LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

City of Wings and Song, by Sara Norja

City of WingsA whir of wings, a stir of song. The market is waking.

The city of Mereveh has many a market. Set in a low valley just south of the Jagged Mountains, where routes stretching from the known edges of the world criss-cross and meet, Mereveh is a centre of trade—has commodity upon commodity to sell and barter. Its markets bustle with calls of advertisement and laughter and angry shouts of “Stop thief!”—for Mereveh is a city, and all cities have their downtrodden, the ones desperate enough to steal their daily bread.

But the other markets’ chatter is nothing beside the Market of Wings. Where else will you find a thousand cages with a thousand more bright beaks within, feathers both mud-dull and rivalling the king’s flower-court in colour? Where else will you hear the chitter and twitter and melodic cadence of countless species of bird, prodded by their sellers if the song ceases for too long? (The sellers are not above a little cruelty. What did you expect?)

Ever since King Reia (blessed-chime-their-name) declared their passion for birdsong, Mereveh has become a haven for all who desire a pretty creature in a cage to sit on their balcony and proclaim to the city their loyalty to the undying king. The people of the city—the rich, the honey-lipped, the gold-bangled, at least—have never been happier.

But what of the birds?

Why, they endure. They endure and they scheme. Captured due to royal desire—a whim turned into an obsession—they sing songs of rebellion which none of the citizens can understand. They confer amongst each other as best they can, caged, and they screech and chirp till they have a plan. And they set it in motion, the humans swooning before their song knowing nothing of the intent behind the sound.

They call upon the Songwalkers: those prophesied in birdlore, humans who can hear the voices of the weak and winged (and worse—those whose wings have been clipped). In many voices, skylark and turtledove and parakeet call; marsh warbler and wren and linnet call. They work a magic known only to birdkind.

Songwalkers come to us! When you translate our trills into human speech, we will rise. We will break free from our cages. We will peck and punish. (No—we will fly for freedom with a flurry of wings so swift no human will catch us ever again.)

Can the birds not perform their own escape? you ask. Can they not already peck and punish those who seek to snare them in nets? Why do they endure their days of indignity and pure suffering?

The birds are bound with more than just cages, of course. More than just earth-bound by clipping the flight from their wings. Mereveh has magic like every city does—a bustling, hot magic this, dry like the mountains, leaving a coat of dust in the mouth. This magic is collected each day, stored in precious boxes-within-boxes-within-boxes. It’s used for all manner of practical things: ensuring no cheating from foreign traders; defending the city’s borders from raiders; directing water from mountain streams to the city’s pipes and drains; draining the lower levels of Mereveh which are plagued with water in the flood season. But at the king’s decree, the uses of magic may be expanded from the strictly useful to the utterly frivolous. The king decreed: Mereveh shall be known for its birds, song shall never cease here!—and so the magic-boxes were opened for the purpose of ensnarement. A filigreed cage of magic was laid over the metal cages. A compulsion to sing, to sing.

And so the birds sing. If they sing of rebellion, of lost freedom, of squandered joys, why—their owners know naught of such matters. Even less do their owners hear the call: Songwalker, Songwalker, Songwalker.

*

A month, two months after the birds started their call, there comes a person ambling into Mereveh: singing as they walk, their voice a blackbird’s trill. Their face all a-thrill at the city’s sights and sounds. Above all the sounds. Instead of meaningless, delightful chirps and tralalas, this person hears a thousand poems of rebellion and prophecy in the songs of the captive birds.

This is the Songwalker, of course. Bright Talirr, from a land far south and east. Bright Talirr, traveller and songster and reckless poet. Bright Talirr, summoned.

*

Talirr flicks the dust of their journey from their short cloak. They listen to birdsong, its riotous/rioting cadences, and to the market calls and gossip and laughter. They walk the streets of Mereveh, gauging the city’s mood; it’s changeable like the weather in northern lands, varying microclimates in different areas of the city. Talirr walks first in the lower levels, close to the city wall, far from the king’s gleaming palace in the centre of Mereveh. In these parts, a disquiet, a rumbling discontent. Birdsong trills here too, but Mereveh of the lower levels is not the glittering, twittering Mereveh of the upper levels. The streets are muddy, some of them ankle-deep in water, and Talirr’s sandals are sunk in filth. They try not to think about it.

