Chapter 11: The Crow and the Criminal

The last time Haru had awoken to such screaming was when a pigeon had flown into the tower and almost scared the living daylights out of her mother. That morning, Haru had stumbled downstairs to find her chasing after the confused bird with a broom and screaming threats that involved boiling pots and stew.

Strangely enough, the screams today were also accompanied with threats entailing plucking.

Haru staggered to her feet, noting Baron's absence from the sofa as she fumbled for the cane she'd left by the entrance. Even when she did open the door, it took Haru several more groggy seconds to process the situation before her.

"Don't just stand there – do something!" Baron yelled. He was evidently finding it somewhat difficult to speak, since a crow was hauling his boot across the garden path – with his foot still inside.

"Like what?" Haru demanded.

"Like anything!"

"No, leave him." Muta appeared on the porch beside her, a smirk on his features. "I want to see this play out."

Haru spared a withering glance to the cat and then did what she did best – charged the crow with cane in hand. As she leapt towards them, the boot came loose and Baron was dropped like a bag of potatoes. The crow flew a few feet up from the sudden weight loss and Haru's cane went swinging harmlessly below.

"Leave my guide alone!"

"He has my boot," she could hear Baron mumble from the ground. "I paid good money for these boots."

"Ya mean stole."

"Po-tay-to, po-tah-to."

The crow dropped the boot in question and landed unsteadily on a nearby branch. "That man is a thief and a criminal!" he snapped, pointing his wing for emphasis. "All I'm doing is bringing him to justice." Beady eyes focused on Haru. "Anyone who gets in my way is obstructing that justice."

"And… what happens to people who do that?" she asked.

"They also become outlaws."

"Oh."

"Cheer up, Chicky," Muta called from the cottage door. "It ain't all bad being a fugitive."

"You're not helping!" Regardless, Haru found herself standing between crow and criminal. "Look," she said, "maybe this doesn't have to end in drama. Perhaps instead of obstructing that justice, we can just… delay it a little?"

Baron staggered back to his feet and limped over to Haru. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Saving your ass."

The crow's eyes narrowed. "How little a delay?"

"Two days? Just until he takes me to see the lanterns and back."

"If his guidance to the lantern festival is all you require, any of the guards can offer the same service," the crow said. "And you'll be guaranteed to still have all your belongings at the end of it."

"No, I definitely want his help."

"He's a thief–"

"He got me this far. Please, just let him accompany me home after the festival and then you can, I don't know, chase each other to your hearts' content."

The crow eyed her. "And why should I trust the companion of a known thief?"

"Actually, we're not companions," Baron supplied. "She's blackmailing me into helping."

Haru frowned. "I thought we agreed it was bribery."

"Does it really matter at this point?"

The crow released a cackling caw that broke up whatever Haru had been about to say. "How about I offer a counter deal? You return the stolen crown and I'll consider not calling down the guards on you the moment you enter the capital."

Baron grinned from where he had been fetching his boot. "Well then, prepare for disappointment, my good crow, because I don't have it."

"But, when he gets it back, he'll return it straight to you," Haru said.

"Wait just one moment–" Baron began.

"We promise," she added. "It's just… I've been dreaming about seeing those lights my whole life, so today's pretty much the biggest day ever for me and you taking my guide into custody would sort of ruin it." She paused, and when the crow still didn't seem wholly convinced, she said, "Also, it's kind of my birthday. Just so you know."

"Haru, I don't think–"

The crow cackled, and to the surprise of all, grinned. "Well, why didn't you say so? Then of course I think we can offer a little leeway for you and your… not-companion."

"Thank you!"

"I think he's being sarcastic," Baron muttered to Haru.

"I know," Haru retorted. "I did grow up with Muta, after all. It was worth a shot, though."

"Well, now you've exhausted all possible excuses, I think it's time we discussed your options," the crow said. "Namely, your capture."

"You and whose army?" Baron asked.

"The guards–"

"Which I don't see anywhere about right now. So, tell me, how is one talking bird planning on taking in the Baron, renowned and – if I say so myself – dashing gentleman thief?" He winked Haru's way, who only rolled her eyes.

"Let's find out," the crow snarled. He leapt off the branch and dove down towards Baron, talons outstretched, beak open… for all of one second before he tumbled out of the air.

Haru caught him before he could hit the ground. "Hello."

