatched from its cage, of a drum that just won’t play, I know it for his handiwork.
He is a fine thief, better than I. Until I best him I am nothing.