They stop to break their fast in a hole-in-the-wall: flatbread and bean paste, simple but like unto the food of the gods for a traveller. The hole-in-the-wall’s owner bustles and chatters, and Talirr dares ask (it’s been years since they spoke the language of this region): “The floods have overtaken the city, then?”

“Aye,” says the owner, their brows forming a straight line of displeasure on their forehead, “the floods are bad this year on these levels. Hasn’t been this bad in living memory.”

“Why is that, then?”

Another customer wipes their mouth with the hem of their tunic and joins in: “It’s not that the river’s any higher. It’s those damn birds.”

Talirr spreads their hands in confusion. “What do the birds have to do with floods?”

The hole-in-the-wall’s owner pounds flatbread dough with aggression. “You’re not from here, right?”

“Indeed.” Talirr straightens their back, twirls a stray curl. “I arrived today. I am a poet.”

Their companions blink in confusion and know not what to say to such a proclamation. The owner continues, “Be that as it may, you’re probably not familiar with how things work here. It’s said King Reia (blessed-chime-their-bloody-name) decided that all the magic used to control the river’s power should instead go into the nobles’ birdcages.”

“Indeed?” Talirr feels a deep disquiet at the thought of birds ensnared with a city’s magic. A waste of magic. A travesty of song. “Even at the cost of the lower levels being flooded?”

The owner and customer both laugh, a ragged hopeless laughter. “You think the king cares about us? They care about the comfort of their own royal self and the nobles who hobnob with them. What matter the lower levels, as long as the Market of Wings remains unflooded, as long as the upper levels can have their songbirds!”

Talirr’s disquiet grows. Mereveh is not well; Mereveh is a city diseased with that most common of ailments, inequality.

The birds call to them. Songwalker, Songwalker! they command. So Talirr must act, and soon.

*

Nourished with flatbread and replenished with purpose, Talirr walks the streets of Mereveh. Their plan is unwise, but it’s the only plan they have. Putting it off for a moment more, they trudge to the upper levels, to where birdsong is sweetest and the despair of the flooded lower levels is tucked neatly out of sight. The magnificent squares rimmed with nobles’ houses are filled with the song of bullfinches and blackbirds and scimitar babblers echoing from the balconies lush with well-watered greenery. It’s a world apart from the muddy, watery lower levels. And that makes Talirr angry to the depths of their poet’s heart.

They head back to the market levels, the mid-levels of Mereveh, fuelled by that anger. Picking a market at random—this one mostly seems to sell cloth, dyed in dizzying expensive colours which the people of the lower levels will never even behold—Talirr stops in the middle of the bustle, carving out a place for themself amid the commerce. They take a deep breath. They begin to sing.

 

People of Mereveh!

I’m here to bring news

of far-off cities, here to sing tales

of great snakes and their slayers,

of treasures at journey’s end.

Of rebellion against the unrighteous,

rebellion like all your birds are singing—

 

The market quiets as more and more people start to listen. Talirr’s voice rings out brash and bold in the uneasy silence.

 

Yes, hear me! Your birds sing suffering,

they sing of injustice, the great injustice

which your king has committed

against the many, against the flooded

all for the sake of the pleasure of a few—

 

Talirr doesn’t get a chance to trill out a third verse. Amid the market’s busyness, the king’s guards have surrounded them. The guards shout, emptying the market so people don’t hear Talirr’s seditious words. They care not that where Talirr comes from, city guards would never dream of seizing a poet. The guards of King Reia (blessed-chime-their-name) care only to uphold order; and the king has proclaimed any encouragement of rebellion a treasonous act. The guards rarely have cause to act (and yet there are almost as many guards as birds in Mereveh), for the citizens love their king, do they not? King Reia (blessed-chime-their-name) is fair and good and has seen fit to distribute magic for the keeping of birds. So what if the lower levels are affected a little? They aren’t what matters. Why should anyone wish to rebel when the king provides them with a melodious city, song aplenty?

