(author's note: the following scenes take place at the end of the events of "Reaper's Flight", and prior to book 3)
Summer was behind them now; well behind them, in fact. The great Machines were deeply into their harvesting program, drawing in the last of the crops to be processed and churning down the remnants of the plants and roots, there to lay dormant until the first inklings of the spring thaw. The chaff and inedible leavings were channeled to the forge-fires, offering a finality to the growths that fed back into the unending cycle that balanced life and death for the people of Oldtown-against-the-Wall. The soot-tinged breezes blew up and over the great blank Wall to their east, mingling with the songs of celebratory bliss that mirrored the hearts and minds of the agrarian culture that had developed from their generations of exile.
Though it was a harder life than their ancestors had enjoyed in the virtual utopia of the city beyond the Wall, their years of migration into harmonious give-and-take with the land itself had cultured in them a respect and appreciation for the soil and water which raised their crops, as well as the fires and steam which powered their town. Full bellies and grateful spirits, as the Matrons had said so often in the orphanage, the young steamsmith Kari recalled.
She paused in her tinkering to scratch the small grey animal that lay near her behind the ears, just under the twin yellowed curving horns that grew from the top of his head. He raised his head and his leathery wings ruffled briefly, a soft purr vibrating from the depths of his chest. He opened his golden eyes slowly, blinking several times to let his pupils dilate to the flickering sodium lights in Kari's workshop.
"Sorry to wake you," Kari whispered. "We have to go soon; Goya is having a meal for the Harvestday celebration, and I told her we'd get there early to help."
The small creature nodded. "It's all right," he said lazily. "Was just having a dream. Odd things, those dreams."
Kari set the small wrenches down she'd been using on the control mechanism for her latest construction. "Did you never dream before..." Her words dropped off uncomfortably. "Well, before?"
With a single shake of his head, he replied, "No, not really. Before, I didn't even need to sleep or eat or anything like that, I just did it because...well, it was something to do like regular animals did. It's strange now, but it's also remarkably satisfying." He shrugged. All their conversations seemed to come back to the same long pauses, the same uncomfortable silences. Sometimes, it was just better not to say anything in the first place.
A sudden knock against the metal loading doors startled them both. Their shared gasps of surprise turned into rolls of laughter that continued even until Kari had crossed the room to the service door built into the large double doors that rose nearly all the way to the ceiling.
Kari knew who it was even before she opened the latch, but seeing Cousins' smiling face never failed to lift her spirits. The cold air gave his nose and cheeks a rosy tint beneath his goggles, making him seem ever so slightly more happy. She reached out and gave him an unexpected embrace, which he, after a moment to set aside his surprise, reciprocated.
"Blessed Harvestday to you too," he whispered into her ear. In spite of the pain of recent events, the two young friends had begun to discover a growing fondness for one another, however awkwardly they approached it. Cousins stepped back after a moment, waving a gloved hand in greeting to the feranzanthum who still rested upon Kari's workdesk.
"Hello, Mulligan!" Cousins said cheerily. The creature stood up, arching his back and flapping his wings several times to get the feeling back in them, before flying across the room to perch on Cousins' shoulders. He looked past the tousled blonde hair of the street-savvy entrepreneur to regard the young man's preferred form of transport: the two-wheeled, steam-powered runabout.
"Isn't it a bit...chilly...for that contraption?" Mulligan asked.
"Nonsense," Cousins countered, in spite of the wool riding coat and gloves. "It's a fine brisk afternoon," he said. "Besides, another few days and we'll have snow on the streets; might as well get my riding in whilst I can."
“Fair point,” the creature replied.
Kari rolled her eyes. “I’ll get my coat,” she said, retrieving it from the small apartment that sat on one side of her spacious laboratory. Cousins exerted an impressive amount of self-control to ask Kari about the nature of her latest work – it took up most of the space in her shop and strongly resembled their her first effort at a functional airship. That one, christened the Aethernaut, had been impressive in its own right, but had met with an equally notable end.
Cousins watched as Kari came back across the room, holding the thick black jacket over one arm as she fussed with her toolbag. He pointed at the grey sack that hung from her opposite shoulder, the various pouches clearly stuffed with her various pieces of equipment. “Seriously?” he grinned. “We’re going to dinner, you realize.”
Scoffing, she held the coat out to him to help her into it. “Well, you brought your cards and glasses,” she teased. “Planning on telling the future tonight?”
He held out the coat, raising it up over her shoulders. “If you must know, Goya asked me to bring my cards. But the goggles are to protect my eyes, oh sarcastic one.”
The three shared a laugh as Kari locked up behind her, they mounted up on the runabout and Cousins drove them to Goya Parva’s home and apothecary. They pulled up to the front, Cousins applying a fair amount of brakes and bringing them to an abrupt stop. Kari felt inhale sharply, and looked past him to see what had shocked him so much.
Standing to each side of the front door to the apothecary shop stood two Whitehold soldiers, clad head to toe in white, their faces obscured by featureless porcelain masks.
“It’s all right,” Mulligan whispered. “These aren’t the minions of the old Queen; I could feel it if they were. These are just soldiers in the uniforms, not Sandmen.”
With a curt nod, Cousins extended a hand to help Kari off the vehicle, snapping the kickstand down with a jerk of his right boot. He joined her after she stood clear, keeping Mulligan balanced across the back of his neck.
“Your driving has improved,” the animal said dryly. “Only half my fur is standing on its end.”
“Careful, my friend,” the lad countered. “The unfamiliar observer might think you were paying me a compliment.”
“Can’t have that, can we?”
