Tr'lia got used to the smells faster than she'd expected. Her curiosity over Mr. Steen's specimens helped, kept her mind distracted, focused. After the first day she learned to keep one eye on the cages at all times, and now she walked with a permanent tilt to the head, with her neck twisting to whatever side the wall and the banks of glass domes were on.
It carried over to home sometimes, and her parents had taken to tsking when they caught her looking suspiciously at the walls. "It's not becoming," her mother complained. "How will you ever find a mate walking around with your head to one side?"
Tr'lia only fluffed at the reprimand and did her best to keep work at work, but Mr. Steen had so much to teach her. He had plants she'd never even heard of, and though she never lost her respect for the threat they posed, her intellectual interest eased any fear she'd carried into the chemist's cave. She studied the books he assigned late into the night, and spent long days grinding his powders and learning to weigh and measure with absolute precision.
Which should have distracted her from pining for black feathers and a green crest. She had so little time to think, and yet, somehow those moments when she could breathe filled quickly with ideas of P'rao, with wondering what his work looked like, where he flew, and whether or not he'd been sent into danger.
Working with the aerie chemist every day, her mind was often focused on danger.
"T'rlia, child. Have you ground that violensis yet?" The old quail's voice reverberated through the cave. For an aging bird, Mr. Steen had a fair set of pipes. The acoustics in his laboratory vug helped too, and T'rlia cringed at the volume and clacked her beak.
She'd had to learn not to use it for stirring or grasping, a hard reflex to kill but one that could be fatal when dealing with the chemicals they used. Her toes clutched the pestle and mortar of violensis powder, nearly done, and her beak remained idle... also dangerous. The quail's fussiness got on her nerves, and she didn't want to lose her job by talking back or arguing.
"Nearly done." She sang it to the back wall. "Just a few more spoonfuls left."
Mr. Steen waddled to the front of his cave anyway. He stood beside her while she finished, standing on one foot and then the other and making a churring sound in his throat that set her hands to shaking. When she handed him the bowl of powder, he focused one eye on it and squinted.
"Eh." His crest bobbled. "Nice and fine... almost uniform."
Tr'lia knew better than to thank him. She'd had to stifle that reflex as well, as any response to a compliment from the chemist usually led to a lecture on the finer points that she'd yet to master.
"Do the bloomifer next. Medium grade, eleven grams and not a grain more."
"Yes, sir." She bobbed her head and searched the worktable and the supplies he'd readied for her day's work. "I-I'm not seeing any bloomifer."
"Use the tongs." Steen called over his shoulder. "Three leaves. Very carefully."
Tr'lia's breast fluttered. He wanted her to harvest them? The quail's fat backside vanished back into his lab, rocking with his usual trundling gait. If he suspected her hesitation, it didn't show. He'd given the order matter-of-factly, as if she had been harvesting the plants directly this whole time.
Was he testing her?
She plucked the tongs from her table and hopped off the perch. She'd seen him do it, of course. He'd pointed out the steps, demonstrated the technique and taught her ways to distract the plant while he snipped a leaf here and there.
But she'd never opened one herself. Never been allowed to touch the glass domes.
The cave floor felt gritty, covered in a find sheen of dust particle s. Tr'lia's claws scritched at it as she hopped to the front most portion of the cave where the banks of plants made a museum of danger and a deterrent to any visitors aside from Steen's delivery men.
Those came at sporadic intervals, most wearing vests like P'rao had worn. Tr'lia sighed and shuffled her way to the bloomifer domes. At least he hadn't sent her for Violet Death. Those nasty plants all crowded to the glass as she passed, tasting their walls as if they could get at her, a threatening gesture and one she believed was intentionally so.
The Night Blooms had fewer tendrils, and the main stalk shaped into a sort of indigo funnel. They had less mobility than the violensis and primarily waited for things to happen along and fall into their open maw. Tiny hairs lined that, assisted the descent of any bug or critter unlucky enough to slip inside. The base of the funnel had a crown of fat whitish-green leaves, and it was these that Mr. Steen would need for his powders.
Tr'lia used the long tongs to pry the dome cap loose, but she left it in place while she reached for a vial of fruit flies. Steen kept dozens of colonies of feeder insects. He'd shown her how to distract the plant, how to shake the vial over the funnel mouth in offering while her tongs robbed the plant of its treasures. He hadn't, however, warned her about her nerves, about how her wingtips would shake and fumble.