This is no place for a wandering poet. Songbirds’ nonsense trills are one thing. Words in the local language, sung out in a market, are quite another.

The guards’ hard grip bruises Talirr’s arms. They throw the songster into a prison cell.

*

Talirr, in prison, hums under their breath: a catchy tune from a bullfinch they can hear singing somewhere outside, the strands of its song reaching through the slit in the hard-baked brick which passes for a window. They call out to the birds in what the guards of the king’s prison think are nonsense syllables. Then Talirr closes their eyes, and steps into the birdsong.

*

They expect the familiar landscape of melody, a respite from the prison’s dry dust. Instead it’s chaos, and Talirr feels the magic of their skill almost waver. The crushing uncertainty, the cacophony reminds them too much of that time they overstepped, the time when Zalé’s mind was nearly broken—

On the secret plane which Songwalkers tread, the songs of Mereveh’s birds are all interwoven. Talirr has never before walked in the songs of this many birds at once. Had never even thought it possible. But here in Mereveh, the impossible would be to walk in the song of a single bird for more than a snatched moment. There are simply too many caged birds to focus on any single one. Too many cages, too many birds clamouring to break free of their bonds. Lark, linnet, owl, rosefinch—all sing the same message. Songwalker! Sing of us to the people! Break the spell placed on our cages!

Talirr takes a deep breath, grounding themself in their body even as their mind wanders the songways. They hear snatch after snatch of this song, from beaks all around the city. From these snatches, Talirr assembles a narrative. From these snatches, the Songwalker builds a story to topple down a city.

Now all they need is an audience with the king.

*

A week, a dry dusty week in prison—then Talirr’s presence is demanded by King Reia (blessed-chime-&c), who has finally been apprised of the existence of the seditious poet and wishes to behold this abomination with their own eyes.

Talirr hasn’t been treated badly; that doesn’t mean they’ve been treated well. Their tongue scrapes against the roof of their mouth. Thirst is a powerful weapon which clouds the mind, and the king’s guards have seen fit to use it. Standing now before the king, Talirr feels their mouth salivate as much as it can. King Reia (blessed-chime-&c) inspires thirst in many—thirst for power, thirst for their glowing approval, thirst for a touch of their royal hand. Talirr’s thirst is mostly for the sparkling wine in the bronze goblet cupped snug in that royal hand. A drink, any drink, would loosen Talirr’s tongue sweetly right now. But the king doesn’t want them to sing. The king has their own songster beside the throne: a goldfinch, in the finest cage Talirr has ever seen, a masterpiece of glimmering metalwork overlaid with a sheen of magic. The bird trills, desperation in its voice.

“Why did you come to Mereveh to sing of sedition?”

The king’s question leaves Talirr blank. They know their song is considered high treason: they’ve been told so, multiple times, by the lawpeople and guards visiting their prison cell. And yet it was just birdsong they told of. Just the truth. Just the trilling revolutionary demands of songbirds in cages.

And yet out of small trilling voices, a great choir is assembled. A choir with the power to topple governments, to cast kings into poverty.

Talirr, kneeling before the king of Mereveh, understands why the figure up on their mosaic throne is terrified.

For one in power to be cast aside, for their whim to no longer be seen as truth and a valid command—yes, that’s a thing to fear, when all your life you’ve told the masses they are worth nothing, when all your life you’ve accommodated your wishes to no one else’s.

Talirr looks up at the king’s hand clasping the bronze goblet. “I came because I was called. I am the Songwalker”—they reveal their profession quickly and without fear, as they will never reveal the name their mother gave them—“and I roam the lands as the wind roams the sky.”

The mouth of King Reia (blessed-chime-&c) twists in disgust. “No person can roam that freely. Certainly not in my lands. Especially if they spread malicious rumours.”

“Lord king,” says Talirr, “I barely had time for a rhyming couplet of revolution before your guards seized me.”

