Having crossed the breadth of the stone yard Rocco and his guards entered a lush grove of very large trees. Some had full moon heads, others were shaped gracefully like ostrich eggs.
They came into the bright sun. Rocco could see the wall again. He’d have to get over it or under it, or through a door, window or other opening, maybe even a crack. The city was wide at the cusp of the cliffs, at least a thousand metres. It looked even deeper the other way, heading toward the mountain which loomed tall in the distance.
On the right, tidy rows of rich-looking buildings lined the streets. Each was clad in the same polished rock with a brightly coloured door, above which hung a thickly carved gold-coloured lantern. Only the wealthiest merchants in Gogogamesh could afford such lavish adornments. Everything at home had been made by his mother, or given as gifts by the villagers who traded goods when they couldn’t afford the regular kinds of payment.
They passed along several pathways and short-cropped fields of grass. The pace slowed as they entered a breezeway – an open walkway attached to a row of buildings, covered by a roof.
‘Well,’ said Stinky Breath, stopping at a blue door. ‘You’d better get cleaned up, mudrock.’
Rocco quickly ducked inside. He didn’t need their glaring eyes on him. He was immediately engulfed in the sound of lapping water. A large pool filled with rising steam sat in the middle of the room. Urvogels were sitting around the edge of the pool as well as other smaller pools, deeper into the room.
A row of high windows – holes, really – were cut into the top of the wall near the ceiling. In the corner at the far end, urvogels were flapping their wings, shedding water. A red robe, wingless like the ones at the palace, waited patiently at the side, holding drying cloths.
‘Minionatro!’ An urvogel waved from his seat by the wall.
A red robe carrying a tray of silver cups hurried over. Other red robes were folding clothes on a long table at the end opposite the water shedding area. Above the table hung a sign: ‘Minionatros’ Corner’.
Rocco removed his tunic and leggings and quickly slid into the empty end of the large centre pool. It took some effort to sink, but once his wings were wet, he managed it, holding his breath. He was invisible. They couldn’t stare if they couldn’t see him.
Bobbing up for a breath, he rolled on his back, staying submerged except for his face. He was covered in cuts and scrapes. The water stung, but it was exceedingly warm and cosy.
He reached over and pinched the fleshy part of his upper arm. Krakatoan was rich, probably full of dazzling sights. He had to stay focused on the only thing that mattered – getting out.
Closing his eyes to slits he listened to the hollow sounds around him: urvogels talking quietly at the end of the pool; minionatros’ feet shuffling across the marble floor; and wings beating in the water shedding area.
‘It’s not fair,’ said a woeful voice.
Rocco opened his eyes. Three urvogels were staring at him. Reaching up with his foot, Rocco gently pushed himself away. As he came to the deep end, Stinky Breath appeared, scowling and pointing at the door.
His wings were so thoroughly soaked that it was all he could do to lift himself out of the water. He teetered on the side of the pool and waited for the cool air to clear his head. He walked over to the water shedding area and began to flap.
An ancient-looking minionatro handed him a drying cloth and motioned that he should follow. With the cloth tucked around his waist, Rocco followed past Minionatros’ Corner and into a room so small it was little more than a cupboard.
The minionatro began fumbling through a stack of folded clothes on a shelf up against the wall.
‘Does anyone have blue wings?’ He’d been daring himself to ask.
The minionatro pulled a set of white robes from the stack. Rocco repeated the question.
‘Put these on.’ The minionatro had heard him well enough, he just wasn’t going to answer.
The leggings pulled on easily. The tunic had two sleeves for arms, and two holes in the back for wings. It was roughly the design of the tunic his mother had made and which he’d just taken off, except his mother had cut slits from the shoulder to the buttoned waist.
‘It’s too tight,’ said Rocco, choking back a lump as he hastily pulled the tunic off. So his wings were monstrously large as well as blue; he didn’t need reminding. He shoved the rumpled garment into the minionatro’s arms.
‘Let me handle it,’ said the minionatro.
Rocco pinched his arm again. He couldn’t get distracted by the mess he was in. He had to focus his eye on the prize – freedom. Why was the minionatro missing his wings anyway? Had he killed someone? Murderers in Gogogamesh were strung up in the city square. Twice a year, in Spring and at Harvest, everyone gathered to watch the executions. Rocco had never been, but he’d heard there was always a big party afterward.
The minionatro returned with a needle, thread and scissors. Cutting both wing holes open wider, the minionatro began to stitch the freshly cut edge. Having completed one wing sleeve, he had just begun the other when Stinky Breath strode into the room.
‘I’ve got better things to do than hang here all day. Hurry on or you’ll find yourself short more than a pair of wings!’
The minionatro’s hands trembled as he thrust the tunic, thread and dangling needle into Rocco’s arms. Bowing stiffly to the Air Marshal he hastened away.
‘Two minutes. Outside.’ Stinky Breath glared and turned heel.
Sputtering a few tears Rocco pulled on the tunic. His nerves were shot, he couldn’t stop shaking. His hands smoothed over the silky fabric as it fell over his thighs. Finding his towel again, he wiped his eyes. There was nothing to do but get on with it.
