“A sleeping traveler is merely cargo.”
The quote roused Tawny from her nap. She rubbed her eyes, forgetting her hands were coated in soil. After a solid twenty seconds she’d removed all the sleep and dirt and been able to survey her surroundings. She was glad to see they were exactly as she had left them. More than two hundred shakespore plants crowded her with their huge hanging flowers. The petals were bright orange and yellow and they hung so low because they hadn’t heard anything stimulating since the beginning of the journey almost two weeks ago.
It was still midday, so the sun came through the canvas of the wagon and kept the temperature high. Tawny realized she was sweating through her thick dress and onto the fluffy scarf she’d used as a pillow. She brushed a leathery leaf away and heard it rustle; this seemed odd to her because the sounds of the wagon should’ve been much louder than one leaf. Then it occurred to her that the wagon wasn’t actually moving anymore.
Have we arrived already? She thought. Tawny was nearly fifty-six years old now, a fact not hidden by the rapidly graying hair that had been her namesake. Her naps had grown more frequent in recent years, but she hoped she hadn’t actually slept through the last eight hours of the trip. It was just so tempting to sleep these days; it was the only way to get the quotes to leave you alone. Now that Tawny was older and had earned her own wisdom, most quotes felt like nothing more than the whine of a mosquito in her ear.
Her fraternal twin brother Ocher was asleep across from her. There was a rolled up map clutched in his hand and each drop of drool out of his mouth fell perfectly through the middle of it and hit the dirt. Tawny, still not eager to get up herself, stretched and kicked her brother’s foot. He snorted and crushed the poor map in his grip before sitting up. He didn’t bother to flatten his wiry hair, straighten the buttons on his vest, or lace his boots up. He pulled a small wooden object from his vest pocket. It had a hole in the top with ten bent metal keys over it. He plucked at the keys of the hand piano and produced a musical message.
“What’s going on? Have the fireworks started?” is how Tawny translated the song. In response she dug her bell-ended flute out of the dirt and played her own melody. Dust flew from the end of it.
“That was eight months ago,” Tawny’s flute reminded. “The wagon’s not moving. Go see if we’ve arrived.”
“I suppose it is my turn,” he replied with the piano. Ocher pulled himself out of the dirt and walked to the front of the covered wagon carefully to avoid treading on the flowers. He threw open the flap and saw that the horses had pulled them off the road about two hundred feet from the welcome gates of the city. “We’re here,” he played back. “I told you Gopher didn’t need me steering him. He remembers from the last time he was here.”
“He was just a foal then,” Tawny’s flute sang.
“I remember things from when I was a foal, like that time I fell out of that tree and rained plums on all those poor ladies in the shade.”
“That was only ten years ago,” Tawny corrected again.
“Well the point is that he got us here,” Ocher thumbed out on the keys. Tawny pulled herself up as well and exited the wagon with her brother where they dusted off their clothes. They’d been told by their employer that it was best to not look fresh from the burrow when collecting payment.
Two horses, one chestnut and the other gray with bluish spots, stood patiently in their harnesses. The brown one was named Gopher, after an exceptionally smart rodent that had once stolen a bag full of peanuts from Ocher’s belt. The other was named Crow after an oddly intelligent bird Tawny had once taught to count to twenty-five.
“Are we sure they took us to the right city? I don’t remember there being so many walls,” Tawny played, gazing upon the large oak barriers around the city gate and the crisscrossing iron bars holding it all together.
“This is Notion alright,” Ocher played without consulting the map. He trusted Gopher’s judgment in this, and all other, situations.
“I did not think my home city of Notion had left a mark on me, until I tried to leave it.”
Tawny swatted the quote away, but several more hit her ears now that she wasn’t protected by the wagon.
“Only the call of the ocean can drive me from Notion!”
“I’m proud to call myself a visitor of Notion, rather than a citizen.”
The quotes, both good and bad, sought to resonate with the traveling twins, for a quote that could not resonate with a human mind would eventually degenerate into a whisper and then die in a puff of silence. The quotes were why the twins, like most other people, communicated with instruments. If they opened their mouths and used their words, it would create a living invisible quote that would constantly fly about looking for a human that needed its information. To say something flippantly would mean an annoyance to a great many people and the birth of a creature that would quickly wither and perish. These particular quotes were more oriented to individuals leaving the city rather than entering it, so they did not strike a chord with the twins who had little impression of the place.
Tawny and Ocher grabbed the horses’ reins and led them to the city gates, where a few guards ushered them and their wagon inside.
Notion was a small city built near a very large lake, so many of the buildings had at one point been watchtowers and lighthouses before their conversion to layered domiciles. These towers were each painted with spiraling stripes of red or silver. The roads were made up of extremely polished slabs of stone, with nary a crack for the wagon wheels to bounce in. Thick ropes hung between third and fourth story windows and were weighed down by all manner of drying clothes and ornate carpets that needed more than a gentle breeze to free them from the dirt of toddler knees they’d suffered for so many generations.
One carpet in particular had a loose strand hanging all the way to the street. Crow tried to chew on it, but Tawny pulled him away and directed the wagon into an open slot between buildings that had been reserved for them. There was a large pile of hay and honeysuckle for the horses, along with a rusty old trough of surprisingly clear water.
Ocher rummaged through the back of the wagon and pulled out a leather-bound volume with a red-dyed leather flower holding the clasp shut. It contained their records, contracts, and the receipt for the large order of shakespore plants they were here to deliver. He thumbed out a song with his free hand, so it took twice as long.
“I’ll get this signed and start planting. Why don’t you go to the market and get us some dinner?” he played. Tawny nodded in response and dug out a basket and some money from her section of the wagon. Then they tied up the horses and went their separate ways
“The signature dish of Notion is a fish tongue and onion soup that tastes like a perch freshly caught from the loam of your spice garden.”
The quote came in a warm female voice and seemed sincere enough, so Tawny decided to trust it as she sought directions to the market.
Ocher followed the street signs to the Notion public library. It was an old building of gray stone with two towers on each side of the main doors, which were left propped open. He tilted his head up and noticed the bowl-shaped balcony on one of the towers. The balcony looked new and wasn’t mirrored on the other tower. The small distraction caused Ocher to walk right into the door and crush his nose against the edge. The sound was quite loud, but there was no one at the desk to hear him. He rubbed his nose and started wandering through the stacks in search of… What’s the name again? Ocher flipped through his receipts to find it. Maria Gantro: Head Librarian. He’d been told that Notion’s government was a collection of high ranking public officials, each elected to their position. So when the town council held a vote to use public funds to seed their city with shakespore, apparently the librarian got stuck with the bookkeeping. Hah, figures, Ocher thought as he looked up just in time to smash his nose into a bookcase.