“Even a single word can spread dangerous ideas.”

A word like freedom, perchance? “What would you say, lord king, if I told you that the birds you’ve imprisoned have whole sagas of sadness to tell?”

“I’d say you’re a mad fool,” proclaims King Reia (blessed-chime-&c) with some satisfaction. “Birds cannot talk, ergo birds cannot spin sagas. Birds cannot feel sad. It is in their nature to sing—and look, I have enabled them to do it day in and day out! Why,” the king puffs themself up, “the birds should consider me a benefactor.”

Their words fade. The trilling-thrilling song of the caged goldfinch beside the throne is, to the king, a balm for their ears. To Talirr, who knows better, it’s a call to action. Songwalker! Do as we bid!

“It is also in the nature of birds to fly, lord king,” says Talirr. “Have you ever considered that?”

Talirr clears their throat to sing, but an uncertainty takes them. This king cares little for words. Perhaps it’s best to take them straight to the source.

*

The king looks down at Talirr, bored now. They lift a hand to call the guards back into the room, to send the seditious songmonger back to prison, to rot there, never hearing even a caged bird’s song—

—but Talirr acts first, after just a split second’s hesitation, even though memory presses hard on their chest (Zalé, pulled into birdsong by a young, showoff Talirr—Zalé, choking on sound, mind spinning and disconnecting—both of them almost lost in the songpaths). Heart drumming with memory’s patterns, Talirr reaches for the song of the captive goldfinch beside the king’s throne and walks into its song—but not before pulling King Reia (blessed-&c) in with them. This time, at least, Talirr is not toying with the person they most loved.

The king’s gesture fades midway; their hand sinks back to rest on their thigh. Their mouth is open wide enough for a hummingbird to make a nest in.

Within the goldfinch’s song, Talirr takes the king’s bewildered hand and leads them on a tour of all the birds in the city of Mereveh, travelling from gilded cage to gilded cage. Talirr strikes with a barrage of raw feeling. More emotions than the king has ever felt in their life hit them now—all the despair and choked hope of the hundreds, thousands of captive birds within the walls of Mereveh. It’s too much for any ordinary person to bear, and Talirr knows it. They grit their teeth and continue to drag the king through a cacophonous landscape of avian rebellion.

When they’ve spiralled through the broken songs of every bird in Mereveh, Talirr kicks them both off the songpath. Back in the palace, dizziness overtakes Talirr: being under for so long is difficult even for a Songwalker, and this is only the second time they have brought another person in and out again with them. They don’t know what effect it will have on the king: Zalé’s mind will forever be damaged as a result of songwalking, and they rightly blame Talirr for it.

The king stares at nothing, their mouth still slack. Talirr fears they’ve overdone it and killed the king. Killing would solve nothing, after all: the nobles would probably keep captive birds forevermore as a homage to the erstwhile King Reia (blessed-&c). But no—the king takes a shuddering breath, remembering again how human lungs work. Their eyes dart around the room before fixing onto Talirr’s. They cry out: “What nonsense was that?”

Cold fear fills Talirr. King Reia (blessed-&c) has shaken off the birds’ despair. They are no ordinary person: they are a king, born into power through no merit of their own and never before forced to consider the ramifications of their decisions. What fault is it of theirs if the rest of the city decides to adopt a new custom based on their royal desire? What business is it of theirs if birds suffer a little, or a lot, so that humans can experience joy?

Pure, undirected emotion was not enough: so, uncertain or not, Talirr has to take the path of words. Voice husky at first, they begin their storysong, woven from all the birdsong in the city of Mereveh. Woven from the cries of the people living in the flooded areas neglected by the city’s magic.

 

I sing of wings—clipped wings, caged wings.

I sing of beaks—beaks forced to open in song.

I sing of magic—used for imprisonment

of birds instead of floodwater.

 

Talirr is not particularly adept at the language spoken in Mereveh, and yet their tale leaves the king in a daze of words. Talirr’s voice strengthens. The melody wraps itself around the king’s slender ribcage and squeezes. Holds fast.

