In Dust and Feathers
The house was decaying, walls crumbling with a smell like ash, windows audibly gathering grime, and Ireille loved it. She lay on her sofa (which was also decaying) and breathed it in, steeped in it like part of the house’s debris. The servants came to her and asked her to fix things, and she categorically refused. It was not what she was there for. When the lady wanted her to do something, the lady would ask.
It was a long time since she had. Ireille trailed her fingers through motes of decay and was blissfully content.
Finally, one day in late summer, the lady said her name. Ireille picked herself up, brushed the dust from her gown, and went to see what it was about.
The Lady Nirenmur spent most of her time in a suite of windowed rooms facing the heart of the forest because, she said, it didn’t scare her. It scared her servants; they stayed in the lighter and more luxurious rooms overlooking the main road, such as it was (like all things, it was decaying). The lady’s rooms were well-kept, but they were old-fashioned even for the old house, and she, like Ireille, rather liked the smell of dust.
When Ireille came in today, Nirenmur was sitting in a chair at the farthest edge of the windows, facing into the room. Ireille didn’t need to be told what she was looking at. Her skin prickled at once; she turned her head and found a great black bird sitting on top of a bookcase.
It was bigger than a raven but smaller than a buzzard, with a thick neck and a large curved beak. Its wings were folded, black eyes glittering, claws hidden behind the bookcase’s arching top. It was stuffed.
“Where did it come from?” Nirenmur asked thinly. “None of the servants know.”
“Nor do I.” Ireille peered at the bird. It watched her back stoically. After a moment, she pulled a chair over and climbed onto it, to better gaze into the bird’s eyes. They met hers with an unwavering, absorbing black gleam–like gazing down into a well, she thought, when you know there’s a coin at the bottom, a whole pile of coins.
“May I take it with me?” she asked.
“Please,” said Nirenmur. Then, “Are you afraid of it?”
“No,” Ireille said, “but good common sense certainly suggests I should be.”
She reached over the top of the bookcase, found the bird’s stand–a long, rough piece of wood–and lifted it gently, careful not to bump the bird’s head against the ceiling. It had a great plumed tail, some of which had trailed down behind the bookcase and nearly got caught on the transit out. The wings too were wispier about the edges than she had expected. Except for that thick neck and tearing beak, it might have been beautiful.
As Ireille stepped down off the chair, Nirenmur said, “I could feel it watching me. I could almost hear it. What is it?”
“I will ask it, and endeavor to translate its response,” said Ireille. “But if you mean what do I think it is, it’s a big, stuffed black bird.”
Nirenmur’s mouth twitched. “Does it look like any bird you’ve seen?” she queried.
“No. I’ll tell you what I find out. Is there anything else you’d like me to do?”
It was an opportunity for Nirenmur to ask about the decay, which the servants had surely mentioned, but she only shook her head. “Thank you, Ireille,” she said.
“Of course,” Ireille responded in relief, bowed and left.
The bird, in her hands, seemed a little bit heavier.
Ireille set the bird on her desk, beyond the ashy papers she had last looked at she couldn’t remember how long ago. Her office was off of her receiving room, where her sofa stood, on the far side from her bedroom, which she never used. It was cluttered with books and papers, old inks and quills, and since she had been gone from it for so long, spiders and small insects. The air when she opened the door was so stale that even she coughed, and walked around the desk to struggle with a window. It had mildewed shut, and she had to wrestle with the pane with both hands before it would creak open.
At once the forest wafted in a damp, muddy smell. Ireille tilted her head back to consult a leaf-edged sliver of sky. Her rooms were on the side of the house between the servants’ and the Lady’s, and got a fair amount of light from between the trees before they deepened to a tangle around the back of the house. Judging that she had a few more hours of that light today, Ireille turned back to survey the room, only to be caught by the bird’s gaze as it faced her and the windows.
“Well, that won’t do,” she said. “No flying off, if you don’t mind.” She angled the bird to face into the room instead, and looked over the space with it.
