But then the boy’s parents died and left him all alone, and he found it harder to be happy with his life.
Still, there wasn't much to be done about that. The years passed, and the boy settled into the role he was given. His only friends were birds, because birds are much more reasonable creatures than humans.
Jensen was woken up by a wing in the face. As usual.
"Gerrof," he mumbled, still more asleep than awake.
He rolled away from the offending appendage, and the mattress shifted as his undeterred attacker followed in pursuit. "Rrwk," he was warned, as something hard and pointy came to rest against the space between his shoulder blades.
Jensen groaned and glared over his shoulder at the large bird currently standing on his bed. "You're not even supposed to be in here, Benevol. Remember? My bedroom is a raven-free zone."
Benevol ignored him and nudged at Jensen's back a second time with his beak. "Rrwk," he repeated, and Jensen sighed.
"Fine, fine, I'll get up. Who needs sleep anyway?" With a monumental effort, Jensen succeeded in hauling himself upright. He blinked blearily at the wall, trying to reconcile himself with being awake.
Benevol promptly hopped over to stand on his recently vacated pillow, head cocked to the side as though Jensen was performing a fascinating new trick.
"I hate you," Jensen informed him matter-of-factly, even as he reached out to brush a gentle finger over the top of Benevol's head. It earned him a throaty noise of satisfaction, and Jensen smiled despite himself.
Which was about when all of his other feathery charges - who'd apparently also come to wake him up - descended en masse in a cackling mob that made Jensen squawk and throw himself off the bed before they swarmed him. They laughed at him for that.
"You're all hilarious," Jensen told them. "Just for that, you can wait until I'm washed up before you're fed. Now scram."
He headed towards the closet without waiting to see what they'd do, and was unsurprised when they all settled on his bed instead of leaving. Bunch of overgrown feather dusters.
Just another day in the glamourous life of Kerak's Keeper of the Birds.
By the time Jensen finished his morning ablutions, the ravens had all flown off up to the main rookery. He mounted the stairs after them, lacing up his arm guards as he went.
The rookery was aglow with the sunrise coming in through the open windows, a far cry from the comfortable dimness of Jensen's small room. Squinting through the glare, Jensen could just make out the dark shapes of the ravens up in the rafters; they kicked up a chorus of caws when they saw him appear.
"Yes, yes, good morning to you too," Jensen answered, as he made his way across the floor towards the wooden bin where he kept stores of berries and fruit for breakfast. He'd go down to the Huntsman's Guild later to get the meat that was set aside for the ravens, but this would do for now.
The ravens fell on the food like an invading army, and Jensen backed away with practiced ease to avoid getting whacked by their powerful wings. Nibbling absently on a handful of berries that he'd kept for himself, he wandered over to the rising sun window and rested his forearms on the wide frame.
Before him, the great city of Kerak sprawled out in all its extravagant beauty. The sun rising over the horizon glinted like fire off the clay-tiled rooves, throwing the winding streets and sandstone buildings into dramatic, gold-edged shadow. Beyond the edge of the city, the Koran Field stretched out, even more brilliantly green than usual after yesterday's rain, the arrow-straight arc of the caravan trail creating a single dark line down the middle. Jensen was unsurprised to see a few wagons making their plodding way down the trail, all laden down with goods to sell at the most important trading city in the central realm.
Jensen sighed in easy contentment, breathing in the myriad of smells in the morning air. The musty, cloying scent of the rookery that no amount of cleaning could erase, the heavy loam of wet grass and over that, the pervasive smell of the Market.
Jensen could already hear the sound of the vendors at their trade, despite the early hour. If he leaned far enough over the sill, he could just make out the first few rows of tented stalls. Even two years ago, he wouldn't have been able to see any of the stalls from this window, but the Market kept spreading further as its reputation for safety, good weather and variety continued untarnished. If it couldn't be had in Kerak, the saying went, it couldn't be had anywhere.
Which was convenient for Jensen, he supposed, since he would never leave the city for as long as he lived.
One of the ravens landed on the sill at Jensen’s elbow, distracting him from his musings.
"Good morning, Pati," he said. "Finished breakfast?"
