Overall, it felt like a successful night. It had just begun, of course, so there was plenty of time for ruination. The ambushers were routed, the quota wasn’t met, and best of all, the Speaker had a close encounter with a specimen who surpassed even his expectations. There was a fair chance he’d cut whatever mysterious thread they’d used to track him, and even if he hadn’t, perhaps now they could understand his wisdom and reward him for it.
Of all the outcomes, he calculated escape with injury to be the least likely. The original prognosis had been such a crushing defeat he’d be killed without a chance to resist. The next probability was that his own perceptions were delusions and the vanguard would trounce the human force. Any other scenario would mean the opposing forces had been close to equal - a balance that should require precise tuning. Since such balance would work against the Miracle’s ideal, he’d assumed this possibility was essentially impossible.
This meant the Miracle had made an almost-miraculous miscalculation, and the Speaker believed it was related to that female specimen. Not her in particular, but what she represented, what she personified. She was so adaptable, so resourceful, so potent despite the lack of obvious magical affinity. If she learned it from her kin, it would explain how they managed to beat that ambush back.
He didn’t know if he was free yet, but he felt closer. The clan had his gratitude for their part in it, even if their motivations were hostile. Appropriate, considering their probable lack of ability to appreciate his particular brand of gratitude.
If everything went well, he had a long journey to think things through. His entire life had been one big collection of thinking and waiting, but now he had some new factors to consider…
His spirits sank when he heard the flap of heavy wings. Freedom was a coy mistress.
The beast shook the ground as it landed in front of him. The verdict wasn’t immediately clear: death or continued enslavement? Nothing was ever obvious when it came to the Miracle. Instructions came from delegates of delegates and never revealed more about the purpose than they needed to. This often meant its subjects wouldn’t know whether they succeeded.
The Speaker considered what he knew: the Miracle loved specialists. If it sent something to kill him, he’d be dead before he knew he was in danger. This creature must be for protective transport, then. He must still have a role to play.
With a sigh of resignation, the Speaker approached and climbed onto the creature’s back. Once its passenger was secure, it leapt and beat its enormous wings. The beast achieved a tremendous speed within seconds; even with the Speaker’s enhanced strength, it was difficult to keep himself from being blown off.
It slowed once they were safely shrouded in the woods. The Speaker grimaced as it began to echolocate its way through the trees. If his own voice were this earsplitting, he’d be much shyer about speaking.
They landed amongst the regrouped army that had attacked the humans. The smell of blood was on the air, as usual. The restless horde seemed to be tolerating one another at the moment, but the Speaker kept as much distance as he could from the others.
There were many who weren’t in the first attack; the Speaker expected as much. The Miracle was adjusting to the defeat, and the increased strength looked closer to what it would need to achieve its purpose. Unfortunate, but it had always been inevitable.
There was something new, though. An unfamiliar type, one potent enough to warrant cataloguing. The other indentured had also noticed it, and most kept were keen to avoid its attention. The qualities they feared were the same ones that attracted him. It had to be some sort of special conscript.
There you are. The words were inside the Speaker’s head, but he hadn’t come up with them. It gave away the newcomer’s affinity, but it also meant he was of a caliber where that knowledge would not help an enemy.
Here I am, he thought back. This wasn’t an associate he could hide secrets from. Reluctant but ready, as always.
The Miracle enjoyed your commentary, the foreign thoughts explained. Found it quite amusing.
I was more trying to share insight than entertainment…
Find comfort in some sort of jester metaphor, then. The point is, it would like you to observe the next bout. It’s why the Miracle bothered to have me recall you.
This was more information than the Speaker was used to, and the method of instruction was more direct. These are implications I could use if…
...I weren’t here to watch you interpret them. Yes, very amusing. Let’s focus on reality.
The Speaker could oblige. The reality is that you’ve been my warden all this time.
In a sense. The Miracle’s network of eyes and ears is vast, and collects a great deal of input. Thusly, it finds a certain level of curation to be useful.
I know people aren’t big on names around here, but from now on you’re the Curator to me.
Suit yourself, Speaker.
I’m curious. You’re my jailor, but who or what does the Miracle use to keep you obedient?
Let’s focus on the task ahead. The Curator suggested.
Miracle wants my pedestrian perspective. You mentioned jesters; I’m to play the fool again. Is there anything about the task I’m not understanding?
...no. So if you must know, the Miracle doesn’t need to force my obedience. Order is a blessing, Speaker. Order is structure, structure is shelter.
