Month 2, Day 12, Friday 8:00 p.m.
Gera stood in the doorway to her son’s bedroom as Millennium sat cross-legged in front of a large hourglass filled with euphonic sand, his hands on his knees and his eyes closed. She kept her breathing light and her body still so as not to unduly disturb his meditation, the ever-present divination that she cast allowing her to sense him as well as her ruined eye ever could have.
Every couple of minutes, he let out a soft, musical hum, imitating one of the notes that she couldn’t hear as the sand rang and tinkled against the other grains. As the merchant who sold it to them had boasted, to Miles’s delight, the sand let off “a wee tintinnabulation, faint as sprite bells,” and was the perfect thing for her son to safely strengthen his mind, as the Raven Queen had instructed.
In a few months, when he had built up more strength and his health had stabilized along with his sleep schedule, Gera would allow him to start basic magical exercises as well.
As the last of the sand fell into the base of the hourglass, Miles opened his eyes, looking straight at her as if he’d known she was there all along. Her heart ached with happiness to see the peaceful, confident expression on his face. His eyes, which no longer radiated the melancholic greyness of a child slowly fading into shadow and nothingness, focused on her without trouble, and he did not sway with fatigue. He hadn’t had any episodes of extreme emotion since the day after the Raven Queen granted her boon, when he had woken in the morning and started laughing aloud, then quickly devolved into sobbing from sheer relief.
“Is that…what it feels like?” he had asked, barely coherent, his whole body heaving in her arms from the force of his emotion, his words interrupted by shuddering gasps. “That’s how…everyone else feels…when they sleep? I felt so…” He shook his head, unable to find the words. “It was so quiet, so nice.”
Gera had cried, too, the tears streaming out around her ruined eye. “That’s how it will always feel for you from now on, my love,” she had assured him. It was a vow as much to herself as to him. If this method ever stopped working, they would call upon the Raven Queen’s aid once more, no matter the cost. No matter how disturbing Gera found the woman—if a creature such as her could even be considered a woman at all.
Gera smiled at her son. “Are you ready for sleep? The sorcerers are on their way.”
“Yes!” he exclaimed with excitement, jumping onto the bed in the center of the room and arranging his pillows just so, so that they propped up his back and curled around under each arm. Holding him—just as the Raven Queen had held him that night.
Gera moved to the bedside table and took the small vial of herbal oil that Millennium had so carefully mixed with her brother’s help, discarding mixture after mixture until they got it right. She stared at the vial for a minute, suppressing a pang of mixed jealousy and unease, then handed it to her son.
He took a small dab and placed it on the pillow behind his head, then settled in with a contented sigh. He took a deep breath and began to hum, so deep and soft as to be almost inaudible, a sound that she felt a child his size shouldn’t be able to make.
After the Raven Queen’s visit, Millennium had asked Gera to cradle him and help him relax like the Raven Queen had. But Gera’s humming only left Miles frustrated and on the edge of tears. “It’s not right!” he’d insisted. “It does not feel the same. When she did it…it was the most wonderful thing ever. I could hear nothing past her humming, and I heard it everywhere. It was in my ears, but also in my body, all the way down into my bones and organs. It felt like my heartbeat was blending with it, like two instruments in harmony. When she hummed, it wasn’t trying to tell me anything, except that I was safe. Do it like that.”
“I cannot do what she can,” Gera had said, trying to suppress the emotions fulminating inside her like a cauldron of lightning. “I do not know that there is anyone else who can do what she can.”
Miles had sighed with unhappy acceptance, and after that started working on formulating the Raven Queen’s exact smell so that it could help lull him to sleep in Gera’s stead. His hums were not magical like the Raven Queen’s, but they were another form of meditation that prepared him for sleep.
As the three sorcerers she had summoned entered the room, Gera stepped aside to supervise as they set up the necessary components within the spell array she’d had carved into the floor under and around Millennium’s bed. All three had heavy bags under their eyes, tired enough that their blinks were heavy but not so tired that their hands shook—not so tired that they would be a danger. The Raven Queen’s methods, while harsh, were effective. Lynwood had promised them that, when each of them was able to hold the spell to keep Miles asleep and dreamless throughout the night on their own, they could sleep whenever they wished.
They were improving rapidly.
As they began to cast, one of the servants poked her head into the room and waved for Gera. When she slipped out, the servant said, “The delivery woman you sent out earlier is back, and she says she has critical news for you. She requests to speak to you urgently.”
Her mouth tightening, Gera gave a single, silent nod to the servant and strode down to the drawing room. As had become an unwelcome habit, she searched the corners of the room for any unassuming shadows. Gera’s divination did not reveal light and dark, and she could walk through the wilderness on a moonless night without trouble. If there were shadows, that meant there were blank spots—voids.
The woman she had sent out earlier that evening awaited her, fidgeting in front of the fire.
“Mrs. Dotts,” Gera said. “What is the issue? Were you able to complete the delivery?”
The woman spun to face her, a strange, wavering expression on her face. “I completed it. There was trouble, and I almost didn’t make it, but then…” She took a deep breath, eyes wide. “Then I called on the Raven Queen for help…and she appeared.”
Gera sucked in a sharp breath. “Tell me everything.”
“Well, everything started off fine. I had the goods in my bag, under the false bottom. Then I was attacked by two heavy-handed cretins. I don’t know if someone tipped them off about the drop or if they just wanted a few easy coins and I was unlucky, but they got the drop on me,” she admitted, shamefaced. “I was down before I could manage to get the wand out of my calf holster.”
