Chapter 40: Free at Long Last
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The city of Aemmel was swarming with life as people moved through the markets. The plaza, bustling with activity, was raucous at this time of day. Traders, hawking off what they could, shouted at the top of their lungs as they tried to attract the attention of passersby - while the wandering civilians gawked and stared at the trinkets they had found: the few treasures that one might find within the trash of the stalls. Along the edges of the marketplace, unassuming stores stood tall. Most were made of intricately carved stone.

They had the kind of poor quality wares that one could come to expect from this area, from shoddy knock-offs to novelty knick-knacks: they tended to be the kind of objects that lasted about as long as a toddler's attention span. Each of the stores seemed populous, with people bursting from the seams as they bought everything from rock salt to mage's robes. However, as people wandered between the stores, shopping for whatever wasn't nailed down - only one store seemed empty.

Sandwiched between a thriving butcher's and an old bookstore, a tall yet decrepit four-storey building sat awkwardly by the street. Made from old birch-wood and fading clay bricks, the fluttering of feathers could be heard from nearly across the block as the hoots of the building's occupants echoed across the plaza. Though the chorus of the owls seemed to attract the passing eyes of the plaza-dwellers, few bothered to step inside. It was a building with a past. It had a reputation, and it was a storied one at that. 

A young boy sat behind the desk. He was a wiry-looking kid, wearing blue overalls and a stained shirt, with a head of scraggly orange hair filled with owl feathers - knotted into his locks with such intensity that they might as well be a permanent fixture. As he sat there, he sighed as he stared out of the doorway toward the throngs of people. The crowded streets teemed with people, and yet, few of them would even give him a chance. He'd come to expect that at the Derringer Owlery. The name alone was like mud, but he wasn't going to change who he was simply to get more customers. That was his name, and just like his owls, he wouldn't abandon it. 

He stood up from the desk, as he called to the only other employee in the Owlery today. He didn't have the money to keep on many staff.

"Mami, can you tend the counter for a bit?" He asked. "I'm going to go up and feed the owls."

"Alright Remmie," she replied.

Remmie wandered up the rickety stairs, careful to grip the railing in case he fell, yet careful not to grip it too hard. The railing was old and brittle. Remmie knew that the splinters from that thing could end up turning his hand into a shrapnel pin-cushion, and he was particularly keen to avoid that. As he clambered up the stairs, the wood creaking beneath his feet, the noise of the fluttering wings began to intensify. Stepping up to the top step, Remmie grabbed a bucket from a food station near the door, as he put his hand against the copper door handle - twisting it open.

Wings flapped eagerly throughout the room at the sight of young Remmie, as the owls bounced and danced upon their perches, waving their wings and bobbing with excitement. Taking the little portions of food and feeding them to the feathered creatures, Remmie smiled as they gobbled down their little morsels with ravenous intensity. He gave each owl a little pat on the head after their meal, showing them the same affection that he hoped they'd be able to have with their future owners.

Away from the other excitable owls, however, a wisened brown owl stared from the window - peering out across the courtyard. As Remmie approached the young owl with the little bucket of food, he smiled. 

"Come on, hop up Checc," Remmie said, putting out his forearm. 

As the little owl jumped from the window-sill onto the boy's arm, Remmie smiled as he offered him the little meal. Checc nibbled at it for a moment, before clutching it in his talons and gobbling it down whole, tilting his head backwards to force it down his throat. Finishing the meal, Checc restlessly shuffled across Remmie's arm, letting out a little hoot as he stared out across the marketplace.

"You don't want to be cooped up in here, do you, little guy?" Remmie said.

The owl shook its head. Remmie knew that Checc was an impossibly wise owl, with training well-beyond anything that even he could offer. Nodding for yes and shaking his head for no, Checc seemed to almost have an understanding of language, beyond what any trainer he knew of could teach. Sometimes, Remmie believed, it felt as if Checc understood the world better than he did.

"You know, you can fly as you please, Checc," Remmie said. "You don't have to sit around here all day. Just remember to be back by sundown for food and letters, alright?"

The owl nodded apace, furiously bobbing its head up and down before letting out a loud hoot at the top of its lungs. Remmie smiled at the little creature. He told Checc the same thing, nearly every day, and yet - the little owl still waited for his signal to leave. Remmie smiled. Stroking underneath the little owl's chin, Remmie gently brushed his fingers against the underside of his neck, rubbing the little checkered square mark against the front of his neck: the one which gave the owl his name.   

"Go on," Remmie said. "You're free, little guy. Do as you please."

As the owl flapped its wings, it jumped from Remmie's arm and fluttered its wings, leaping toward the window. The little owl glided across the room with alacrity. Soaring through the wooden window and out into the world beyond it, the owl stared down toward the world below. Staring at the marketplaces as it flapped its wings, soaring above them, the owl was beyond it all now - flying free through the skies. In the sky, no one can ever be held prisoner. He thought about the world he'd once lived in, the shackles of life, the man named Derrick he once was. He then thought back to the woman who'd given him the chance to change it all. 

Fluttering through the air, he was free at long last. He thought back to his old life, where he'd been slave to a desk: now, he was slave to nobody. The owl let out a jovial hoot. The words might've been lost, but as the sound echoed out across the city, resounding across the marketplace: the sentiment was not. It was a sound of gratitude, one of happiness, and as Checc soared up into the clouds - his wise owl eyes stared towards the wondrous sky which he was able to be a part of.

"Thank you, Malarie," the owl thought, as he traversed the limitless horizon - free at long last.