"Kraa," she agreed, tugging at one of the trailing laces on Jensen's arm guard in a pointed bid for attention.
Jensen lavished her with affection until Pati decided she'd had enough and flew off. "Always on your terms, hey girl?" he called after her and got a snarky caw in response.
Grinning, Jensen turned his attention away from the world outside the rookery and back to where it belonged. With the sun at his back, it was much easier to make out the details of the large room, from the few scatterings of runaway berries on the floor, to the hay stacks and the shadowy forms of his birds entertaining themselves.
Which was about when Jensen realized that he was one raven short.
"Huh. I could have sworn Salwar was here earlier. Did any of you see where he went?"
The other ravens ignored him, as usual. Jensen fought the urge to start worrying immediately; it wasn't as though the ravens were confined to the tower, or that they always needed to stay with him. Quite the opposite, most of the time.
But it was odd for them not to be around for breakfast.
"You're overreacting," Jensen told himself. "He'll be back in no time. No need to panic."
When Salwar still hadn't appeared by the time the bells were chiming out the matins, Jensen was officially concerned.
"Should I be worried?" he asked Loya, who was watching him with a curiously cocked head. "I think I should be worried."
Because this wasn't just a case of a missing animal. Salwar - like the other four - was one of Divine Moya's sacred ravens. And if one of the sacred ravens was missing, it could mean disaster for the entire country of Tjal. And Jensen was the one who would - rightly - get blamed for it.
"I should tell someone," he admitted, although he found himself reluctant to do so. Half of the city guardsmen would be out scouring the streets at a single word, but Jensen still wasn't entirely convinced that Salwar just hadn't been distracted by something interesting.
Besides, this was his responsibility. It didn't feel right to rely on the guardsmen to fix things for him.
Jensen stood abruptly. "I'm going to go look for him," he told the others. "None of you go getting lost while I'm gone, you hear? I'll be seriously put out."
He got a round of cawing in response and decided to take it as agreement. Thus reassured that he wouldn't be losing any more of his charges in the meantime, Jensen headed down the stairs with a determined stride.
Of course, he soon found himself standing on the lawn before the tower, not really sure where to start. Should he venture into town? Or try the City Palace? He supposed he could go to the Market and see if he could find crowds of randomly genuflecting shoppers…
A winged shadow soared across the grass, and Jensen instinctively raised his right arm just in time for Onnes to swoop down and land on it, the sturdy leather of Jensen's arm guard protecting his skin from those sharp talons.
Jensen looked at Onnes. "Are you going to help? Makes more sense than me running around like an idiot on my own, I guess. I don't suppose you know where Salwar's got to?"
Onnes cawed an affirmative and launched himself into the air. More than used to this kind of behaviour from his ravens, Jensen shrugged and followed in pursuit.
The raven traveled in a straight, sure line away from the city centre, never once wavering. Jensen followed without question, jogging a little to keep up with Onnes' easy glide. They hadn't gone far when Jensen realized their inevitable target.
"The temple?" he said aloud. "What would Salwar be doing there?"
Onnes ignored him. Jensen huffed in pointed irritation, and Onnes ignored that too.
Jensen was so underappreciated.
They reached the temple a few minutes later, and Onnes swooped inside before Jensen could decide whether or not to call this off. Sighing, he went in after him.
"I really don't know why you think he's here," Jensen hissed at Onnes, as he crept down the corridor. Strangely, he almost felt like he was doing something wrong being here this early in the morning. "You all avoid the temple like the plague when it's not time for petitions. We should just-"
"Bird Keeper," a startled acolyte said, when Jensen nearly collided with her because he was too busy glaring up at Onnes to watch where he was going.
"Oh! Sorry," Jensen said. "Erm, hello."
She smiled. "What brings you to the temple so early, Bird Keeper?"
"Uh, nothing really. Just getting some air," Jensen offered weakly. He coughed and gestured at Onnes, who was perched on the balustrade, watching their conversation with pointed interest. "Onnes is the one who chose our destination."
The acolyte's eyes widened. "Lord Onnes," she said, bowing deeply. "Moya's guiding light shines."