It was not a large room–little more than a closet, by Ireille’s own preferences as she hated having to reach for things. The two side walls were covered with books; in the narrow gap between the desk and the windows she stood beside the third wall, and the fourth wall held the door with just enough space left for an old wine rack that she had stuffed with scrolls. It seemed somehow to have gone rusty. There was the remnant of a rug on the floor, but Ireille could tell little about it; like many of her furnishings, it had come with the room, and had been in the house longer than she had. She theorized that it had been blue and green once, and she could still see the frayed bits of tassels on its edges, making it look as if it were dissolving, which she liked to think it was.
She glanced at the bird. “Not very spacious, I know, but I hope it’ll do,” she said. “Now I told the Lady I would ask you what you were, so I hope you don’t take it as any rudeness when I do just that. What are you, if you please?”
One of the bird’s black eyes glittered. It seemed to have grown more massive in the tiny room–it was half the size of the windowed wall, and its curved beak loomed over the desk. Ireille brushed a strand of hair off her forehead.
“Right. I didn’t think you would,” she said. “Well, if I remember correctly, I have half a world of knowledge stored away in here; let’s see if I can puzzle it out. I would be obliged if you would stay until I have an answer. The Lady, if you’ll forgive my saying so, seems disinclined toward your company and, regardless, she would certainly allow you to leave at any time. As I have no orders to the contrary, I won’t try to detain you, but I should like very much to know your name and your purpose here before you go.” She came around to the front of her desk, sat down in the chair at its corner, and said, “I’ll be as quick as I can.” Then she pulled a book from the shelf nearest her and began to read.
Ireille could not have said how old she was now, but when she had entered the employ of the Nirenmur family she had been nineteen. The family had had two other daughters, a son, and one mage already in residence, and had hired Ireille because that mage had looked across the kingdom, seen her, and said, “You’ll want this one. She’s important.” So they had sent for her, and Ireille, curious to see another facet of the kingdom, had come.
She rarely saw the mage who had recommended her–he was twenty years her senior and busy with the affairs of the wealthy household–but she was the same age as the youngest daughter, so she saw the family a lot. They were rather plain, with dark skin and darker hair, and quick smiles. The mother had hazel eyes which her son and one of her daughters had inherited, the other daughter looked exactly like her paternal grandmother. And then there was Nirenmur, the middle daughter, a grey-eyed aberration.
Nirenmur’s eyes weren’t her only strange trait. She was an expert embroiderer and played several musical instruments–not unlike her sisters, except that she enjoyed both activities. She could also patch up her own shoes, which was helpful since she was an avid walker, constantly perambulating the house and the grounds. Ireille occasionally met her on these walks, and talked with her. They had more in common than Ireille had with the youngest daughter, who was mostly interested in hawking. Nirenmur, like Ireille, was interested in everything. This made her a good conversationalist, but not good enough to secure a husband. Within Ireille’s first year there, Nirenmur’s two sisters and brother married and Nirenmur swept herself off to the house in the forest, where she claimed to be meditating on music and nature, and let her family forget about her. Ireille, who had done nothing important that anyone could see, went with her, and there she fell in love for the first time in her life.
The house was already decaying when they came to it; it had been left with the castoff finery of another generation to molder in silence, among trees that now pressed close against its grounds, and in the back against its walls. But it was grand: all rich red stone and leaded glass, with vaulted ceilings and peaked roofs, and the finest carvings of flowers and trees everywhere fading away on its walls. The servants opened the rooms, decked the house in new trappings, and were sparing in their complaints. They had the finer quarters, after all, on the second and third stories, and never mind that no one would visit them there.
Nirenmur explored her new home and the overgrown paths around it, kept scholars on hand to talk to her, and kept embroidering and practicing her music. Ireille sank into the old house’s dreams.
Around her the scholars and servants changed faces, some oppressed by the solitude into leaving, some called away by family or health concerns, a few passing on the way the house was always on the verge of passing on. Ireille barely noticed. She sent messages to the main estate as called for, charmed away illness when she could, conjured occasional bits of frippery to entertain the servants, and refused to touch the house. It was perfect just as it was.
