Pre-Series Short Story: Gargoyle Claws

Here comes my second Firkad Sarovy short story!  This is set well before the series, as it takes place on the eve (more or less) of his joining the Sapphire Youth Corps.  Which would make him six, going on seven.

He was not the most manageable of kids.

The short stories I’ve been writing for him (one more actually written and a few more planned) are part of an arc that’s only partially shown in the novels.  As I was sketching out my plans for post-series stuff, I realized that the character novellas I wanted to write couldn’t include some material, because of the narrators and time-period they covered.  These, therefore (and the Enkhaelen stories) fill in some of the gaps, and if they ever go to print, will be bundled with the novellas for their particular character.

But!  That’s for the future!

Includes: no warnings.

Optional Knowledge: Trivestes.

Approx. Date: 27 years before series.

Note: While Trivestes is the name for the province in standard Imperial parlance, the people of that province call it Tevestys and themselves the Tevestyn.

Description: Young Firkad Sarovy prepares himself for the Youth Corps.

Gargoyle Claws

“Mossy thinking,” Father had said. “Seeming solid, but apt to slip beneath the hand, or peel off the rocks just when one needs it to cling.”

It’s not mossy to want to stay! he’d yelled. Angrily, though it wasn’t wise to be angry at Father. That iced-up expression had always stilled Kady as if he was the one freezing. As if the whole apartment froze when Father did.

So cold that words fell from the air and shattered, unacknowledged.

A flick of a long pale hand had dismissed him, and that had been it. And now he was here, on the ledge his parents kept telling him he couldn’t visit, kicking his short legs over the long misty drop into the gorge.

But really, if he wasn’t supposed to be here, why was the latch so easy to lift?

“It’s not mossy,” he repeated for the gargoyles’ sakes. Once, he would have thought they knew everything without him having to tell them, as if the tiny holes that were their ears could catch all that went on in the house. Only recently had he come to realize that was silly. He couldn’t hear the outside when the windows were closed. How could they hear the inside?

“I don’t care that I’m turning seven,” he continued to his stony audience. “I don’t care about the way. I want to stay home. Home isn’t slippy moss. It’s a safe place. All the time they say no you can’t go out, and now it’s yes you have to, or else?”

The eagle-faced gargoyle at his right was silent. He sighed and leaned against it anyway, wishing for the days when it would raise a wing around him in comfort. His fingers found the place where once he’d thought there was a seam, but it was whole now—a furrow in the sculpture that could not lift.

You were too small before, said the monster-faced one to his left. More and more, it sounded like Mother. Now you are big and bold and ready for the challenge of the Youth Corps.

“I don’t want a challenge,” he mumbled. “I’m tired.”

You are tired because you fret too much to sleep, Firkad Sarovy.

He glared at the monster-face. “Don’t call me like that. I don’t like it when Father does it and I don’t like it from you.”

It is your name, said the eagle. In all your life, few will call you Kady again.

“I don’t need anyone else but Mother and Father.”

And that was the truth. He didn’t like the outside tutors, especially the swimming instructor. Didn’t like the master archer who kept correcting his perfectly good grip on the bow. Didn’t want to talk to the evaluation officer, no matter how much Mother tried to convince him she was nice. Interlopers shouldn’t be allowed!

But then, as Father had said all too coldly this last time, the apartment was Mother’s and Father’s. It wasn’t Kady’s. He just lived there by their leave. “Some day,” he’d added, “you will have a place of your own. And you will be the master of it. But that will not come for many years, my little tyrant. Until it does, you must learn to live among strangers who care only for your use.”

It wasn’t fair. He didn’t care that everyone went through it. He wasn’t everyone! And everyone wasn’t him, so they could go do as they liked and leave him with his parents. Happy, as they always had been.

Except…

There was the baby now, growing in Mother. She said that was the way of things too. “Fledge your first before you bear your second, and likewise for the next.”

It would be born just after they sent him away. Early autumn, he’d overheard. And while he was gone, it would fill the place where he’d been, until it was like he’d never existed at all.

“It’s all so stupid,” he told the gargoyles. “Why do I have to be the one to leave? It’s new. No one will miss it if they give it away instead.”

You have learned all that you can from your parents. Every young eagle must eventually spread its wings.

“Why don’t you agree with me anymore? You always did.”

