And it was the right choice.
As the birds looked on in pleasure, the boy and the stranger grew to know each other. And they became the best of friends. And then his friend became even more to him than that. And for the first time in a long time, the boy was happy.
Visiting Jared spiraled quickly into a habit.
He emptied out one of the many boxes in the forgotten storeroom and used it to hide his feathered cloak and wool-lined boots, along with the lantern and enough oil to keep it burning for a year.
He carefully didn't think about whether he'd need that much.
At first, Jensen only went every now and then, sitting nervously on one of the tumbled rocks near the tunnels and trying not to look directly at Jared's alien face. Jared never seemed to mind his standoffishness, and instead took an almost childlike pleasure in the company that Jensen offered. He was quiet, but not shy, and surprisingly gentle in voice and action. The ravens clearly loved him. Someone else might not have found that as reassuring as Jensen did, but the ravens had been his only companions for a long time, and Jensen wasn't about to question their instincts or his own.
He dared to start sitting closer, fascinated by the graceful way Jared's hands moved when he talked. He started noticing things other than Jared's haunting eyes, like the way he flinched at loud noises and the fact that his long body was frighteningly skinny.
"They only feed me once a day," Jared admitted, with a helpless shrug, which was when Jensen started buying extra food from the Huntsman's Guild and smuggling it through the tunnels. The grateful smile he received in return made him feel warm despite the frigid air.
Jensen told himself that it was in his nature to want to keep people fed and cared for; that was his main role as Bird Keeper, after all. The fact that Jared, for all his power, sometimes looked painfully brittle, in a way that suggested he was only a step away from splintering into a thousand pieces, only added to his determination.
Jensen's sporadic visits started occurring more frequently after that, going from a couple of times in a fortnight to every other day by the time the summer was at its height. He and Jared talked about Jensen's life, and Jensen found himself telling Jared things he'd never told another living soul: about what it was like to grow up in the rookery, about his blurry memories of his long-dead father, about the way he found the ravens easier to understand than people.
They also talked about the things Jared remembered about the outside world, which were depressingly few.
"Do you know what I miss the most?" Jared asked him, after a conversation about Jensen's favourite place to watch the sunrise. "About being free?"
Jensen, who couldn't even begin to fathom what it must be like to live a dozen lifetimes trapped in the earth, could only shrug. "What?"
"The stars." Jared smiled, his head tilted up towards the ceiling as though he could see straight through the layers of rock to the sky far above. "They're amazing: all alone in the dark night, but still shining so brightly." His eyes tilted Jensen's way, no longer strange. "You can't imagine what I'd give for a chance to see them again."
Only once did Jensen dare ask what Jared was doing trapped down here, why he hadn't been killed or driven out of Tjal like the rest of the khretha.
And Jared, who'd answered his every question without hesitation, simply shook his head. "Ask me anything but that. Please, Jensen."
Jensen, who'd not spent so much time with anyone other than the ravens since his mother had died, didn't dare press the issue. And so, as the height of summer passed and his visits to Jared became an intrinsic part of his daily routine, Jensen was somewhat surprised to realize that he was happy with his life in a way he never had before.
"Bird Keeper!" a voice called, just as Jensen stepped out of the tower, and Jensen turned to see a broad-shouldered figure in a bright saffron robe heading towards him.
"Tahmoh," he answered automatically, before realizing his error. "Uh, I mean Lord Keeper. Sorry."
Tahmoh chuckled, blue eyes sparkling as he waved a hand. "No need for that. Friendship takes precedence over titles. Come on, I'll walk with you."
"Uh," Jensen managed, and refrained from asking 'where to?' by the slimmest of margins.
Luckily, or unluckily, Tahmoh clearly read his confusion, judging by his fondly exasperated head shake. "You forgot about the council meeting," he said. It wasn't a question.
Jensen groaned. "That's today? Didn't we just have one?"
"Three months ago," Tahmoh answered, looking amused by Jensen's chagrin. "Do your days really blend together so much?"
"I can't help being busy," Jensen retorted. He regretted it immediately: not the words so much as the tone. Too defensive. Like he had something to hide.
Tahmoh, thank the Trade Winds, misunderstood.
