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.”