All of a sudden the quieting quotes were all around him like bees. They were some of the most annoying quotes because they applied to any noise and resonated with anyone that just wanted peace. They were a regular plague in the libraries of the world.
That quote was too loud and didn’t quite fit in with the rest, so Ocher listened as the flock of shushes corralled the helpless ‘shut up’ out the front door.
The library’s lack of popularity continued to prove frustrating as Ocher wandered around in search of a signature. Past the stacks he encountered several exhibits on Notion’s history in glass cases. There were prize-winning taxidermy fish, an antique loom with its last creation a quarter finished, and nicked shields and swords on the wall from something called ‘the battle of what-did-you-just-call-me?’
That reminded Ocher of a time in his teenage years when a bully had actually dared to call him a ‘mule jockey’ out loud, and the insult had followed him for four months and inserted itself into interactions in place of an introduction. Fed by the snickering of passersby, he’d had to seclude himself at home for a few weeks and pass his duties to Tawny until the quote finally withered away. That put him in the even tougher situation of owing his sister a thousand or so favors. I think I’ve still got two hundred or so left, he thought.
It was only when he approached a door marked ‘staff only’ that a middle-aged woman with a head of much older hair appeared around the corner. Ocher fumbled with his receipts so he could have two hands to play his instrument.
“Can I assist you?” the woman played on a small lyre. Ocher could hear her irritation in the staccato notes.
“Yes, I’m looking for M-a-r-i-a G-a-n-t-r-o,” Ocher played back. That was the way they had to do it, one note per letter to account for the sheer variety in names from city to city.
Instead of wasting time with an answer, the woman held out her hand and raised her eyebrows. Apparently she was Maria and she couldn’t think of a good reason why the receipt wasn’t already in her hand. Ocher handed it over and she scanned it, eyes jumping from line to line faster than a jolt of static electricity. I can’t even think that fast, Ocher thought.
“Where will you be planting these shakespores?” she asked with the lyre. She didn’t take the charcoal pencil when Ocher held it out. He guessed it would be questions first and signing later.
“Well we’ve been instructed to place them everywhere ma’am,” he twanged away on his piano. “When we’re done they should be evenly distributed throughout Notion, wherever there’s a strip of dirt large enough to hold them.”
“There will be no plants around the library,” she ordered.
“And why is that ma’am?” Ocher asked. She glared at him; clearly she did not like being treated like one of the library’s reference texts.
“Some of our most important wisdom lives near the library. It is its natural habitat after all. We don’t want your plants indiscriminately eating any quote in this area. Who knows what inspiration we might lose,” Maria played.
“Oh but, you needn’t worry,” Ocher assured. “As requested in the order, these are a specially bred variety. The flowers eat only melodies in the human voice. They’ll take care of your noise pollution and leave your local color be.”
“Only melodies? So what if the wisest thing ever said happens to be in the form of a limerick, hmm? Will your brainless flowers snap it up, thinking it garbage?” Maria asked.
“Well I suppose that’s possible,” Ocher admitted.
“I’m signing for these because our town has put it to a vote,” she plucked at the strings. “Personally, I don’t agree with the decision. I think there are much better ways to rid this town of rabble than to have some ugly plants catch their cacophonies. Now, do I have your word you will plant your flowers everywhere that isn’t here?”
“Yes ma’am,” Ocher played. She signed the receipt and handed it back to him. Then she walked past the glass cases he’d passed a few moments ago and rubbed at the sections as high as Ocher’s head with a lacey kerchief. She seemed to think his breath had fogged the displays. Then she rather stiffly exited the corridor, shoes clicking against the wood floor in perfect intervals.
“An easy way to tell if a person likes you is to imagine how many times, in the midst of a dance, they would tread on your toes.”
Ocher considered the quote and then made his way back to the library entrance. Now that he knew that not everyone there was onboard with his flower delivery, he would have to be a bit more polite. Sometimes he wished he could pull the cart and that Gopher could handle the politics.
Notion’s food market was slightly overwhelming. There were fifty or so stalls and each one was packed to the gills with produce, meats, cheeses, breads, and jars of herbal medicine. Almost every vendor seemed gripped by paranoia; their eyes darted around like their neighbors might stab in the back to acquire the freshest selection of barley and beets. When one of them saw Tawny their eyes filled with expectation. Tawny adjusted the basket on her shoulder and did her best to keep her eyes forward.
She knew from her assignment that Notion was in the midst of economic difficulties. A large group of African immigrants were now making their home in Notion, and the locals felt crowded by the influx of cheap labor. The immigrants had brought their culture with them, so Tawny was unfamiliar with many of the food items she was seeing.
Suddenly, another piece of luggage the immigrants had brought with them surrounded Tawny and the nearest vendors. A cloud of quotes working in harmony trumpeted a tribal song in their ears. The chanting was fast, low, and loud, like a monsoon hammering away on a hollow dead tree. While Tawny did not mind the music, something about it, aside from the excessive volume, chilled her in her warm clothes. What is that? she thought. It’s like the music is ill. No… just infected. There’s something inside it. Something that’s lifting my hair from my skin.
It was no wonder the town had voted to ship in some shakespore plants to eat the music. Its presence was so off putting that it could have soured the cheeses on display as well as the vendors’ faces.
Once the song moved on, Tawny approached a stall with some African fare. She knew Ocher preferred variety in his diet; once she’d served him a boiled frog bone stew as a joke and he’d asked for seconds. The vendor was one of the few who seemed relaxed, so relaxed in fact that his head hung back in his chair and he slept quietly. He had dark skin and a colorful African hat that reminded Tawny of a fancy layered fruit tart. She filled her basket with a salt encrusted loaf of bread, a bunch of blood sausages, a small cloth bag of rich butter, and a few plump teal fruits that looked wonderfully juicy.
She asked for a price with her flute, but the vendor did not wake. She played louder. No response.
“The layabout can’t hear you,” the next vendor played on a very small violin-like instrument. “He’s wearing earcloaks.” Tawny leaned over the stall and noticed there were two fuzzy lumps around the African vendor’s ears that were held in place by his hat. Tawny took a moment to look at the violin vendor. She was an older white woman and had several rows of cakes and croissants neatly displayed according to size and flavor. There wasn’t a crumb in sight, indicating that, to her, every distinct thing on this Earth had exactly one place where it was supposed to be.
“Why is he wearing those?” Tawny asked her with her flute.
“Some people in this town think all the wisdom around them is a nuisance rather than a gift. They think it’s better to ignore their elders and ancestors and repeat all their mistakes because they just can’t bear to be told what to do. I wouldn’t mind, if they didn’t spread such nonsense to our children. Those earcloaks are a plague on our city. They’re killing our history.”
