The doors to the courthouse, studded and heavily carved, hung open. Only a soft dull light lit the interior, not from any flame or lantern, but from the wings of the urvogels themselves.
Py’s chin trembled. ‘Goodbye.’
Basalt, Magma, Vesta and Iggy, grim-faced, took turns hugging Py who immediately disappeared down the aisle on the right. Rocco followed his troupe into the left aisle. The room was vast, easily holding several hundred urvogels. The floor sloped down to the front with rows and rows of seats like the half-sphere, outdoor amphitheatre in Gogogamesh.
An expanse of floor was cleared out or otherwise empty at the front, except for a single chair that sat on a low platform off to the left. At the bottom right a pole rose halfway up to the vaulted ceiling. It might have been an actual tree trunk growing right through the floor, but it was too dark to see.
Beyond the chair and the pole a stone slab sat at the far wall: a desk facing the rows of seats. Harmony. Justice. Truth. The words were cut into the stone façade.
About halfway down Magma led them into a row of seats. Rocco sat down on the aisle next to Vesta. The air, hot and close, stunk of honeysuckle. Reclining his wings, Rocco slouched back in his chair. Maybe Harpia had other things on her mind today. Maybe she wasn’t even there, he thought hopefully as he scanned the crowd milling around at the back.
Vesta crossed and uncrossed her legs. She was wearing bangles on her ankles that kept jangling as she fidgeted, drawing her knees up to her chin, then dropping her feet to the floor again. All the while she stared at the seats below. As she slid forward, her arm jerked up in a wave.
Rocco shifted around so he could see what she was looking at. Py had taken up a seat in the very front, at the far edge of the half sphere, and thus at a quarter turn to them. His face would have been visible had his head been up. He looked smaller than ever sitting down there. What awful thing had he done?
Several other urvogels were seated in the same section. Their heads were also down, their shoulders slumped forward. They were immaculately clean and well dressed – but so was Harpia, Rocco reminded himself. She was a murderer.
An urvogel in a flowing black robe ascended the pole. Arriving at the top, he stood on a small platform, grasping the railing that barricaded him from the edge. With his free hand he began to unroll a fat sheaf of paper secured on a squeaky wheel.
‘Who’s that?’ Rocco leaned over.
Vesta didn’t offer more. Her eyes were fixated on Py.
In a blustery voice the Herald cried, ‘All rise.’
Everyone stood up. Behind the stone desk, a door opened. Three ancient-looking urvogels strode out: one with grey curls, round like a bush, and the other two with snow-white hair pulled into topknots. The one in the middle had a long beard. They were dressed the same: all in white, except for scarlet aprons decorated with golden birds.
Rocco leaned forward. He had never been inside the courthouse in Gogogamesh, although he had attended one public flogging. The villagers had gathered in the city square while the convict was brought out and strapped to a pole. The poor man’s back had looked like a meat grinder by the end.
Once Jafari had seen a man get his hand cut off – punishment for stealing some precious stones. The man himself sold spice in the market and he carried on doing so afterward, using his stump as a kind of shovel.
Rocco and Jafari always made a point of passing by the man’s booth. ‘It’s like he doesn’t even notice it’s missing,’ Jafari would say. They would stand, mesmerized, as the man scooped spice into a sack. The merchant was so casual, moving and interacting with his customers without the least hint of embarrassment or shame.
‘Announcing the Honourables: Vice Chancellor Dolomite, Grand Master Vogesite and Vice Chancellor Rhyolite.’ The Herald stretched out his arms. ‘In the sky loft, greet our queen, the Archurvogel Harpia.’
Muffled clapping and murmurs drifted across the assembly as Harpia flew down. Trailed by two urvogels dressed in gold, she made several passes over the assembled crowd before hovering in front of the judges. She nodded as they bowed.
Meanwhile, minionatros were filling metre-high glass jars at either end of the judges’ desk. Thousands of fireflies shone out revealing, in the dull yellow light, the flecks of dust swirling off Harpia’s wings.
‘Out of chaos comes form,’ sang Harpia. Smiling, she faced the crowd.