The monster seemed to glance at him, though when he shifted to face it, its head was pointed forward as always. The stub of its right ear looked odd, though. Had it rotated to listen? Or was it just the light from the lamp behind him playing on the damage he’d caused at age five?

“Aren’t you my friends?” he prodded.

Friends? said the eagle. But you need no friends. Only Mother and Father. Is that not what you said?

“I didn’t mean—“

Some of those strangers could become friends, opined the monster. The ones just like you, forced out of the nest. And other places could become your home. Other forts, other skies.

He stared back and forth between them, feeling a sting start behind his eyes. He needed no one else, nor any other place!

But…

Since Mother conceived, she’d been distant. Even before that, over the writing workbooks and arithmetic, the picture-stories about the past, the escalation of archery training and outside tutelage, she’d started drifting away. Looking back, he saw it as if through a fog. When had she stopped pulling him into her lap, or randomly fixing his hair?

When had Father started sitting across the low desk from him, instead of by his side?

Straightening from the eagle’s flank, he stared down into the gorge. The river foamed down a great waterfall to the east, just in view above the pale veils of mist; the lower snake of it was only visible on the driest of clear days. Here at Endry Faares, there weren’t many of those—and this wasn’t one, a sky of grey slate looming low above. The tepid air hinted at oncoming rain, but he knew by now that it was a coin-toss as to whether it would fall or push on eastward, into the Garnets.

It suited his mood. More and more, sitting out here with just the gargoyles for company suited him very well. Until they’d decided to be rude.

“I’m not talking to you anymore,” he declared, and shifted on the ledge to rise. The void at his back provoked no fear. He’d faced it at least weekly for the last two years, and climbed the perch-walls in the apartment every day—sometimes twice. This year, he had even surmounted the overhung one, though his arms had felt like jelly afterward.

Was that why his parents had decided he should go? Had he really run out of things to learn here? That couldn’t be true. There was still so much he didn’t understand—

As he turned, something shifted under his bare foot. Smooth-scaled, anomalous.

By instinct, he recoiled—and slipped. In the window, the lamp-light muddled his reflection: half shocked, half shine-blanked. His hands flailed out for the gargoyles’ heads. One caught the eagle’s smooth scalp and slid, the etched feathers rasping against his palm. The other hit the monster’s broken ear, which bit him like a mouth. His right foot skidded off the ledge, sank into void, skewed him—

Pain shot through his calf as it jerked to a stop. His knee jerked too, and with a curse he shouldn’t know, he fell forward and hit the ledge, elbows-first. His knuckles bounced off the windowsill, the light wavering as the unlocked casement shivered.

For a moment, panting and petrified, he could only lay there. The window showed grey sky, two immobile stone heads, and his own white-rimmed eyes.

Then the pain caught up with him, and he whimpered, unfurling his fingers to stare at the gouge in his palm. It was already filling with blood, soon to spill across anything he touched.

Before it could, he nudged the casement open with the back of that hand. His other didn’t want to release its claw-like grip on the sill, but he forced it to, if only to reach on through and grab a better handhold. His left leg, squished against his body by the fall, gave a twinge as he straightened it. And his right…

Came up freely to join the other, though not without a lightning-line of pain down the calf. Glancing there, he swore again as he saw the twin tears in his leggings and the blood already speckling the cloth.

Beyond it, the monster gargoyle stared resolutely forward, a rim of red along its ear. Its four sets of claws gripped the ledge’s edge as they always had. Turned down, unable to harm. The ledge where his foot had slipped held nothing strange, not even some furtive patch of moisture. Certainly nothing scaled, like he’d thought he felt.

Like the monster.

He stared, waiting for it to turn its head or lift a limb—even twitch that stub of ear. But none of the gestures and expressions that he remembered from his bright early days with these companions had shown themselves this year, and today was no different. Even their voices stayed silent as he pulled himself through the window and latched it tight.

The gashes, though…

The gashes, he’d forgotten by the time he’d crept past his parents’ offices and found the medical kit. Compared to the pain in his hand, his calf was nothing. And when he finally remembered to check them, they were just bloody scratches, hardly worth wrapping.

*****

“What happened to your right hand?” asked Father when he finally emerged.

Intent on left-handedly tracing the pictures in his workbook, Kady didn’t answer.