Tawny nodded. Layabout or not, she wasn’t going to steal from the man just because he made it easy. She nudged his chest with the tip of her flute and the man awoke. He smiled at her and pulled out a strange instrument she’d never seen before. It was a long round piece of wood covered in ribbed layers. He played it by running a stick along the ribs at different intervals. Tawny realized she could decode it much the same way she did washboards in the southern regions.
“Will that be all for you?” he asked with his music.
“Yes,” Tawny replied and handed him a pile of coins. She hesitated for a moment. “Unless… questions are free,” she played.
“Those fruits are called Jia,” he played, thinking he’d anticipated her question.
“I was curious about that,” Tawny admitted, “but I was actually wondering if you could tell me about the music.” The vendor’s smile faded some. Tawny tried to coax it back by putting the question in context. “My brother and I are planting the shakespore plants that the town ordered and the more I know about the music, the better we can do our job.”
“The music is unfamiliar to me. It is unfamiliar to my family, my friends, and even our pets. We don’t know where it comes from. It must be a product of Notion,” he played stiffly.
“You liar,” the violin vendor played sharply. “That music didn’t show up until all of you did! No one around here howls at the moon like that!”
“That noise is no African language,” the vendor played back, “it sounds like nonsense to me.” Tawny took a step back but stuck around, suspecting she might be able to pull some information out of the air from between the flying arrows.
“You wear those cloaks so you don’t have to hear your own noise once it takes wing,” the violin vendor shrieked with her strings.
“I wear these so I don’t have to hear you,” he replied plainly.
“You squander Echo’s gifts!” the violinist shot back.
Tawny recalled the legend of how the quotes became part of man’s world.
Ages ago, when all of the Earth was a fertile valley surrounded by a fresh ocean, the children of gods frolicked in the bounty and tamed giant noble beasts. It was a time without sharp teeth. A time of moonlight instead of darkness. Two of these children were Narcissus and Echo.
Narcissus loved himself above all else, and Echo loved him in much the same way. Her voice was beautiful, like ripples in the sun, and could pull beasts and men away from their food and their games. Yet, it could not pull Narcissus. For a time she could pretend they were together, as Narcissus did not care enough to contradict her, but one day he caught sight of his own reflection in a tepid pool outside a large cave. He sat at its edge and stared into his own eyes for hours. Days. Years. Echo begged him to look to her, to see her love for him. He would not acknowledge her. She sang to him. Birds joined her in harmony. Crowds gathered and applauded her efforts. Vines grew and flowered around the ankles of the god children as they carried on. Narcissus stared. Echo sang.
When her voice finally began to fail her, she considered giving up. She had a vision of herself alone. This was a delusion only obsession could create, since any other man would’ve been overjoyed to have her. This vision compelled her to spend herself entirely. Her essence went into her song. Her hope wove its way into the melody. Her will to live became the chorus. Still Narcissus did not look away. She spent herself through song. The vines that had grown about her fell lightly to the ground, for her body had become her voice.
For one blissful moment, her love’s eyes shifted. Only a ripple. Despair took her spirit and even her voice failed. In that moment of defeat she retreated into the cave, certain to die in silence.
A day came when the pool before Narcissus dried up and he had to search for a new one. The first place he checked was the cave. Is anyone there? He asked. Is anyone there? Echo replied. Her own voice was gone, but she borrowed his. I am Narcissus, he said. I am Narcissus, she answered.
And so it was that Narcissus came to love Echo, because she was nothing more than the sound of his own voice. Echo spread her gift to the mortal world so that all may be heard. That way, even when their bodies failed, something could live on to seek their goals.
“Echo was a foolish girl,” the African vendor’s instrument rattled. “These invisible words are no gift. They are gnats that bite at your mind! They try to enforce their will over you. Anansi the spider was a true god! He caught these quotes in his web and made them into the first stories. Then he gave us the instruments to tell them.”
“If my father had been here to hear this heathen junk…” the violin vendor went on. Tawny decided it was a good time to take her leave, lest someone start hurling jia fruit. She backed away and started walking.
“Argument comes not from disagreement, but the fear of oppression.”
Tawny validated the quote with a nod so it could go about its business. She considered exploring the city a little more and scouting some locations for the plants, but another quote came within earshot that roused her curiosity. While she normally couldn’t be bothered to chase quotes up and down a foreign town, something about this one was familiar.
It was in a child’s voice. Perhaps a little one was learning speech for the first time? She knew that was unlikely because quotes from the mouth of babes barely made it ten feet from their source before dying. Also, the voice was much older. Nin years perhaps, Tawny guessed.
The rules of the game returned to Tawny’s mind. She hadn’t thought about it in decades and wasn’t aware the tradition still existed. When she and Ocher were young enough to justify their squabbles, the children in their neighborhood used the exact same number map to find their way to their friends. The code was very simple. ‘One’ meant that you should turn right, and two was ‘left’. Three through nine indicated distance, with three meaning you were very close. The short-lived quotes were just smart enough to know that they resonated when they were understood, so they only voiced themselves when they applied to someone’s position.
Tawny could, once again, not resist tugging one of Notion’s threads, so she followed the young quotes. They turned her away from the marketplace and into narrower streets. She slithered through rows of hanging carpets and coughed on their dust. The numbers got lower and sounded more excited. When the first ‘four’ got to her it was practically a squeal. The sky darkened as she got closer to the city center and the sun was hidden behind looming buildings and awnings. The air became cool and moist and she started to notice large plush shelves of moss growing on any uneven bricks. Shortly after that the walls around her became so uneven that flowers could grow in the pockets between the stone.
A wave of that strange music hit her and she had to wait for the chanting to stop before she could hear the next number. It stayed about her so long that she tried swatting it away with her hands. She shivered at the sound of it and felt like globs of rotten meat were being poured into her ears. Dreadful, she thought. I don’t know how anyone could sing this. She plucked two lumps of moss from the wall and pressed them into her ears. Then she leaned up against the wall of the alley and waited for the noise to pass. She knew it was gone when the bumps left her skin. When she removed the moss the numbers told her she was very close. It was only another minute before she arrived. The narrowest alley yet opened up into a square courtyard surrounded by the backdoors of four large housing structures. The courtyard was a single slab of dark gray slate with just one hole in it, from which a neatly trimmed tree grew. Its branches were heavy with both fruit and children who hung upside down from its stronger limbs. More children, who had perhaps fallen from the tree and rolled away, were playing some sort of game.
“Excuse me,” a little girl said from behind Tawny. Tawny moved out of the alley mouth so the girl could get into the playground. A few more children arrived from various alleys and doors, all following the numbers so they could join in the festivities. Tawny did her best to stay out of their way and tried to figure out their game.