"And her divine wind brings wisdom," Jensen finished automatically. He coughed. "So, we'll just, uh, leave you to your duties?"
"Of course, Bird Keeper," the acolyte said, still bent over at a precise angle at the waist, and Jensen beat a hasty retreat before anyone else showed up.
Onnes ghosted along above him, laughing.
Jensen scowled at him. "Are you just having fun at my expense, or is there a reason we're here?"
"Kraa!" Onnes said, and took the lead again.
If anyone had asked, Jensen would have said that he knew the temple better than the back of his hand. So he was surprised to find them travelling down a corridor that he was sure he'd never seen before, one that dead-ended in a shabby little door in a poorly lit alcove.
Onnes landed again on his arm. "Rrwk," he said, sounding pleased with himself.
Jensen was unimpressed. "The door's closed," he pointed out. "Ravens haven't got fingers. How could Salwar possibly have gotten in there?"
But Onnes was undeterred and refused to budge until Jensen reluctantly reached out and pulled the door open. The hinges moved sluggishly, stiff with disuse.
"This is ridiculous," Jensen told him. "Just in case you wanted to know. I don't think this door's been opened in a year."
As soon as the gap was wide enough, Onnes launched himself off Jensen's arm and into the gloom beyond. Because ravens were the most irritating species in the world.
"I should leave you here," Jensen muttered, even as he walked through the door and down the stairs beyond it. "It would serve you right, leading me on this wild goose chase."
The staircase was neither long nor steep, and so Jensen soon found himself standing in a dirt-walled room filled with boxes, barrels and what looked like old linens. Light filtered in from a pair of small windows near the ceiling.
"It's a storeroom," he observed. He couldn't see Onnes from where he was standing, so he ventured further into the maze of stacked objects, careful not to trip over anything. He rounded a tall pile of boxes, still talking aloud. "I don't see why you needed to bring me all the way down h- oh!"
Half-hidden among the barrels and boxes, Jensen found a very large hole in the wall, a handspan taller than he was and nearly wide enough for two men to walk abreast. Onnes was perched on a barrel next to the door, looking quietly smug.
"What the-?" Jensen walked closer.
It was more of a doorway than a hole, he realized: the edges were supported by wooden beams, and there was clearly a long, narrow space on the other side, for all that Jensen couldn't see more than a foot down it before the darkness swallowed up the details. The ground was pitted with the twin ruts of cart wheels, suggesting that a great deal of traffic had once travelled through here. The air coming through the doorway was cool.
With a jolt like recognition, Jensen realized what this to be.
"Oh, wow. I thought they'd sealed all the mine entrances centuries ago," he said, running careful fingers along one of the wooden beams. "Once they'd finished digging out all of the building materials they needed for the City Palace. I wonder why this one got missed." He glanced sharply at Onnes. "How did you find this?"
Onnes croaked at him.
"That was not helpful." Jensen peered at the tunnel entrance, frowning dubiously. "It's very dark. Are you sure Salwar's in there?"
Onnes croaked again and nearly clipped Jensen's head with his talons when he abruptly flew into the blackness.
"Onnes! The Trade Winds take you!" Hurriedly, Jensen cast about in the boxes around him, thanking Moya when he managed to unearth a lantern. The oil inside had long since gone dry, but the barrel that Onnes had been perching on turned out to be full of fresh stuff.
Something in the back of his mind couldn't help but find that terribly convenient, but Jensen was too concerned about the fact that he'd now lost two sacred ravens to care about that right now. After a few false starts, he started the lantern burning, then took a deep breath and went in.
It was cool in the tunnel, which made sense since he was underground, Jensen supposed.
"Onnes?" he called, and got his own voice echoing back at him in the narrow space. The circle of light thrown by his lantern showed nothing but well-trammeled sandstone underfoot and roughly carved out walls on either side. The tunnel widened as he walked, new tunnels branching off at odd angles seemingly randomly.
Jensen stopped walking; if he got himself lost down here he might never find his way out again. "Moya's sake, Onnes, where are you?!" he demanded, and nearly jumped out his skin when Onnes materialized right in front of him.