‘We are that form,’ answered the throng. ‘We follow the Law of Harpia.’
‘For this Day of Judgement I confer on you all necessary powers.’ Harpia turned again to the judges. ‘May you balance justice and mercy. And may we, the citizens of Krakatoan, enjoy the wonder and the splendour of a purified flock.’
Harpia flew up. Was it going to be a real court with a real trial, or had Harpia already told the judges what their verdicts should be?
Far above everyone’s heads, in the peak of a dome, Harpia settled on a giant swing. She began to rock. Meanwhile her attendant gold robes were opening cupboard doors in the bottom of the dome. Long hoses were pulled out, each with a bulbous contraption on the end.
‘The Seventh Moon Court of the Principality of Krakatoan is now in session. Cristobalite, step forward and take the seat of truth!’
Rocco’s attention dropped to the blue robe beside Py. He had a shock of white hair running from his forehead up into his topknot. Rising to his feet, he walked over and sat down on the empty chair between the judges’ desk and the first row of seats. His wings, draped over the side of the platform, were white, except the tips were black.
‘Cristobalite, you are charged with a Category A offence - private reading, contrary to Article fifteen, subsection three. How do you wish to plead?’
Cristobalite didn’t say anything at first. Finally, in a heavy voice, he said, ‘I plead for my life and my wings.’
‘No. No. Not that kind of pleading,’ the middle judge, the Grand Master, bellowed. ‘Pay attention here. You’ve got two choices, guilty or not guilty.’
Cristobalite’s wings began to twitch.
Rocco leaned over. ‘He’s in trouble for reading a book?’
Vesta didn’t answer.
‘What’s it going to be?’ asked the Grand Master.
‘Guilty,’ said Cristobalite.
‘Let’s hear your confession.’
Cristobalite began. ‘I removed a book from the Book Treasury, one with beautiful illuminations and also some ancient inscriptions. I – I took it to my room and read it.’
‘Is that all?’ the Grand Master queried.
‘I also took it out to Wildergarten and read a few pages under a tree.’
‘Who went with you?’
‘I went alone.’
‘You’re aware such conduct is an offence under the Reformations and Omniflock Improvements under the Law of Krakatoan, otherwise known as Harpia’s Law?’
‘And yet you disobeyed?’
Cristobalite nodded. ‘I – I’m sorry.’
The Grand Master wagged his finger. ‘We’ll have nothing but chaos on our hands if every urvogel throws himself into the abyss of private fantasy. Books are not meant for private consumption. They are public, to be heard aloud, in the open air of common understanding. Do you ignore the value in this?’
He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘You rob us all when you ignore the benefit of communal experience. You’ve turned one of our greatest delights into a stinking, dirty fetish.’
Vesta, so fidgety before, now sat rigidly, her back as straight as an arrow. She’d even stopped whispering to Basalt. Shifting forward, Rocco peered at Basalt, Iggy and Magma farther down the row. They were staring down at Cristobalite.
Cristobalite was directed to kneel on the low railing at the bottom of the judges’ desk. The judges bent their heads together.
‘Cristobalite,’ said the Grand Master, rising out of his chair and peering down over the edge of the desk. ‘We find you guilty of private reading. You have coveted a secret self and for this transgression the penalty is not discretionary but automatic. You must forfeit your wings.’
Rocco gasped. Guilty of reading? Had he heard right?
‘This is not a loss, but an honour.’
The judge waved to someone at the back. A figure in a long cloak emerged from the shadows. Rocco recognized the satchel. It was the Alchemist who had groped his wings on the palace platform yesterday.
Two Air Marshals wearing masks, one trimmed with a silver bird beak, and the other with a striped plume sticking up from the middle of the forehead, followed the Alchemist. Upon reaching the front, the Alchemist removed a bottle from his satchel.
A hum began to fill the room.
‘Take. Drink, these opiates,’ said the Alchemist, removing the stopper as he handed the bottle to Cristobalite.
Cristobalite tipped the bottle back and drank. The Alchemist then handed Cristobalite a strip of something that looked like dried meat.
