As a freelance listener, Eolh followed three unbreakable rules.
The first rule was practical: Eolh never took a job unless he was allowed to plan out his own spot because you had to be the master of your self-preservation. That’s just the way it was.
Number two: No blood contracts. This rule came from experience. The kind of people who wanted to contract a murder either had no money or no qualms about murdering said contractors.
Number three: Eolh only did his share. No less, and never more, because he had never been paid extra for overachieving. And if a job went south, as they frequently did, he wanted the least blame possible.
Horace knew about Eolh’s three rules. That’s why the old Boss was trying to hire him.
“This job is different,” Horace said, “That’s why we need you.”
They were sitting at a hightop in one of the Blackfeather haunts, an old dive bar that only served ale by the pitcher.
“Because, you bastard, you’re the best listener in Lowtown!”
If Eolh had been sitting any closer, the Blackfeather Boss might’ve clapped him on the back. But Eolh never let anyone get that close anymore.
“And,” Horace said, leaning over the table, almost knocking over his own mug as he did. His breath was hot with ale, “All you have to do is follow and listen.”
“And if something goes wrong?” Something always went wrong. Otherwise, anyone could do a job.
“We’ll pay you extra.”
“None. I’ve got plenty of muscle already.”
“Who?” Eolh narrowed his eyes.
“Can’t name them all. You know Sanvosh is in. Bozmeer, too.”
Eolh made a sound in the back of his throat. Not because he was refusing the job, but because he hated working with bruisers, especially ones like Bozmeer. Bozmeer fancied himself a bloodwing, though he was too stupid to strike out on his own. Stupid and greedy.
“I don’t trust Bozmeer,” Eolh said.
“Who does?” Horace squawked out a laugh. “But you don’t have to trust him. As I said, he’s muscle. Nothing more.”
Eolh leaned back in his chair, and Horace must’ve felt he was losing him, because the Blackfeather Boss threw his hands up and said, “Alright, fine. We’ll double our rates. Come on, Eolh. It’s one night. It’s one job. A quick in, and a quick out. You’ll be set for months.”
That was the first sign that Eolh should have backed out.
Horace never negotiated. There was something different about this job, Eolh could sense it. He could hear it in the way Horace spoke - the old Boss was a master bluffer, but even Eolh could hear the excited desperation in his voice.
Yes, there was something different.
“It’s an artifact, right? How did you hear about this job?” Eolh asked again. And again, Horace blew him off.
“You know how my sources are. They don’t like to be named. Eolh, please,” Horace said. “I’m going to need someone dependable. Someone I’ve worked with before. Someone who knows… how to stay cool.”
The truth was, Eolh had already made up his mind. It wasn’t every day an artifact showed up in Lowtown. Usually, the Imperials swooped in before anyone could say so, and Eolh had always wanted to see one first hand.
But you don’t show your hand. That’s not how you play the game. It was better to let the old Blackfeather Boss think he was interested only in the money.
“Double my rate,” Eolh said.
“Deal!” Horace said with so much excitement, that Eolh suddenly had the nagging sensation he was walking into something big. Back out, his thoughts said. Before it’s too late.
Eolh held out his hand, “Deal,” and the Blackfeather Boss shook it vigorously.
They drank until the morning light. And for one last night, it was just like old times.
On the night everything changed, Eolh was listening to the music of the birds as they sang the city to sleep. Brief snatches of song flitted from tower to tower, echoing off the Cauldron’s walls. Soft hoots echoed from the stone roosts and the window-lit apartments that rose against the backdrop of the Cauldron walls. A few alleys over, someone was singing a mournful tune while the sun fell below the Cauldron Rim.
Eolh was five or six stories above the street, depending on how you looked at the buildings. His talons clung firmly to the beam of the apartment rooftop, sunk into the wood, so he only had to focus on watching, and listening. Catching every sound, the creaking of every door opening, the rustling of leaves, and the fluttering of sheets hung out to dry.
Thus, Eolh was the first to see the hooded figures turn into the alley.
There were three of them. Two imperials and an an-droid who caught his eye, for two reasons:
First, the an-droid had a humanoid shape. That meant she was old tech, and probably older than the Cauldron itself.
Second, the an-droid carried a chest in her arms. It was a huge thing, made of hearty blackwood. It must’ve been heavy with coin because the an-droid was struggling with the weight of the chest.
Foolish to carry something like that into Lowtown. But the two imperials in front walked so casually as if they were untouchable. Probably because they were hiding firearms.
Even though both of the imperials were covered head to toe in dark cloaks, you could pick them out in a crowd by the way they strutted down the alleys, as if they owned the place. And the way they spoke, with that posh, liquid tongue of theirs.
Yes. Eolh could hear them now, all the way up here. He was the best listener in Lowtown, after all.
“You think they know what they have?”
The other imperial chuckled, “The birds? Absolutely not. They have no idea what it’s worth.”
“Then why did we bring so much?”
“Extra grease. We’re going to pay them twice what they asked for. Make them feel like they cheated us, so they won’t want to ask any questions. Birds see something shiny, and all they can think about is how to get their grubby little talons on it.”