The lantern clanged loudly as it hit the ground, startling him a second time, and it was pure luck that it didn't go out.
"What was that for?" Jensen demanded, once he'd got his breathing under control. With shaky fingers, he reclaimed the lantern, ignoring the dent that he'd put in the side. "Can we just go already?"
Onnes cawed in a way that managed to sound like a negative, then flew off down one of the tunnels on Jensen's left, gliding at a slow enough pace that he stayed within the circle of the lantern as long as Jensen followed without hesitation.
He was going to wring Salwar's neck for this.
It was no time at all before Jensen was hopelessly lost. By contrast, Onnes seemed completely sure of his heading, which Jensen hoped he could trust. The sacred ravens had always been far smarter than ordinary animals, but he was very possibly risking his life right now on the belief that Onnes was actually leading them somewhere.
"You know," Jensen said. "Even if you could talk, I don't think you'd tell me anything. You enjoy being mysterious too much."
Grimly, Jensen put the thought out of his head and kept walking, wrapping his free arm around his chest for some added warmth. He wasn't sure how he hadn't noticed earlier, but it was getting colder. Much colder.
Suddenly, a shaft of light gleamed in the darkness. Jensen mentally crossed his fingers that they were nearly at the end of this adventure. All he wanted to do now was collect Salwar and get back under the sun. Moya's light, it was cold down here. His breath was visible in the light, steaming on the air in a way Jensen had never experienced before.
The tunnel dead-ended another twenty paces ahead, and the light turned out to be coming from a narrow gap in the wall, near to the ground and much too small for Jensen to get through. Putting the lantern on the ground, Jensen ran his hands over the rough stone, trying to see if there was some way through.
"Looks like there was a doorway here but someone's rolled a big rock in front of it," he observed, glancing down just in time to see Onnes' sleek form wiggling through the gap and vanishing.
"Onnes!" Jensen protested, dropping to his knees to look through the gap. "I can't fit through there, you stupid bird!"
Which, he realized the moment the words crossed his lips, was an almightily foolish thing to say.
That wasn't daylight shining through that gap, which meant that there were probably people on the other side; why else would there be light? Jensen had spent his entire life around the ravens; they were his only friends, as embarrassing a thing as that was to admit. As such, he tended to forget to treat them with the respect that they received from the rest of the country. If anyone were to overhear him calling one of the sacred ravens a stupid bird, well, Jensen didn't like to consider how badly that would go for him.
But no immediate protest followed his words, no angry exclamations or scandalized indrawn breath, and Jensen gradually relaxed. Once he was reasonably confident that he wasn't about to be dragged away by his hair, he turned his attention to the issue of how to get through a gap that was manifestly too small for a man his size.
Settling his fingers firmly around the edge of the offending stone, Jensen hauled back with all his strength, his sandals sliding uselessly on the uneven ground. His arm muscles sang painfully with the effort, but Jensen eventually managed to widen the gap enough that he'd be able to squeeze himself through. The lantern he blew out and left in the tunnel, figuring that he might need it to get back if this passage didn't lead anywhere useful.
It took him a moment to sidle through the space he'd made for himself, and Jensen winced against the light - shockingly bright after so long spent in the dark - and the painfully cold air that hit his face like a slap. Shouldn't it have been warmer here than it had been in the tunnels?
Gradually, his eyes adjusted, and Jensen took a moment to look around.
He was in a cavern, he supposed, about the size of the courtyard at the temple and boasting a ceiling high enough that Jensen would've needed a ladder to touch his fingers to it. The walls were uneven but smooth from what looked like wear, not intentional effort.
There was a large pile of stones and rubble to his left, lying in a messy pile higher than his head, as though it had been cleared out of the tunnel and then just left where it lay. Something about that struck Jensen as odd. Where was he? It was hard to make out much from where he was standing, since the tumbled stones cut off his view of most of the room. And the one thing he could see only made him more confused.
