[Please read the Instructions before jumping in]
Impossible not to be flustered at so blatant an invitation. It’s impossible not to want him, the Carrion-Eater. Lucien tries to breathe evenly. “If you have questions, I can try to answer—”
“I just asked them,” Lord Crow says, with another laugh.
He goes red. “Oh, I thought—that you meant you had more to ask me other than… that…”
Lord Crow beckons, fingers hooked like talons. “Come here, at least. You ask me your questions, and then let’s see if you’re willing to answer mine with your body and your desires.”
Flushed, breathing roughly, Lucien obliges. He sinks down onto the bed, then back into Crow’s arms, so he is cradled against what feels, for now, like a normal torso. It is easier if he’s not looking at Lord Crow; easier to mistakenly think of Crow as human.
“I’ve learned there’s a ritual at play here,” he begins. “Do you know about it?”
“Oh, yes,” Lord Crow murmurs in his rough, raw voice. “We all do. We’re not able to intervene directly unless something goes wrong with it, so we’re all circling around, waiting to dart in and rend out what we can. If a single slip-up happens, if whoever is doing this exposes themselves the wrong way once, we’ll all descend on them at once. It’ll be a murder.”
“That’s why so many of you have shown up?”
Crow nods and shrugs. “I mean, it’s why I did. I can’t entirely speak for the others. Most of us don’t really talk to each other at length, you know, except if we have a counterpart. I mean, we do socialize somewhat, but it’s not as if most of us are friends.”
“A counterpart?” Lucien echoes.
“How to explain,” Crow sighs. He seems to shift somehow, lowering Lucien into his bed. Despite being on his back now, he can’t see Crow’s face in the form leaning over him, and he feels as if he’s covered in birds, circling over him, crawling, their beaks and feathers and clawed feet hopping all around him. “We’re a lonely sort of existence by nature, I suppose, and loneliness craves company. I mean, I don’t have a counterpart myself; not all of us do. But some of them ascended together, like the siblings End and Endless. Others were brought into a partnership later by one of the existent Lords, hungry for something to play off of. It’s not that a counterpart is an opposite, it’s that they share some parts and play off each other. Like, the Moonlit Lord and Lord Sol! Night and day aren’t opposites; they are different meanings for two celestial bodies that play off each other. I guess, you can say, counterparts are Lords who get more meaning by having the other around. Some are obvious. Some less so, like… oh, Lord Vine of the New Growth and Lord Angler of the Deep Blue Sea are counterparts. They’re both the places that one gets lost, full of teeming life that people can’t see or understand, teeth and poison and all that.”
Lucien has never heard of this before. He starts trying to pair off the Lords in his head. The Endless and the End, of course. Vine and Angler, apparently. Sol and Moonlit, that’s half of them. “…Lord Wolf the Hunter, and Lord Bounty of the Feast?”
“You’re getting it now,” Crow encourages, with a laugh that only sounds mocking because of what his voice is like. A beak pecks at Lucien’s throat and he tilts his head back for that. “Lord Mask the Silent Liar and Lord Shield the Defender are the last two counterparts.”
There are two lords remaining. “You and Lord Peacock are not counterparts of each other?”
“We don’t really have anything to do with each other. The Carrion-Eater and the Heartbreaker? Sure, you could probably spin an explanation for any pair of us if you tried, but our portfolios don’t have much play off with each other. No, neither of us has a counterpart yet. We run solo. Perhaps by the time there’s fourteen of us, we’ll all be neatly paired off. Or perhaps a new Lord will break up an established pair and spread things out more. Cause a ruckus. We’ll see.”
Lucien feels like this must be important somehow, but then, it’s cosmology; of course it’s important. He shakes his head. “Or there’ll be none of you but this one new Lord.”
“How can I prevent it?”
“Disrupt the ritual. Co-opt it, or kill the perpetrator, or throw them off their lines, I don’t know. If I knew, it’d be easier, right?” The next sound is either a sigh or just the rustle of feathers. “I’m not omniscient.”
More’s the shame. He hesitates on his next question, then pushes forward. “Shuni says you refused to help him. But I don’t know why. I’m trying to find his heart. Can you help me with that?”
Lord Crow makes a disgruntled noise, and the blinding sense of feathers everywhere withdraws. Lucien draws a deep breath in their absence, and sees the rough shape of a man leaning over him, a raven’s head where a man’s face should be. “Honestly, I find his situation sort of boring. Anyone who responds to problems by taking his own heart out just isn’t my jam, you know? It’s nice and all that you’re trying to help him, but if he didn’t want to risk losing it entirely, he should have kept it in his chest. That’s where it’s supposed to be.”
It’s clear that he won’t get any farther here. He draws a deep slow breath. “One more question.”
“What is it?” Crow seems almost sulky now.
“Did you see how nicely I dressed up for you? For the role switch? I wanted to make myself a night sky for you to fly under. I wanted to tell you I was yours, even when pretending to be another.”
Crow blinks, then laughs. He throws his head back and it dissolves again, a flock flying around what looks to be an obscured human face on the other side. “Is that your dirty talk? I like it.”
“I want you to want me,” Lucien says, blunt—maybe too earnest. “But I need—with the end coming up, I need to be able to focus on the play tonight, and I haven’t had any sleep. I need to get at least a little rest for the show. I can’t risk messing up tonight, so…. I need you to not utterly wreck me. Perhaps we can wait?”
“Hm,” Crow says. “You expect me to wait for you?”
“Yes,” Lucien says. “At least until after tonight’s show. Unless you can’t?”
It’s a daring thing to say, and for a moment he thinks he’s crossed a line and offended Crow. But Crow laughs again and says, “Then sleep,” and throws a hand in front of Lucien’s face.
Madness descends, a dark sky of crows, heavy wings settling all over him, and somehow, although he wasn’t tired a moment before, he sleeps.
He finds himself in that airless, cracked land again, trapped inside that horrible premonition of a dream, panicking, unable to breathe, to live, to die. He remembers the key, an incoherent thought of how it must help somehow, the Moonlit Lord said it could, and he sticks a hand in his pocket, curling it around the key, and tries to think of what to do with it.
[Please leave suggestions for Lucien in the comments.]