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The Queen's Aviary

The princess was born beneath owl-stars and sickle-moon, to the cries of the palace ravens. When she was five, she collected the feathers of birds to weave into her hair. When she was ten, she practiced identifying birds so that she could paint them from memory. The queen would come from time to time to view the paintings, and lay her hand upon her daughter's head, and smile.
When the princess was fifteen, her mother died. The death was not entirely unexpected: it had been a long winter, and the queen had never been in the best of health. If the princess cried, she did so beneath her mourning veil, where no one could see the tears.
The princess was taken to the great granite statue of a bird-headed general where the palace ravens gathered, so that they could give her her reign-prophecy. She had spent the entire day with her mouth watering for the ritual feast that she could smell from the courtyard: roast duck and suckling pig and chicken glazed with ginger and citron marmalade. Her life until now had been one of ease; it had never occurred to her that anything could go wrong.
The raven-keepers bowed to the princess as she knelt before the bird-headed statue. The palace ravens cawed as they circled three times. Then one came to alight on her wrist. Although she wore bracers of supple leather, she winced anyway. It was the first time a palace raven had deigned to give her such personal attention.
The raven spoke in a voice like storms and stars falling. "The royal line has always kept birds by its side," it said, "but a bird will be your death. Free us and walk unfettered by fear."
The princess wished she had dared to hold such an important ceremony in private, but already everyone in the courtyard had heard the reign-prophecy. She knew that rumor has faster wings even than the kestrel. Her hunger had left her. "Are you loyal to the throne?" she asked the raven.
It fixed her with a reproachful black eye. "We have always been loyal."
The princess was left with the impression that she had asked the wrong question. "Then crown me queen and oversee my reign," she said, "and we will deal with this matter of birds as it comes."
The other ravens circled three times more, and the new queen's attendants lifted her silver crown with its stones of onyx and chalcedony and lapis onto her head.
In the days that followed, the queen gave orders for an aviary to be built, and for the finest hunters to bring her birds to populate it. Her people were eager for the queen's favor, and additionally eager to thwart the prophecy. They brought her white peacocks and the occasional peahen, quizzical quail, violent geese. They brought her crested cranes and darting swallows and hummingbirds nestled in sprays of fragrant blossoms. The birds were well-fed, but neither were they free.
Word of the prophecy spread eventually, and the queen's neighbors grew bold, thinking that she would soon lose the confidence of her people. Soldiers in tiger masks raided the borders. In mockery, they left piles of dead birds next to the queen's dead soldiers. Even the hungriest peasants would not touch the birds, and the loyalty of the queen's people began wearing thin.
The queen consulted the palace ravens in private. "This will not do," she said. "Have you no better prophecy to offer me?"
The raven only said again, "A bird will be your death. Free us and walk unfettered by fear."
"Everyone dies," the queen said bitterly, "but I have my people to think of as well." And she turned her back on the ravens.
The queen's neighbors sent envoys with gifts of rare and fine birds: firebirds with sullen eyes, snowbirds with wings that glittered like first frost, stormbirds with voices that called down rain. Under any other circumstance, the stormbirds, at least, would have been welcome as a matter of agricultural pragmatism. But everyone was reminded of the prophecy.
The newly-arrived birds looked at the queen and spoke not at all. In desperation, she had them added to her aviary. She could not get rid of them, not when they came as gifts, and not when every trade of pleasantries with the envoys might mean more time for her to figure out a way for her realm to survive.
The queen's own people began sending representatives to the court to beg her to do something about the birds. After a month of such appeals, she went to see the palace ravens again. This time they met her in a great black huddle by the statue where she had been crowned.
"Free us," the raven said. "Free all the birds."
"You know this is the one thing I cannot do," the queen said. And she ordered that all the palace ravens be imprisoned in the aviary, too.
That night the queen dreamt of birds singing a mourn-song, a midnight-song, a song with no melody but the heart's dead scrapings. She woke sweating, and looked out the window for the familiar sight of the palace ravens; but of course they were all trapped in the aviary.
Each night thereafter, the queen heard the same song. At last she called the hunters to her. "I should have done this a long time ago," she said. "Kill the birds, all of them. Burn their bodies and heap their bones high, and perhaps we will be free of this prophecy."
The hunters bowed their heads to their queen, and set upon the aviary with knives and bows and torches. The slaughter seemed to take years. In fact it only lasted days.
When it was over, the queen walked through the charnel remnants of her aviary. She knelt before the corpse of a raven and said, "If only you hadn't made this necessary." The servants whispered among themselves in fear, but very quietly. They knew that hunters could turn just as easily upon people as birds.
The queen slept easily that night. Yet in the morning, she was woken by the sound of wingbeats, like the thunder of a hundred storms.
"We are free at last," said a voice of birds, "and it is your turn to be free of fear."
The queen went out to the ruined aviary and saw nothing but the swirl of ashes, the blackened bars of iron. "You are dead," she said in vexation. "What do I have to fear from the dead?"
A great shadow winged over her, and she looked up. The reek of smoke and singed meat and marrow permeated the wind. An augurbird had assembled itself from the bones of the dead birds and stitched itself together with dread and clothed itself in soot. Its eyes were the eyes of all the palace ravens, asymmetric, pitiless. "You receive as you gave, Queen," the augurbird said, and plunged downward.
Say this for the queen: for all that she had done, she did not flinch at the bird-stab. After the augurbird had finished its feast, it soared sunward, never to be seen again.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 30th, 2015
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