Father folded down onto the low cushion across the desk from him. For a long moment, Kady continued his silence, feeling that gaze upon his head. Then, with the thin sigh he’d learned to mimic from this man, he set his charcoal pencil aside and raised his gaze.

His father’s eyes, darker and bluer than his own, caught him like talons. Without malice, as ever, but with the steady puzzlement he had only recently learned to recognize. It was starting to make sense now, why Father had always tried to redirect his reading, his drawing, his untutored activities. Father didn’t understand why Kady liked what he liked.

“I fixed it,” he replied frankly.

“I see that. Why did you need to fix it?”

“I made a mistake. It won’t happen again.”

Father’s eyes narrowed, as if considering a list of potential questions. Kady had often seen that look, directed either at him or at his tutors when they complained of him. Never at Mother. Those two seemed to share some part of their mind, a merging that had once made him intensely jealous but now just felt…separate. As if they were two hands of one entity, with differing roles but the same goal.

“And what was this mistake?” Father hazarded.

“Do the gargoyles ever talk to you?”

Those slate eyes blinked, Father’s face going still as stone. Kady held that gaze for a moment, but as the silence lengthened, his attention drifted. To the glint of Father’s medals first, chief among them the sekiisa’s large filigreed badge. Three short ribbons hung off the lower loops, in the sunset-sky colors of his watchtower company. As his aayan, Mother’s was the same, but smaller and blackened rather than silvered. As always, it stood out against the bold blue uniform like a pocket star.

Kady had coveted it ever since birth, like he coveted the heirloom sword at Father’s hip. Had stolen the badge more than once, while his parents were otherwise occupied. At first, they had attached bells to the curtains of both rooms, his and theirs, to track his comings and goings, but when they’d realized he’d learned to muffle the bells with scraps torn from his bedding, they had reluctantly installed doors. He remembered the scoldings only dimly, their faces like two moons above him while he stared dreamily at the badge on the table, just out of reach.

Supposedly, the Youth Corps was a path toward one of his own. But it also meant exile, and leaving both sword and badge within the reach of some new and grasping child. He would not have it.

“There were no gargoyles at my home when I was young,” said Father finally. “And those here have shown no interest in me. As they should not, for they are of the old ways, and we are of the new. We show them respect as part of our heritage, but we no longer consult them, nor are we advised by them.”

“Are there any on the watchtower?”

“…Yes. And should we be threatened, they might alert us—those that retain any trace of spirit. But when there is no common enemy, we cannot trust the entities of the old way. You know this, Firkad Sarovy. You know not to visit them.”

Kady made a face, then quickly wiped it away. He hated how Father always used his proper name. That was the greatest mismatch between his parents’ hands: the one too coddling, the other too formal. “Did Grandmother visit them?”

“I cannot speak of your grandmother’s childhood.” Father’s voice was tight, as expected. Grandmother Ansary had been the previous wielder of the Sarovingian blade, and the last spiritist in their line. According to Father, she had disappeared during his own time in the Youth Corps, leaving behind both family and sword.

An atrocious betrayal of her mate, Kady would have thought. But Father never spoke of Grandfather at all.

Mother was of a lesser lineage, unattached to the legacy of the old Eagle Empire’s great knights. Sarovy knew both grandparents on that side, and two aunts, though he rarely saw them. They had little use for a child, even of their own family, and he had just as little use for them.

“Do the gargoyles talk to you?” Father echoed.

It was a question he had been asked many times, by many people. His parents, his tutors, the evaluation officers—who’d made his parents unusually uncomfortable, and so had deserved no response. He could not recall how he had answered the earliest queries, though he supposed he might have confessed. Not that there was much to say. He could barely remember what he’d used to talk about with the gargoyles, beside some childish private screeds against the troubles of the day.

In that way, the gargoyles had been his outlet. One could not complain about one’s parents to their faces, nor would one ever discuss family tensions with outsiders. The business of the nest belonged only to the nest. Yet his parents’ constant attempts to police his behavior had been worth more than a few secret ledge rants.

He didn’t so much feel that way anymore. Irritated, yes. Isolated, sometimes. But his growing awareness of his parents’ inability to know his thoughts had dulled the anger into something more like resignation. There was simply no point in talking about some things.

“Why is it mossy to want to stay?” he rejoined instead, well aware that this could provoke the same icy silence as this morning. He felt calmer about the subject though, if no less fervent.