"I didn't mean to offend," he said, raising his hands in a peace offering. "Y
"It's fine," Jensen said, feeling abruptly weary. "Let's just go."
He forced himself to walk with Tahmoh to the City Palace, trying not to think about the way that each step took him both closer to and further away from Jared.
The Tjalian High Council - which was comprised of fifteen representatives from the most important guilds and branches of governments - met four times a year to discuss the country's progress and deal with large issues that affected too many parts of the government to be addressed in the day-to-day management of Tjal. Jensen had his own chair around the massive stone table, between the Keeper of the Accounts and the Head of the Farmer's Guild, which he took with awkward nods at the other people at the table. He'd never get used to these meetings.
"Good morning everyone," Tahmoh said, once all the seats were full. "Let's begin. Our first order of business is the question of whether or not to close the northern border."
"What? Why?" Jensen blurted, before he could think better of it. He shrank back at the raised eyebrows his words prompted. "Uh, I mean…"
"Because of the Gol raiders currently overrunning Marral," Osric, Keeper of the Accounts, said from his place at Jensen's left. His brow creased in a frown. "Surely the temple has been hearing numerous petitions from those fleeing the carnage."
"Of course," Jensen said immediately, because he wasn't about to admit that he'd been listening even less to the petitions recently than he usually did. Especially when he wasn't able to explain why. "I, uh, assumed they were exaggerating, is all. Is it… really that bad?"
Tahmoh's grim expression made it clear that it was. "Tetak and Werak have both sent emissaries concerning the number of refugees that have been crossing the border; they don't have the resources to handle them all."
"Not to mention that they're getting antsy about being so close to the border in case the Gols set their sights on Tjal," Alona, Keeper of the Tradesmen, added.
People shared looks with their neighbours, and Jensen realized that the cities on the border weren't the only ones worried about attack.
"But surely it won't come to that," he said. "Our allies will help us if the Gol attempt to attack Tjal. Won't they?"
Tahmoh broke the silence that followed his words with a shuffle of his papers. "I believe you've just jumped to point five on our itinerary, Bird Keeper," he said, with a wryness that neatly smoothed the tension in the room. "As to your question, I have no doubt they will help us if we have need of their support, but let us settle the border issue first."
"Of course," Jensen said, and sat back in his chair, determined not to display his ignorance again.
The remainder of the meeting was tedious in the extreme. Jensen had very little to contribute, like usual, and he'd never been that interested in the management of the country.
In his less charitable moments, Jensen wondered why they even bothered to include him; it wasn't as though his position as Keeper of the Birds had any practical connection to the ruling of the country. But the Keeper of the Birds had been a member of the council since the time of kings had ended, so Jensen mostly just kept his mouth shut and let other people make decisions.
Today, he tortured himself by wondering if any of the hallways he'd walked down today led to the door of Jared's cell.
Jared would have realized by now that Jensen wasn't coming. It made something sit uncomfortably in the pit of his stomach, thinking of Jared wondering what had been so important that Jensen had abandoned him today.
Osric nudged him with an elbow. "What's got you so distracted?" he asked in an undertone, while the Head of the Builder's Guild and Alona argued about the next planned expansion of the Market. "Normally you at least pretend to pay attention."
"I've just got a lot on my mind," Jensen whispered back.
Osric snorted. "Clearly. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were in love."
"What?" Jensen spluttered, just barely remembering to keep his voice down. "Of course not! Where would you even get an idea like that?"
"Oh, I don't know," Osric said, with characteristic snark. "Maybe all the sighing and staring wistfully into the distance?"
"I'm not," Jensen said, with all the firmness he could muster.
Osric just shrugged. "If you say so," he said, and returned his attention to the argument on the other side of the table.
Jensen tried without success to do the same, unexpectedly shaken by the brief conversation. Osric was imagining things. Him, in love? It was ridiculous. Impossible.
It would explain a lot, though.
Feeling suddenly faint, Jensen stared hard at the table, images of Jared flashing past his eyes. His graceful hands. The almost self-conscious curl of his smile. Those white eyes that Jensen had once found unsettling and now felt like he could lose himself in.
It's just attraction, Jensen told himself, but that couldn't explain how visiting Jared had become the highlight of his entire day, or why he'd reorganized his schedule to make sure that he could spend as much time with him as possible. Or the way his chest always felt warm in Jared's company, even as the rest of the body turned slowly numb in the cold.