Once outside, Stinky Breath and Knife-in-the-Back turned and gaped. Not long, just long enough to wink at each other and swing their heads toward the path, directing him to follow. They set off in the direction they had come. Rocco fell into step at the back.
Now that both of them were walking out in front, he could have a better look around. He would examine everything that came within his sightline: every building and door, every urvogel, everything that was said. The Krakatoans might be sizing him up, but he would do the same.
After a short period of walking, they arrived at a two-storey vine-covered building. ‘Roosting Hall’ said the sign above the door. Inside, they ascended a wide set of stairs and crossed the threshold of a broad, high room.
‘Number eleven,’ said Stinky Breath, pushing Rocco in. Having carried out Harpia’s orders, he and Knife-in-the-Back paid him no more interest. At least they had delivered him in one piece to Roosting Hall. Their heels clicked away.
Rows of beds, with neatly tucked-in white sheets, stood across the floor of the room. A small plaque with a number was fastened to each headboard. A three-metre pole with hooks was attached to the foot of every bed. Rocco found number eleven, which was the last in a row and pushed up against the wall. He slumped down on the side of the bed, abnormally long since urvogels, especially the adults, were tall.
The minionatro’s needle pricked his thigh. He’d put the tunic on without cutting off the thread. He pulled the needle out and wove it securely into the hem of his tunic. He lay down, and promptly fell asleep.
When he opened his eyes again, the room was full of white robes getting ready for bed. Their wings glowed white in the room’s fading light. Some were talking on the side of their beds; others were hanging their clothes on the poles at the ends of the beds. They all stared. A few pointed and whispered.
Rocco sat up on the side of the bed, pulling his sheet over his wings.
Wheat Hair came in. He was talking sombrely to Girl. They sat down on a bed occupied by a flame-haired urvogel. Rocco stared. He’d never seen such hair.
What would Wheat Hair and Girl say if they knew he’d been spying on them yesterday? They probably wouldn’t like it one bit. They’d likely say something rude. Were all urvogels as sharp-tongued as Harpia or did they have to learn it? The minionatro hadn’t said anything insulting, but he was a servant. He’d likely been trained to be subservient. Stinky Breath, on the other hand, seemed naturally cross and ill-tempered. They were probably all like that, outside their own circle of friends.
Wheat Hair raised his head. A jolt of something, maybe surprise, surfaced in his face, but then his eyes darkened again. His brow furrowed as he resumed his conversation with Girl and Flame Hair. There wasn’t a glimmer of the playfulness Rocco had seen yesterday.
It was hard to imagine what they were worried about. Everything in Krakatoan was many times grander than Rocco’s village, or even the Sultan’s home in Gogogamesh. Their clothes and bed sheets were made of the softest fabric. They had loads of water, thought Rocco, remembering the fountain in the middle of the stone yard.
Flame Hair began crying softly. Rocco couldn’t see his face, but his shoulders were shaking. The other two were trying to comfort him. Girl had her hand on his back. Wheat Hair spoke soothingly.
The other white robes kept gaping over. Drawing the sheet up tighter, Rocco clasped it to his throat. Who cared if they weren’t going to say hello, or tell him their names. They were a completely different species, with habits quite different from the villagers, or the citizens of Gogogamesh. They were more like insects besotted with their terrible queen.
Presently, the chatter faded as the white robes climbed under their sheets. Some quivered, some had their wings sticking out at odd angles. The glow from their wings began to flicker.
Wheat Hair, Girl and Flame Hair kept talking. Rocco lay down again. Moments later a hum began to fill the room. He peeked over from the side of his pillow. It was impossible to locate the origin of the noise so he sat up. The noise wasn’t coming from any one bed, but from all of them.
The bed next to him, number ten, had been empty before. A small urvogel was now lying in it, his back turned, but he was weeping. His narrow shoulders twitched. The white robe in bed nine sniffled and sobbed. Same with beds eight and seven. Every bed held a shape with flickering wings.
The wailing grew louder, rising and falling in waves. The sound made Rocco weak. He buried his head under his pillow and lay still, his knees pulled up to his chest, forcing himself not to think.
He had been lying in that position for some time when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Wheat Hair was standing over him. ‘I thought you might be hungry,’ he said, holding out a shanga fruit.
Was it a real offering, or some kind of trick? Sitting up, Rocco eyed the fruit sceptically.
‘I’m Basalt, the senior fledgling on this floor.’
The crying around Rocco had subsided. Rocco gazed up at Wheat Hair – Basalt. He’d actually said his name.
‘We’re a flock,’ said Basalt quietly. ‘When the feeling is great, be it fear, sorrow or joy, we all feel the same thing. It’s – it’s nothing to be afraid of.’
‘I’m not afraid,’ said Rocco, his eyes darting from Basalt’s face to the fruit in his hand. He couldn’t really remember the last time he’d eaten anything. His stomach had been rumbling all day.
Basalt’s eyes were full of worry as he glanced over at Flame Hair. Laying the fruit on the side of the bed, he nodded at Rocco, then walked away.
