Thursday, May 5, 2016

Episode Ten

P'rao scuffed the dust with his talons and watched the entrance to the meeting cave for any sign of  Meech. His buddy had vanished into the low opening moments before, and though the mouth of the cave enjoyed a steady stream of birds both coming and going, Meech failed to reappear fast enough for P'rao's nerves. 

He slicked his crest down and hopped on one foot beside the basin well that served the outpost staff of Milkers, messengers and support workers. Hurry up, dummy. He bounced to the other foot. Meech failed to spawn in the long cave mouth, despite his friend's impatience. 

"Where are ya, buddy?" 

The Heron across the well turned a long beak toward P'rao. He'd  brought a long stick with buckets hanging from the end to the water, and held one half in and one half out of the basin. 

"Sorry." P'rao shuffled a step away, checked the cave again. Damn Meech. Probably chattering away with everyone inside. 

They'd been at the borders for two weeks now, two long weeks with only the dull work and the occasional rebellious appearance of a Master Plant to keep his mind off a certain hen. Neither was working. He just couldn't get Tr'lia out of his head, and his distraction had started to affect his work. 

Not to mention his friendship with Meech.

Maybe his best bud had ditched him for better company inside the meeting hall. He'd probably asked too much, but then, Meech had contacts he didn't. Meech was always the one to make friends, to chum around with the other Milkers and, more importantly, the messengers and delivery fliers who just might have a mission to a particular aerie.

The plan had been Meech's idea, but P'rao suspected he'd formulated it out of disgust. Maybe just to get P'rao to shut up about Tr'ia and maybe just to earn himself some alone time. He didn't care. If Meech was tired of his whining, then he could hurry up and find a Milker who wanted a few days off.

"Come on!" He flipped his crest up and stamped the earth. The heron finished with his water and stalked away, shoulders hunched under the weight across his wings. The cave spit out another crowd of Milkers, and P'rao twisted his neck in an attempt to spot Meech in the flock.

"Hey." Meech's voice came from behind him. 

P'rao squawked and jumped into the air. He threw out black wings, staggered to one side and then dropped back to the ground in a puff of dust. 

"Your friend's a little tense." 

P'rao spun to face Meech and a taller, lanky blackbird with a fully pocketed Milker's vest, a sash full of tools across his breast, and a highly judgmental scowl in the set of his beak.

"This is P'rao." Meech fluffed his chest and titled his head to one side. "He's lost his mind."

"Shame," the Milker grinned now, clacked  his beak and nudged Meech with one wing. "Not sure I can trust a loon with one of my deliveries."

"Wait." P'rao's heart fluttered in his breast like a newly molted sparrow. "Please."

"You're right," the blackbird nudged Meech again. "He's got it bad all right."

"Skirl has a delivery coming up in the Northern Reach," Meech said. He shot P'rao a warning look and rolled his eyes toward the Milker. "And he's willing to let you take in exchange for your next shift weeding."

"I could use a little rest and relaxation," Skirl said. "And you ladies have it easy cleaning up the fronts. Trust me."

"We do." Again, Meech glared a warning. "He does."

"And I'll trust him with the delivery." Skirl leaned forward, titled his head and gave P'rao a once over, slowly, raking his gaze up and down until P'rao's feet longed to be shifting. He held his ground though, held his breath until the older bird laughed again. "All right, but if you mess it up, I know where to find you."

"He won't." Meech nodded until his neck feathers riffled. 

"I won't." P'rao spoke for himself. Stood taller and kept his crest down. "I'll take care of it."

"You better." Skirl stared at him a second more and the shrugged, turned his eyes to the sky and fluffed his head feathers. "It'll be nice to pull some weeds again for a few days."

He stretched his wings and flexed his claws, scratching at the ground for purchase. "You can pick it up tomorrow at sunup. I'll tell them to look for a green crest." 

"Thanks." P'rao stumbled out of the way when the Milker took off. He watched the black tail feathers pass and then shifted to his other foot and stared at the well. "Thanks to you too, Meech. I owe you one."

"Darn right you do." Meech chirped and bounced in place. "Skirl could have us both for lunch if he liked."

"Well, I appreciate it anyway." He did too. In fact, he felt it in his chest now, a knot of appreciation and anticipation. Mostly anticipation. Still. Meech had worked it out. Now he'd be winging his way toward the Northern Reach first thing tomorrow. The feeling in his breast tightened. Kind of a forward move, wasn't it? What if she didn't want to see him? How would he explain just showing up on her aerie door?

"You okay, buddy?" 