The cavern had been divided in half. Metal bars spaced at narrow intervals stretched down from the ceiling, embedded directly into the rock, from what Jensen could tell. They were a tarnished gray colour, lacking in either shine or polish. Their obvious neglect, coupled with the rubble, made the room look somehow… forgotten, which hardly made sense given that someone had wasted the effort to hoist and light lanterns. Only-
Jensen frowned. There was something wrong with the light. It flickered and pulsed like lantern light, that much was true, but it was the wrong colour: a whitish-blue instead of the warm burnt orange that Jensen would have expected. And the more he looked at those bars, their uniform spacing, the more he realized that they resembled nothing so much as a cage, although much bigger than any he'd seen in the animal pens at the Market. What animal would require such a large cage to house it?
And which side of the bars was Jensen on?
He edged his way carefully forward, curiosity getting the better of his wariness. As he stepped fully away from the boulder, several unexpected sights competed for his attention:
White fire glowed in the lanterns, impossible and cold.
Something white lay like a bed of wildflowers across the floor, glittering in the light of the lanterns.
Salwar and Onnes nestled comfortably in the white stuff on the other side of the bars.
A man was sitting next to them, staring at Jensen with white eyes.
"Moya's Light!" Jensen exclaimed, plastering himself against the rock wall behind him in startled panic.
The man with the white eyes said nothing, just continued to sit and stare at Jensen through the tangle of his overlong hair.
He was dressed like a savage, Jensen couldn't help but notice. He wore calfskin breeches and a loose shirt with oddly billowed sleeves. His feet were bare.
They stared at each other in silence for several heartbeats, until Jensen could bear it no longer.
"W-who are you?" he asked, and told himself that it was the cold making him stutter.
The man's head cocked, hair sliding across his shoulders. "Surely they still tell stories of the monster beneath the City Palace," he said, in a deep, surprisingly gentle voice.
And Jensen's blood ran cold for a very different reason. Because yes, they did.
"Khretha," he breathed. Ice demon.
The man - the khretha - nodded. "There's no point in being afraid." It gestured with one hand at the bars separating them. "I'm no harm to anyone behind these bars." It smiled, a flat, mirthless expression. "Silver, you understand."
Which was all well and good, except for the fact that it wasn't the only thing behind those bars.
"Salwar! Onnes!" Jensen called, fighting not to sound as terrified as he felt. "Come here, please."
As one, they cocked their heads at him, then looked away from him. They didn't move.
Jensen wanted to cry.
Something that could almost have been sympathy crossed the khretha's face. "I'm no harm to them either, I swear to you."
"If that was so, they wouldn't have been lured down here." Squaring his shoulders against the urge to run, Jensen took a shaky step forward. "Give them back."
The khretha surprised him by smirking, just slightly, at that. "If you think these ravens can be compelled to do anything they don't want to, you're not as well informed as I thought."
"Then what are they doing down here?"
"Visiting," the khretha said. "They've been doing it for years."
"What?" Jensen said, startled. He would have noticed, wouldn't he? But the words didn't sound like a lie. "Why?"
The khretha's shrug was anything but convincing. "They think I'm lonely."
Despite him, Jensen's fear faltered at that. Looking anew at the khretha, curled up like a proud but broken animal in this hidden cage, Jensen couldn't help but recognize something kindred.
He too knew loneliness.
"Do you have a name?" he asked, before he'd quite realized he was going to.
The khretha nodded. "Jared."
"Jared," Jensen repeated, testing out the strange syllables on his tongue. He bit his lip, considering, then blurted, "I'm Jensen."
"I thank you for your name," Jared said. He paused a moment, before adding, "It's been a long, long time since someone has been willing to do that."
Jensen wasn't sure what to say to that. Carefully, he drew a little closer to the bars, a thread of fear still running beneath his skin. His steps took him up to the edge of the white, and he hesitated only briefly before stepping into it.
He immediately jerked his foot away with a startled curse. It was cold!
"It's snow," Jared told him, while Jensen tried to shake the lingering burn out of his skin. "It's cold, but not dangerous as long as you're dressed for it." Those white eyes skimmed up and down Jensen's body, taking in his sandals and belted tunic. "Which you are not."
"I've heard about snow from the caravan traders," Jensen said, more fascinated than he was willing to admit. "But I've never seen it before. Where's it coming from?"