Cousins chuckled. “Well, it is a holiday; stranger things have happened.”
The two soldiers nodded to the small trio as they approached, one reaching around to open the door for them. Even now, months after defeating Queen Karema and her army of undead soldiers, Cousins still felt uncomfortable around these Whitehold men and women. The new Queen had confided in him that she had considered replacing their uniforms, but the visible identity of the Induru Il-faraon still had traditional weight among the people of Aesirium, and in spite of their recent monstrosities, they remained an ultimately comforting presence in the city.
They found Briseida inside Goya’s living area, just past the store. The two women stopped whatever conversation they were having as Cousins, Kari and Mulligan entered, Briseida standing and greeting them all with hugs and smiles. The past few months had been transformative on them all, but none so much as on her. Cousins could scarcely see the soft-spoken and delicately hard-working apprentice as they’d come to know her beneath the radiant elegance she now possessed as the remaining heir to the throne. He was actually a bit disappointed that he hadn’t seen it earlier. Some seer he was, he thought ruefully.
An array of delicious smells wafted out from the kitchen beyond them, echoing out with the sounds of strangers’ voices and the general noise of metal on metal.
Following the youngsters’ eyes, Briseida smiled. “I brought some of my staff along to manage the meal; we’ll have more time to talk this way.”
“Well done!” came a familiar voice from behind them all. Favo Carr, reformed criminal (although there was some speculation as to just how much reforming had actually transpired) walked in, leaning heavily on a cane.
Kari frowned loudly, crossing the room to help him quickly to one of the many chairs present in the room. “You shouldn’t be up so soon,” she glared at him.
“What, and miss out on a feast fit for royalty?” He said, wincing as he sat. His wounds were mostly healed, but his side still ached with nearly every motion. “If you’ve ever known me to miss out on a well-catered function, well, you haven’t really known me at all, have you?” He ended his clearly-prepared rejoinder with a dapper wink, making Kari feel suddenly self-conscious and the room far too warm.
“Enough out of you, you wicked man,” Briseida chided him. “If you’re going to make a nuisance of yourself, you can do that well enough on your own.”
“Yes, my Queen,” he teased with a mock bow of his head.
Goya ignored all of this – or pretended to, at any rate – and waved the group to pay attention. Kari visited Goya nearly every day, but every day she was surprised at just how much older Goya seemed. Her hair seemed nearly transparent, and her eyes seemed to have been taking on a thin milky gleam. Kari brushed these thoughts aside as she always did. Goya had always seemed old, she decided, but that meant nothing in the broad picture of things. Just like the Wall, some things would just continue on as they always had, unchanging and unmoving.
Speaking to them in a voice which, though soft, carried the authority of a long and experience-filled life, Goya said, “You are the remainders of that which I could only describe as my family, which is why I have asked you to spend this Harvestday with me.”
The aged shaman leaned forward in her chair. “I know well the challenge it is for you all to be here, so stark are the painful reminders we all create in one another. But Harvestday is a day wherein we must address both the joys we have felt in our successes as well as the poignant losses which create the aching within our hearts. For to be grateful is not an emotion of pure joy so much as it is a joy which comes at great cost. Just like the crops we have toiled away all season long, we must cut them down – these things must fall away so that we may rise up.”
Mulligan jumped down to a nearby chair back, resting his chin upon his paws. Kari stepped to the other side of him, scratching him comfortingly behind the horns.
“I am grateful for you all,” Goya continued softly. “You are the closest thing I have to my children, all of you. Even,” she added, glancing meaningfully at Favo, “those of you who I should have liked to have educated more properly. And I love you all, bound as we are through our trials and by those of us who should have been here today and are not.”
Kari felt the tears welling up and for once felt no shame at it, letting them roll unhindered down her cheeks. She could feel Cousins’ arm around her, and she leaned her head against his.
“That loss is what makes the joy I feel at your presence today all the stronger,” Goya added. “And that is what fills me with the gratitude I feel.”
They all remained thus in silence for several minutes, each feeling the moment in their own way, until the chefs began to emerge from the kitchen with the fine meal they had prepared for the small gathering. Briseida crossed to Favo’s side, helping him in spite of his protestations to the table. She silenced him with a final threat of feeding him at the table if he wished to continue behaving like an infant, which seemed to satisfy his resolution to argue with her. Cousins noticed a lingering gaze that passed between them, however, but the enticing aroma of the dinner erased all further questions from him.
Mulligan sat atop the chair for several minutes longer, his golden eyes peering into the growing darkness outside the salon windows. Rom had been gone for several weeks, and though he was inexplicably left here in the realm of the living, he could not help but think it was some sort of final gift to him, giving him an actual life of his own. The idea that she was gone still seemed to escape him, eluding his grasp like the morning mists.
He couldn’t shake the thought that she might still be out there, somewhere, lost but looking for a way home. Mulligan knew it was a wild fancy of his mind, some abstract and illogical delusion his subconscious had devised to keep grief away from his consciousness, but he didn’t care. Kari called his name, distracting him from his thoughts. She held a piece of grilled fish in her hands, letting the tangy smell of it cross the room and fill his nostrils.
Rom, he thought as he leaped down to the floor, if you’re out there, please find your way home; we miss you so much.
Thoughts of his white-haired Sheharid Is’iin friend was then mingled with the warm laughter of their other friends, as they sat and partook of the Harvestday meal, filling themselves with delicious food and the company of their loved ones. Memories of struggles past lingered just on the edge of joy, like the shadows surround a solitary candle and making it the brightest of all things within the growing night.