"You think this is a good idea, Meech"

"Hell no." Meech chuckled, a rumbling that shook him from tail to tip. "It's a horrible idea. You're gonna run after that hen and get yourself caught in a nest before we can even earn our full vests!"

"That' not what I meant."

"I know what you meant. I don't have an answer for that. Either the hen wants to see you or she doesn't." He clicked his beak and hopped a step farther from P'rao. "One good thing, though."

"What's that?"

"At least if you find out, you won't be impossible to live with anymore!"

"Don't be so sure of that." P'rao advanced on his friend, but Meech continued hopping, kept his fat body just a step out of reach. Smart, but then, Meech knew him better than anyone. He chased after his buddy and felt the tension unfurl with each bounce. 

One way or the other. Meech had a point. What else could he do but fly north and find out?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Episode Nine

The cave yawned near the bottom of the aerie wall, in the public area but far enough from the social vugs to be secluded. Marked for business and not fun. Tr'lia flew past it twice before fixing her eyes on the rim and coming in for a soft landing, perched right on the edge of the opening. 

The aroma of fungus met her, a wall of thick spore-laden air hovering just inside the cave, filling it. Already, it choked her nostrils. And she meant to work here? She puffed her neck feathers and stood taller. She did mean to... if the old chemist would have her. 

Tr'lia's sharp toes scratched at the dirt as she stepped into the darkness. Soft here, no dust inside the chemist's cage. The mushroom caverns were worse. She'd visited those once with her primary class, seen the darkness and the rows of glowing, ghost white caps. The air here reminded her of that cave, though the walls were much closer and the scent far fainter.

He didn't grow them here. The old quail might use the spores and spongy flesh of the 'shrooms, but they were only part of his fare. One ingredient, the one they could produce inside the safety of the aerie. The rest of his chemicals came from a stream of regular deliveries. Shipments brought from the milker's camps. 

The reason she had to work with him.

"H-halloo?" She scratched forward, left delicate scribbles in the dirt behind her. "Mr. Steen? Excuse me, but—"

"Come in, come in. I'm in the back." A throaty voice echoed through the cave. Not as big as the 'shroom cavern but still a good sight larger than her home. The darkness stretched deeper into the valley wall too, and the natural light only filtered in a little farther. Beyond that half light, Tr'lia could make out the glow of oil lamps, and a variety of colors, translucent reflections in patterns along the curved walls. 

She tiptoed deeper into the odd world of the chemist. Here, all the medicines that kept their flock healthy brewed and cured. Here, the old quail ground the milker's herbs into powders or boiled them into teas and tinctures for a number of uses Tr'lia could only guess at. 

She clicked her beak softly and hopped deeper into the cave. Lili had told her about the assistant's marriage. The hen who'd apprenticed with the chemist had found a mate at the festival, moved to his aerie only a week afterwards. The chemist hadn't asked for a new assistant, but the way Tr'lia saw it, he had  to need one. Either that or she was about to make a fool of herself.

Drat Lili for suggesting this. 

She slicked her feathers down and lowered her head, considered just hopping right back out into the light and the open. 

"I'll be right with you." The chemist's voice rang against the walls, battered at her from both sides.
Tr'lia crept forward. She hopped nearer to the glowing, found her eyes adjusting more quickly than her brain. Light boxes against the wall, shelving and something shiny and familiar. Glass domes. She'd seen similar at the festival when she'd bought her bluebottles... and that book.

Her claws dragged snakey lines in the cave floor now. Tr'lia moved without lifting her feet, slunk toward the domes and the lights and knew what would be growing under the glass long before she saw the first plant. 

Curling green leaves, fat and sticky and packed into the lower half of the dome. Droplets of moisture collected inside the glass, refracting the light from the oil lamp on the shelf behind the container. 
Tr'lia leaned forward, held her breath and followed the tendrils up to a fat, snaggletooth  purple maw.

"Violet death," the quail's baritone rumbled behind her. 

Tr'lia jumped upright and spun to face him. She tucked her tail low and hopped a step away from the wall without upsetting any of the shelf's contents. The chemist waited just outside the glow of the plant's light. His little head tilted to one side, and his curled crest bobbed. 

"Carnivorous, but very useful if handled correctly."

"Good afternoon, Mr. Steen." Tr'lia bobbed politely.

"Don't get many visitors in here." His head switched to the other side, setting the bobble crest a flutter. "Tr'lia, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir."
"How's the nesting coming?"

"I, wha-how?"

"Your little friend." The quail snapped upright and bobbed merrily. "Plump. Blue."