The children had drawn a series of intersecting square pathways on the slate with chalk. The edges of these squares were decorated to indicate what that square was: trees for forest, water for an island, lava for a volcano, and so on. Each square had to be jumped to and landing outside a square removed you from the game. The main goal seemed to be avoiding the designated monster. One of the children wore a beaked mask with blue eyes. They had a black blanket draped around their shoulders and held two sticks tipped with rubber claws. The monster’s bloodthirsty nature gave it the power to move two squares at a time in its hunt for children.
As they were too young for instruments, the air was full of laughter and words that hopped about like rabbits.
“How beautiful laughter is, before it matures into derision.”
Tawny noticed that the monster seemed to be closing in on its prey. A little girl with curly red hair, wide eyes, and knobby knees looked over her shoulder with genuine fear. The beast was just five squares away. A referee child shouted ‘jump’ and all the players moved. Now the monster was just four squares away! It growled and waved its claws. The frightened girl frantically analyzed her surroundings and looked for a way to outmaneuver the creature. The next jump came and she turned on the corner of the forest. With any luck she could pass another child and the monster’s gaze would avert. Another jump. Only two squares now. The claws were practically brushing her hair. She looked like she was about to break down into tears. She had one chance. There was an island nearby that was separate from the rest of the squares. The jump was quite far though, and her knobby knees were already quaking. The monster snickered. She stared at the vast expanse of ocean separating her from the island and doubted her ability to reach it.
“The size of an obstacle is not determined by mass, but by force of will.”
Though she wasn’t quite old enough to understand the quote, she took comfort in its authoritative voice. She took a deep breath and prepared for the jump. When it came she sprang with all her heart, arms stretched out in front of her trying to pull the air. She landed and tottered on the edge of a square, mere inches from oblivion. She managed to steady herself, but in the end it did no good. Though the monster was bound by the rules to take an extra turn when jumping to disconnected squares, it eventually caught up with her when she simply did not have the energy to leap across the ocean a second time. The claws raked her shoulder.
The girl burst into real tears and fled from the game’s mortal coil. She ascended some steps to a backdoor and hugged the legs of an adult man who stood there. She sobbed wet patches into his knees. His knobby knees.
Tawny hadn’t noticed the one other adult until now, but guessed he was the girl’s father. He had similar red hair, a thin build, and a short beard.
The monster pulled off its own head and revealed yet another crop of red hair. This time it was attached to a boy who was a few years older than the girl.
“She said she wouldn’t cry this time if we let her play,” the boy complained to his father. The father pulled out a pan flute.
“She’s just complimenting your performance as the hollowcry,” he played. “And perhaps she wouldn’t be upset if her brother wasn’t so set on eating the same child over and over again.” The boy rolled his eyes and put the mask back on. All of the other children reset the game and started playing again.
The father looked over and noticed Tawny for the first time. He looked unsettled at the sight of her. Tawny approached with her flute to explain herself.
“Does one of them belong to you?” the man played. He patted his daughter’s head and sent her back out into the courtyard.
“Oh no,” Tawny played back, “I’m in town to deliver the shakespore plants. I just heard their number code and thought I’d see if I could still follow it. A bit silly I know.”
“Is that all?” he played, relief on his face. He relaxed his shoulders and leaned up against the building.
“Did you think I was someone else?” Tawny asked.
“No one in particular. Some of the parents don’t approve of the children playing together. That’s why they use their little number quotes to find each other,” he explained. Tawny looked and noticed that many of the children were African.
“Does that dreadful music divide you that much?” she asked.
“It’s not just the music,” he played. He took a moment to sigh. “It’s really the murders that have everyone on edge.”
Tawny nearly dropped her grocery basket. She steadied the rolling food with one hand and looked around for a place to set everything. The man pulled up a stool for her to set the basket on.
“My name’s Bennock by the way,” he played. Tawny introduced herself, but couldn’t think of where to start after that. She had thought the name ‘jia fruit’ would be the strangest thing she learned that day. Before she could say anything she noticed Bennock had a pair of earcloaks about his neck. He noticed her stares.
“Do you not approve?” he played.
“I don’t judge,” Tawny replied.
“I do walk a bit of a tight cultural line. I know how to appreciate the quotes… but… sometimes you need to shut it all out. Sometimes the truth needs to come from inside.”
“A fence sitter is rewarded with splinters.”
“Yes, thank you,” Bennock played sarcastically, then shooed the quote away.
“So about these murders…” Tawny played, trying to change the subject. She wanted to know if Ocher and the horses would be safe protected by nothing but a wagon cover.
“They started about three months ago,” Bennock played sadly. He looked ashamed to have to explain his home this way, as if he’d put up a guest in a bedroom full of fleas. “Every few weeks a person goes missing at nightfall. There’s no sign of them… until the next one goes missing. Then the last person reappears… but lifeless. Their bodies show marks that indicate prolonged torture.”
“How many?” Tawny asked, shocked.
“Six,” Bennock played, “It has hit my family especially hard. The people who were taken are all, as that quote so incisively put it, ‘fence-sitters’. Many of us voted for you to bring the flowers, but we don’t harbor the same resentment for our town’s new residents as some of the older… institutions here.”
“And your town authorities have no idea as to the culprit?” Tawny asked.
“Oh there is an idea. That.” Bennock pointed to his son, still in full monster garb.
“You don’t mean…”
“I do. Some witnesses claim to have seen a hollowcry at the scenes of the crimes. I know it sounds absurd, but that’s what they say.”
“A hollowcry,” Tawny repeated with her flute. The hollowcry was a far more recent legend than the tale of Narcissus and Echo and far more disturbing. Its main purpose was to frighten children into using their music instead of their words when they came of age. The tales described it as a great black bird-like creature that flies invisibly in the night sky. Its incredible ears pick up unwise words so it can hone in on its prey. Then it swoops down silently and begins to tear its victim apart. The killing is merely incidental, because the hollowcry’s real sustenance is screams of terror. Your horrified wails cannot flee to seek help, because the bird drinks them up just like a shakespore and gorges until there is no more air in the lungs, no more beat in the heart.
“Do you believe it?” she asked.
“I believe there are people in this town angry enough to kill, and that a monster makes a convenient excuse.”
“My brother and I are staying in our wagon while we work… do you think we’ll be alright?” Tawny asked.
“Yes, I think so. Our hollowcry only seems interested in certain, very political, targets.”
“Then is it safe to be wearing those?” Tawny asked and pointed to his earcloaks.
“Perhaps not, but some things you have to stand up for,” he played.
“A man with family should never make himself a target, because aim is rarely perfect.”
Bennock took a few steps from the wall to check that both of his children were still there. He breathed a tired sigh of relief. He seemed to have a bit of a sore neck from looking over his shoulder.
“Fear quotes don’t contain wisdom,” Tawny played, trying to comfort him.