The droid interrupted both of them. Her voice was a polite, mechanical sound that seemed not to belong in this world. “Suggestion to please keep your voices down.”
The younger imperial’s spun around, “Who told you to speak?” His eyes were wide with the rage of superiority.
“Eyes could be watching,” the droid’s voice clicked, “Ears could be listening.”
“Shut up,” the younger imperial shoved the droid hard enough to make her stumble. “Honestly, why did they even send this thing with us? A porter would’ve done a better job without this backtalk.”
The older imperial said, “It’s supposed to verify our purchase.”
“That’s absurd. Anybody can verify an artifact. I mean, it’s human tech. There’s nothing else like it.”
“You know what,” the older imperials gave a bored, almost apathetic shrug, “If you ever get an audience with the Historians, you can ask them. They’re the ones who sent the droid.”
“Why do they get to make demands?”
“Because they’re Historians. I don’t know. Hold on,” the older imperial held a hand out, and for a moment Eolh thought he had been spotted. “I think this is the place.”
“How can you tell? All of these rundown hovels look the same.”
There was a sign above the door. To any Lowtown veteran, it was an advertisement as clear as sunrise; the backdoor to the Bonebeaks’ tavern. The Blackfeathers and the Bonebeaks went way back, and not in a good way. Which was another reason Horace was so excited about this job. Stealing from the Bonebeaks and the Imperials was a dream come true. At this point, it almost wasn’t about the money.
But Eolh wasn’t here to get caught up in Lowtown politics. He was only here to watch. To listen. So when the three figures entered the Tavern, Eolh moved back across the rooftop, slow as mist, over to the cast-metal gutter that wrapped all around the tavern. He rapped the gutter with the back of his talon, three short taps.
After a pause, two more taps answered his call: “Message received.”
That was it. Eolh had just earned the first half of his pay. But the first half was the easy part, and nobody got paid until the job was done. His role - his entire responsibility - was to stay put, and watch.
If the job went smooth, then it went smooth.
If the job went south, then he was supposed to follow and listen for info.
But a good listener isn’t passive. A good listener follows the story. They think about where it’s headed, and they try to be there before anyone else.
So, he wasn’t exactly breaking any of his rules when he slipped from his high perch and hopped down to the cobbled street, his talons barely clicking against the uneven stone. He wasn’t breaking any of his rules when he pressed his fingers against the tavern door and pushed it open.
He was just being a good listener.
The backroom was crowded. A round table sat in the middle, and the walls were lined with mean-looking Corvani and other Passerine muscle. Eolh tried to guess which ones were Horace’s double agents, but they all looked the same to him.
The droid dropped the blackwood chest on the table with a whoomph of dust. Both of the imperials were already seated, and the Bonebeak Boss was trying to order them drinks.
“Gentlemen!” he was a fat old Corvani, who sounded as jolly as a Redenite on the first day of digging, “Please, come in. What can we get for you?”
The younger imperial waved him off, the flat fins on his head already wrinkled with obvious disgust. “We are here on orders from the Magistrate. We are not here to drink. Show us what we came for.”
“Gentlemen, please!” His old beak was chalked white, except at the tip where, presumably, the chalk had been wetted by ale, “It is only custom. A drink before every deal.”
“The deal comes first,” the older imperial said. “You can drink when we’re gone.” His arms were at his sides, touching at something in his cloak. His posture was rigid. Well, more rigid than usual for an imperial.
“Well, actually,” the Bonebeak crooned, the rolls of fat and muscle becoming more pronounced as he leaned forward. “My associates and I have come to a sudden realization, you see. We think this package might be worth more than we first thought.”
“I can assure you, the Empire will give you full value for the trade. What are you asking for?”
“Triple.” the Boss said, the corners of his beak crooked up in a sly, shit-eating grin.
“Triple?!” the young imperial almost burst out of his seat, but the older imperial held him back.
“Triple. That is our new price.”
“Very well. I have the authority to make this deal, if we can prove the validity of the artifact, the price will be adequate.”
Bozmeer leaned back from the table. The Bonebeaks dipped their heads together, and after a few moments of quiet cawing, they returned their attention.
“It will cost you to look.”
This time, the young imperial did stand up. He thrust a finger at the Bonebeak, saying, “You feather-faced thief!”
The room bristled. Blades and clubs were brought out of their sheaths and knots. Even Eolh’s heart was pounding, though he was on the other side of the door.
The older imperial grabbed the young one and pulled him back into his seat. “Sit down!” he whispered harshly, and then he spoke to the Bonebeak Boss, “Please forgive my compatriot. He’s never been to Lowtown before. He has not yet learned how things work here.”
The Boss’s black eyes flashed brightly in the dim tavern light. He crooked his head, and the muscular Bonebeaks on either side of him eased back, their hands still on the weapons.
“You will pay to look.”
The Boss seemed to consider this for a moment, though Eolh was certain the Bonebeaks had planned all of this ahead of time. The Bonebeaks never played a straight deal, which for any other gang would be trouble. But the Bonebeaks had the muscle and most of the Upper Wash in their pocket. This was their game, on their table, in their house.
