Thursday, September 29, 2016

Episode Eleven

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. 

"You do?"

"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!"

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."