Oh, Moya. What was he to do now?
Shouts erupted from all corners, and Jensen pulled himself out of his personal crisis to realize that Alona had just punched the Head of the Builder's Guild hard enough to have him swooning in his chair. Again.
"Why do our meetings always seem to end this way?" Osric asked, almost conversationally.
"I have no idea," Jensen replied, and firmly shelved his emotions away for another time.
Jensen couldn’t help but be somewhat subdued when he went to see Jared the next day. Now that he'd had the reality shoved in his face, he couldn't help but notice just how often his gaze strayed to Jared's mouth, and how much his own hands itched to reach through the bars and touch as much of that pale skin as they could reach. Would Jared's skin be cold like marble? Would he shy away from Jensen's warmth? Which one of them would burn more at the contact?
"Jensen?" Jared's voice asked, and Moya, now Jensen was thinking about what a nice voice it was, how much he enjoyed listening to it. And that wasn't even a new thought; he'd known for months that he could happily listen to Jared speak for hours.
"Sorry," he said, with a weak smile. "Just a little distracted, I guess. Did I tell you about our council meeting yesterday?"
"You did," Jared said, sounding amused. "But you can tell me again, if you like."
Jensen's heart skipped as he desperately tried not to read too much into Jared's easy acquiescence. Jensen was the only person who ever spoke to him, Jared had told him so. If Jensen had spent his entire life in a cage, he'd be desperate for any type of company he could get. Deeper feelings didn't come into it.
Happy fantasies aside, Jensen couldn't imagine that Jared felt the same way as he did. He had no reason to believe that Jared had any… interest in humans. Why would he? It was Jensen's race that was responsible for Jared's suffering, after all.
And how could Jensen risk telling Jared? Any happiness that came from the unlikely event of Jared returning his feelings would be tempered by the reality that Jared was a prisoner, and Jensen was too much of a coward to do anything to change that.
Besides, the most likely outcome was the both of them awkwardly trying to continue their friendship with the looming spectre of Jensen's overinvestment getting in the way. Or, even worse, Jared might think that giving in to Jensen's desires was a fair trade for not being alone. Just the idea made Jensen quail with guilt.
It wasn't worth it, Jensen decided, as he spun the tale of Alona's dramatic lunge across the table. Better just to keep quiet.
Walking back through the tunnels afterwards, Jensen got the sense that Loya was disappointed with him.
He'd long since figured out the route through the tunnels on his own, but Jensen couldn't say he minded the company today. His heart and his feet felt heavy as he faced the reality that all of his days might feel like this from now on.
"It's for the best," he said to her, earning himself a pitying shake of her head.
He'd be embarrassed that the ravens had figured out his heart before he did, but Jensen honestly couldn't find the energy for that right now.
"Well, what would you have me do?" he demanded. "There's no happy ending here, Loya"
"Kraa," she said sadly, and Jensen nodded.
There was nothing more to be said, really.
"Where do you go when you're not here?" Jared asked one day.
It had been over a month since Jensen's unfortunate emotional epiphany, and he'd come to a certain amount of equanimity about the whole thing. So he wanted all sorts of things from - and for - Jared that he couldn't have; it was still better than not having his company at all.
Which wasn't to say that the sight of Jared smiling at him through the tumble of his hair wasn't quietly devastating, but Jensen was working on it.
"The rookery mostly," Jensen answered. "Or to the temple for petitions."
"Not to your house?"
"Haven't got a house to go to, so no."
Jared frowned. "Why? I thought... don't people usually live in houses?"
"Usually, but I'm the Keeper of the Birds," Jensen reminded him.
Jared didn't appear elucidated. "So?"
It was slightly shocking, to realize that Jared didn't know what that meant. It served as an unpleasant reminder of just how much he missed in his underground prison.
"The Keeper of the Birds lives in the rookery," Jensen explained, to avoid getting distracted by his maudlin thoughts. "Taking care of the sacred ravens is my duty and my life. There's not much room for anything else." Except you he didn't add.
"So the Keeper of the Birds can't have a mate?" Jared asked, and Jensen was glad that his cheeks were already flushed with the cold so his blush wasn't too obvious.