Gera made a rolling motion with her fingers, urging the woman to continue on to the important part.
“They roughed me up a bit and took the bag, and…well, I cursed them in the name of the Raven Queen, that”—her voice grew quiet, her eyes searching the room, looking everywhere except Gera—“they would never sleep peacefully again.”
Gera almost choked on her own spit. “You did what?” she asked hoarsely. “Do you know how dangerous that was?”
Mrs. Dotts ducked her head. “It was foolish of me, I know. I thought maybe I would go home and burn some incense while saying a prayer. I never expected…”
“What happened? Was she angry?”
“She wasn’t, or at least not at me. I didn’t even see her at first. Her…companion, the bird creature made of darkness, arrived first. It rose up out of the shadows on the dark side of the alley. The two mooks didn’t notice it at first, and it just stood there looking at us. Then it moved forward and…” She shuddered. “I think it cursed one of the men. It grabbed his head with these long, bony claws. He tried to dodge, but its thumb sank right in through his skull like it wasn’t even there. I was expecting him to die, but…there wasn’t any wound. I think maybe…maybe it was depositing the nightmares inside, just like I threatened that I would pray for her to do.”
Gera shuddered as phantom fingers of cold trailed down her back.
“They stopped attacking, but it was like they were frozen. And suddenly the Raven Queen was there, in the same spot the shadow being had risen before. I didn’t notice her arrive. She might have even been there all along, because even when I knew she was there my eyes wanted to look away.”
“Quite possible,” Gera agreed, remembering the Raven Queen’s disconcerting presence all too well.
“So she told them to leave me be and go home. They turned to run right away, but one was still holding my bag, and her shadow companion…it moved to cut off their escape, moving so fast I could barely see it. Faster than a horse at full gallop, faster than a flying bird. It actually blurred. They had no chance of escape. It made them drop the bag, and I think it was satisfied then because it sank back into the ground and disappeared. I checked the bag afterward, and everything seemed normal, but I’m pretty sure the creature touched the package. I hope that won’t be a problem?”
“You delivered it, so it’s out of our hands now. What happened after the shadow being disappeared?”
“The Raven Queen asked me if I was alright, and…I think she offered to walk me home? She told me that I shouldn’t expect her to respond to my prayers every time because she’s not all-powerful, but she just happened to be in the area when I was in need. I thought she would be angry, but she wasn’t.” Mrs. Dotts’ brows shot up as she remembered something. “Oh, and she doesn’t accept offerings, only tributes.”
“What did you give her?” Gera asked gravely.
Mrs. Dotts shook her head. “I owe her a favor now. She said I would know what I needed to do when the moment came, and that there might be some ‘small risk’ involved.”
“That’s it? A small risk specifically?”
“Are you sure?”
“She told me she only takes valuable, interesting tributes from those who can afford them. She knew I couldn’t, so she took a favor instead. And then suddenly, when I looked away for a moment, she disappeared.”
Gera was silent as she contemplated Mrs. Dotts’ story. The Raven Queen had taken their tribute and given them a boon—proper rest for Millennium. An equal exchange. But her actions tonight seemed…charitable. That could be taken two ways. Either this debt was much more ominous than the Raven Queen had suggested, or it was only a token repayment to ease Mrs. Dotts’ mind. Because, after all, Gera had done a favor for the Raven Queen.
Gera had been worried when she followed that little bracelet from Katerin’s assistant into the middle of an active rogue magic incident with the coppers and Red Guard crawling around.
Oliver had warned her, but when she walked into the tent and sensed a familiar empty spot in the world, in a new shape, with the voice of a young man, she had been terrified.
She’d quickly calculated the situation and done her best to deflect suspicion from the boy, getting quite close to lying at times, saying things that were distantly plausible, or that she didn’t know to be untrue, instead of revealing her true suspicions. She had been worried that giving away information about the woman would draw her ire, but the boy had seemed satisfied enough with her testimony. She had waited for some kind of message from the Raven Queen afterward, but none came.
Gera still wasn’t sure how the boy had been connected to the Raven Queen, or if he was perhaps the Raven Queen in another form. The woman was capricious enough to play with the Red Guard in such a way, pretending to be a victim or a bystander for her own twisted amusement.
She could only be relieved that the Raven Queen had some kind of honor. The creature pretending to be a woman was malicious, but only to those who had wronged her. Perhaps tonight had been her way to repay Gera, in a roundabout way.
Gera’s musing was interrupted by movement in the doorway. “Millennium!” she said. “You’re supposed to be asleep, young man.” She turned around to face him, crossing her arms.
“I heard her coming in, so agitated,” Miles said, nodding to Mrs. Dotts, “and there was a whisper about the Raven Queen. I wanted to hear the news. Do you think she will come visit me if I pray to her?”
“You are forbidden from doing such a thing!” Gera said, raising her voice more than she had intended in her sudden fear.
Miles frowned back at her, uncowed. “She is not actually that scary at all, you know. Maybe she could teach me some real magic!”
Gera placed a hand on her forehead, trying to press back her budding headache. “Go back to bed immediately, child. Why did your sleep team even let you leave? Are they just lazing about in your room?”
“Well, I told them I had to go to the bathroom…”
Gera shooed him back upstairs, but found, to her surprise, that she was a little relieved. Surely, the Raven Queen would return his innocent goodwill, just as she returned Gera’s favor, and just as she rained down terror upon her enemies sevenfold.
That did not mean Gera felt comfortable with her son’s veneration toward such a creature. He had spent all of a few hours with that woman. Gera had raised him his whole life.
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