The Ravenmaster lets out a whistle. All seven of the glossy black beasts take roost on their assigned spots. Aubrey, the one farthest away from the Ravenmaster, shudders its feathers into place. Something about the motion troubles the Ravenmaster.

The gates clank and squeak as they open. Children of all species under the Empire’s flag jump and waddle and ooze off of the buses.

“Urchins,” mutters the Ravenmaster, uncharitably. “You’re awfully grumpy, for a robot,” says his assistant. “You are typically rude, for a human. And late as usual.”

Children and guardians are getting the first pamphlet on their appendage displays. The devices emit sounds, scroll text and waft scents so that everyone can understand the grand tradition of this historic place, no matter their species. “The whole tower complex is a replica of the one constructed many millennia ago, in London, on Earth. Many of the stones and metals used in the construction were transported across the vast reaches of space, from the home world itself, to recreate this essential icon of the Empire.”

Some adults, mostly loyalists to Charles the 23rd, marvel at the details. Kids are generally more interested in the ravens.

“You should love the kids. They are the only ones who care about your ravens.”

The Ravenmaster bristles. “Without my ravens there is no Empire.”

“You sound like that would be a good thing.”

The first group has made their way to the grassy area where the ravens reside. The Ravenmaster lets out an impressive whistle. The group falls silent.

“The ravens protect the tower, the monarchy, and the Empire. They are modeled on ravens bred in Somerset, some six thousand years ago.”

A bluish appendage shoots up. “What’s a Somerset?”

“Shame. You have not studied your historic geography! Demerits!”

The youngster pulls all of its limbs into a central trunk. An adult tries to console it.

“Just because you don’t know, doesn’t mean you should take it out on the kid,” whispers the assistant.

The Ravenmaster favors her with a scathing glance.

“The ravens to your right are named Gripp, Merlin, and James Crow. To your left are Bran, Winston, Markel, and Aubrey.”

“Which one can play dead?” another youngling asks, careful to not raise a hand.

“I see you’ve done your reading. James Crow is famous for her occasional display. Perhaps, if we are lucky, she will favor us with one today.”

The bluish child moves to the back of the group. It shud- ders and drops silvery tears, falling like tiny diamonds on the grass.

Aubrey cocks a head toward the glistening tears.

The Ravenmaster goes through his whole routine, signal- ing James Crow to play dead.

Aubrey hops down from his perch and picks up one of the tears. He swallows it. Then another, and another. He allows the bluish child to pet his tail.

To revive the bird, the Ravenmaster insists the children sing “God Save the King”, at full volume. James Crow hops up and ruffles her glistening black feathers.

The Ravenmaster notices Aubrey missing from his perch. He lets out a whistle. Aubrey flies up, cawing and making a big show of circling the perch before landing.

The children applaud. The Ravenmaster is not pleased. He sends them on to view the crown jewels and armaments.

He puts up a sign: “The ravens are resting and will return after their nap.”

The Ravenmaster takes Aubrey into the workshop.

While he is away, the assistant notices the little tears. She goes inside to get something to collect them in.

She returns to find Winston, Markel, James Crow and Bran all eating the tears. She uses the whistle on her lanyard to call them to attention. They ignore her.

She returns to the workshop. Aubrey lays open on the diagnostic reader. Glistening nanobots seethe out of him, sliding up the hand of the Ravenmaster and into his slack mouth.

The assistant goes back to the yard. Gripp has joined the others, eating the silvery tears. Only Merlin, the one actual raven, stands alone. She scoops up the bird and carries her to a transport chamber.

The assistant and the bird materialize deep in the secret vault of QI6 HQ. They step off the platform.

“Ravenmistress.” The guard bows to her.

“The intel was good, another attempt on the ravens. We’ll have to revert to more avians until we can sort this.”

“You were able to save the mother bird, then?”

Merlin lets out a triumphant “tok cr-r-uck” and flies to the highest spot in the room, the tiny nanobot clinging to the hock of her right foot unnoticed.

Originally Appeared in: 
Issue Appeared In: 
Edgar Allan Poe's Snifter of Blood #2