Baron leant over Haru's shoulder. "I say we make bird pie–" he started, but Haru motioned for him to be quiet. She looked over the creature in her grasp, particularly the weakened wing on its left side.

"You're injured," she said.

"Thank you for telling me. I hadn't noticed. And before you go getting any ideas about pies or stew, you should be aware that I still have my beak and talons and I'm not afraid to use them."

"We're not…" Haru began weakly. "We're not going to cook you."

"You're not?"

"We're not?"

"Can everyone just put down their pitchforks long enough to come to some sort of agreement?" Haru demanded. "Look, if you agree to let Baron take me to the lantern festival without getting him arrested, then I'll heal your wing."

"It'll heal anyway."

"Instantly."

She felt Baron tense by her side. "Haru…"

The crow regarded her with one beady eye. "Instantly? How?"

"I…" How often was she going to do this? Reveal her magic for the sake of one person – one criminal – who she barely knew? Who she barely trusted? "I have magic." The words left her mouth before she could stop them. "Healing magic. And that wing may heal naturally, but it'll take time and there's no guarantee it'll heal perfectly. I can mend it as if it was never hurt."

The crow considered this, and then straightened in Haru's hands. "The name's Toto."

"Haru. You've already met Baron, and watching from the sidelines…" Haru leant back to spot Muta reluctantly rising from the porch. "That's Muta."

"Is the show over already? And it was just beginning to get interesting."

Haru made a face at Muta, and turned back to Toto. "So… do we have a deal? I'll heal your wing, and you'll let Baron take me to the lantern festival and back?"

"Yes."

"You're just going to take the crow at his word?" Baron demanded. "He was trying to attack me!"

"I took you at your word, didn't I?"

"And I've made it abundantly clear what I think about that."

Haru bit back a smile. "And still, here you are," she reminded him. "You haven't broken any promises yet."

"This is not a good habit to get into."

"I'll be the one to decide that."

Toto watched over the proceedings with bemusement. "Why are you two working together again?"

"Blackmail."

"Bribery."

ooOoo

Baron lingered by Haru's shoulder as she looped a strand of her hair around the crow's injured wing. "Haru, are you sure this is a good idea?"

"It's our only idea," she replied, "unless you want to be turned over to the guards immediately."

"It's one crow, not a whole patroon. I say we leave him up a tree and carry on our merry way." He caught her eye and his voice softened. "Look, I'm just thinking about you and your magic here."

"And the fact that Toto plans on arresting you after all this is said and done is not impacting your judgement at all?"

Baron considered this. "It's accounting for astonishingly little of my reasoning," he said, and even he sounded surprised by this.

"Well, whatever your reasoning is, we're not going to abandon him. That's not how I work."

"And you've also spent your entire life in a tower," Baron pointed out. "Things work differently in the real world."

Haru finished sorting out her hair with a decisive tug, and spared him a single withering look. "I guess we'll see whose way works best then, won't we? Now, shush; I have a wing to mend." She smiled down at the crow. "Don't worry, this'll only take a moment."

"Is that with or without the bickering?" Toto asked.

"You shush too."

Ignoring the affronted expressions of both human and crow, Haru leant back into that vein of magic that had flowed through her for her entire life, slipping back into the song that she knew better than she knew her own face. The magic raced along her hair like liquid light, starting at her roots and spiralling down to the tips. Beneath her hands, she felt the bird's wing shift, the bones and muscles realigning and strengthening with every note of her song.

Once completed, she slipped her hair free from Toto, and he hopped back to his feet. He flapped the wing gingerly, and then more firmly when no pain came. "It's… healed."

"I said I would, didn't I?"

Toto raised his eyes from the wing to Haru. "How did you do that?"

"Magic hair."

"What was your name, again?"

Haru tried not to squirm under the crow's scrutiny. "Haru. Just Haru."

"And we're going to be late if we dillydally here for much longer," Baron said, suddenly rising to his feet and pulling Haru up with him. "Festival starts today and we still have a lake to traverse around." He glanced back to Toto. "And I suppose you can come along with us, if you must."

ooOoo

There were times when Baron forgot about Haru's sheltered upbringing – at least, beyond her naïve, if bizarrely effective, outlook on life – but moments like reaching the lake reminded him that he really was dealing with someone who had seen the world through a window her whole life.

