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.