“You’re quite right,” he played, “but all the same, it is beginning to get dark.” Bennock pulled out a series of five small funnel shapes and attached them to his pan flute. They greatly increased his volume as he ordered all the children in the courtyard to disband and head home. As the crowd scattered, his own children climbed the stairs. He handed the older boy a key and reminded him to never let anyone other than him inside. The boy nodded and the two children retreated into the building.
“While I’m sure you’ve nothing to worry about,” he played to Tawny, “I will walk you back to your wagon all the same.”
“Thank you,” Tawny played.
Ocher held his cards close to his face. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead. He’d spent all day planting and hoped to return to a pot of warm stew and some fresh fruit, but Tawny had not returned yet. She did this often, leaving him with no company but the horses. Not that he minded. What he did mind were the evil glances that had been shot into him half the day. Every other house with a patch of dirt contested his presence. Dozens of artisans, scholars, and geezers had blocked his way and demanded to see all the official paperwork before they so much as let him touch spade to soil. It was unusual for his fingers to ache from his piano rather than his shovels.
So with no food and no appreciation after a hard day’s work, he’d decided to unwind with a simple card game in the back of the wagon. Things were not going well though. He’d already lost six coins to his opponents.
Both horses had their heads stuck in the back of the wagon, with their cards obscured by a few shakespore leaves. Crow was losing, which didn’t surprise Ocher because he’d never been much for card games before. He preferred philosophy and the green ends of carrots. Gopher, on the other hand, was proving impossible to beat. Every time Ocher had tried to bluff the horse merely huffed and shook his head, spotting the lie immediately. Ocher certainly didn’t enjoy giving his money to a horse that didn’t even have pockets to hold it, but fair was fair.
It was his fault for trying out a new game; Gopher always picked up new ones faster than him. A nice African fellow had gifted him the deck of cards after he’d planted a few rows of the shakespore around the vegetable plot in back of his home. They were expertly painted in six peculiar suits: drums, paw prints, scrolls, sun clocks, something teal he had called ‘jia’, and spiders. Ocher thought he heard most of the rules, although some of the man’s explanation was lost on him when he was attacked by a spell of the horrible music he’d been hired to eliminate.
After that he had thought about Tawny and wondered if she’d encountered those odd sounds yet. He wondered if she’d been told the same stories, with everyone in town denying that they we producing the music.
The two of them had never been the most connected twins: they never had a private language and they rarely predicted each other’s responses. They did have an extremely comfortable dynamic where Tawny would tolerate his oddities and he would tolerate her tendency to wander off and come back covered in trouble.
Ocher was seconds away from accusing Gopher of cheating when the three of them heard something. Both horses pulled their heads from the wagon and stared down the street. Ocher leaned out and did the same. He kicked the cards into the wagon’s soil as he lowered himself to the street.
“Was that Tawny?” he played. The horses gave him a grave look. Then there was silence. The lack of noise felt, somehow, artificial. He seemed to sense an entire part of the city was missing just a few blocks away.
“If you’re going to spend a fair amount of time worrying about something, then you may as well use that time to investigate it.”
Ocher pulled a thin saddle from the wagon and threw it on Crow. He immediately set the horse running in the direction of the sound. Gopher followed, but he was not as quick as the younger horse and quickly fell behind. Ocher knew he would understand that he had to hurry ahead. Without his dear sister, who would tolerate him?
Their walk back through Notion had been pleasant enough, even with the dimming light. Tawny and Bennock shared a piece of fruit and swapped stories about relatives. Bennock was a lawyer of defense in Notion’s court system. His father had been a judge and Bennock was proud to disappoint him by defending those he often threw the book at. He was once directly pitted against his father in a case that resulted in the poor man he defended being hung.
“I never forgave him for that,” Bennock had played. “He killed a man to spite me and the only way I had to return the favor was to miss his burial.”
Tawny reciprocated the emotional admission by talking about her own flight with Ocher from their home, a communal town where they were going to be separated and placed in occupations that had been decided before they were even born.
“Your station in life is wherever you find your smile.”
They both grinned and nodded. Tawny wiped some teal juice from her lips. They were only a few blocks from the wagon when something strange happened. A rug from one of the ropes far above them fell to the ground with a heavy sound and a cloud of dust. They both looked up, but saw nothing. Bennock pulled a small dagger from the back of his belt. Tawny set her groceries down on the street. The street was empty of other people. Every window was shut and every door was locked by the fear that Tawny now felt. Is there a monster in Notion? She thought.
Another rug fell, hitting Bennock on the way down. He scrambled to his feet and pocketed his flute to have another free hand. Another rug smacked the ground. Bennock tried to shout something to Tawny, desperate enough to use his voice, but no sound came out. She put her hand to her ear to indicate she couldn’t hear him. Another rug fell, but made no sound. Unsure of what to do, Tawny shouted herself. It was the first time she’d used her voice for anything other than a whistle in seven months. Only the first syllable escaped her. The ‘O’ in Ocher carried away, but the rest of her call for help simply didn’t exist. She’d been overtaken by the same bubble of silence that enveloped Bennock.
The source of the oppressive force did not hide for long; it dropped down from the rooftops as a winged black mass and nearly flattened Bennock. Tawny saw the flash of claws as it swiped the dagger from his hand. Tawny was old, and perhaps a tad lazy, but she was no coward. She ran towards the monster and tried to beat it about the head with her flute. She landed one blow, but then the creature kicked her away. A claw on its foot punctured her midsection and she started to bleed on the smooth street. She took a moment to check the wound and found it to be smaller than it felt. She rose to her feet to make another attempt, but the hollowcry had other plans. She caught a brief glimpse of its eyes: huge, blue, and shining in the smallest remnants of daylight left. The beast spread its dark wings wide and took off into the sky, Bennock in the grip of its claws. It gained altitude quickly.
Once it was a certain distance away, the sound returned. Tawny heard her own heavy breathing. She heard window frames creaking.
The monster had wings, but Tawny was not completely grounded. She loosened a few straps around her sleeves, which released two large folds of fabric that she then buckled to her waist. The community she had grown up in was a society not too dissimilar to Notion. They understood the power of quotes, both good and bad. If you really listened to them, got them excited, the warm air of their bodies could lift you from the ground as they surrounded you. While Ocher had ignored such teachings, Tawny had considered it worth it. Every so often she would let the wisdom of the world pick her up and then drop her slowly.
“Flight is unnatural for a man. To scoff at the land is like scoffing at food or shelter.”
“As a hunter I can tell you there’s nothing worse than a cold trail.”
“Kindness without bravery is merely sentiment.”