‘Take. Eat, this carrion.’ Cristobalite’s wings fluttered open as he clenched the strip between his teeth. Moving forward, the silver-beaked Air Marshal seized Cristobalite’s wing. The Air Marshal with the striped plume unsheathed his sword. Stepping close to Cristobalite, he raised his blade.
‘Glory!’ the stripe-plumed Air Marshal cried aloud as he slashed his blade into Cristobalite’s wing.
The humming stopped. A great ripping sound arose. Cristobalite’s wing hung sideways. The first blow had failed to sever it completely. Raising his sword again, the stripe-plumed Air Marshal sent another blow into the wing.
Blood spattered into both Air Marshals’ clothes, rising as high as their masks. Amid the sound of bone cracking, Cristobalite’s magnificent wing slid to the floor.
Rocco must have kicked the chair in front of him, because the white robe who occupied the chair spun round. His face, particularly his lashes, was covered in flecks of dust. He glared at Rocco.
Sick to the stomach, but unable to pull his eyes away, Rocco watched as the second wing was severed. Is this what the parents of the hunchback children had done? Given their children over to a stranger with a knife? So much blood and ugliness.
At least the parents of the hunchback children had a reason – they were trying to keep their children safe. These urvogels had just lost their wings for the pettiest of reasons – for reading a book.
Urvogels were thugs.
Cristobalite’s second wing had crashed to the floor. The Air Marshal had managed to sever it on his first swing. Minionatros down at the front began to sing.
‘Blessed be the minionatros.’ Standing now, the judges lifted their wings.
Cristobalite slumped forward, his back a glaring gash of bone and tissue. Blood poured out, spilling into his tunic and pooling on the floor around him. The humming, a hypnotic drone, started up again.
Rocco turned, surveying the stony faces of the urvogels behind him. Weren’t they enraged, or at least moved by Cristobalite’s loss? Swirls of dust filled the air. Looking up to the dome, he saw the cloud of dust was thickest around Harpia. Swinging hard, she beat her wings.
More dust was being pumped by the gold robes. They were holding the hoses and pumping the end with the bulb. A fine spray of dust, commingled with Harpia’s wing dander, floated down.
The backs of every chair as well as the heads and shoulders of every white robe in front of Rocco were covered in dust. Rocco turned. His own shoulders were covered. Brushing the dust off lightly, he began to cough. Half choking, he buried his nose in his sleeve.
What was it? Some kind of toxin? Would it turn him into a dopey-eyed urvogel?
Vesta’s feet were silent. Rocco reached out to push her arm, but the room plunged into darkness. The light in Vesta’s wings went out. So did all the wings in his row, and also the row in front. Only his blue glow cut the blackness. That was a good thing, wasn’t it? Maybe Harpia could see him easily, but at least he was hanging onto himself. His wings always glowed in the dark.
An object brushed against his head. Vesta had risen out of her seat. She was flying up. So were Basalt, Magma and Iggy.
Rocco flipped his wing so he could see better. Peering up, he saw hundreds of feet dangling from the dome. The entire assembly had flown up and were now gathered in a cluster, beating their wings in a mass frenzy. He couldn’t see Harpia any more, but she was up there, the queen controlling all her drones.
He was alone in his row. The aisle was empty. Should he make a break for it? There weren’t any Air Marshals at the door, but for sure there would be lots of them outside. He wouldn’t get very far. Hunkering down in his chair, he prepared to wait.
Long minutes passed. The sound of the beating wings softened. Slowly the bioluminescent glow returned, at first as a flickering, then more strongly as if the urvogels were signalling each other. One by one they glided back to their seats.
Basalt, Magma, and Iggy had just settled into theirs. Rocco peered up just as Vesta’s feet appeared over his head. Her shoe knocked his ear as she slid, feet first, into her seat.
‘Pyroxene. Come forward, Pyroxene.’
Vesta seemed not to hear. She was sitting still with her hands clasped in her lap.
‘It’s Py.’ Rocco pointed. ‘Your friend, Py! It’s his turn.’
A ripple of fear passed into Vesta’s face.
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