 

We’re drowning in mud, sing the lower levels.

We’re dying of despair, trill the birds in cages.

Mereveh is broken, Mereveh is broken

—but what’s broken can be fixed.

Never forget that.

Listen—is this what hope sounds like?

 

Talirr spreads out the length of their song, tells the story from beginning to end.

A final, long note draws the last of the air from Talirr’s lungs: the words I tell the truth; make of it what you willecho in the hall. Will, will, will. Now, if only the king has the will to admit a mistake.

King Reia (blessed-&c) stares Talirr straight in the eye, as if truly seeing the poet for the first time. Talirr can hear the king’s shaky breaths.

“That is—that is what they feel?” the king stammers. “The citizens, the birds?”

“Yes,” says Talirr. No point honey-coating it after singing it all out.

“All caused by my desire for birdsong,” the king mutters.

“Yes.”

“And my citizens are on the verge of rebellion because of it. My useless courtiers never told me!”

“I doubt they visit the lower levels much.”

“You have dangerous magic, poet.” The king spits out the last word like a curse. Takes a deep, shuddering breath. “May you rot in the underworld for laying bare such truths to me.”

Fear grips Talirr again. They will be thrown back into that prison cell, will never again tread the world’s roads.

But instead, the king turns to the cage by their throne. Their face a potent brew of self-disgust and deep fear, they draw a fine-filigreed key from a chain around their neck. Magic mists around the key; it holds the spell placed upon the cage. Trembling-fingered, the king affixes the key to the cage’s handsome lock and turns, turns, turns.

*

A royal decree, put out that very hour: caging songbirds is forbidden in Mereveh, effective immediately. A whole slew of merchants are out of business and the Market of Wings is in chaos as a famed trade becomes outlawed in a matter of moments.

Talirr—released from custody amid silence, along with the goldfinch—lingers for a while in the market, listening. Cries of dismay echo from all around—but human cries. The bird merchants were amongst the well off; they will soon find new items to trade, or return to old goods. Talirr hopes they won’t move on to other goods involving imprisonment, capture, pain.

Freedom, flight, blue-skied glory: Talirr can still hear the birds. And truly, now Mereveh is even more a city of wings and song: for the birds which haven’t flown to far-off lands can bring their songs to beggars and the downtrodden as well as the great lords in their stone houses. The birds don’t thank the Songwalker. They assume Talirr’s only destiny is to obey their call and act according to their wishes. Talirr feels a sting of sadness, then shakes it off like a duck shaking rainwater off its wings. Onwards. Onwards is the only way for them, thanks or none.

Amid the burbling hubbub of the lower levels—there are calls to action, calls to assemble and demand their rights from King Reia (blessed-&c)—bright Talirr strides to the city gates, sandals soaked with floodwater. To another town, then. One more receptive to songs of far lands, they hope; and already they are composing the first verse of a song about a city of cages, a city of birds. One day, when Talirr dares go home again, they will sing it to Zalé.

*

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Issue 20 (Fall 2019)

Story copyright © 2019 by Sara Norja

Artwork copyright © 2019 by Carol Wellart

Sara Norja dreams in two languages; she was born in England and is now settled in Helsinki, Finland. Her poetry has appeared in venues including Goblin Fruit, Strange Horizons, inkscrawl, and the anthology Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation (ed. Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland). Her short fiction has appeared in venues including Fireside Magazine, Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction Online, and the anthology An Alphabet of Embers (ed. R.B. Lemberg). She is @suchwanderings on Twitter.

Carol Wellart is a Czech artist and painter creating predominantly wildlife themes, nature studies, and literary characters. She’s mostly inspired by the curious shapes and materials from nature, but literature is still the main source. Painting and drawing were always the most important things for her, and visiting the local art school helped her understand new techniques and the “science” of the colour mediums. Carol is the award-winning artist of the Best Book Cover in 2015 in Czechia. Her work has been published in magazines such as Spirituality & Health, International Wolf, and Orion.

 

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This entry was posted on May 1, 2020 by in Stories.
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