Her books and scrolls, carefully transported here and at first occasionally referred to, gradually lapsed into disuse, so that now when she reached for them, the feel of their spines and rough pages was like a taste from the edge of childhood. She combed through them carefully, remembering when she had last consulted them–as a student, as a newly employed mage, the first spring in the forest–and querying gently whether they knew anything about birds. She had been at it for several dozen candles’ worth of days when a servant came to tell her that the Lady was ill.
Ireille nodded and, as the servant left, looked at the bird. In the musty office its feathers were startlingly glossy, In fact, it had not attracted a single particle of dust.
“Hm,” said Ireille, and went to see the Lady.
Since coming to the forest, Nirenmur had not been ill. The air must be good for her, she said, while her servants exchanged dubious looks. Now as Ireille stepped into her bedchamber, the smell that greeted her was unmistakably that of sickness.
She eased up to the bedside, glancing across at the latest physician, who shrugged. Nirenmur opened her eyes and said, “Ireille.”
Ireille sat down next to her and took her hand. Immediately her skin went cold as the sickness breathed through her. She swallowed dryly.
“I thought so,” said the lady, watching her. “Is it the bird?”
“I haven’t found much to say,” Ireille replied. She set Nirenmur’s hand back on the covers, and feeling more herself, added, “Either buzzards or ravens could symbolically mean death, but this bird is neither.”
“Mistress Ireille,” the physician protested.
“It won’t tell me its name,” Ireille added. “I could be missing something fundamental. Maybe it expects me to know.” She chewed her lip and added, “There are still a lot of books for me to go through.”
“You may perhaps not need to consult every one of them,” Nirenmur said, with an echo of humor in her voice.
Ireille smiled. “I will work as quickly as I can,” she promised. She glanced once more at the physician, stood up, and left.
He caught up with her in the hall. “What’s this about a bird?” he asked. “The lady mentioned it, but wouldn’t say what it was. Some kind of magic?”
“I intend to ask it that,” Ireille informed him, mildly annoyed, “but as it hasn’t answered my questions so far, I don’t expect it to answer this one.”
“But what is it?”
“That was the first question it didn’t answer.”
He blinked confusedly at her, his mouth shaped into an unvoiced word. Ireille took pity on him and said, “It appeared in the lady’s sitting room. Neither of us knows from where. It may be magical. She’s never been sick here before, so it seems possible.”
“I’m trying to find out. I should get back to it.” She nodded to him again and started off down the hall.
“When did it appear?” his voice trailed after her.
“Dozens of candles ago,” Ireille called back. “Ask the servants. They’ll know.” And she kept going, ignoring this time the physician spluttering behind her.
There were birds that feasted on flesh and refuse, that haunted battlefields, forged paths across oceans, sang their own eulogies, stole from jewelry boxes, gathered at coronations, vanished at dawn. They had eyes like amber, wings that blotted out the moon. They were Death, and Memory, and Wisdom. None of them were the bird sitting on Ireille’s desk.
“But someone took the trouble of stuffing you, my friend,” she muttered, bent over one of her texts. “Why would they do that? What are you?”
The bird, as ever, declined to answer. Ireille was nearly on her last book; Nirenmur was too sick now to speak more than a few words, and only occasionally remembered what words she had spoken yesterday. Her family had been told and were coming with their mage to see her. Whether they would see the bird, Ireille couldn’t predict. She had a strong suspicion that it would vanish by then, like an adder taking its venom and the hope of a counter-venom with it.
“Although you didn’t bite her, did you?” she asked the bird. “She would’ve mentioned that.”
The bird gazed back at her inscrutably. I am missing something fundamental, Ireille thought, and looked at her book.
The answer was not in this one, nor in the last one. If she had searched the great library of the capital, she wouldn’t have found it. It wasn’t in a book. She knew that. It was something that had never existed before, yet she had scoured record and myth to find it.
Something in disguise, her mind told her. A phoenix trapped in its own ashes? Something out of its proper shape? Something twisted, perhaps?
The bird’s eyes, catching hers, said, No.
“So what are you?” she whispered. “Wisdom? Memory? Death? She is going to die unless I find out, isn’t she? Why is it important that someone know what you are? Or is that important? Is that why you’re doing this? You aren’t the spirit of this place, are you?”
“My head’s muddled. I think I haven’t slept in days.” Ireille put her head down on the table and jerked it up again promptly. “She isn’t going to die if I sleep, is she?”