"Ah," Jared said delicately, and Jensen remembered what else the stories said about khretha, just before Jared admitted, "that would be my fault."
And Jensen didn't want to think about that, about the ice and snow that had nearly buried all of Tjal long before he was born, so he cast about for something else to say.
"Are you making the-" He didn't know what to call it. "White fire, too?"
"I am. It's ice, of a fashion."
"Because I don't fancy sitting in the dark all the time," Jared said, with a matter-of-factness that startled a nervous laugh out of Jensen.
"I can understand that." Jensen licked his lips, curiosity warring with courtesy. "How- how long have you been down here?"
Jared's face shuttered.
"Never mind, it was rude, I shouldn't hav-"
"Since the last time winter came to Tjal," Jared cut in.
Jensen gaped, stunned. "I, but that's- there hasn't been a winter in Tjal in nearly two hundred years!"
Jared said nothing.
"But you're…" Jensen gestured broadly, trying to convey the fact that Jared looked no older than him.
"I'm khretha," Jared said, as though Jensen could have forgotten. "A lifetime for you is no time at all to us."
"Unless you're alone in the dark," Jensen said without thinking, and felt like a terrible person when it made Jared flinch.
"Yes," Jared agreed, and he sounded so sad. "It seems like a lot longer then."
Silence lapsed again, awkward and uncertain. Jensen wasn't sure how to break it. Wasn't sure he wanted to break it.
Something nudged his leg, and Jensen looked down.
"Kraa?" Salwar asked him, and Jensen had no idea when he'd left Jared's side. A glance revealed Onnes making his own way back to Jensen, the gap between the bars just enough to allow the raven to slide between them.
"You should go," Jared said, his words reflecting Jensen's thoughts so well that he wondered for a moment if khretha had other powers beyond the ones he'd heard about. "The afternoon petitions will be beginning soon."
And Jensen wanted to ask him how he knew that when he was trapped in a forgotten pit beneath the city with no sun to track the time by, but he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to know the answer.
"Yeah," he said instead. "We should. I'm guessing we can't go that way?" He pointed at the long staircase leading up on his right.
"It leads into the City Palace," Jared said, ignoring the way Jensen did a startled double-take at that. "And you're not supposed to be down here, so it's not a good idea, no."
"Right. Okay. Um, goodbye?"
"Goodbye, Jensen," Jared answered, inclining his head gravely.
Strangely unsettled by the moment, Jensen turned to go.
"I could… come back, maybe?" he offered, not even sure why he said it.
Jared stilled, his pale skin and strange eyes making him look like nothing so much as a marble statue. "Why would you do that?"
Jensen shrugged defensively. "Does it matter?"
"No. I suppose not." Something that could almost have been a smile flitted across Jared's face. "You should probably find something warmer to wear first," he suggested.
Later, Jensen wouldn't remember much of the return through the tunnels, just a vague impression of stumbling around in Onnes and Salwar's wake, feeling the chill slowly leave his limbs and wondering why the image of Jared, curled up in his cage, was so much slower to go. Both sensations left him feeling deeply unsettled.
It was with profound relief that Jensen re-emerged in the storeroom and felt the heat of the sun, however weak and diffused, coming through the small windows.
"Thank Moya. I'd almost forgotten what being warm feels like. Let's get back and show the others you're not missing anymore, Salwar. Then we'll have just enough time for me to feed everyone before the petitions start." He leveled a finger at both of them. "And the two of you are going to attend. Consider it your comeuppance for the mess I've had to deal with today."
He swept up the stairs without waiting for the chorus of unhappy caws that he knew would start up in response. It made him wonder, not for the first time, if people would be so keen on petitioning if they knew just how reluctantly the sacred ravens played their part.
But then, everyone had to fill their lot in life. Sacred ravens and their Keeper included.
A scant hour later, Jensen found himself back at the temple, this time behind the screen that separated the temple sanctum from the public petitions gallery. He was ensconced on his normal chair, off to the side and generally out of sight of all the people who came in to present offerings and prayers to the massive statue of Divine Moya in the centre of the sanctum. It wasn't him they had come to see after all; the ravens were Moya's emissaries, and it was to them that the people prayed, in the hopes that they'd carry those prayers with them the next time they flew up to Moya in the sky. Jensen's role was to keep an eye on the ravens and make sure they didn't try to escape.