She lay the tongs in reach beside the enclosure and lifted the cap from the bloomifer's cage. Her other wing tightened around the flies, but the vial still trembled in her grip. Instead of shaking a few free, a wad of writhing wings and legs tumbled into the cage. Only half of them landed inside the funnel. The rest dispersed instantly, swarming over the leaves she needed, the damp moss, and soil substrate below.
"Oops." Too many bugs. Too many tiny bodies climbing the walls toward escape. "Oh no."
The flies swarmed up the glass, and Tr'lia scrambled to replace the top of the dome. Glass met glass, ringing a low echo through the cave. The lid slipped, teetered on the cage rim and left a winking gap to tempt the flies. All the while, the funnel's hairs rippled and drew the few unlucky bugs down into the depth of the plant. Tr'lia still had no leaves, the digestion wouldn't keep the plant busy much longer, and her grip on the dome slipped and risked dropping the glass to the floor.
"Oh, tail feathers!"
"Easy." Out of nowhere, a new voice answered her curse. A black wingtip reached from the cave behind her to steady the teetering glass. "Got it."
"Thanks." Tr'lia took advantage of the unexpected assistance and released the cap to the interloper's grip. She snatched up her tongs and stoppered the flies' vial at the same time, laying the latter beside the bloomifer cage and pointing the tongs toward the cap. "Can you crack it, just a little?"
On command the dome lid slid, just a fraction, to one side. She moved as quickly as her shaking wings would allow, determined now that she had an audience. Tr'lia used the tongs to herd the flies back down the side, then she plucked a white-green leaf and removed it, diving back in as soon as she'd lain it beside he cage. Once she'd retrieved all three of Steen's precious leaves, she nodded and let out an exhalation laced with the last dregs of her panic.
"That's good. Thank you." Her knees popped when she relaxed them. Her heart pattered, but the job was done. She had three leaves and a safely re-covered cage... thanks to the assistance of whoever waited behind her now. "I'm sorry, I..."
Tr'lia turned while wiping her wingtips on her smock. She froze at the sight of the delivery bird, at the sheen of his black feathers and the overly-amused tilt to his green head.
"P'rao." Her breath rushed away with his name.
"I've got something for you." His round eyes flashed with mischief, and his slender beak slid top against bottom to punctuate the sentence, make the tone carry all sorts of implications.
"A delivery for Chemist Steen." P'rao snapped upright, stretched his milker's vest and waved one wing in the direction of a new box waiting on the cave floor behind him. "Priority package."
Again his beak ground out an innuendo. Tr'lia's cheek feathers fluffed. She bobbed an answer, but her words had formed a clay lump in her throat.
"Then," Pr'ao leaned closer, brought his plumage directly into contact with hers. His beak hovered beside her cheek, and his voice dropped down an octave. "I'm going to search your aerie for the hen I'm in love with."
The blockage in her throat shattered, came out as a choked cackle. Her feathers prickled from head to tail, but Pr'ao only leaned nearer, drew the very tip of his beak through the feathers on her neck.
"I don't suppose you can tell me where she's hiding?" He whispered. "Because this is the last place I'd expected to find her."
"Maybe." Tr'lia's voice squeaked, and she had to swallow and start again. "Maybe she's waiting for you somewhere... somewhere you're likely to turn up."
"Ah." He stepped away so quickly that his body made a vacuum, pulled her in his direction so that she teetered and had to spread her wings for balance. "Good thinking."
The cave began to spin as he hopped away. He paused for a second beside his delivery, just long enough to look back over his shoulder and wink at her again. Then his eyes flashed, he dipped into a too-formal bow, and leaped out of the cave.
Tr'lia swayed in place. What had just happened? I'm in love with? Too fast, and yet, her feet longed to rush to the cave mouth. Her beak wanted to chirp for him to come back. When a green and black streak, flashed past the mouth of the chemist's vug, her heart rocketed with it.
Pr'ao's voice called to her, far too amused with itself. He offered one last taunt before he vanished again, leaving her frustrated and completely in the dark. "Very good thinking!"