"It's not forbidden, but I don't intend to marry," he said carefully, pleased when he didn't stumble over the words. "One of my cousin's children will take the position when I grow too old to care for them."
"So you don't have a home?"
Jensen shrugged. "The rookery is my home."
Jared made a thoughtful noise, then fell silent.
Jensen couldn't bear the quiet for long. "Why do you ask?"
"Hmm? Oh, I'd like to be able to picture where you are when you're not here." Something about the artless honesty of the question made Jensen's throat tighten. "Can you tell me what the rookery looks like?"
"Well the tower's made of sandstone, like most of the city, and it gleams a little bit when the light comes in. The rookery is meant to be a home for the sacred ravens, but we get visitors every now and then when other birds stop for somewhere to rest. Most of the time, though, it's just me and the ravens.
"There are five windows, one for each of the sacred directions, with large shutters that can be pulled across when it's raining. There's hay everywhere, and bird droppings, no matter how often I clean it up. The ravens usually perch on the rafters to sleep."
"Where do you sleep? In the hay?"
Jensen nearly laughed, before remembering just whom he was talking to. "Not usually," he said instead, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground a few inches in front of his feet to avoid the temptation to look at the pathetic pile of hay and blankets that served as Jared's own bed. "I have a room below the rookery. It's not much, but it's mine."
"And that makes you happy?"
"Well, it'd be nice to have a house instead," Jensen said, a little wistfully. "With painted walls and a stone path leading up to the door. A place just for me."
It was an idle wish, if course. Jensen was the Keeper of the Birds and, as such, he'd stay in the rookery until he died. The same as his mother had and the Keeper before her and every Keeper all the way back. There was no idyllic little house waiting for him.
"That doesn't seem-" Jared stiffened suddenly, voice trailing off.
"You have to go," he said. "Now."
"What? What did I say?"
"Nothing." Jared looked at him. "Why aren't you moving?"
Jensen was at a loss. "Because you won't tell me why you're making me leave!"
Jared actually growled at him, a low guttural noise that was neither human nor animal. The hair on the back of Jensen's neck stood on end.
"Can't you hear them?" Jared demanded. "Get up! You can't let them find you here!"
"Them?" Jensen repeated, scrambling belatedly to his feet. "Who?"
But Jared refused to answer. "Just go," he ordered. "Quickly!"
"I'll be back," Jensen promised, although Jared already knew that. He whistled for Salwar, who actually deigned to listen to him for once, and they both slipped back into the tunnels.
The room plunged into sudden darkness while Jensen was rolling the stone back, and he faltered, unnerved by the change. Why would Jared put out his ice fire?
"Hurry!" Jared's voice barked out of the darkness, and Jensen hurriedly obeyed.
He'd hardly finished getting the stone in place when the grating sound of hinges echoed through the air, accompanied by the orange glow of ordinary firelight through the gap. It was only a faint gleam to begin with, though it grew steadily brighter as the seconds ticked by and Jensen didn't move to go.
Someone was lighting the lamps. But the guard who fed Jared never bothered with anything other than the taper he carried. What was going on?
Jensen jumped when an incomprehensible babble of voices filled the air, sudden and unexpected. He felt Salwar's head nudge against his leg, trying to convince him to move, but Jensen hesitated.
Jared had said that Jensen was the only person who ever spoke to him. But he had clearly known that these people - whoever they were - were coming. And the sensible part of Jensen's brain told him that Jared was entitled to keep secrets if he wanted to, but it couldn't even begin to compete with every other fiber of Jensen's being that was practically vibrating with the urge to know.
He was hidden here, from Jared and whomever those voices belonged to. He could stay and listen. It wouldn't do any harm. Jared didn't need to know.
Mind made up, Jensen dropped down to the floor, putting his face up close to the gap. It didn't help much. The cavern's acoustics distorted and amplified every sound. With a crowd of people instead, it was impossible for Jensen to make out any individual words. He could certainly recognize the tone of their voices, though.
Stomach sinking, Jensen listened to them rain abuse on Jared, who made not a single sound of protest. He wanted to storm back in there and drive them away. He wanted to pray to Moya to free Jared from his prison, and damn the consequences. He wanted to see Jared's smile without shadows in it. He wanted…
He wanted to have left when Jared told him to.