Father sighed and folded his long hands together at the edge of the desk. “Acting according to one’s feelings is always that way, Firkad. Feelings change as easily as the weather, and are just as unreliable. What you feel now, about leaving home, will fade swiftly once you adjust to the Youth Corps. Clinging to the moss of the familiar and seemingly-unchanging will only harm you in the long run.”

“Seemingly?”

“Everything changes. No matter what we do, the world shifts around us. The moss breaks in our grip, and if we have not found a better handhold, we may fall with it. You know that your mother is pregnant—“

“Yes.”

Those slate eyes hooded at the interruption, but Father did not bother to scold. He’d learned that Kady was impervious to it. “You would not like a household with a baby in it,” he continued. “At least, I think you would not. You have always been very…self-directed, independent, but you still require our time and attention, whether at this table or as after-action discussions.” After his tutors, Father meant. Those did sometimes feel like battles.

“And you won’t have time for me with the baby?” Kady didn’t want that to hurt, but it did.

Father sighed. “I know you don’t like it when I say ‘it is the way’. But like the Youth Corps, like graduation and commissioning, like the investiture of an heirloom blade, like advancement through the ranks, there are requirements we Tevestyn place upon each other. It is what coheres us as a culture. They may differ depending on one’s status, talents, and abilities, but they are ladders that we climb as a people toward the ideal summit. We are all responsible for the proper functioning of our society, Firkad. We cannot simply let our people huddle in one comfortable place if they are meant for more.”

“Because of the baby.”

“It is not because of the baby. We will have the baby as a part of our own responsibility as breeding-capable adults. Our people do not have many children, and so each one is important—so that we always have sufficient population to control our own affairs. Staff every watchtower, retain command of the Sapphire Eye, and keep authority here in the east.”

“Because the wolves will take over otherwise?” Kady had never seen a wolf, or a wolf-person, but they couldn’t be as threatening as his parents portrayed. They couldn’t even fly.

“Because we have rivals on all sides, the wolves foremost among them, yes. But also because we cannot disappoint our ancestors. Like your grandmother, and all of the Sarovingian line, back to Knight Sarovy who served the final Eagle Emperor.”

“Knight Sarovy would approve of the baby?”

“The knights would approve that their lineages remain strong. Your mother and I knew early on that we could not have two children in the house at once. You have been…enlightening to us. And so we had to wait to continue our familial responsibility. Once you turn seven, you will go to the Youth Corps, where we know that you will excel. To refuse or delay it is to find yourself hopelessly set back from the vanguard. Destined to be aayan or nerin to some officer, if not remanded to Support.”

Mother is aayan, Kady thought coolly, even as he tried not to let the ire show. As a bonded pair, his parents held equivalent ranks—something to do with information security. His mother had been of lower rank before their bonding, however, so she had been promoted as an aayan, Father’s auxiliary. While she could fill his role if he fell ill, she would lapse back to her original rank should he die, and had no authority on her own.

As for nerin, Kady already knew that he could never tolerate being someone’s aide.

“This is the moss,” Father continued, spreading his hands. “Cling to childish needs and you will slip down and down with it. We do not want that for you.”

“But I will go away and not come back for years. How—“ He would not ask how can you love me when I am gone? He did not know if they even loved him now, or him them. The descriptions in his textbooks made little sense. “What place do I have in this family then?”

“You will always be a Sarovy, Firkad. Nothing can take that from you.”

“But what does that mean, when I am not here?”

A strange little smile curved Father’s lips. “I asked that myself, when your grandmother vanished. My answer was…” His left hand twitched slightly, as if to reach for the Sarovingian blade at his belt. “Well. It was my own. You shall find yours when you need it, I expect.”

Kady did not ask When it is my sword? With Father alive, that seemed presumptuous. As much as his hands had always ached for it, Father had only rarely let him touch it, and never while it was unsheathed. It was not for him.

Not yet.

And might never be, if I cannot prove myself, he realized with a shock. What Father had just said about being set back…. Did that also mean he could be set back in comparison to his sibling? To never wear the badge and draw the blade?

A challenge, the gargoyles had called the Youth Corps. Kady had thought they meant one like his workbooks, to be drudged through daily, no matter how dull. But what if they had meant it like a competition?