The bird said nothing. “Of course you wouldn’t promise me that,” Ireille grumbled.
She stared at the bird for a long time. Then she did what she had avoided doing instinctively since she’d first seen the bird in Nirenmur’s sitting room, what she had not allowed herself to consider in the days that she’d been looking for its name. She reached out and touched one glossy wing.
It felt alive.
She jerked her hand back, shivering, but the feeling lingered in her fingertips–chalky a moment before from turning dozens of pages of old paper, they had gone sun-drenched, oiled at the joints. All down her mind, dust snapped from cracking walls and edges returned to stone sculptures, only to fade again the next instant, leaving everything somehow emptier, hollowed out. The coins in the bottom of the bird’s eyes slipped farther away.
“Absorbing her life,” Ireille breathed. “No–too easy. Absorbing mine? Absolutely not. She knew it. You were always alive. But you’re too light for a living thing. You’re stuffed. Why are you stuffed?”
The bird watched her. Ireille met its gaze, waiting. A corner of her mind traced the faces of stone sculptures, trying to recall what they had been meant to be.
Gradually, unexpectedly, the coins came back into the bird’s eyes. They formed a question.
How old are you? they asked.
“I don’t know,” Ireille said. “I was nineteen when I started working for the lady’s family–”
Are you sure?
Ireille stared at it. Its eyes were silent, but in the dusty corridors of her mind a voice went on, You can’t keep track of days. How do you know you’ve kept track of years?
“Other people, around me–” she stammered.
How do you know you were nineteen?
The bird was not stuffed, she realized, but frozen, with half the life gone out of it. She reached out again, laid a hand on its wing, and felt it remember–
–what youth was like when the sky was full of currents, and the ground fell away at one push and came closer at a breaking dive, when the world was black wings, and seasons were tastes that melted just as they were about to develop names, and time was a fairy tale for things that believed in death–the straining lift in the chest when a breeze turned into a tailwind tearing through the clouds–what it was to be almost beautiful–
She pulled her hand back, shaking. “You’re killing her,” she said. “You’re killing her with that? And you want to know how old I am?”
She realized something else, suddenly. The room was not as quiet as it should have been. She glanced around and found Nirenmur standing with one hand against the doorframe, in her dressing gown, grey eyes wild and glazed with fever.
“My lady,” she said. “You shouldn’t be up.”
“So I’m going to die, am I?” Nirenmur said. Her voice came out in gasps. She stumbled forward; Ireille stood and pushed the chair out for her. Nirenmur collapsed into it, eyes fixed on the bird.
“Well, it’s fair, isn’t it?” she asked haltingly. “I’ve been–I brought myself out here–and others, brought them with me–even you, and you were supposed to be–I chose not to live, and now I’m going to die–”
“You said it. You didn’t want to say it to me, but you said it to the bird.” She closed her eyes and murmured, “Ireille, I can still see it. What is it?”
Ireille looked at the bird as it sat watching her from her desk. Then she opened her mouth, and gave it her answer.
Every nerve in her body shredded, torn between brittle age and infancy as she focused on the one point in the world that mattered, a point that began between the windows and the desk and ended in eternity. She kept speaking–stretched the point into a sliver, the sliver into a gap–until she forgot which side of the world she stood on, and what shape she was supposed to have. All her mind reached out to that gap, as through it a breath came to her of a country she remembered, where the colors were deeper than the oldest legends, and everything was now.
When she stopped, the bird was gone. Nirenmur sat with her jaw hanging, eyes open wide, her face clear of everything except shock.
Ireille said, “My lady?”
Nirenmur drew a ragged breath. “I–I’m fine,” she said. “I think. I’m–” She blinked at Ireille and said, “I didn’t know you could do magic like that.”
“It’s hard to, when you aren’t yourself,” Ireille agreed slowly.
She shifted, and finding that her bones didn’t creak, walked to the window and eased it closed. “Too cold,” she said. “Bad for your health.”
“But what was that–that bird?” Nirenmur asked. “Was it a bird?”
“Oh, yes,” said Ireille. “Absolutely.”