Overcome with hunger, Rocco snatched the fruit up. He sniffed, and deciding that it smelled like a shanga, took a small bite. He waited for a full minute. Nothing bad seemed to happen so he greedily ate the rest.
Still sucking the pit, he surveyed the room. He had been so tired before that he had barricaded all the awful things that had happened behind a trapdoor in the back of his head. But the sounds of the room, soft and coaxing, made him relax. Slowly he began to see his mother on the floor of the kitchen and Jafari outside, pleading with him to go.
Tears welled up in his eyes and washed hotly down his face. Jafari was gone. Good, loyal Jafari, and his beautiful, kind mother. They were gone, dead, forever lost to him. He hadn’t deserved them, anyway. He was careless and stupid.
His mother had cared for him all his life. And what had he done? He had ignored her warning. He’d flown up the escarpment. Whether the Air Marshals had seen him there, or out on the plains in the middle of the night, they had followed him. He had brought evil into his village.
Rocco wept. His entire body was swept away in a tide of sorrow and grief.
At length he stopped crying and fell into a dream. His mother was screaming. He was trying to help her but he couldn’t move because he couldn’t lift his wings. He was in the pool again, holding a wet pillow that kept dragging him down. Someone close to him was crying, too. At times, the sound was soothing. At other times the weeping seemed to mock his sorrow.
The room was shockingly bright when he opened his eyes again. It was morning. Most of the white robes were gone. The small urvogel in the next bed was staring over at him with intense brown eyes.
Rocco stared back.
Rolling off the bed, the small urvogel, about six or seven years old, jumped to the floor. He ran over to Middle Boy who was hanging his bed sheet on the pole at the foot of his bed.
Rocco hadn’t recognized the face, but he instantly knew Small One’s voice.
‘Come. I’ll introduce you.’ Basalt appeared at the foot of Rocco’s bed. Rocco followed him over.
‘This is Magma,’ said Basalt, nodding at Middle Boy. A large red stain covered most of Magma’s throat. Magma’s eyes glanced over Rocco’s wings.
‘And this is Ignimbrite, Iggy for short.’
‘Why are his wings blue?’ Small One – Iggy – pointed.
Before anyone had time to speak Girl walked in. A white feather was sticking out of her dishevelled hair. ‘Where’s Py?’ she asked, eyes flitting around the room.
‘He’s in the water closet, throwing up.’ Magma flashed Girl a grave look. ‘He’s says he’s not going.’
‘The Air Marshals will fetch him if he doesn’t come on his own,’ said Basalt.
‘That’s Vesta,’ said Basalt, nodding after Girl who had disappeared back into the hall.
These were the same four urvogels he’d seen yesterday. Basalt was Wheat Hair; Vesta was Girl; Magma was Middle Boy; and Iggy was Small One. They weren’t saying anything vicious, not so far. Perhaps they’d been ordered to keep an eye on him.
Vesta appeared with Flame Hair. His eyes were swollen as if he’d been crying the entire night.
‘We must go,’ said Basalt, turning to Rocco. ‘Pyroxene is on trial. Everyone is expected to attend.’
‘Where exactly?’ asked Rocco.
‘The Courthouse. Avian Plaza.’
The way Basalt said it – it wasn’t a choice. Maybe, afterwards, Basalt would show him around; he needed a general layout of the city. He could look around himself but that was going to raise all kinds of questions from those pesky Air Marshals.
Plates of fruit and a tray with pastries sat on a table out in the hall. The others didn’t even glance at the food. On his way past Rocco grabbed a handful of figs. Cramming two in his mouth, he dropped the rest in his pocket.
He’d have to start a cache of supplies – not under his bed, since that could easily be discovered, but in another spot, somewhere close by. Maybe in one of the other rooms farther down the hall? They didn’t appear to be sleeping chambers.
Once outside, the small troupe took off, flying toward the palace. Basalt, Vesta, Magma and Iggy surrounded Py. Rocco trailed at the back. From what he could see, the part of the city nearest the cliffs was built up with houses and larger public buildings surrounding the stone yard and the palace. The other half of the city – the side backed into the mountain – was green, full of trees and a gently rolling field of short-cropped grass.
On his left and right troupes of urvogels were flying past. Whenever a blue robe came abreast, he pulled his wing forward. Let them gawk all they liked, they didn’t need to see his face. Everyone appeared to be flying, as they were, toward Avian Plaza, except for the Air Marshals who were doing their rounds on top of the wall.
Momentarily the sky cleared. As Rocco turned his head, examining the cityscape, a flicker appeared over his shoulder. It wasn’t a bird, or a sunspot. He flew on, only to have the flicker reappear. He couldn’t see it straight on, only in his bird eye vision. Dark and cloying, it was real, whatever it was, as real as the wind blowing against his face.
He shook his shoulders and carried on. His troupe had come to Avian Plaza. Flying low, they passed over the stone yard and touched down on the steps of a building signed ‘Supreme Court of Terrakesh’. Two gold robes on the top step stopped talking, their mouths opened as they stared at Rocco. He hurried up, following Vesta into the throng.
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