He’d rarely had any of that. Everyone around him was an adult, with either an adult’s mastery or an adult’s disinterest. His drawings were better than anything either of his parents could produce, but that was because they cared nothing for it, and he could not match them in anything else. Just pursue from a frustrating distance.

Friends, the gargoyles had said.

He still needed no friends. But he might like some rivals. Age-mates to defeat on the perch-wall or archery field—or the dueling court, once he was allowed to have real blades.

Under that dark slate stare, he dared not admit to changing his mind. His dignity would not allow it. Nor was he sure he’d actually changed it; he still hated the idea of leaving his home. But thinking of it as a challenge made it seem less like an exile than an opportunity. To show all those intrusive outsiders that a Sarovy would not be remanded to anything.

“Yes. I will find it,” he confirmed, and picked up his charcoal pencil again. He did not resume drawing; that would be rude with Father right there. Instead, he stared up at the man, waiting for whatever else might need be said, until Father finally sighed in that particular way and rose with a permissive flick of the hand.

Kady watched his back for a moment as he moved to Mother’s door, then bent again to his task. While his right hand was hurt, he would train the left, until he could draw whatever he wanted with whichever he had.

*****

It was night the next time he visited the gargoyles. He supposed it might be the last. With his seventh birthday in two days, and the Youth Corps’ summer induction soon after, his time here was growing short.

Drawing-case under one arm, step-stool gripped by a leg and lamp in the other hand, he paused before the window. It was drizzling outside, the rain silvery in the full moonlight and the ledge visibly slick. A sense-memory of something turning underfoot sent a shiver up his back.

Had the monster meant for him to fall? If so, why had it caught him? Had it been his imagination, that sensation? Or…

He hated letting questions gnaw at him, and so he’d meant to sit out there tonight and draw the sky. The rain made that impossible. He had too little good paper to waste it on making some childish point.

So instead, he scooted the stool into position and opened his drawing-case on the broad inset windowsill. It served well as a desk, and with the lamp’s wick turned down, he could see the silhouettes of the gargoyles against the night with just enough moonlight to also see his sketch. No stars, but he knew them well enough. He had a half-dozen constellation maps annotated neatly in another sheaf.

On the main floor below, his parents were sleeping. They were very scheduled people, and so easy to evade. Up here were only storage rooms and barely-dressed stone—plus this Tevestyn necessity, the high vantage. Both his parents’ room and his had a window, but neither with gargoyles, nor so easily reached.

“I’ll draw you,” he told the gargoyles through the closed casement. Could they hear him? It didn’t matter. “It can be our farewell. Not that I haven’t drawn you a thousand times before.” For the first year, he’d been obsessed with the monster-gargoyle’s face. His constant morphing renditions of it had been what caught him out, when Mother declared her shocked recognition.

He hadn’t thought he could draw it that way anymore. The odd expanding and contracting features, the weird big eyes, the gaping mouth… Those drawings discomfited him now, like little slices of nightmare. Sometimes they had been nightmares: scribbles done after jerking awake, sweat-soaked and gasping, or after having fallen out of bed in a thrash.

He hadn’t had such sharp terrors in a while. Instead, he spent whole nights flying through fog, seeking something yet never finding it.

This angle, though, brought back some of that weirdness. Drawing them from behind left their features and half their bodies obscured, and as he roughed out the base sketch, his pencil strayed along those unseen edges. The eagle sat with one wing folded, but the other looked like…what? Did it stretch westward, pointing after the long-set sun? Did it arch up like in the heraldic stooping eagle? Or was it broken, hanging raggedly from a once-proud shoulder?

And the monster… He’d never been able to decide what kind of creature it was. Scaly and many-legged but not faced like a lizard, with tufted ears like nothing in his hunters’ guides. Having traced and then recreated every picture in those, he felt sure of it. So what did it have on the side he couldn’t see? Extra legs sticking from its flank? A snake tail? A wing of its own?

Yes. It had to have at least one wing to sit up here with the eagle. That was rational.

Maybe two. But if they were both on that side, how did it fly? Perhaps there was some membrane between the lizard-legs, like a bat’s, that he had just never seen…

Fanciful, it murmured through the casement.

“If you don’t like it, you don’t have to grow it.” He added a few feathers down the spine, because that was also appropriate to living amongst eagles. Were it and the eagle-gargoyle bonded? He’d never considered that. Was one a girl and one a boy, or were they the same, like his two bonded tutors? If they weren’t the same, were they allowed to have babies? That had been the downfall of the first Eagle People. Having babies with folk who weren’t eagles.

