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  • Enya Veseli

The Guardian of the Pigeons

A previously unpublished excerpt from the diaries of Demeter Mills, travel writer

As the light drains from the square hidden amongst the sighing houses of San Mouline, the boy remains seated on the ledge of the fountain. His feet, clad in black boots, are planted firmly on the ground; he rests his weight on his outstretched arms. His gaze is hidden, the street lamp casting a faint glow against one side of his face but not reaching his eyes. The flock of pigeons native to the city huddle around him, emitting soft, sleepy noises. Two birds, one with brown speckles on its white plumage, the other with messy feathers the colour of tarmac, are perched on his shoulders. They regard the five men stumbling out of the bar attentively. The boy doesn’t look up as they weave drunkenly by, but his posture betrays a keen alertness and the birds rustle with quiet anticipation. The sudden shifts in the flock reveal the cardboard sign by the boy’s feet. Written in block letters by a decisive hand, it reads: “Birds for sale”. Excessive sunshine has bleached the corner of the card that cautiously peaks out from behind its master's shadow. Sometimes he thinks he can still sense the sharp, alcoholic scent of the marker biting his nostrils, however unlikely that may be. And unlikely it is: the boy, an old soul, though no one would know by looking at the confident youth of his face, has been sitting by fountains in the area for the last eight months. He is the youngest son of Marcellus Ricci, the leader of the Red Legion, the notorious criminal gang that has terrorised San Mouline and the surrounding villages for the past century. Newspapers are fond of waxing lyrical about his father’s petrol-soaked fingers, his cunning black eyes and fondness for theatre. If the inhabitants look closely, they might see the resemblance, even if the boy has spent the first fifteen years of his life shut up in one of his father’s safe houses. Waiting, smiling, honing his abilities.

One of the men approaches the boy, unsteady on his feet. The pin on his lapel loudly announces his status as the mayor. His suit is expensively tailored, his shirt the same crisp white as the lilies in the city’s graveyard. His fingers drip with rings. He reaches into his pocket and produces two copper coins that he idly tosses at the boy. Still not meeting the man’s gaze, the boy reaches down with steady hands and lifts a white dove out from amongst her ugly brethren. She doesn’t struggle. The birds remain silent, only their feathers whisper, whisper, whisper.

The man doesn’t notice how unusual this is. His face is flushed red from the alcohol and the merriments, mentally congratulating himself for acquiring such a thoughtful gift for his daughter’s birthday, picturing her childish delight. In this golden fantasy, his wife, Maria, glances at him appreciatively, her delicate hand resting on his arm. He too doesn’t pick up on the family resemblance. If he had, even in his intoxicated state it would have dawned on him that it was no coincidence a boy selling birds appeared on the very day he was likely to purchase one. But his friends call impatiently to him, so he grabs the dove and hurries to join them, muttering a brief word of parting.

Once the sound of the men’s laughter has died away, the boy permits himself a vicious smile. His mood spreads to the birds over the invisible channels that have always connected this boy, a born thief, to the minds and souls of others. They hiss and nudge each other. Pigeons have often been messengers in times of war. And this is war, alright. Still, it is only sensible to remain calm and collected. At this silent command, the pigeons return to being still and watchful. They wait patient, submissive, as their young master closes his eyes, reaching out with unseen hands, tugging on unseen strings. When he reopens them, the square has vanished.

In its place is the face of a young girl, eyes wide and gleeful as she stares down at him. Or rather, as she stares down at the spy he has smuggled into her home. Her pigtails brush his feathers and he shudders at the ghostly sensation, already craning his neck to take in the rest of the living room. The small mutters from the white dove’s mind are easily shoved aside and quenched, as he catalogs the gilded sofas, the velvet cushions strewn carelessly across the furniture, the glass cabinet containing the family porcelain that has surely passed from one rich hand to the next. The girl turns to face her father and he grins sheepishly, his wife trying to hide her disappointment at the stench of spirits wafting toward her. She stands in front of an oil portrait of an older man with an impressive moustache and eyebrows like caterpillars, proud shoulders covered by the mayor’s ceremonial robes. The artist has eternalised his bad temper. That is where the safe containing the plans is. Nothing else makes sense. The boy files this information away, then switches to check on the house of the police chief, the bank manager and the chair of the council. Everyone is asleep. His time has come.

The boy looks at the wanted poster hanging on the wall of the bar. His father’s face and name are splashed across the fading paper, along with the promise of a great reward for the man who’d catch the “Spider Baron”. It is time someone knocked him off his throne.

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