Outside the palace and all along the continent, the independent kingdoms that had once all been the purview of the Storm Queen raged at war. Nobles took up arms against one another; commonfolk rose up against the nobles whose battles burned their farms. The Captain of the Navy laid in convalescence and the Star Queen remained palace-bound for her safety.
One night, as she pored alone over war maps for the thousandth time, she heard whispers echoing her name. She followed the sounds through twisting hallways to an ornate locked door.
Try your key, she heard from the other side of the door, and so she slid the key to the queen’s chambers into the lock, and the door swung open wide.
The aviary was a narrow, tall courtyard around which the rest of the palace had been built. It was open to the sky, and perches covered in ravens’ nests protruded from the walls. She walked out into a garden, her bare feet sinking in wild grass and flowers, her neck craned up as the ravens glided down in wide circles to light on stone fountains and benches and on her shoulders too, and when she held out her fingers one of them curled his talons around them. She should have been afraid but she smiled, delighted at the hefty weight of them, at their majestic size.
The queen is dead, came a whisper from one shoulder.
Long live the queen, whispered the one on her hand.
“Why can I hear you?” she asked, turning to look at the hundreds of dark birds gathered to greet her.
The queen can hear us, said one behind her.
You are the queen, reminded another.
“And who are you?” she asked.
I am Vyn, said one.
I am Vyn, said another.
We are Vyn, said a chorus of them.
“Very well, Vyn” she said, running a thumb over the head of the raven on her fingers, soothing his eyes closed. “You beauties are free now.”
We belong to the queen, whispered one.
You are the queen, repeated another.
If you wish, you may have our eyes, came a whisper from her hand. I will show you. And Celeste’s vision blurred, then went black, and she felt herself flying high over a golden Gythian tower. She saw the glint of it, then the wear in the ancient construction. She circled, her wings spread, weightless atop the warm breeze; it was a dream of flying but better, for she had never seen the world in such vivid, bright color. Into a high window she flew, perching high on the molding near a ceiling fresco. She poked her beak at an itch under her wing until she heard voices far below. A group of people in pretty robes gathered over a map and argued.
“Ah, it is my advisor,” she said in her trance. “Elizar!” But her voice came out in a raspy caw that the people below did not hear.
“… successor has been found in Taizen Gate, and we are sending you, Elizar,” said a woman.
“I’m too old for this, and so is Gythia,” said Elizar. “Let the Storm Queen, or whatever it is Louisa is calling herself these days, deal with her lands as she sees fit.”
“Her ravens’ eyes turn toward us and her army has never been stronger. There is none better than you at raising people to power with Gythia’s best interests at the fore. Advise her to give independence to her neighboring kingdoms. They will turn on one another and collapse, and we shall have a necessary foothold on the continent.”
Celeste snapped herself away from the ravens’ dream. Her lips pursed and the ravens cackled. “Is this vision true?” she asked in a measured tone.
It is a memory, said one.
A story we can tell of what we saw, said another.
“I trusted him,” she said, her jaw tight. “He lied.”
But you can know when they lie.
You can see our colors.
There is nowhere you cannot fly.
Pay the price, hissed one.
Let us take them, and we will be your eyes.
Give us your eyes.
“So the queen before me was not so blind after all.” Celeste petted the head of the raven, one long stroke after another. She nodded up at the stars, the last thing she saw with her own eyes. “I must know the truth if I am to rule,” she said. “Take them.”
The ravens descended, screaming.