Tawny took the quotes in. She considered each one. She strengthened them and made them grow. The quotes grew bigger, warmer, and more numerous. The force of their presence gathered under the wings of her garment and made her feel light. She took off running, in search of a point where she could start climbing. Some of her community’s elders had learned such appreciation for quotes that they could fly like birds with ease, but Tawny had never gotten so far. The quotes could only boost her and lessen the Earth’s pull. She found a series of windows and awnings nearby that were close enough together. She leapt into the air, the quotes raising the jump by more than six feet. She grabbed an awning and jumped again. Over and over she vaulted upward until she made it to a roof.
From there she scanned the dark sky for any shape. There was something in the distance, a dark blur that grew fainter by the second. Tawny took off after it, leaping from rooftop to rooftop like a flying squirrel. She knew she could not defeat such a beast, but she might be able to figure out where it was taking him. The effort caught up with her quickly, forcing her to grunt with every jump. It doesn’t matter how old I am, she tried to convince herself, The quotes will keep me up. Echo’s devotion can keep me up. Her efforts did manage to bring her closer to the dark mass. She approached the largest gap yet. She did her best to orient herself horizontally to make the glide more effective, but in the middle of the air she was struck by Notion’s cursed music. The infernal chanting bombarded her body and mind. It drowned out the rest of the quotes and pressed her wings in the wrong direction. Her body wobbled and collided with the side of a building. She cried out in shock as her wrist smashed into the stone. Then she fell. Tawny did her best to hold out one arm, to keep some of the quotes under her wing. Still, the tumble was quite painful. When she finally landed, she bruised her already injured arm and her back. The pavement greeted the side of her head rather coldly.
She sat up and leaned against the wall she’d collided with, careful of her wrist. Given how much it stung, she had at the very least sprained it. The music, its job done, left her to recover her breath. A tear streamed down her cheek for poor Bennock, carried off to have his fear siphoned out.
She noticed an object sitting near her and reached over with her uninjured hand. It was Bennock’s flute! She assumed that somewhere in the struggle it had been torn free, so she pocketed it. If he was indeed doomed, she would at least be able to return it to his children. His children! Tawny thought in horror and placed a hand over her mouth. What will happen to his children? What will that boy think when he opens his toy chest and finds his hollowcry costume?
Something else fell nearby with a horrible sound. It was no rug this time. Though it was outside the alley, Tawny could see it was a body. She immediately knew it was not Bennock, because she remembered what he’d said about the monster’s habits. Every few weeks someone disappeared and the body of the last victim appeared. That beast could not carry two people! Are there… Are there two of them?
She started to worry the second one might come back for her when she heard a horse approaching. She pulled out her flute and called for help with her free hand. Ocher rode into the alley on the back of Crow. He dismounted and helped her up. Seeing her injuries, he did not bother to pelt her with questions. His first concern was getting her to safety, especially after he noticed the corpse. They both heard the sounds of footsteps and suspected it to be the police or some kind of night watch. Previous experience had taught them it was never a good idea to hang around the scene of a crime as a foreigner, so Ocher helped his sister onto Crow’s back and they rode with great haste back to the wagon.
Once they were safely swaddled in the wagon’s canvas, Ocher lit a small lantern and Tawny explained the evening’s horrors. Ocher had her injured wrist bound in a small splint, so she played her flute slowly with her healthy hand. Gopher had not returned to the wagon, but they all knew not to worry about such a clever horse.
“A hollowcry? Are you sure it wasn’t just… a fat heron?” Ocher played.
“Would a fat heron be able to carry a man away? Or create a void that ate all sound?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“I… forgot the groceries in the alley,” Tawny played absent-mindedly. There was silence. “I don’t know what to do.”
“What can we do?” Ocher played. “We didn’t ask for this mess. We should drop the rest of the flowers and leave. We can’t be expected to work in these conditions.”
“That man had children,” Tawny explained. Ocher quieted. “I met them Ocher. Sweet little things. They’re probably scared to death right now and wondering where their father is. I should at least bring them this.” She pulled Bennock’s flute out and felt the cool wood with her fingertips. She suddenly felt the urge to hear the only voice she knew from Bennock, so she blew along the flute. One note was missing from the progression.
“Is it broken?” Ocher played.
“No I ‘s f ne,” Tawny played on the pan flute, but Ocher could not understand because of the missing notes. Tawny looked inside each pipe to see if there was a blockage, but couldn’t find anything. When she finally identified the affected portion, she blew into it as hard as she could. Something invisible flew out from the tube and finally freed the note.
The quote was barely a whisper, but the twins heard it. Tawny knew it had to be Bennock. He had whispered that poor little quote into the flute with his last ounce of strength. It had hidden inside the flute so as not to be devoured by the hollowcry’s power. Does it mean anything?
“Maybe… that’s what he saw,” she played. “He saw the hollowcry’s roost from the air… and knew he was being taken there!”
A few moments of silence followed as they racked their brains for a use of this new information. Could they find this roost? If so, could they get anyone to believe them and help them fight the monster? It was then that Ocher had a flash of brilliance. Perhaps it was the hunger that had already set him in survival mode, or the clarity of fatigue from a hard day’s work, but the answer came to him.
“Tawny,” he started on his piano, “You said Bennock didn’t believe in the hollowcry!”
“I suspect he does now,” she played, unsure of her brother’s direction.
“You said he thought it was a person! That the monster was a ruse! Think about this… is flight impossible for a man?”
“Not with the proper clothes,” Tawny played, “and with enough quotes. It couldn’t have been a man though! There was no sound anywhere around it! Quotes didn’t even exist near it!”
“Yes, but what happens when you take the fibers from certain kinds of shakespore and weave them into a cloak?”
“You get a cloak that absorbs sound…”
“Now… what if only the outside of the cloak was made of shakespore? What if the inside was wool… or leather… or fur. You could shelter quotes under it and still absorb all the sound outside the cloak! Just like Bennock’s quote. It could hide in the flute because it wasn’t directly exposed to the cloak. Oh, if only Gopher was here to see my brilliance. He’d be so proud.”
“I suppose that’s possible,” Tawny admitted. “How does that help us?”
“The quote said ‘roost’. It just so happens I’ve seen something in town, atop one of the buildings, that looks an awful lot like a roost. The library has a strange platform above it. Now that I think about it, it looks like the perfect place for a fake monster to launch for its nightly hunts.”
“Well, what can we do?” Tawny asked. She sat on her haunches now, excited that a path seemed to be opening up before them. “We can’t expect any help without proof. They’ll think we killed that man in the street.”
“Then we’ll just have to get to him ourselves,” Ocher played. He dropped his piano and sifted through some of the dirt in the wagon. Eventually he pulled a cudgel with a leather tip from the soil. He held it up with an excited look on his face.
“You carry a weapon?” Tawny asked with surprise and slight amusement.
“Of course, how do you think I keep all the beautiful women at bay?”
“Can we really do this?” she wondered aloud.