“Why did it make me sick?”
“It didn’t, strictly speaking. That was you, feeling what it felt. It would’ve made anyone sick. You’ll feel better now.”
“Where did you send it?”
“I didn’t send it anywhere. I opened a door. It went home.” She paused, then added, “It was a bird, but out of another age and another world–not a memory, not a ghost, just something that came here by accident, and survived past anything else of its kind.”
“Through its own magic, and its joy, until it was tired and frightened and turning into something else.”
Nirenmur hesitated. Then she asked, “How do you know?”
“It told me,” said Ireille.
There was a long silence. Ireille, one hand on the windowsill, felt for the first time how deep the house’s stillness went, how long it had been building. She took a deep breath of the dusty air and let it out again.
“So that explains it,” Nirenmur said. “It came out of another world, and now it’s gone back. It made me sick, but it didn’t.”
Her tone was questioning. “Almost,” Ireille said. “There’s one more thing I’d like explained, but that doesn’t have to concern you. You must be tired. Would you like me to take you back to your rooms?”
Nirenmur smiled slowly. “Actually,” she said, “I’d like to walk.”
Nirenmur walked all around the house, up stairs and into rooms she hadn’t opened since she’d fallen ill. The next day the physician accompanied her as she strolled around the grounds, and the day after that, her family arrived. They promptly confiscated Nirenmur and retired to one of the sitting rooms to talk. Ireille stayed outside, arranging herself on the house’s front step while the family’s mage perched on the more intact of the stone banisters.
“That bird,” Ireille said, “was too tired to do much and so wary of people it was pretending to be stuffed. How did it find its way here?”
He answered steadily, as she’d expected, “I sent it. I didn’t know Nirenmur would empathize so strongly with it. I didn’t know she could.”
Ireille nodded. “You sent it to me,” she said. “But it didn’t recognize me.”
The mage was silent. Ireille stretched out her feet and said, “It asked me how old I was.”
“A fair question.”
“No. I’m nineteen plus however many years I’ve been in the employ of this family.”
“And the moment between nineteen and nineteen? How do you count that?”
Ireille looked at him mildly. “There were no candles to count by, and no servants to count,” she said. “I don’t know that I should.”
He sighed. “They misunderstood me. I told them, ‘she is important,’ not ‘she will be important,’ but you looked so young. They didn’t realize how long you’d been young. And I said they should hire you, because any mage who can step into another world and live there until she forgets what time means is worth hiring.”
Ireille closed her eyes. “How old is this house?” she asked.
“Hundreds of years old. It’s been in the family for generations.”
“I think the first time I was nineteen, it was very young. I don’t know that I’m important; I stepped into that world because I was young, and I wanted to be forever. When I stepped back–I was still nineteen, but not young, not anymore. Then I saw this house, and it was the most splendid thing. It still is. I was glad to stay here, and think that time was catching up with me, until I touched that bird and remembered time doesn’t work that way here either. We went on in different ways; that’s all. I’m still in the now.” She opened her eyes, studying the mage’s face, the addition of lines and grey hairs, and trying to calculate years by them. She gave up finally and said, “How old am I?”
“Twenty seven,” he responded. She groaned. “Nowhere near caught up,” he observed.
“No,” she replied. “But I suppose I ought to enjoy it.”
“I certainly would.”
She said after a moment, “You avoided me at first. You were busy, but not that busy.”
“No,” he admitted. “But you could’ve made me as sick as that bird made Nirenmur.”
“Ah. And now?”
He opened his mouth, but before he could speak the creaking of the front door made them both turn. Nirenmur stood there, eyes bright amidst the disciplined politeness of her face.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, “but I thought I should tell you to pack your things. We’re going home.”
Ireille glanced at the mage. Is that all right? her expression asked. He nodded imperceptibly. Ireille smiled, and said to Nirenmur, “Good. Thank you.”
Nirenmur nodded and closed the door again. The mage slid off the banister, offered Ireille his hand. She took it. Pulling her to her feet, he smiled and said, “Welcome back to time.”
Emi Makanry technically lives in California, but loves traveling, sometimes even to places that really exist. She can be contacted at email@example.com. This is her first story sale.