Those others had been mostly wolf-folk, though. The monster definitely wasn’t a wolf.

The half-healed gash on his hand gave a twinge. Grimacing, he set down the pencil to massage it. The scratches on his leg had entirely disappeared, but the reminder of his hand sent a phantom ache through them too, and with it the memory of being gripped. He could see from here that the monster’s claws still clasped the ledge, the same as always.

“Were you trying to scare me?” he asked it. “When you made me slip?”

We are a danger to you, said the eagle. Understand that. And your time here is short. You should not come here again. Would that you had never come at all.

“But why?”

Where you go next, you cannot speak of this, Firkad Sarovy. It is not that they will not understand. No, they understand it all too well. And if they catch you, you will not be simply…’set back’.

You will be discarded, murmured the monster.

Kady frowned. That couldn’t be true. His parents had always said how important he was to them, and to his people as a whole.

But then, the loss of one child meant another could be made.

“Are you spirits?” he asked. “Is that why?”

They gave no answer, but he didn’t need one. Of course they were. Guardian spirits left over from the old days—Grandmother Ansary’s days. Not Grandmother Ansary’s spirits though; this wasn’t her apartment, where his father had been raised. In fact, Endry Faares was neither his father’s home fort nor his mother’s.

“Does not everyone have a spirit around?”

Your father did not.

He tilted his head, thoughtful. Why hadn’t Grandmother Ansary kept spirits around Father? Had they been dangerous to know even then? He had a dim sense that spirits made trouble on the border, but certainly those were outsiders’ spirits, not the Tevestyn’s own ancestral protectors.

We should never have spoken to you, the monster continued. As much as we love you, your path has diverged from ours. We cannot protect you.

“I can protect myself,” he snapped. “You made me slip. Why would I want your help?”

Yes, why would you? We are unreliable creatures, unloved by the Light.

Forget us, said the eagle.

Kady frowned. Why should he forget? Why should he do anything just because someone else wanted it? He’d never let that sort of thing stop him—and there was the Sarovingian sword. An heirloom blade passed down from the hands of an ancient spiritist knight, an artifact from before the ascension of the Light. An eternal reminder of the past.

“Who did you belong to?” he asked.

No one who yet lives, murmured the eagle.

“Were they your family?”

Silence.

“Would it hurt my family if outsiders knew I talked to you?”

Again, silence.

Exhaling, Kady picked up his pencil. He’d been forced to read enough Light philosophy to know the answer, and had learned not to argue with his tutors about it. They always made the most unnerving faces, and then had private talks with Mother. Sometimes private shouts. Mother had never scolded him over it, but one time she’d said, “Pick your battles, Kady,” in such a weary tone and with such an unsettled look that he couldn’t help but feel unsettled himself. And so he’d stopped arguing about the Light.

“No one can make me forget,” he declared as he started shading the eagle’s head. “But I won’t talk about it. I promise on Father’s sword, which will be mine some day, and which fell to him when Grandmother left us to the Light.”

May you rise to meet it, murmured the monster.

You will be tested, added the eagle. But you are strong. You will prevail.

Kady allowed himself a smile. “I am a Sarovy. Of course I will.”

*****

He dreamed a different ending to that night. From the star-spiked darkness between the gargoyles came a sudden rush of wings—a great shadow descending to the lip of the ledge. A visitor, silver-eyed and shrouded in the light of his lamp, who leaned close to the window to show a beak like a blade on a feathered head larger than his own.

He opened his mouth, her name on the tip of his tongue. But before he could speak it, her wings whipped forward, thrusting her from the ledge. A last flash of light on claws and eyes, and she vanished again, back into the night from which she’d come.

*****

His birthday was a solemn affair. Work never ended in Endry Faares, and so he spent half the day with his tutors, near-half alone, and the very end with his parents. As the coordinator and coordinator-aayan of the western watch, they dealt more with traders and Imperial emissaries than with the fort’s defense, but that demanded its own type of vigilance. Always, they returned tired, ready to wrap themselves up in each other once they had seen to his needs.

