by Lucas J.W. Johnson
Ceph stoked up the fire. The bar was mostly empty — he’d started to get a few patrons some nights, but Azrael’s Stop was hidden down a little alleyway near Temple Ward, and Ceph didn’t think anyone would ever find it. Only that old man, Tom, was nursing his whiskey in the corner with a friend.
The Theore night was frigid, and though the Stop did a good job of keeping out the damp, Ceph still shivered. It was colder than normal in the city. He felt sorry for those who didn’t have a warm fire tonight.
As he brewed some mulled wine, he heard a flapping of wings, and saw the hooded crow alight in the rafters. He’d never heard it make any other noise than that. It was a little creepy.
He sighed. The Gifted Days of the Yuletide season always made him think of his family — long dead as they were. They’d died fourteen years ago, when he was just a toddler. He didn’t have anyone to be with at Yuletide.
The hooded crow took wing again, landing in front of the great oaken front door. It cocked its head at him.
“What?” Ceph said. “Expecting visitors? No one ever comes.”
He went to pour Tom another whiskey, but the crow kept standing at the door. It pecked at it once or twice.
“Looks like it needs to go out,” Old Tom chuckled.
“Normally it just shits in my bed when it needs to go,” Ceph said. Tom laughed.
The crow pecked at the door again, and Ceph sighed. “You want us to freeze in here?” He went to the door, the crow hopping aside to make room, and opened it in exasperation.
A boy sat on the stoop, a ragged blanket pulled tight around his shoulders. He looked up at Ceph with bleary eyes that shone in the light from the doorway.
Ceph raised his eyebrows as a cold wind swirled around him. “Oh!” he said. He glanced briefly at the hooded crow. “You look cold. …You want a drink?”
The boy nodded, numbly. He tried to get to his feet, but stumbled. Ceph grabbed his arm and helped him up, leading him inside the Stop and closing the door tight behind them.
The hooded crow watched him — he thought its look was almost approving.
“Thank you,” the boy mumbled as Ceph helped him into a seat by the fire. He had long hair in a tangle around his head. He was young, maybe thirteen or fourteen. His skin was ashen, and as he grasped the steaming mug of mulled wine Ceph poured for him, he saw that his fingertips were blackened.
But his eyes were bright, when he looked up at Ceph and said, “There’s a light in the darkness.”
Ceph blinked, unsure how to respond to that, then simply said, “What were you doing outside? It’s freezing.”
The boy looked down at his drink, and lifted it to his mouth with shaking hands. It should have still been steaming hot, but the boy didn’t seem to mind. “Nowhere to go.”
“Where’s your family?”
“They kicked me out.”
Ceph sat down in the chair across from the boy. “Mine are dead. I’m Ceph.”
The boy looked at him with those bright eyes. “Casper,” he said. “Are you a herald?”
The crow perched at the edge of the table as Ceph frowned. “No,” he said. Then, “How–” But he stopped. Prying was rude, but he hadn’t been one for rules for a while. “How long?”
“Since the spring. Just after the Feast of Liuun. It wasn’t so cold, then.” Casper had withdrawn his hands, holding them against his body. “I was okay at first. I mean, it’s not like we were close. Lived on the streets, did what I could. What I had to.”
“We all do what we have to,” Ceph said.
“Well, exactly,” Casper said. “And of course I missed them. I missed having people who loved me. But I survived. But now — Yuletide…”
Ceph nodded. He had vague memories of the mountains, the Yule log, the laughter.. And at the orphanage, it was the only time with any real joy. When he gave the little doll he’d made to Cari…
Casper’s voice brought him back to the present. “I miss them. I miss them so much. The food, the warmth. The laughter, all of us gathered around the fire. Songs and stories. It’s the songs and stories I miss most. And the warmth.”
“Why’d they kick you out?” Ceph asked.
Casper reached for the mug again, took a sip, and placed it back — and Ceph saw frost coating the mug, ice crystals forming on the surface of the wine.
“They said I was touched.”
Ceph blinked. Casper was staring into the fire, his eyes blank, though they shone in the firelight.
“We’d gone up Cast Mountain for the feast, a group of us. Easier to see the star, outside the city. But something happened during the rituals. Everyone felt it — the chill, the darkness. We looked up, and there was only the Void…”
“The Starfell?” Tom spoke up from the corner. He and his friend had grown quiet. “The Flows seem to be getting closer each year…”
Casper nodded. “The endless black. That’s what they saw, anyway. I saw stars.”
“So you didn’t see the Starfell?”
Casper shook his head. “I felt it just like them. But it wasn’t empty. Not the dozens of stars we see — not Liuun and Uunastil and the constellations and all. But hundreds of stars. Thousands, lighting the sky. It was full of stars.”
Ceph frowned. “The Starfell is empty. The old stars are myth.”
Casper seemed to return to the bar, and looked at Ceph. “That’s what they said. But I know what I saw. And–” He reached out and touched the frosty mug. Ceph heard a snap, and the wine was ice. “This began to happen. They said I was touched by the Void, by the madness. That I’d imagined the stars, that my soul had been frozen. I’m flowtouched. And they kicked me out for it.”
“A Child of Winter, they called me, when word got around. I would have been better off as the target of a cruel trick from Jack Frost, but the Void is a curse. They wouldn’t have me.”
The crow hopped closer, cocking its head at Casper, then flew away, up to the rafters.
Casper and Ceph watched it.
“I was okay at first,” Casper said, still looking into the rafters. “I survived. But it’s been getting colder. Always colder.
“All I wanted was for them to hold me. To tell me it was okay. Isn’t that what parents are supposed to do? To be strong when we can’t be?”
“Sometimes we’re not given that choice,” Ceph said.
“I just wanted some warmth at Yuletide,” Casper said. A tear dripped down his face as he watched the crow — turning to frost and ice as it did, leaving a trail of white crystals along his cheek.
“You have it here,” Ceph said. He took Casper’s hand — it was icy cold, but he held it. “As long as you want to stay, you’ll have people with you.”
Casper looked at him. He was shivering uncontrollably now, but he smiled as another tear froze to his face. “I miss them.”
Casper closed his eyes. “Full of stars,” he said.
And then he was still.
For the first time, the hooded crow let out a piercing caw.