"Lili!" Tr'lia's cheeks puffed in embarrassment. Had dratted Lili told the entire aerie her secret? Heat filled her breast, and she ground her beak together before blurting, "She's nesting too."

"Now, now." The chemist lifted one foot and let it hover for a moment, as if he'd forgotten which way he wanted to step. "Nothing to be ashamed of. I suspect most girls your age are thinking of it. No harm to it.  None in building the thing anyway. From what I hear of it, takes a few times to get it right anyway."

He had that part dead right. She'd started over three times already, but at least she was weaving. Lili seemed content to hoard nesting material in piles and do nothing with it at all. 

"I wonder if you found my corner down here by accident," Mr. Steen continued. "My processes don't cast off much in the way of nest stuffs."

"Oh no. I didn't come here for that."  She forced her cheek feathers back down and tried to hold her head up. 


"I just wondered if... I mean I'd heard something about..."

Mr. Steen rocked in place. He put his foot down again, lifted the other one and blinked round eyes at her. "Yes dear, what is it?"

"I heard you might be looking for a new assistant."

"Did you?" He fluffed his neck feathers, shook and sent a small rain of down flying in all direction. "I haven't even... ah. Lili again?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well. She certainly has a bit of a beak on her, eh? Hmm. No harm done, I suppose but..." He hopped forward abruptly, rocking from side to side and forcing Tr'lia to scoot back a step. The quail's head turned sharply to the left,  and one big eye leaned in to examine her. "Why would a newly nesting hen want to apprentice here? Do you know what it is I do?"

"Y-yes, sir." Tr'lia swallowed a wash of nerves and forced her head to stay level, her feathers to remain smooth. "I've been keeping bluebottles, sir. They've grown so fast they've already molted twice."

"Really now?" He didn't sound remotely impressed. "That's interesting, to be sure. But then, bluebottles are  not plants, dear. Are they?" 

"No, sir." 

"It takes a lot of nerve, tending plants."

"Yes, sir."

"And you'd like to learn?"

"I'd like to try, sir."

"First lesson!" Mr. Steen jumped in place. He shouted the words, and Tr'lia cringed back despite her resolve. The quail chuckled, made a waving flag of his crest. "Never, my dear. Never turn your back on a plant."

"Oh!" She watched his wingtip lift, the long flight feather pointing behind her. Slowly, Tr'lia swiveled back toward the shelves and the glass dome. Inside, the green had unfurled. The purple had shifted. The plant's long fronds pressed against the side of the glass, feeling for a way to reach her from behind that barrier. The mouth oozed clear fluid. It opened and closed and opened again. The toothy appendage fluttered as if a wind moved over them. 

"It's tasting you." The quail's voice rumbled the obvious answer. The plant, once she'd turned from it, had sprang to attention and now only the glass kept it from tasting her for real.

Tr'lia's body stiffened. Inside, she cringed from the idea of that mouth, those waving teeth. She fought her instincts, the rising panic and the push to flee. This would be her test, then. If she bolted now, she'd never earn a place here, never prove she was brave enough to date a milker. 

To deserve Prao.

She breathed a beak full of must and spores. Her heart fluttered like the quail's bobble, but Tr'lia forced her panic down. She kept her feathers smooth, imagined Prao flying into the jungles, facing the real dangers. She took a step forward, leaned in and peered at the hungry plant's mouth. 

"What do you feed it?" She managed.

"Hmm," Mr. Steen's voice rumbled. "I think you'll do."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Episode Eight