I’d add ‘prison’ to that list. The Speaker added.
Of course you would. The Curator chuckled. Fine, that’s the metaphor we’ll use. Do the coming job well, and maybe you’ll get some probation
The Speaker’s face twitched in annoyance. You’re implying that I’m more your prisoner than I am the Miracle’s. Which would mean you’re all that stands between me and complete freedom. Enjoy my fantasies about your death, do you? Is that why you keep stoking my tiny hopes?
The Curator laughed aloud. Oh, Speaker, it’s almost like you’re the one reading my mind.
Shall I try? The Speaker felt indignant. Let’s see: you’re lying to me.The Miracle never even saw the battle, and this entire campaign is your project. The Miracle is unconcerned with this little tribe on its border, unconcerned with my perspective on a conflict it was never involved in, and this whole farce is just something for you to pass the time with.
Speaker, I’m surprised you’d be so wrong about so much. I’m the one who doesn’t care about this little tribe. I’m following orders that defy my own council; the Miracle is the one who wants this attack to happen, the Miracle is the one who brought your little speech to my attention, the Miracle is still the one who ordered your involvement. The only thing you’re correct about is that I’m the one who finds amusement in your torment. The Miracle is much more… pragmatic in its motivations.
The Speaker smirked. The Curator was less competent than he thought. This was useful - and flattering - information. So I am yours to command, but not dispose of. This is good to know.
The Curator fumed. Should I amuse myself with some torment of a more physical nature?
I… would prefer not. Apologies.
The plan is the same. The Curator was all business again. We will confront the humans and engage until all the individuals involved with the Fleahorn’s death are terminated.
If that was the first plan, he’d been oblivious to it. The Speaker wondered if his contact in the clan was among those targets.
She is. The Curator confirmed. Once those are dead, we are to disengage, but in such a way that cannot be mistaken as retreat. This, my proud little Speaker, is where you’re so essential. You’re to convey the moral of the story to the remainder of the tribe. They may subsist off the Miracle’s domain so long as they don’t interfere in its machinations - and so long as they spread the word about what will happen to those who try.
The Speaker grimaced. Perhaps, in the long term, he was expendable.
Good, you understand. We’ll employ the same poetry in tomorrow’s attack: striking from the horizon their precious light retreats to. You need not participate until the end; in fact, you may record your thoughts on the same device as last time.
With a muted flutter, tiny talons gripped his shoulder. This was the same sparrow he held prisoner in the last battle? He felt a pang of guilt; one insignificant slave had needlessly humiliated another.
The new estimation allows for my participation, the Curator continued. So I will be there to oversee the operation. When I give the indication, I suggest you deliver them a particularly disarming oration.
I’ll begin preparing, then, the Speaker replied.
You’d better not need fetching when the time comes.
I’ll arrive early, you have my word.
The freshly-enlightened Speaker didn’t need a second invitation. While not as physically mutated as the others, he could run faster than most humans. He didn’t know if the Curator’s ability to read minds was dependent on distance, but he may as well test it. His thoughts were bound to be of higher quality if they couldn’t be interrupted from within.
He felt deluged with new information, and the overload was proving to be an ironic source of hope for him. The Curator could focus on one mind in a crowd, this much was obvious. Could it monitor the entire crowd at once, though?
Most every member of the horde would be fantasizing about some treachery or another. If details could get lost in the relative quiet of the Speaker’s solitary mind, what might the Curator miss in that symphony of madness he called an army?
The most fatal mistake was underestimation. The Curator had managed to keep his identity secret while manipulating the Speaker for as long as he could remember. There had only been one moment of fallibility, when the Speaker had made those false accusations about the Curator’s role in these attacks. The sole sign of weakness came after an improvised prank and an opportunity to gloat.
Things went best when the Speaker could scheme about them, but this operation would be anomalous. The less he schemed, the better. His chance would come in a crowded chaos, and when it did, he’d need to ad-lib.
In the meantime, it was best to plan for failure. He’d come up with a speech for the humans, would resign to complete obedience. Survival came before any of the countless other things he desired.
He glanced at the bird on his shoulder, looked as though his eyes worked in the dark. He imagined its eyes looking back at him.
“If I manage to win my freedom, would you like to escape with me?”
Silence and darkness meant he couldn’t know if the sparrow even understood the question. The Speaker assumed the bird might need some time to think about it.