Onnes and Salwar were listening from the gilded perches that stood to either side of Moya's statue, kept in place by the fine silver chains wrapped around their legs. As usual, they bore the confinement with resignation, not that anyone other than Jensen would have been able to tell.
The current petitioner was rambling on about the harvest or the caravan trade or some such business; Jensen wasn't really listening. He didn't tend to listen on the best of days, and he had more important things to focus on today. Namely, Jared.
Thinking back on his morning, it almost felt like a dream. Had he really done all that? And, more to the point, what was he going to do now?
Jared was a khretha. The kretha had nearly buried all of Tjal in an eternal winter long ago in the time of kings, and it had eventually taken war to stop them. Jensen had never known winter, no Tjalian in seven generations had known winter, although he'd heard enough from foreign merchants to know that Tjal was better off without it. And if it felt anything like the cold inside Jared's cavern, Jensen could see why.
The rumours about the khretha locked beneath the City Palace had been circulating for as long as Jensen could remember; it had been years since he'd believed them anything but ghost stories to frighten children into behaving. To think that there actually was something down there, something capable of destroying the entire city of Kerak if it wasn't safe behind silver bars, made a shudder run down Jensen's spine.
He shouldn't have offered to return. Jared wasn't human, and he was more dangerous than Jensen could fathom. Jensen should forget about the tunnel and the cage and Jared's sad smile and never go back again. It was the rational choice.
The ravens trusted Jared. And Jensen had learned to trust their judgement.
"They guide all of us towards Moya's light," his mother used to say, hands and voice patient as she taught Jensen how to care for the ravens that would one day be his responsibility. "It is our duty as Keepers to listen to them when others would question."
Grief, sudden and sharp, welled up at the thought of his mother. It wasn't surprising, but Jensen did his best to swallow it just the same. It had been 14 years; he ought to be used to being alone by now.
To distract himself, Jensen looked at the statue of Moya. She towered tall and strong above the room, her eyes to the sky and her hair streaming behind her like a banner. Jensen's attention lingered on her long cape, artfully carved to look like the wings of her faithful messengers, as though she might take flight at any moment.
It gave him an idea.
"A blanket," Misha repeated, as though he wasn't sure whether to sound dubious or amused by the idea. The Market bustled and swirled around Misha's stall, replete with the breathless chaos of hundreds of lives circling without intersecting.
Jensen refused to let the busyness fluster him, no matter how out of his depth it always made him feel. He wasn't used to chaos. "Yes, for the third time. What's so hard to understand?"
"Oh, nothing," Misha said, in a tone that meant anything but. "I'm just not sure what you need a wool-stuffed blanket for. Are you expecting a cold snap to come through?"
"Of course not," Jensen said, trying not to wince at how stilted he sounded.
Misha arched any eyebrow.
"The rookery gets cold at night," Jensen improvised desperately. He should have come up with a better excuse. "And the ravens keep waking me up at all hours."
Jensen forced an impatient sigh. "Are you going to sell me the material or should I go ask a different merchant who isn't going to judge my life choices?"
"On the contrary, I'm always happy to help you, Jensen."
Jensen eyed him warily. "Because we're friends?
Misha snorted. "Don't be so naive. Because you're good for business."
That was news to Jensen. "I am? How?"
"Moya save me from your naivety," Misha said, shaking his head. "Because of your entourage, obviously. It's good credit to be known as the merchant who caters to the needs of the Keeper of the Birds."
Reflexively, Jensen flicked his eyes upwards to where Loya and Pati were sitting on the awning of Misha's stall, watching the goings-on in the market with interest. All of the shoppers and merchants stopped to bow to them before continuing on their way.
"I probably should have realized that."
"You really should. But I'll forgive you. Which I'm going to show by finding the fixings for you to make your very own unnecessarily warm and puffy blanket."
"Great," Jensen said, and tried not to drum his fingers impatiently on his thigh while Misha rooted around through his wares. "So, uh, anything interesting happening the world?"