P’rao adjusted his angle and dropped like a stone until his talons just hovered over the wispy grasses. He flexed his claws and twisted to see Meech on his right, just now descending to a skimming altitude. Beyond his friend, the green wall that marked the edge of safe territory loomed. Glossy leaves waved, snapping like deadly flags and gleaming in the low sunlight.
Death waited just inside, and it meant to spread if they let it.
His claws tightened, snagging a tuft of errant grass and ripping the twisty roots free from their territory. He liked that sound. It reminded him that the plains were free and safe to his people. It reminded him that they had a hand in keeping things that way.
Meech tore at his own tufts, and they filled their claws with the strands until they could hold no more. When they angled up, the two milkers left a clean swath of dirt in their wake, a long strip of fresh border to keep the Master plants out.
P’rao cawed and lifted into the warmer rays. He fluffed at the shoulder and enjoyed the warmth alongside his small triumph. They weren’t actual milkers just yet, more like juniors in training, but their horizon was as bright as the desert behind them. Eventually, they’d brave the jungles with the rest of their kind.
And what would Tr’lia think of that?
He clicked his beak and snapped his long flight feathers, banking sharply toward the baskets where the grasses were collected. Once they’d been safely uprooted, the aeries had many uses for the sparse fibers—not the least of which was nest building.
Meech was right, damn it. He had mating on the brain. Mating and a bright yellow breast that might not relish the idea of him sneaking into Master plant territory.
“You missed, idiot!” Meech squeaked at his shoulder. “You dropped that load back on the ground.”
“Huh?” Prao twisted his neck around and spied his mistake. The cart minder already pecked at his lost strands, stuffing them into the basket and murmuring curses in his direction. “Ooops.”
“I can’t imagine what distracted you.” Meech waited for him to bristle, and when he refused added softly, “or who.”
The stork at the cart bounced on long legs and clapped at them, but P’rao angled again, circled wide and then dove in for another pass along the border. He flattened his quills tight and streaked far enough ahead of Meech that he didn’t have to hear his friend’s grumbling.
His second pass ended with both his fists overflowing with grass. He’d stretched his claws a bit, but this time, the fibers ended up neatly where they belonged, the cart minder ignored his delivery and Meech kept his beak shut.
The grasses always invaded first. Invisible roots wriggled out from the jungles, hidden beneath the hard-packed plain and only bursting into view when their sub structure was well established. They opened the way for the higher ups, for the plants that could use their nodes and pathways to organize, to plan a more significant advance.
A bare border was a safe one, and P’rao dove again with his resolve set even more firmly. They kept the plants at bay. They trimmed to borders, and eventually they’d brave the long flights over the jungle, the dangerous missions into the heart of Plant territory to retrieve medicines, fruits and seed for domestication and controlled food production.
Their lives depended on this much. All their lives and any future he might hope for. He made two more passes to Meech’s one and then tucked wing and dropped behind the line of carts for a drink and a moment’s rest.
The grass carts filled slowly. This stretch of boundary had been weeded only a few weeks prior. Their team had been assigned for maintenance more than anything, but still they found spiky grasses wandering into their world.
 P’rao drank from the minders’ buckets, leaned against the back of one cart and watched the Rhino beetle in the traces of another shift its weight from one leg to the next. It’s gigantic, domed carapace shimmered like the distant leaves. Emerald green, metallic and harmless compared to the foliage it resembled. Even with the heavy horn protruding from the beast’s head.
Meech landed between them, his dust puffs blocking out any further view of the draft beetle. P’rao ignored his grimace, the nasty clacking of his friend’s beak. He let his gaze drift instead out toward the jungle in the distance. The green wall shimmered in the sunlight, but just then, something about the way the fronds moved spoke of more than hot air and unreliable vision.
He stood up and craned to see better, bouncing and arching his wings for takeoff.
“Where are you…” Meech started a question, but the words died as quickly as P’rao’s intended flight.
The both froze and listened to the jungle howl. The cart minders stopped fidgeting. The flights still in the air banked away from the green swath, from the wall that trembled and danced now, screaming and hissing at them in the frenzied speech of many joined plant minds. A wave rolled across the leaves, down the horizon in one serpentine ripple. The scream rose in volume, and the foliage broke at the top.
One, giant green orb lifted from the canopy. It snaked straight up on a fat stalk lined with wispy hairs. The cranium twisted, turned left and right and then focused on their position. Even at this distance, P’rao judged just that head to be four times his size, at the very least. The sight of it set his plumage spiking. His beak ground together at the same instance the Master plant opened its huge, sticky maw and howled its fury to the sky.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Episode Seven

