Madame had not worn the magpie in a very long time. Then she was sorrow itself, leaving behind her Alastor and the newborn son she should never hope to know. Then it had been for escape.
Her heart drummed now as much in joy as with the plain work of beating her wings and lifting, lightened, over the smoky town waking, a sluggish visitor by the dark winding river. The great deep forest all around shifting in the first light.
No longer plotting in shadows, those agents had ended her secret purpose of so many years - winkled her out as thuggishly as they would have a spy - yet ignorant to the end of the secret Nyssa of the forest guarded still, close as her fluttering heart. This lifetime's count of heartbeats since Alastor's gardens weighed her heavy as exile, though she had loved her days as Assessor, for the children.
And that done.
Brilliant, the dawn found her high as the moon above the still hazy world below. And distantly north, beyond the beechwoods that hid her Drakon, towered snowcapped Cwen, the Mother, golden in the new day.
But one last duty called her – held her from turning away, toward Cwen of her mothers. Little Steiffa at the circus by the river at the bottom of town.
She folded her magpie wings and fell from the sun, a dart seeking the town.
Glimpsing the next instant an unexpected sight, she lighted upon the roof of a notorious tavern in the lower town: hopped close to the eaves and tipped her head sideways for a steady look below in the lane.
A chummy burbling couple, man and woman in evident staggers from the night's festivities, tested their skill at staying upright along the street. And a pair of the town guard, rather than those Scarlets, apparently uninterested, strolling the other way. Odd, in a town reportedly under curfew; however, Nyssa recalled Medved's bold visit during curfew with the impressionable Captain of the Scarlets, some nights ago, and chittered to herself: close as she could come to a chuckle in her present shape.
The magpie encountered several more such examples between the rooftops of the lower town and the pale peaked tents of the circus by the river. Merely curiosities, she decided, and unimportant.
Then from high in a close tree she spied among the smaller tents one old man, head and shoulders taller than the others at their morning jobs. Gladdened, though perplexed a little that he of all her acquaintances she should find at a Vagari circus – and seemingly at a job himself here – she flapped twice and swept over toward him, taking his high shoulder for perch.
Another might shrink from a magpie suddenly taking one’s shoulder for a perch, or shriek at it. Her magpie’ness believed an ill portent in some lands. Though a most auspicious omen among the Vagari. Her old friend was predictably unflappable –
“Madame. Fine morning, yes?”
“Very fine, Quant –“
“You know, Madame, that little Steiffa is held here – Ventured about the school in search of my whereabouts, the little Dear –“
“Steiffa is unharmed?”
“We go now to her. Annoyed only, Madame, and safe – for I tend to the…exhibits here – and, come the unwatched moment, perhaps tonight, after the crowds…”
“FINE MAGPIE, QUANT,” said the Waldran forestman.
The magpie tipped an eye over his gaudy suit. Her old healer dipped his head, for this was not an especially tall tent, and continued inside. There, behind the forestman in his suit of many clashing colours, the exhibits, all in a row. One unnecessarily tall wire cage on its thin table: a familiar little rat in its straw, raising her bright eyes to them, suddenly twitching her whiskers.
“Excellent, Quant! People will put silver in yer hand even t’see a thing they dread. Y’can teach it some words, quick too? People like that very much, too, oh’yes oh’yes oh’yesss.”
“She is a most excellent magpie, Kurt. I believe I can manage it.”
“Y’have it tamed already, Friend – so I doubt you not!” – and showing all his teeth Kurt strode past, below them, and outside.
There remained inside with them a boy heaping clean straw upon one cart, in small handfuls at a time, and making a careful project of it.
Quant whispered, “Have not had the opportunity, Madame.”
“As I see. I see, also, Quant, you have your small duty here well in hand. Therefore, I shall go.”
Quant offered his hand and she hopped upon it. His other hand gently examined her. She felt only small aches, small nothings. But she knew Quant would not hear it. Her healer trusted his touch. She lifted each wing perhaps just a little stiffly, heard his concerned tsk.
“Don’t fuss, Quant.”
“Madame, you should rest –“
“I go to Drakon – and I shall take him far from all this –“
“Madame, he will need you…at your best – your strongest –“
“I am strong enough that any who…threaten me and mine shall sorely regret crossing my path. Release me, Quant.”
For just the moment he held her, cupped between his kind hands, then opened them.
“Madame,” he said, bowing very slightly, so the boy with the straw should not notice.
“You’ve always been the best friend, Quant.”
“Always shall be, Madame. You should speak with Steiffa…before you leave.”
“Yes,” and then remembering she added, “Your tabby, Quant. In the yard she amuses herself, still, in chasing little things she shouldn’t. I had not the moment to spare for chastising her. I am thinking of the adepts, who might venture about the school, as children will, Quant, trying out their shapes.”
“When I can, Madame, I shall clarify her duties with her. She remembers still her tiger days, you see. Although – certainly – that can not matter as more than the issue, no, Madame, to be sure. Only…I cannot return, likely a very long time. You see, after some unpleasantness…in the onion larder they killed me, Madame. The soldiers cannot but react more unpleasantly if they saw again my face too soon.”
“Ohh, I seeee, Quant – I am sorry for your distress all this has brought you.”
“You are kind, Madame. It was not your doing.”
“It was, Quant. Someday, you and I shall sup together, laugh of good times at our school, before this. And you will hear another long tale, my old friend.”
“That…shall be most pleasant, Madame.”
Madame might have wept, but she wished not to further upset this gentle old soul. The hand she perched upon trembling. She told herself that perhaps they might again meet, and perhaps not a lie.
Her healer opened the small wire gate of Steiffa’s tall wire prison. The little rattie girl so excitedly balancing on hind legs that she nearly tipped over backward. Madame did not wait. Quant’s hand near enough. She hopped to the open doorway, then down inside with jubilant Steiffa.
Quant shut the gate on them both. Fingers shaking, winding a wire lock.
Spreading her black wings, Madame leapt high inside the cage.
“Ohhh, Quant! – I am…most displeased!”
Quant hid his face, turned, hurried away into the hard morning light. Blinking, the boy paused before his project. He would only have beheld a magpie chittering wildly inside a tall cage with a little rattie very still in the straw below.