Kady had prepared himself. Since that night with the gargoyles, he’d taken special care to pack away all of his pictures of them, as well as anything else that seemed spiritist. Animal drawings, tracings of the old histories, imagined portraits of Knight Sarovy and his lineage. He’d wondered, while separating them out, whether his name itself was some small kind of heresy, descending as it did from the spiritist past. But if the Light held such vendettas, he didn’t know it. His tutors’ sour faces had seemed to judge his behavior, not his name.

He’d chosen his old drawing-case to house them. Lacquered wood with good steel latches, it would last a while even in weather. The rest, he’d packed into his new case, as Mother had told him the Youth Corps instructors might want to see his work.

Nothing else in his room really mattered to him. Practice bow and knife and sword, formal clothes, house clothes, bedding—none would follow him to the Youth Corps. His new sibling could have it all.

And so he sat at the high table in a formal tunic and leggings, chafing at the faint feather embroidery as his parents spoke solemnly of familial duty. By this point, he’d heard it all. Argued against it too, and thus heard it in extra forms, slowly or loudly depending on his own tone of voice. Now it meant nothing beside Don’t embarrass us or get us investigated for heresy.

He wouldn’t. He was young, not stupid.

“Kady?” said Mother.

He blinked, realizing that the admonitions had trailed off. Dinner was done, hardly tasted for the over-seasoning of parental advice, and the dishes had already been cleared by the evening’s Support staff. He wished the discussion could have waited for afterward, instead of during; it had been his favorite sort of eel, with the sweet sauce and the fish-cakes and spicy pickled vegetables on the side. All that lingered in his mouth now was the hint of heat and salt, like the ghost of summer.

“Yes?” he answered.

“We have a gift for you,” said Father. “I’m not certain we ever mentioned it. The seventh year knives?”

He perked, straightening in his seat. He’d read about that in his histories. A custom meant to celebrate the first fledging from childhood to youth. “No, you never spoke of it.”

“It is somewhat out of fashion now,” said Mother, “but I checked with the Youth Corps recruiter and she said they do give dispensation for them. The more traditional families would be in an uproar if they tried to impose a ban. And so…”

From beneath the edge of the table, she lifted a long wooden case, black-lacquered with silver clasps. At the center of its lid gleamed the Sarovingian crest, the same as on the hilt of the heirloom sword.

“You are not to take these on any mission, nor duel with them,” Father warned as Mother placed the case before him. “As real as they may be, their purpose is purely ceremonial. Nor is there a meaning to their design. Any Sarovingian insignias beyond that of our sword were lost with my mother.”

For a moment, Kady considered his father. What did that mean? The Support staff were already gone. Between the three of them, nothing need be disavowed.

Well, the four of them, what with the intruder growing beneath Mother’s gown.

At his expression, Father just gestured to the case. Frowning, Kady flicked the clasps with his thumbs and lifted the lid carefully to gaze down at his gift.

His first thought was:

Mismatched.

Then he blinked in surprise.

Both were claw-knives, with grooved hilts suitable for both children and adults—the positioning of one’s fingers shifting as one’s hands grew. The blades were the same, curved and sharpened on just the inner edge. But while one hilt showed the pebbling and faint knuckle-like texture of an eagle’s talon, the other was undeniably scaled.

Gargoyle claws, he realized.

He looked up into the keen eyes of his parents.

They weren’t stupid any more than he was. They had warned him many a time against those gargoyles. So why…?

But this wasn’t their home, either of them. This was where the army had ordered them to be. And every day there were tutors in and out, and near-silent Support staff, and their Imperial contacts, and the weight of Grandmother Ansary’s abandonment. The last spiritist of the line.

Was that really so?

From a distance, eagle talon and monster claw looked very much the same. And no one else but him ever crawled out that window.

“Thank you, Mother, Father,” he told them, bowing his head formally. “I will keep them sharp and safe.”

“That is all we can ask of you,” said Mother, smiling faintly. Father merely nodded.

*****

That night, Kady crept out of bed and up the stairs, to the window. No rain showed outside this time, but he didn’t plan to risk it. He only went out far enough to reach the gargoyles’ backs, the ledge still stretching a few feet beyond.

There, in the gap between the monster’s spine and the fortress wall, he wedged his old drawing-case, with all his heretical portraits.

“Sharp and safe,” he told them too, those silent midnight sentinels.

Then he squirmed back inside and shut the latch.

About H. Anthe Davis

Worldbuilder. Self-published writer.
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