She tugged on a bit of grass, and the strands parted from the mat, pulling free. Tr’lia held the smaller bit in her beak and hopped two bounces to the right. The fiber had cost her the rest of her festival money, and it wasn’t very good quality at that, but it would do for a start. She used her clawed toes to twist the strands and then poked with her beak so that the tight end joined the weaving she’d already begun on the cave floor.
She’d never made a nest before.
It looked awful, just a clump of half-twisted, dry old grass half as big as it should be for the time it had taken. Tr’lia sighed and pulled at a corner. The bottom needed to be the stoutest, even though she planned to add a good deal more fibers to its construction to hide the rugged beginnings. Her nest would need a firm foundation if she meant it to last. She tucked and tweaked and fiddled with the last bit before bouncing back to the fiber bundle. More layers might do it. More depth, and then it needed to be a lot bigger—big enough for two someday.
She stabbed the pillow again and clicked around, feeling for a stouter blade, a reed that might reinforce her nest’s bottom. A squeak from the cave mouth stalled her probing and brought her up sputtering. Lili. It was only a matter of time.
“Hello,” Tr’lia ignored the puffed up blue ball of indignation in her doorway. She turned back to her next selection and waited.
“Your. You.”
She felt a thicker stalk and snapped it up. Eureka, the blade had a woody, rounded stem, and pulled out a good two spans longer than the rest. Strong floor material.
“Oh.” Tr’lia nearly dropped the blade for chuckling. “That. Right.” She hopped to the nest and tucked the thick end into one side. Long enough to criss-cross the bit she’d already woven at least. She wouldn’t have to undo it and start over, though she might need to trade for something extra pretty to hide it.
“And?” Lili recovered and hopped into the cave interior. The space barely held both of them. Starter caves were meant to be cozy. “Does your mother know why?”
“Shush, Lili.” She stood up too fast and pulled out the last two loops of grass. “You promised to keep that quiet.”
“I know.”
“Weren’t you even going to tell me?” Lili’s feathers smoothed, halving her bulk, and she shuffled her feet against the stone floor.
“Of course. I just wanted to have something to show you first.”
“Is that it?”
“It’s harder than it looks.” Tr’lia sighed and worked the tail of the grass into the weave. “And I’ll hide most of this with feathers. It just has to be strong.”
“I can’t believe your mother let you start.” Lili pressed forward and examined the nest's beginnings, head turned sharply to one side and beak grinding together softly.
“It’s only a little bit early. They’ve had the cave since my hatching day.”
“Mine too. It’s nice, Tr’lia.”
“It’s really small.”
“Mine’s smaller.” Lili clattered her beak and bobbed her head forward and back. “I’d better find a tiny little man.”
The cave warbled with laughter. Tr’lia tried to eye her work critically, but it blurred a bit around the edges. She’d always thought Lili would nest first. It just seemed like a Lili sort of thing, nesting. She sighed and shifted her weight to the other foot. It was only a little bit early.
“You know,” Lili said. “I have some ribbons saved. There’s too much to use in one place. You could have a little bit for the sides or around the top.”
“Thanks, Lili.”
“Maybe I’ll start one soon too.”
“Hopefully yours will weave a little better. Look at that bubble.”
“It’s nice, Tr’lia.”
It wasn’t. Still, she’d only just started. Building the nest would keep her busy, keep her mind from thinking of killer plants and long-distance romance. She fluffed and shook the tension off. He’d said he was coming back. He’d said he’d find a way to see her. She looked at Lili through a rain of dislodged down and tried not to panic.
And if P’rao did return, at least she could have something here for him to come back to. She snagged a bit of fluff from mid-air and waved it at Lili.
“Help me grab this. We can use it to cover up the bottom.”
                                                                            Next Episode