“Do not let the shadows have their dark corners. Do not let their mere presence fill you with fear. Confront them. Shine your light. Find the truth and banish fear from existence.”
When the three of them reached the library, practically pushed the whole way there by that wondrous quote, they were relieved to find the library’s main doors still open. It seemed they never locked the doors to symbolize the public nature of their services. At least that’s what the silver plaque off to the side of the doors claimed. Crow opted to wait outside as Tawny and Ocher quietly entered and searched through the stacks for anything unusual. Every time one of their footsteps made a floorboard creak, a few ‘shh’ quotes were roused from their slumber. Ocher took the lead with the lantern in one hand and his cudgel in the other. He felt quite ready to bash the next thing that moved over the head and perhaps scream like a small child if he deemed it necessary to his survival.
The two met around the corner of a stack and Ocher, in his surprise, barely restrained the urge to bash. She warned him to keep his cool with a stern wag of the finger. He looked like he was about to pull out his piano and object, but a ‘shh’ preemptively kept him quiet.
Eventually they made their way past the exhibits Ocher had seen earlier and down a hallway intended for employees. They snuck through a few offices and reached what was undoubtedly their destination: a strange metal door with the phrase ‘absolutely no admittance: private archive’ stamped on it.
“Private archive? I don’t think so,” Tawny played. She tried to open the door, but it would not budge. Ocher investigated the lock and when he came back up he looked quite disheartened. He tucked the cudgel under his arm so he could play.
“It’s a quote lock. We’ll never get in without the pass-quote.” They stood there for a few minutes and hoped for another flash of brilliance. Eventually, Ocher’s eyes lit up again. “I think I’ve got it!” he exclaimed with his piano and then lowered his face to the level of the lock. It was a strange little device that looked like a pair of copper lips covered in minute bumps. He coughed, opened his mouth and, for the first time in years, used his voice to create words.
“Brain-hobbled grass chewer!” he said. A moment passed. Nothing happened. The lock’s lips were sealed as tightly as ever.
“What was that nonsense?” Tawny played and then smacked him on the shoulder.
“It was the insult from ‘the battle of what-did-you-just-call-me?’ I was sure that would work!”
The two began to lose hope in the presence of such a secure door, and the energy they’d gained from the impressive quote faded quickly. Suddenly they felt like a pair of chickens pecking at a barnyard gate.
Just in time to save their efforts, they heard the sound of hooves approaching. The library floor groaned as the sound grew more powerful. Gopher came galloping through the offices at full speed. Tawny and Ocher backed away from the door as the horse approached. The powerful beast reared up on his hind legs, voiced his determination, and battered the metal door right off its hinges. The door flew inward.
“Where have you been?” Ocher asked with his piano. The horse whinnied to indicate that thanks were in order.
“You’re a beautiful wonderful creature and we’re both very grateful,” Tawny played. She noticed a little teal residue on the horse’s lips. Apparently he’d stopped somewhere along the way for a snack.
“You know one of these days, you won’t get to steal my thunder,” Ocher warned the horse. Gopher snorted in a way that some people might call disbelieving.
Before they went any further, Tawny decided it was time to entrust someone else with what they’d found. She dropped to one knee and prepared to speak in her true voice.
“This is the woman who was with your father earlier,” she said calmly. “He is in trouble and needs your help.” It felt very odd to speak like this, to someone who wasn’t there, but she continued. “Go to neighbors that you trust. Tell your friends and tell them to tell their parents. Tell everyone that the secret is in the library. The secret of the murders is in the library. You must do it quickly.” She rose again, hoping the quote would find its way to Bennock’s children and that they would listen. They would definitely need more than Ocher swinging his little club back and forth to win this fight.
The twins entered the door and found a stone staircase spiraling downward. The hall was too narrow and the terrain too steep for Gopher, so he stayed behind. The twins stepped delicately over the mangled door and then descended. The path went on for quite a long time, only opening up once in the middle. That opening was a chamber furnished with a few couches and tables, but plenty of wall hooks and hat racks. Upon all these racks and hooks were a series of suits and masks. The room was silent. It didn’t take the twins long to figure out that the silence was complete and the suits were no ordinary fair. They were dark and winged. The masks had blue glass discs for eyes that were illuminated on the edges by some sort of glowing paint. There were gloves with affixed metal claws strewn about on the floor and several strong wires hung in coils off some of the suits. Those look strong enough to hold a man in place during flight, Tawny thought.
Ocher approached one of the suits and rubbed the fabric between his fingers. He turned to Tawny and nodded, indicating that they were in fact made from shakespore silk. So it’s true, she thought, The monster was just a tool of fear.
They exited the room and continued their descent. It was a small comfort to have the sounds of their footsteps and of dripping stones return, but shortly after that they started to hear something else. Something dreadful.
The sounds of that awful music emanated from below. Whoever was behind the masks of the hollowcry was also producing the horrid chants that brought the twins there in the first place. For a moment they paused, afraid once again that the source of the haunting melody might not be human. Perhaps it came from the throats of frog-like demons that lured the morbidly curious into their den with such vocalizations. Tawny pictured such a creature with a disturbing throat sack that inflated in and out with every chant. She saw the veins in its skin. We’ve already peeled away the monster’s skin. It’s time to see its beating heart.
The twins pushed forward, their nerves rattling their bones, until they stepped into a new chamber lit by several lanterns. The music was practically deafening thanks to the acoustics of the chamber. Surrounding the circular main area was a series of rounded stalls that each held one person. These figures all chanted together and produced the music that haunted Notion. The people spotted the twins and had shock and anger in their eyes, but did not move or stop singing.
An elderly woman in a long black robe was seated in a marble throne at the back of the chamber. There was an empty column above her that dripped moonlight, suggesting it led straight to the roost from which the ‘hollowcries’ launched at night. She looked almost twenty years older than Tawny and she held a black instrument with gold strings, rather like a small cello, in her lap. Small fountains on either side of the throne created a tiny moat of clear water around the main chamber.
At the very center of all this was Bennock, knees against the stone and hands bound behind his back. His shoulders were scored with blood and he was drenched with perspiration. A hooded figure stood near him holding the whip that had produced the blood. The red that made it to the floor was washed away in the moat.
“What is this madness!” Tawny played as loud as she could, in order to be heard over the chanting. The music’s volume lowered but did not stop.
“This is not madness,” the old woman played. She moved the bow across the strings methodically, as if she’d expected that one day she might have to play that song. “We are gathering wisdom.”
“With a whip?” Ocher exclaimed with his piano.
“You are strangers in Notion,” the old woman played, strings hissing now. “You do not understand our ways.”
“We know you’re torturing the city with this music! We know you disguise yourselves as monsters and fly on quotes to kidnap and kill people of your own city! Why? What drives you to such evil?” Tawny played.