Jensen didn't know how long he lay there, shaking with cold and fury. He wanted to weep with relief when the voices finally faded, the light getting dimmer one doused lantern at a time until there was only darkness left in the cavern. The door slammed shut with ominous finality.
The cavern stayed dark for a long time after they were gone.
Only when the now-familiar light of Jared's ice flames began to shine again did Jensen roll the stone back, hands shaking.
The look that Jared gave him when he stomped back into view - resigned, bleak and disappointed - only made things worse.
"What was that?" Jensen demanded, in a strangled voice he hardly recognized as his own. Jared picked at a loose thread on his trousers, and said nothing. "Answer me, Jared!"
"That," Jared said acidly, "was your Lord Keeper." He didn't look at Jensen.
"Tahmoh?" Jensen asked, startled. "No, he wouldn't."
Jared snorted. "So you believe me a liar?"
"That's not what I- no. No, if you say that's who it was then…" Jensen blew out an explosive breath. "Tahmoh? Really?"
Wordlessly, Jared nodded.
"And… the others?"
Jared's shrug was a boneless thing. "Foreign dignitaries from somewhere or other, I expect. It's not as though they ever introduce themselves."
"I…" The implication of Jared's words caught up to him. "What do you mean 'ever'? Jared, has this happened before?"
"Oh, many times." Jared's words were casual, but his voice was worrying flat. "I'm a spoil of war from one of the defining moments in this country's history. Of course people want to jeer at the captured monster."
"You're not a monster!"
Jared's eyes flew to him, almost startled, and Jensen absently realized that he was yelling. Not that he cared. It felt good to yell.
The words spilled out of him, curses and threats all wrapped up in shining, incandescent fury that anyone could treat Jared like that.
"I won't let him keep doing this," Jensen vowed, hands fisted at his sides as he paced in short, angry circles in front of Jared's cage. "I'll take on the whole council if I have to! They can't just-"
"It's because of my parents," Jared said, the unexpected words slicing through Jensen's righteous anger with the precision of a knife.
Jensen faltered, turning a quizzical look on Jared. "What?"
Jared's thin smile was a bleak thing. "You asked me once what I'm doing here. Why I didn't die with the rest of the khretha. It's because my parents were responsible for the war that nearly destroyed Tjal."
Jensen recoiled as if slapped. "What?"
"The other khretha helped, obviously," Jared continued, as though he wasn't talking about a winter that had lasted for three years and nearly killed every living thing in Tjal. "But it was their idea, their leadership."
Jensen's legs turned to water, and he sank unsteadily to the floor. "Jared…"
Jared seemed to have forgotten he was even there, his eyes staring blankly at something only he could see. "They locked all three of us in here, to begin with. Punishment, you see. I was only a child; I didn't know what was going on. You have no idea how frightened I was, Jensen. None. But at least I had my parents. It didn't matter if it was kings or lords or keepers bringing people down here to mock us in our defeat; it was all the same. But my parents did their best to protect me."
Jared's voice wobbled suddenly, his words turning thick and harsh.
"Until one day they took my parents away. And I was all alone. They didn't kill me because I'd done nothing wrong to deserve death, but they wouldn't let me go because they could never trust that I wasn't exactly like my parents. So now I'm their symbol of power, left to molder alone in the dark. Forever."
"Moya's light," Jensen breathed. Tears stung the corners of his eyes, cold enough to take his breath away.
"Sometimes I think I'd kill them all if I ever got out," Jared said almost dreamily. "Show them that they were right to fear the khretha." He chuckled without mirth and Jensen let out an involuntary whimper at the sound.
Those white eyes cut sharply towards him, and Jensen froze, struck by how profoundly inhuman Jared looked in this moment. After all these months, Jensen had forgotten the taste of fear.
"Would I be a monster then, Jensen?" Jared asked, ignorant of the cracking sound that Jensen's heart seemed to be making with every horrible word. "If I killed every last person in Tjal? Would you blame me if I did?"
"I- I have to go." Jensen stumbled to his feet, hands shifting aimlessly in front of him. "I-"
He had no words.
Jared said nothing, just watched as Jensen turned to go.