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Episode Six

P’rao waited for them under the bleachers. Tr’lia landed on the highest perch, three beats before Lili’s impact rattled the dried timbers. She saw him twist his neck up, caught the flash of green in the shadows.
He had a glow bug lantern, but shielded it with his wing so that this corner of the arena remained nearly pitch black, lit only by a few distant stars and the thin slip of the small moon. Trl’ia saw him though, before the light dimmed beneath his mantle, and she felt the look as if it were a warm updraft.
“Wait here, Lili. Keep an eye out.” Tr’lia hopped from the stands. She heard Lili’s protest, but ignored the clacking and kept her eyes riveted on the valley floor. He waited just there, and so she’d land gracefully right about here.
The dust puffed a bit more than she planned, but in the low light, who would see if her tail was a bit fouled? She straightened her neck into a tall curve and tilted her head to one side, fixing a single eye on the darkness where she knew he stood.
“Hello, Tr’lia.” He hopped out so fast she stumbled back a step. Even so, he ended up very close beside her.
“H—hello.” Her beak rattled, and she grabbed the bare ground with her claws to steady her nerves. “I. Your friend delivered your message, P’rao.” They’d never been actually introduced, and his name felt risky, like the bravest thing she’d ever said.
“Meech didn’t think you would come.” His wing twitched aside, letting the glow bugs light a circle around them. Her sash gleamed against his breast, under his milker’s vest. It linked them, somehow, that strip of her feathers against his. He slid one step back under the bleachers, and Tr’lia followed.
“Why did you want to see me?” She lowered her voice, took slow, small steps for each of his long ones. Still, they stood in the protection of the structure before she had time to think.
“Tr’lia,” Lili hissed overhead. “I can’t see you!”
“I wanted to see you again.” He ruffled, and his crest curled forward. “I just. It felt.”
“I know.” She’d felt it to, hadn’t she, that tremor of something larger in the market square, the sense of fate hanging over?
“The festival is almost finished.”
“Yes.” They only had one day of closing events before the booths would come down, the wood recycled or stored like the precious thing it was, saved for the next need. “Tomorrow.”
“I have to leave in the morning.”
It came out louder than she imagined, and his crest slicked back down. He bobbled from foot to foot. Tomorrow. What could possibly be the point, if he was just up and leaving?
“I have a job at the edge the day after.”
“I see. Of course.”
“I want to see you again, Tr’lia.”
He’d barely seen her this time. Still, the idea warmed her enough to set her cheeks puffing. She shifted her weight from side to side, twisted her neck and thought about it.
“I’ll find a way to get back here between jobs.”
Milking jobs. That’s what he meant. He planned on going out into the jungle, into the thick, plant-infested strip along the border of their plain. He might easily not survive it.
“Is it very dangerous?” She hated how her voice trembled.
“Oh, it’s not too bad.” He purred it, smoothed the danger from the idea, but she knew it was. Of course it was.  When he hopped close to her side, Tr’lia leaned into him. “It would be better knowing I had something to fly back to.”
“Yes. I imagine it would.”
“Do you want me to?”
“Come back?”
Lili screeched down from the rafters, but her words flew wide. Tr’lia couldn’t hear a thing over her own heartbeat. A low breeze swirled around them, lifting the dust and a few stray bits of litter that danced down toward the market aisles.
P’rao slipped closer. Their wings brushed at the shoulder, and she let out a long breath. His neck curled. His beak clicked once and then ran a line along her neck feathers, ruffling them and sending trembles all the way to her little clawed toes. She warbled, way back in her throat, and heard P’rao’s answer, felt it vibrate in the air.
“Tr’lia!” Lili plopped to the ground beside the bleachers. Dust heaved into the air, blocking them long enough for P’rao to run his wingtip under hers, to stroke her side before sliding back a step. “Where are you? Someone is coming.”
“Here.” Her voice had little breath behind it. “I’m here, Lili, I’m fine.”
“Someone is…ooo!”
A second impact followed, and a scrabbling of claws and shadows. Tr’lia heard an “oof,” and Lili’s squeaking, but the dust swirled thickly now, and P’rao’s wing settled over her back. He pulled her farther into the shelter and hopped to block her from the ruckus.
“Lili!” She still had less voice than she’d hoped for.
“Take that!” Lili screeched and beat her wings at whoever had had the misfortune of startling her.
P’rao laughed, and Lili’s wings paused, still raised and ready to wallop the intruder. The dust settled leisurely, revealing a hunched over Meech, protecting his head with one wing and nearly kissing the dry ground. “Call her off!” He blinked against the rain of dirt and clattered his bill. “Someone shackle this harpy.”
Thump. Lili’s wing landed in his back. Tr’lia flinched as the poor cock toppled to his side, legs kicking.
“Stop it, Lili!” She brushed past P’rao and sidestepped into the open. The glow bugs came out again, making the dust a sheet that veiled the scene.
Lili’s blue feathers caked with the stuff. Her eyes blinked twice, “He called me a harpy!”
“Terribly rude of you, Meech,” P’rao chirped. He sounded far too tickled about poor Meech’s abused state. “You should apologize.”
“Me! She attacked me.”
“You landed on top of me!” Lili hopped into the air for emphasis.
“I didn’t.”
“Shhhhh.” P’rao mantled and hunkered down, swaying and stepping forward at the same time. The threat worked. Both Lili and Meech shut up long enough for the latter to flip back over and stumble to his feet.
Tr’lia chuckled and scuttled to P’rao’s side.
“Tr’lia,” Lili lowered her wings and sagged into a pout. “You look like a puff ball.” She squinted suspiciously at her feathers. They still prickled in all directions from P’rao’s attentions. “We should go before we get in trouble.”
 Go. The thought alone brought her plumage back to a normal state. She shivered against the next breeze, despite the warmth rising from the plain. He’d be gone in the morning.
“Tr’lia!” Lili whined, and hopped in place. Her nerves had just about failed. She’d be bolting to tattle next.
“Yeah. We should go.”
P’rao turned to face her, blocking them out and tilting his green head to one side. He warbled again, soft and just for her. She hopped forward, heard Lili’s clicking as his wings wrapped her in a quick embrace. His beak found her neck feathers again, nibbled at them once before he released her.
“Well,” Meech said. “So.”
P’rao backed away. He kept his eyes on her, though, “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Tr’lia could only nod. She held her breath as Meech bounced into the air. P’rao only hesitated a second before launching. His down stroke lifted the dust again, but not enough to block out his parting look.
“Oh, my…”
“Don’t say it, Lili.” She sighed and watched the dark shapes drift away. “Just don’t say a thing.”