“This chamber,” the old woman started, “was used by our forefathers to commune with the gods. Here was produced some of the greatest quotes of this age. Quotes that moved men to build kingdoms and invent revolutionary medicines. We seek only to continue their legacy.”
“How exactly are you doing that? Do your gods require human sacrifice?” Ocher played.
“Your judgment is clouded by shock,” the woman played. “You must ignore what you think you see. The whip is not an instrument of torture. It is inspiration. Notion is on the brink of collapse. Undesirable elements from a foreign land have invaded us. They disrespect our culture. They block their ears and starve our wisdom. And some of us,” she looked down with disgust at Bennock, “have embraced the vandalism and outright demolition of our culture.”
“Everyone is entitled to their own culture! What makes you so flawless?” Bennock whistled, since he lacked an instrument. All the while the music droned on and the singers watched nervously, eyes darting back and forth. Some of them gripped the hems of their robes tightly. The old woman nodded to the hooded figure and he whipped Bennock once more to silence him. Tawny and Ocher started forward, but when the torturer looked in their direction, they froze.
“As I was saying,” the woman played. “With these undesirable elements seeking to starve Echo’s gifts, we had to take action. We had to produce new wisdom, wisdom so powerful and profound that no one from any land could ignore it. A message that will transcend those damned earcloaks! The only way to do that… is to put someone on the edge of life. Only then do they gain clarity. Only then do they say what they were always meant to say.”
“Where on Earth did you get that idea?” Bennock whistled, furious that he was apparently tortured to acquire better quotes for Notion.
“Your father,” the woman shot back with a series of high notes. Bennock quieted. “Your father shared great wisdom with me on his deathbed. You would have heard it if you had been there. That quote has guided me since and it has never steered me wrong.”
“What was it?” Bennock asked, the fire in his whistle somewhat extinguished.
“The quote will come to you when you’re ready to appreciate it,” she played.
“You lie!” Bennock whistled.
“Do you know this creepy woman?” Tawny asked Bennock.
“She’s my aunt,” he admitted. “Her name is Dorana and she was a fellow judge of my father’s. And these loons,” Bennock gestured to the robed singers surrounding him, “are just some of Notion’s upper crust. That fat one’s a banker.” The fat one’s singing grew more aggressive. “That one over there is his wife. There’s our good librarian. That one’s co-captain of the Notion guard. It’s a damn good thing the other co-captain isn’t in this bunch or the whole city might be hopeless.”
“Oh! Oh! I’ve got this one. My mind is ablaze today!” Ocher exclaimed. All eyes turned to him. “This terrible music is another disguise, just like your cloaks. You can’t gag your victims because then they can’t produce your precious wisdom, and if you can’t silence them they are able to scream. You can’t let them do that because a scream is a quote! It will seek help. It’ll lead people to your little dungeon. So you have to mask the screams with this chanting. The music knows it’s supposed to follow the screams and drown them out. Then the screams, with no one to hear them, eventually crawl into a little hole somewhere and die, which means you get to keep this up. I got it, right?” Ocher played, turning to Tawny for confirmation. She nodded, quite impressed.
“And you make it sound African to further divide the people,” she added to her brother’s thorough analysis.
“How very astute,” Dorana played. “Maybe the two of you can produce some wisdom for us.”
“Have you even gotten any out of this?” Tawny asked. Dorana and the other fake hollowcries looked around nervously.
“True brilliance has so far eluded us,” the queen hollowcry admitted. “I have heard it. We just need to find the right seed to water. Little Bennock here doesn’t have the brains to give us what we want.”
“Well he’s your last chance,” Tawny played proudly. “I’ve already sent off quotes to the whole city. Everyone’s headed here right now. Your lies are at an end. Your concert is over.”
The music stopped. All the false hollowcries, except Dorana, panicked. They did their best to pull their hoods over their faces as they scurried about. Some of them pushed past the twins and climbed the stairs, while a few others spread the wings of their robes and took off into the column above their leader.
“Don’t leave you fools,” Dorana played. “Keep singing! She could be lying! They deliver flowers! Why are you afraid of them! No, stop, no… I order you to stay!”
“We may just deliver flowers,” Ocher played, “but all you did was fill your chamber of wisdom with screams.”
“You should make that a quote,” Tawny suggested with her flute.
“Somebody else will think of it again,” Ocher played, not too keen on the idea.
Dorana’s face filled with venom. She raked her bow across her instrument so hard that three of the strings snapped. She tucked it away into her robe and prepared to take flight.
“Why are you doing this?” Dorana whistled. “Why do you want the wisdom of your parents… and your parents’ parents to die out?”
“You’re just afraid of your own demise,” Bennock whistled back. “You’ll die and be remembered not for what you said, but how much you liked your own ideas. Now fly away… you… narcissist. Let Notion heal the wounds you’ve created.”
Dorana shrieked. No whistles. No music. Just the tantrum of a power returning to diapers in its degeneration. When the noise ended she pulled a hood over her face, spread the wings of her robe, and took off up the column and into the night sky.
The twins helped Bennock up and tried to support him with their shoulders, but he wouldn’t allow them. Though weakened, he managed to stay on his feet unaided.
“So you found the roost,” he whistled between large smiles.
“The quick thinking of our horse really got us here,” Tawny played. Bennock looked confused, but continued on with his praise.
“My family is forever in your debt. Notion is forever in your debt. In a sense, you’ve slain a flock of hollowcries! I wish I could reward you more appropriately, but… this town is still divided and most of it is about to show up on this doorstep. I hate to say this, but as foreigners, you aren’t the heroes Notion is ready for. They may not believe you. I suspect they will believe me… but I do need you two to leave.” They frowned at him. “I know it’s terribly rude of me, but I think only of my city. I can arrange a proper reward for you two through your company. I promise I will.”
“We’ve still got a load of flowers,” Ocher played.
“Just leave them. I’ll take care of all of it. I need everyone to know what happened here, but I also need them to believe it. You two… especially that bit about the horse… I’m afraid they won’t.”
“It’s alright,” Tawny played. “I think we’ve had plenty of excitement for one day.”
“But not enough food,” Ocher whistled quietly, but not so quietly that they couldn’t hear him. Bennock embraced the twins, kissed each of them on the cheek, and then sent them back up the stairs.
With Gopher and Crow in the lead and the rest of the flowers placed delicately on the ground near the trough, the twins made a hasty retreat from the city. They heard a crowd gathering as they left, but luckily the guards had not yet been caught up in it and let them exit.
Tawny was suddenly overcome with an urge she had never felt before. She genuinely wanted to leave a quote behind. If anyone valued it, that would be fine. If no one did, well then it would die in peace. She leaned over the side of the wagon, the wind tossing her hair about, and proclaimed,
“You can shove words in ears and mouths, but they’ll just fall out again.”