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?"
"How's the nesting coming?"
"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?"
"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?"
"It takes a lot of nerve, tending plants."
"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."