A quarter? That was insane. What were they sitting on that they thought they could charge so much just for a look?
For that matter… what were they sitting on that the imperials wanted to see so badly?
The young imperial was staring swords at the Bonebeaks. He was wound far too tight for Eolh’s liking.
But it wasn’t until the older imperial said, “Give him what he wants,” that Eolh got that feeling. It started in his talons and wriggled all the way up to the pit of his stomach. This job was about to go south.
The droid, who had been standing at the foot of the table, dutifully unlocked the chest. Its joints creaked as it lifted the massive wooden lid, and let it fall open. Eolh was not sure what was brighter: the glow from the chest, or the twinkle in the Boss’s eye.
The droid’s metallic voice clicked strangely in the confined space of the backroom. “One quarter, sir.”
It scooped both hands into the chest and started to drop neat rows of the payment onto the table. Pristine imperial coins stacked into high towers. Red and amethyst gems, lined up in rows. The Bonebeak Boss was crowing with pleasure. He motioned at his bodyguards, and one of them left the room. While they waited, the Boss started counting the coins.
When the muscle-bound bodyguard returned, he was hauling a small hand-cart into the already cramped backroom. There was a huge, cylindrical container in the cart, obviously of Human make. It was a smooth, round drum that was large enough to fit a small Corvani if they folded themselves up. The container was sitting in a bed of ice (Why the ice? And where had the Bonebeaks gotten so much, anyway?), so that a white trail of vapor followed the cart into the room.
The Bonebeaks looked pleased with themselves. Even the imperials seemed to have relaxed a little, their heads close together as they whispered and nodded excitedly. Eolh paid special attention to their hands, to the way they worked under the table. What weapons did they have?
Only the droid was silent and unmoving, still standing by the quarter-empty chest.
With a few strained grunts, the Bonebeaks hoisted the huge drum onto the table, careful not to disturb the coinage. It left a pool of water that darkened the wood, and wisps of vapor still lifted off the metal.
But it was beautiful because it was undeniably Human-made. That perfect, contoured metal still shone as if it had been forged yesterday. Its semi-chromatic surface was pristine, untouched except where someone had gouged at the metal with a crowbar. You almost couldn’t see the seam in the container.
“Why did you freeze it?” the old imperial asked.
“You’ll see.” The Boss’s grin deepened. “Go on, open it.”
Eolh’s heart was hammering in his chest. He could feel it thundering in his ears as he watched one of the Corvani muscle slowly - too slowly - dig his fingers into the gouged metal, and pry open the egg-shaped container. More vapor poured out, flooding the table, running through the coins, and falling down to the floor in a white mist.
The older imperials sucked in his breath. The younger one shook his head, his wet mouth hanging open. The Boss was nodding, his smug smile as wide as the ocean. Even the hired muscle leaned in to get a better look.
“This is impossible.” The young imperial said. “How can this be?”
“The Historians,” the older one shook his head, his brow wrinkled in disbelief. “They said we would find a body. Where did this come from?”
The droid stood in the center, unmoving, as everyone else craned forward to get a better look. Even Eolh ventured to push the door open a little wider, aching to catch a glimpse. What was it? He had to know.
One of the imperials pointed at a few glowing, digits inside the container.
“What are those numbers in there?”
Before anyone else could answer, the droid spoke up, “Vital signs.”
“Does that mean… it’s alive?” the old imperial asked, looking around the room, directing the question at anyone who might answer. “It’s a living human?”
Three things happened, all at once. Later, Eolh would not remember who shot first.
One of the Corvani - probably the plant from Horace’s crew - sank the blade of an axe into the back of the Bonebeak’s head.
The young imperial pulled his hands out of a cloak, revealing a firearm that was aimed at the Corvani guard.
But before he could shoot, the droid extended its arm out in a single, smooth movement. It’s fist collided with the young imperial’s cheek, making a wet crunch as the imperial’s face caved inwards. With its other hand, the droid hooked the chest of coins and jewels and flipped it at the wall with such force that the wood smashed into pieces and scattered treasure around the room. Then, the droid turned to the old imperial. It wrapped its hand around the imperial’s chin.
“No,” was all the imperial uttered, before the droid snapped his neck.
The room erupted in feathers and clubs and gleaming-metal shanks as the feather-born fell upon the scattered coins. One of the hired muscles leapt for the table, clutching at the pile of jewels. Someone threw a dagger into its neck, and it died clutching a fortune in its wings.
But Eolh had eyes only for the droid. Amidst the chaos, the droid dived into the container, and scooped out the limp body inside, reclaiming it from the cold, swirling vapors. And then, the droid was running towards the backdoor of the tavern. Towards him.
Eolh flapped his wings, propelling himself back out into the street, and grabbed onto the roof just as the door burst open behind him. The droid vaulted out of the tavern, briefly opening the alley to a cacophony of shrieks and squawks and metal clashing against metal. The droid looked to the left, to the right, and darted down the narrow alleyway.
Eolh caught only a glimpse of the body in the droid’s arms: it was fragile, and thin, and dripping wet.
The droid sprinted down the alley, too fast for such an ancient piece of junk.
What choice did he have, but to follow?