She came to an abrupt halt as the water's edge came into view between the trees, and then went running for the shoreline. He caught up with her as she was paddling along the shallows.

Note to self: steal the girl some shoes when back in the city.

"It's so… so large!" Haru exclaimed in delight. "I've never been able to see so far across with no trees in all my life." She inhaled deeply, closing her eyes. "And it's so peaceful. It's like there's nothing else in the world right now."

Baron stepped up to the sandy edge, carefully staying out of the water's reach. "Have you really never seen a lake before?"

"Hello, did you see a lake from my tower?"

"To tell the truth, I didn't get much of a chance for sightseeing. Your cane saw to that." But Baron found himself smiling a little at Haru's delight. "Now, how about we carry on? I think we have a festival to catch."

"Sure." Haru didn't step out of the lake though, preferring to stay within the shallows where the water tickled her ankles.

"Haru…"

"What? You said we needed to follow the lake round, right? So, what difference does it make whether I follow it on the shore or in the water?" She made a face that told Baron she wasn't about to be deterred any time soon, and purposely strode on. Baron had to pick up his pace to keep up.

"You're a little bit mad, you know that?"

"Are you telling me that you never wanted to go paddling in a lake?"

"No, but I was about five at the time."

"Well, I didn't get to do this when I was five," Haru retorted, "so I have a lot of catching up to do." She went on for a little longer in silence, and then added, "Why did you stop?"

"Paddling in lakes? I don't know. I guess I grew out of it."

"You stopped enjoying it?"

"I wouldn't say that."

"Then what's stopping you?"

Baron considered this, then looked down to his feet. "Honestly? I quite like these boots."

"Then take them off, you doofus," Haru laughed, and she reached over and tugged him into the shallows.

"Haru, wait – then at least let me take my boots then– wait, nevermind. Too late." He stood in the water, flexing his toes. "I have wet socks now, I hope you're happy."

"Oh, come on, Baron; live a little."

She was grinning though, and Baron couldn't stop himself returning the smile. He tugged off his boots, stuffed his socks into them, and tied the laces together to make them easier carrying. "Fine. But I'm not going to help you carry your hair later when it's soaking and heavy."

"Of course you will. You're a gentleman."

"Gentleman thief. There's a difference. I was going to cook Toto into a pie, remember?"

"Were you actually though?"

Baron snorted. "No. But only because I'm allergic to lawkeepers."

"Right."

"You sound sceptical."

"No, I definitely believe you. Allergies. Right."

Along the shoreline, cat and crow watched the proceedings with a variety of emotions. "They've really got it bad, haven't they?" Toto eventually asked.

"I'm trying not to think about it," Muta replied.

The laughter from the two humans came to a sudden halt, and both animals hurried over to see the cause. As they approached, they saw that the capital city and the long bridge reaching across the lake had finally come into view. Haru started for the entrance, but Baron wasn't quite so quick to respond.

Against all his better judgement, Toto flew over to Baron's shoulder while Muta went chasing after Haru.

"Having second thoughts?" Toto asked.

"No."

"Sure. You are aware that going to the capital, as a renowned thief, is the stupidest thing you could possibly do, right?"

"Are you trying to talk some sense into me?" But Baron didn't sweep Toto off his shoulder, which seemed as good as a confession.

"Consider me professionally intrigued. A criminal such as yourself has not lasted this long by rushing back to the place he thieved two days earlier."

"She has the crown."

"And you should know when to cut your losses."

"It'll set me up for life."

"Which won't do you much good if you're caught."

"It'll be fine."

"Are you honestly telling me that the only way you could think to retrieve a crown worth a king's ransom from a strange young woman in a tower was to agree to escort her into a city with your face on every wanted poster?"

Baron paused. "Aren't you meant to be on the side of the law? Why are you asking this? Do you want me to reconsider this reckless road trip?"

"Like I said: Professional curiosity."

"We came to an agreement. I escort her to the lantern festival, and in exchange she would return the crown to me. Anyway, she's been in that tower all her life; she's probably discovered millions of nooks and crannies in that time. I wouldn't have a hope of finding wherever she's hidden it."

"There are ways to make a person talk."

Baron looked sharply across at the crow, something akin to anger – or hurt? – in his eyes. "You would consider me so heartless?"

"I've heard the stories about you and your brother. About your earlier years when you were known as the Dukes, and they are not kind. So you understand why I'm curious."

"Things change."