"I hope you never do anything illegal," Misha said, his voice slightly muffled by his position under one of the tarps. "You're terrible at being casual."
Jensen was not flushing. He wasn't. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Of course not." Misha reappeared and dropped a pile of canvas and wool onto the counter. "But to answer the question that you have no interest in, there are reports of Gol raiders causing trouble in Glyn, so now is not a good time to go abroad."
"I'm not allowed to go abroad," Jensen said absently.
"Well, that's a good policy to keep following right now. I hear Gols like the pretty ones. Now," Misha said, and Jensen was definitely flushing this time. "Is there anything else you need for this 'blanket' of yours?"
It took Jensen three days to fashion some clothes that would hopefully keep him from freezing his toes off in Jared's cavern. It took him another five days to stop wavering between the firm conviction that he was a moron and the powerful desire to return long enough to get up the nerve to go.
Salwar and Benevol went with him this time, which Jensen appreciated since he had no more desire to get lost in the mines this time than he had the first. The trip seemed at once faster and a thousand times longer than he remembered, and he realized that his palms were clammy with nerves by the time he reached the end of the final tunnel.
"Why are you nervous?" he asked himself, as he set down the lantern. He'd pushed the rock back into place behind him last time, lest someone come down and discover it, and his hands kept slipping as he tried to pull it far enough to get through. "He can't do anything to you. You'll be fine."
And if that fear wasn't what was making his pulse jump, as the rock finally slid free with a low, grating rumble, Jensen decided that he'd rather not think about it.
Brushing a hand self-consciously down his new cloak, Jensen stepped out from around the rocks, looking immediately for Jared.
He found him standing stock still about two paces away from the bars, staring at him with an expression that Jensen couldn't decipher.
"Hello," Jensen said lamely. He dared to wander closer, noting as he did that Jared was taller than he'd realized.
"You're back," Jared said blankly, and Jensen stilled, wondering if he ought to be backing away slowly.
"Yes," he agreed. "Do you want me to leave?"
"No!" Jared lurched forward, which startled Jensen into jumping back, his heart pounding.
"Um," Jensen said, after a moment of them staring at each other in a frozen tableau.
Jared's expression smoothed out. Jensen decided to pretend that he hadn't seen the naked panic and longing that had been there a moment before.
"I didn't mean to scare you," Jared said, those white eyes boring into Jensen in a way that he tried and failed not to find unsettling. "The ravens said you were coming back, but I must confess that I didn't believe them."
"You can understand the ravens?" Jensen asked, intrigued.
"Of course. Can't you?"
Jensen shrugged. "Not literally. After a lifetime of looking after them, I can usually tell what they want, but it's all just 'Caw! Caw!' to me."
"I'm the Keeper of the Birds, like my mother before me. I've been around them since I was born."
Jared was still eyeing him. "I see they helped you with your new clothes, as well."
Jensen couldn't deny the urge to shift slightly to show off the inky, feathered cloak that he'd made for himself. "There are always molted feathers lying around the rookery. I just, borrowed them."
He'd also replaced his sandals with a pair of tall boots that he'd bought from another, less nosey, merchant, and then lined with the soft lamb's wool that Misha had sold him. The overall effect made it much easier to tolerate the frigid air swirling through the cavern, although his face and hands still felt the sharp bite of the cold. He tucked his hands under his arms and shifted so that the cloak covered more of his thin tunic.
"It looks good," Jared said in approval, and Jensen suddenly felt warmer.
"What about you?" he asked, to cover his pleasure. "Aren't you cold?"
"I'm the living embodiment of winter," Jared said. He sounded vaguely amused. "Do you think I get cold?"
And now Jensen felt like an idiot. "Ah, I guess not. Sorry."
Jared waved it off. "It's fine."
Awkward silence fell between them, and Jensen realized to his chagrin that he wasn't entirely sure what to do with himself. He hadn't thought any further than his strange desire to come back. He shifted uneasily.
Surprisingly, it was Jared who broke the silence.
"Tell me about the city," he said. "I suspect it looks much different than I remember."
"I can do that," Jensen said, and made himself comfortable.