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Episode Five

She pressed her red bag higher up under her wing and hopped sideways toward the cave opening. From the side passage, the low whistle of her father snoring echoed against stone walls. The tunnels made him sound larger, more menacing than a squat sparrow with one gimpy wing.
Tr’lia held her breath and fought the urge to grind her beak. She’d wear the edge uneven, ruin her smile if she didn’t break the habit. Her nerves cared little for cosmetics. Her clawed toes scuffed the floor, flexing for a purchase and trying to keep silent in the process.
Two more hops would bring her to the mouth of their home. Beyond the irregular oval, an indigo sky sparkled with diamond stars. Shadows passed in the distance; some of the festivities still continued well into the wee hours, but they would be the more private kind—the kind her parents wouldn’t approve of.
She scuffed, and hopped again, and felt an cool eddy of night air swirling. Her claws flexed against the stone. The feathers on her cheeks puffed, and she sidled to the lip.
The wall of the aerie stood like a fortress against the plain. Their home opened out about three-fourths of the way up, just above the huge entrance to the flock’s secondary gathering cave. Tonight, no cackles sounded from below, however. Tr’lia could guess why. All the gathering was happening out on the festival grounds.
She grasped the very edge of the cave floor and peered down at the dance of glimmer and shadow. The booths all hung with billowing drapes, covered and waiting for dawn to break. The fabric rippled. She could see the movement, even from up here, and it spoke of crisp temperatures, moist air leaking off the distant jungles. The jungles where he worked.
A shiver wiggled from her scaly knees up to her wingtips. She ground her beak together and hugged the bag—and the scrolled message inside—closer. Her legs flexed and she pushed off, spreading her wings and catching the heat rising from the sun-soaked earth.
It buffered her. She shot up, streaking past cave mouths until the top of the plateau passed and the whole world spread below. The lights of glow insects dotted the grounds ahead, tiny now and barely moving.  Still, some revelers were about. A large cluster of lights shone at one end of the long arena. A few smaller ones centered on the open space in the heart of their makeshift market.
Tr’lia twitched her right wing and banked to the side, diving at the same time. The note had said the eastern end. He’d said to meet her there, opposite where the crowds were, where they’d be alone. Her back riffled and she wobbled in the dive, leveling out and making like an arrow toward dark end of the arena. Alone…with a milker.
She angled lower and felt the rush of air, the sweep of velocity across her feathers. Her mother would kill her if she knew.
A shadow crossed directly in front of her. Tr’lia squeaked and banked sharply away. She just knew, for one terrified breath, that her mother had found her, that her life was about to end. Instead, it was Lili’s voice that broke through her pounding heartbeats. It was Lili’s fat silhouette that joined formation at her right shoulder.
“Are you insane?”
“Go back to bed, Lili.”
“You can’t go alone, Tr’lia. What if he’s a creep?”
“What if he kills you and drags you off to the Plants.”
“If I’m dead, I hardly think I’d mind.”
“You can’t go alone.”
She heard Lili’s beak click, and the sound soothed her nerves. She’d been half a wing-beat shy of chickening out as it was. With Lili along, nothing bad could happen—except Lili.
“All right, then. You come with me.”
“Come on. You can keep an eye on us and if he does anything scary, go for help.”
“I don’t want to end up in the jungle, after all.”
It was brilliant, actually. Lili could chaperone, and by coming along, she’d share the guilt for sneaking out. If she’d been tempted to tattle before, the fear of her own punishment should snuff the urge sufficiently. Besides, she’d be glad for the backup. Just in case.
“Down there.” Tr’lia snapped her own beak, loud and mostly to ease the nervous flutter in her craw. She didn’t wait for an answer, just dipped her bill toward the arena and dove straight for the meeting she’d waited the whole festival for. Tonight, with the dark stretch rising rapidly to meet her, she almost pulled up. She almost turned tail and flew straight back to her own perch.
It would have been the safe thing to do, but then, the safe thing didn’t include milkers at all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Episode Four

