“Two paths lead to the monastery fortress from the villages below it,” Xayah begins.
I follow her eyes and see a pair of golden stairways that stretch down from the mountain temple to the farmhouses below. Each wood-woven home probably has a whole family inside it. There, mortals are born, die, and—most importantly—create new songs.
Probably with harps and drums. Maybe flutes? I should make a reed flute later. First, I need to fluff my cloak. Did I remember to clean my feathers? The town below must have an inn. A bottle of wine would be great right now.
“Rakan…” Xayah says.
Crap. She was telling me the plan. I focus back on her face, on her crooked smile. The sunset’s last rays reflect in her eyes. I love her eyelashes. I want to—
“Repeat it back to me.”
Something in the monastery. She was… Uh…
“I rendezvous with you at…” I say, but I’ve already lost the thread. I pull at one of the feathers on my head, hoping to pluck the idea from it.
A tiny shimmer of light glistens from her scrumptious bottom lip. Are her lips purple today? They were violet yesterday.
“They will kill me if they catch me,” she says.
The shock of the thought takes my breath. I feel my face twist into a snarl. “Who?!” I demand.
“The guards,” she replies. ”It’s always guards.”
“Then I’ll distract them! When?”
She points to the sky. “Look for a green flash before the sun sets. Then draw the guards away from the western walls while I run along the ramparts to the cells.”
“I put on a show the moment the sun sets,” I say. “Where do we meet?”
“At the gate. I’ll throw a golden blade into the sky. But you have to be there in ten breaths,” Xayah says, plucking a feather from my cloak.
“I will be at that gate the moment you throw the blade,” I say. Nothing in my life is more certain than that.
She nods, and begins telling me the safest path to take. She plans things, which is why I know she will be okay. Wow, the sky is gorgeous right now. That cloud is shaped like an eggplant. I saw a dog once…
I do not like these steps. I do not like them. The gold leaf covering the stone is almost the same color as my feathers. It’s infuriating. I consider changing their hue, but it would take some magic. Damn, I can’t be tired when she needs me. Xayah probably sent me this way knowing my plumage would blend in here. A red cape would look better against these steps. Maybe indigo? What’s around this corner?
More steps. Only humans would cut stone into flat shapes to make a mountain boring! I should climb the cliff. Xayah said to take the steps… I’m pretty sure.
I pick up some pebbles and begin to juggle them. I hear the magic writhing north of me, within the twisting roots of the Lhradi Forest.
The forest’s song finds its way into my head, and I begin to sing it.
“What was that?” a voice echoes from above.
An entry way! A human guard appears. His clothing is dark as shadow.
“Who are you?” he demands.
“I am Rakan!” I reply. How can anyone not know that?
I don’t like him. I hate him more than steps.
“I am Rakan! The battle-dancer of the Lhotlan tribe. I am the song of the morning. I am the dance of the midnight moon. I am the charm that—”
“It’s that vastayan entertainer,” another guard interrupts. He too wears boring clothing—clothes I haven’t seen in this area before.
The first guard wears a shiny golden amulet on his chest. I snatch it from him.
“What’s this?” I ask. He doesn’t deserve this. Whatever this is.
He grasps for it, but I flip it around my hand while still juggling the pebbles in the other.
“Give me that!”
I flick each stone into his face.
“No,” I say. Then, as innocently as I can, I ask, “Is it important?”
He draws a pair of hook-swords. I take one away from him before he can raise them.
“Open the gate, I’ll give you back this… uh… shiny thing,” I offer as I twirl his amulet in my palm, and then send it spinning up my arm.
Instead, the rude fool swings at me! I flip over his attack, and land behind him. He turns to slash again. I dive under his blade, using my rear to knock him off balance. He falls down the steps with a scream.
The other guard watches his friend tumbling away, then looks back to me. I shake my head at him.
“Honestly, how could anyone not know who I am?”
This one stabs at me with his spear. I twist past him, allowing my feathered cloak to envelop him for a moment. Blinded, he stumbles and trips over himself. He falls onto his shield and shoots down the stairway with a clack-clack-clacking sound. Well, until he crashes into his friend on the first landing.
The impact sends them both sprawling. I laugh. Now I get steps.
“You are terrible dancers,” I say as I check my cloak for dirt.
The two people stumble to their feet, glaring up at me.
“You okay?” I ask, thankful for the amusement.
They roar as they rush up the steps. Ungrateful bastards.
I leap away from them and ask, “Wanna know the difference between a party and a fight?”
They slash at me with their weapons again and again.
“One is an entertaining day,” I say as I send them back down the stairs. “The other is… shorter.”
A deafening gong sounds behind me. I smile. The fun part begins.
“You gotta do better than that!” I yell, taunting my pursuers as I run. I do need to get out of here, though. There are twenty guards now. Okay, maybe thirty? More than lots.
Running through their sleeping chambers was a bad idea. However, it did give me a chance to freshen up.
Some of the men have those strange crossbows. They use fire from a tube. They had a name. I’m gonna call ’em tubebows. Their shots explode around me, eating holes into the wall as I dive out of the room.
I slide into the courtyard, performing a full twist to give it some flair. The gate is open. I could run for it, but Xayah needs me.