Those eyes followed him across the cavern, and Jensen fancied they he could still feel their weight once he was safe in the hidden darkness of the tunnels, panting like he'd just run a league and feeling dangerously light-headed. That phantom gaze chased him all the way back to the temple, damning Jensen for his silence.
Because, honestly, he wasn't sure he would blame Jared at all.
Jensen didn't visit Jared the next day. Nor the day after. He couldn't.
The ravens chattered worriedly at him, but Jensen couldn't figure out how to reassure them.
"It's not forever," he settled on. "I just… need some space to think."
Because it was plain that he couldn't continue on like this.
Jared didn't deserve what had been done to him. Jensen didn't think anyone could argue otherwise, not if they'd seen Jared with the ravens, witnessed the uncomplicated delight he got simply from not being alone. And Jensen knew that he wanted to make Jared happy. He just wasn't sure how.
Smuggling Jared out of his prison presented its own set of problems, not least because it would break Jensen's heart to watch him go. If he managed to escape, Jared would have to flee to another country, but Jensen could never leave Kerak.
And after Jared's recent revelation, Jensen had to face the very real fear that freeing him would cause the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Jensen was the Keeper of Kerak. His job was to serve the city and the ravens that protected it. How could he intentionally put all that in jeopardy?
"What do I do?" he asked the ravens, but of course they couldn't tell him, even if they could have spoken.
He'd been right before. There was no way for this to end well.
Jensen stroked despondent fingers down Onnes' neck. "I wish you'd never led me to him," he said sadly. He wondered which of them he was trying to convince.
Footsteps pounded suddenly through the rookery, and Jensen got to his feet just in time to see one of the acolytes burst into the rookery.
"Bird Keeper!" the acolyte said. "Thank Moya you're here."
"What is it?" Jensen asked, which he figured was a better way to phrase it than 'what in Moya's name are you doing here'.
The acolyte bowed low. "The high priest humbly asks that the sacred ravens might be brought to the temple so that petitions can begin early."
Jensen frowned. "Early? Why?"
"To accommodate the increased number of petitioners," the acolyte said, in a tone of voice that suggested he thought Jensen should already know this.
"Increased-?" Turning towards the window that faced the temple, Jensen was shocked to see the huge crowd of people gathering around the main doors. It was the biggest crowd he'd ever seen in all of his years as Keeper.
"Bird Keeper?" the acolyte ventured, and Jensen started slightly.
"Of course. Yes. We'll be right there."
For once, Jensen actually listened to all of the petitions. It took hours. By the end of it, he was pale and shaking with numb shock. Was this what had been happening in the world while he was falling in love with Jared?
Gol raiders had overrun Glyn. And Marral. And Sumae.
And Tjal was next.
One of the priests cornered Jensen once the last of the petitioners was gone. "Many people are fleeing south," he said in a low voice. "Including several of the acolytes. You might consider joining them."
"What?" Jensen said blankly. "I can't do that. My place is here."
The priest smiled sadly. "Then may Divine Moya guide both of our souls with her divine wind. For I fear that there is little in this earthly world that can stop this turn of fate."
The next morning, Jensen sat on the windowsill with bleary eyes and watched the endless line of caravans escaping the city. He'd gone into the Market at morning light and found Misha hurriedly packing up his stall. He'd not been the only one.
"Have you been living under a rock?" Misha had demanded, when Jensen asked him what he was doing. "The Gols are going to raze Kerak to the ground. And I'm not planning to be here when they do it."
Jensen had had nothing to say to that, so he'd simply nodded and left Misha to his preparations. On the way back, he'd come across the city guardsmen doing drills in the town square. Their faces had worn a mixture of terror and resigned determination, and Jensen had known, as they themselves did, that infantrymen would be no match for the mounted raiders and their honed battle tactics. The only thing waiting for any of them was death. Jensen included.
So he'd gone and hidden in the rookery, where the only person who had to deal with his fear was himself. This year, it seemed, was dedicated to reminding Jensen how useless he was.
"Guess I might as well free Jared, after all," he said to the ravens, who were mostly ignoring him. "If we're all going to die anyway. Maybe he'll take out some of the Gols in the process."
Jensen's thoughts ground to a halt. He ran through that sentence once more, something disturbingly like hope bubbling up in his chest.
Maybe there was something he could do, after all.