A triangle formation swooped low over their perch. Tr’lia twisted her neck and arched back to examine the players. Not one of them had a shiny green head.
Beside her, Lili crunched a trio of jeweled crickets. Her bill snapped as she pulled each bug from the stick they’d been roasted on, and her eyes flicked between bites down to their table ring where the remainder of their weaving shimmered in the setting sunlight.
The festival only had two days left.
“Do you want this one?” Lili offered the stick and the last cricket, but Tr’lia shook her head.
“Go ahead. I’m still full of mushroom.” They’d eaten more fungus this week than she usually had in a month. “Who won today?”
“Northern Gulls.”
“The falcon squad from South Aerie almost had them, but one of their point’s was disqualified.”
“Oh.” Tr’lia shifted her weight to the other foot and tucked the tired one up into her downy belly. “did you see--.”
“No. Not today.” Lili rolled her eyes and downed the last bug. “Nor yesterday either. He wasn’t that cute Tr’lia.”
But he was. Not that she expected Lili to understand. Since that first meeting, Tr’lia hadn’t been able to think of anything but the milker. She considered it a bit disloyal that Lili could be so rude about it, but her friend’s patience had never exactly overflowed.
“Well, we’re almost sold out.”
“You can take tomorrow off if you want,” Lili tried. “Go wander around and see if you can find him.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not?’
“Because.” She sighed and fluffed her chest feathers. Her wings flapped a little with her mood. “It would look too desperate, Lili. If he wanted to see me again, he would have come by.”
“Stupid.” Lili hopped down from the perch, shaking the wood enough she had to put down both feet to cling to it. “He probably is working too.”
“Well he could have found a way.”
“Maybe.” Lili scuffed behind the booth, stirring up dust that they’d have to brush off the sashes later. “I don’t get why it’s so important. You don’t even know him. If you want to see him again, go find him.”
“Ha!” Tr’lia dropped down and went to work cleaning up Lili’s mess. The more she wiped, however, the more her friend’s pacing erased her efforts. “Stop fidgeting, Lili! You’re getting it all filthy.”
“And you’re being grouchy. Maybe they left already, Tr’lia. He’s a milker anyway. He was probably just messing with you, and you’re spoiling the festival for nothing!”
“What? Spoiling the—what?” She spun to face her little blue friend, and sent an even bigger cloud of dust across their wares. “I’m spoiling the festival?”
“Yes.” Lili held her ground. She puffed up, even though she stood only chest high, and stared up at Tr’lia without flinching. “We’ve been waiting for this forever, Tr’lia, and you’ve been pouting the whole time!”
“But. I.” Tr’lia felt her gullet tighten. She felt tears pooling, and ground her beak together to stall them. “You don’t understand.”
“I do too.” Lili deflated. Her feathers settled, though she didn’t exactly back down. “I do. But I don’t know how to make him come back, Tr’lia. And I want to enjoy this!” She swept one wing in an arc, over the table and smack into a black breast.
“Ooof.” It’s owner grunted and staggered back.
“Ooops.” Lili chirped.
The milker recovered and brushed at his vest. He had white bars on his wings, the grass vest, and the attitude, but his head was black and crestless. Tr’lia dropped her beak and brushed at the bags and sashes.
“Where’s your friend?” Lili blurted.
“Lili!” Tr’lia’s cheeks blossomed.
“He’s working.” The milker said. “We’ve been swamped, couldn’t get away even for a second. P’rao tried, but it’s been crazy.” He reached into his vest and pulled out a scroll. “He hired me to send you this.”
“Why didn’t he just bring it himself?” Lili fluffed up again.
“Hush, Lili.” Tr’lia stared at the scroll and imagined what it said.
“One of us had to keep delivering, and he couldn’t hire himself.” He waved the roll of skin. “Don’t you want it?”
She nodded, but her wings wouldn’t work. In the end, Lili snatched it for her, glowering at P’rao’s friend until he took a step back.
“Thank you.” Tr’lia found her voice. She snagged the scroll from Lili before she could do any more damage. “Tell him thank you.”
“Just show up,” the milker said. He spread his wings and twisted his head to one side. “He’s driving me crazy.”
They watched him launch. His down stroke caked their wares in dust again, but Tr’lia hardly cared. She held the scroll between her wingtips and followed the milker’s flight until he dropped down between the booths and out of sight. P’rao. Her feathers trembled, nearly dropped the message.
Lili wasn’t having any of it. “Well,” she said.
“Well what?”
“Aren’t you going to read it?”
“What do you think it says?”
“I don’t know.” Lili shrugged and leaned against the counter. “But it better be good or I’m going to find that stupid milker and pluck him.”
“Lili!” Tr’lia laughed despite her nerves. The scroll felt heavy. It made everything suddenly very real and scary, but Lili wouldn’t wait much longer. She took a deep breath and pried the thing open.