Hidden in an alcove, a guard swings at me with a large tubebow. Or is bowtube better? He pulls at the trigger. I leap toward him, diving over his shot.
“What’s a good rhyme for tubebow?” I ask out loud.
I kick the guard up in the air. As he falls, I spin and introduce my hand to his cheek. The sound is louder than his weapon.
“Oh, slap!” I say, mimicking its intensity. The human rolls to his feet, pulling a short sword. “How are you not getting the message?!”
I wonder if I can find a kitchen. That’s where the chocolate would be.
The light in the sky is changing. I leap back into the air to check the sun’s location again. It disappears behind the hills, and an orb of green light flashes above it.
“Party time!” I scream. Now, the entire castle is chasing me.
“Surrender yourself!” a guard in a metal hat yells.
“No! I am distracting you!” I reply. He looks at me confused. I’m gonna slap him next.
A hail of arrows launches from the opposite wall. I swerve through them, enjoying the whistle they make as their fletching passes me.
Would I look good in that metal hat?
The golden blade hangs in the air for a second before falling. Xayah is ready to go.
I take my first breath. She said I had ten, but four breaths is much too long. I need to know she’s safe.
“Wanna see some sweet moves?” I ask the nearest human.
He doesn’t seem enthused. I roll through the group and appear behind him. He turns just in time to meet my cloak halfway. My feathers spin him up into the air like a top. Twelve spins is my record, but that was on a hill.
Second breath. The human slams into the ground after nine rotations. Damn. I don’t have time to try again.
Third breath. I have to make it back to where she needs me, back to Xayah.
I leap up the rampart, then bound off its roof toward the gate.
I take the fourth breath in midair.
Xayah runs toward the gate with some fancy juloahs—they are hairy where we have colored feathers. They must be from the Sodjoko tribe. Too formal looking, but I do like the thick ridge of hair that flows along the back of their forearms. I should make my feathers do that. The eldest one’s sarong seems like a terrible idea.
“We’ll never make it,” he cries. “They have rifles!”
“You mean the tubebows?” I ask.
Akunir stares at me blankly.
“Those are out of ammo,” I explain. “The Xini longbows too.”
“I am Rakan,” I explain. I expect this from humans, but my own kind?
“All of you, run for the tree line,” Xayah says.
A dozen men, covered in flour and chocolate, run out from the guardhouse. Mixed with eggs, they would make a thing called ‘cake.’ Pies are better though…
“Run!” Xayah yells. When the old juloah fails to move, I pull him along.
Coll kneels beside her guard’s body. She and Xayah pray that his spirit finds our lands. One of his horns is broken, blood pools in the leaves around him. Coll removes the last arrow from his corpse. He carried her all the way here, even after the humans wounded him.
This juloah should not have died. Someone loved him. They will sing his songs. But only silence will answer.
My eyes well with tears. Softly, I sing for his loss, and his family’s.
Xayah stands with her fist clenched. She won’t grieve now. Instead, the pain will find her tonight when she thinks I’m asleep. That is her way. I will kiss away her sorrow then.
The consul is named Akunir. He might have been a battle-dancer when he was young. He and Xayah begin arguing about politics.
Coll kisses the forehead of her guard. Her jaw is tight. She holds an anger stronger than Xayah’s. She glares at her husband Akunir. She has been waiting for him to listen for far too long.
“I will go back north, Akunir,” Coll says as she rises. “I will tell them what was done to us.” Her arms are as tight as branches, rigid against her sides.
“Coll, no,” Akunir protests.
“I will bear word of Jurelv’s fate to his kin, and mourn with them,” she says. That must have been the guard’s name. Perhaps he was kind. I like the smile lines on the side of his face. “Then, I will muster arms and prepare the tribe to fight.”
“You cannot do that!” the consul yells.
“I forsake my claim to you. I forsake your claim to me,” she speaks coldly.
Akunir looks as if he’s been stabbed. He did not see this running down the hillside? Or in the forest? Or beside the dead guard? It was decided long ago. Moons ago.
“No,” she states simply. He moves to grab her. I block him.
“I will speak with my mate,” he says.
I can feel his breath on my chin. He ate guloo fruit recently. My nose nearly touches his forehead. He glares up at me.
I simply shake my head and shrug. I don’t need words. For this, silence is better.
His remaining two guards tense. They don’t want to dance with me. I am Rakan. They know my name. They glance nervously to Xayah holding her blades. They know her name too.
“Thank you, Xayah,” Coll says before limping away.
Akunir and his guards watch her go. Wordlessly, they set off to the south, leaving us alone.
I move close to Xayah. I feel her sadness for Jurelv, Coll, and for Akunir. I’ll drink wine tonight. Then I’ll sing rude songs.
“Promise me nothing will come between us like that, mieli,” she says.
“We’re not like them, miella. We’ll never be like them,” I reply. I can feel her worry. She’s smarter than me about so many things, but foolish about love sometimes.
“Where to now, Xayah?”
“Let’s just stay here a moment longer.”
I wrap my cloak and arms around her. I will tickle her later. We will laugh and drink. She will plan and I will sing. I feel her cheek on my chest. I’m glad that Xayah needs me now.
“Repeat it back to me,” she says.
“We are not like them,” I say again. “We are not like them.”