Cristobalite was nowhere to be seen. His wings had been strung up on the front of the judges’ desk. They were harsh-looking, detached but crying out in anguish and shame, thought Rocco. Blood still dripped from the ragged edges.
The Herald called again. Py got up. Despite his slight frame, he strode heavily, slouching into the chair that Cristobalite had just vacated.
The Herald flicked the scroll of paper. ‘Pyroxene, you are charged with a Category A offence - playing a harpsiflute, privately, as a solitary endeavour, contrary to the Reformations and Omniflock Improvements in the Law of Krakatoan, Article fourteen, subsection five. How do you plead?’
Cristobalite had lost his wings because he’d read a book, and now Py was going to lose his wings because he played a harpsiflute? Krakatoan had looked so magnificent yesterday, particularly the dancing urvogels in the night sky. But under all that splendour urvogels were petty and cruel.
A moment ago Vesta, Basalt, Magma and Iggy had been in a stupor. But now their wings were vibrating as they stared down at Py.
The Herald repeated the charge. Still Py didn’t answer.
‘What’s the meaning of this insolence?’ roared the Grand Master.
Pyroxene’s wings had slumped so low the tips were now resting on the floor.
‘What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?’
‘What’s that? Speak up. We can’t hear you all the way up here in that pip squeaky voice.’ A cloud of spittle flew out of the Grand Master’s mouth.
Pyroxene’s shoulders began to shake.
‘Don’t start that soppy mess,’ said the bushy-haired judge. ‘How do you plead?’
‘I don’t want to lose my wings,’ wailed Pyroxene.
‘For the love of the Great Urvogel. We’re not even through the trial yet. You have to be convicted before a sentence is imposed. How long’s it been since you fledged?’
Py’s shoulders shook harder.
Sighing loudly, the bushy-haired judge pulled back in a huddle with the Grand Master and the third judge.
It wasn’t the least bit fair. Py was small – a young urvogel. Couldn’t they cut him some slack? Rocco’s mind flitted over all the minionatros he’d seen since arriving. There hadn’t been a single one as young as Py, but maybe all the young ones were cooped up in a room weaving carpets, or only allowed to clean the Bathhouse after it was emptied at night.
The Grand Master, who had been doing almost all the talking up to that point, lifted a small wooden hammer. He rapped it on the desk. ‘Stand up. If you can’t decide, we’ll decide for you!’
Py struggled up.
‘Guilty.’ The hammer banged loudly again.
Teetering forward, Py grasped the arm of his chair before falling back into the seat.
‘Since you’re here, we might as well move on to sentencing.’ The Grand Master peered down.
‘You’ve been convicted of a crime of vanity,’ he continued. ‘I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you young urvogels to fit into the collective. That’s your best refuge for life. Krakatoan will provide you with sanctuary, but you must forego private indulgences.’
The Grand Master paused. ‘You’re obviously not fledged. Clearly not up to much. It’s our duty to exact mercy as well as justice. For that reason, and due to your youth, we have decided to let you keep your wings. Your minionatro sentence is suspended.’
That was good news, wasn’t it? Rocco glanced sideways at Vesta. Her expression hadn’t changed. The muscles in her mouth were tight.
The judge on the far right, the one with the white topknot, took up the speech.
‘You shall keep your wings, but you are hereby sentenced to a life cut off from your hatch-mates. You are banished from Krakatoan. You can never enter these walls again. If you disobey, your life will be forfeited.’
Loud clamouring arose from the rows behind Rocco. Vesta, Basalt and Iggy sprang to their feet. Magma, still seated, was making weird choking sounds under his wing.
Py was made to stand. The Air Marshals escorted him up the aisle. The room grew silent again.
‘Oh Py!’ Vesta sobbed.
The door opened, light flooded in, then Py and the Air Marshals were gone.
‘It’s not fair!’ shouted Magma.
The Grand Master banged the hammer. Leaning over the desk, he stared into the assembly. ‘You white robes are ordered not to howl. This is not a time to act like wolves. It’s a time for celebration. We have expunged a rot that could have infected us all.’
Magma’s wails grew louder. Iggy had also started crying. Urvogels in front and behind were staring.
The Grand Master, knocking his hammer with successive sharp raps, nodded at the Air Marshals standing at the back. Two Air Marshals marched down and took up a spot in the aisle directly beside Rocco. Another pair stopped at the other end of the row.
Basalt leaned over and whispered in Magma’s ear. He did the same to Iggy. Whatever it was he said, both Magma and Iggy, with a few sharp intakes of breath, stopped crying and sank into soft muffled sobs.
More names were called and convictions reached. One urvogel after another was found guilty of playing a musical instrument alone, singing alone or reading alone. The condemned urvogel would kneel, as Cristobalite had, in front of the judges’ desk while his or her wings were severed.
Each time the dust swirled while the room grew dark. The entire assembly joined Harpia up in the dome. Vesta, Basalt, Iggy and Magma flew up too. They seemed to care so deeply for Py, and yet they were celebrating whenever another defendant lost his or her wings.
Rocco sat firmly in his seat, keeping watch on his own wings. Each time it grew dark he held his breath until his bioluminescence surged bright. He usually hated his glowing feathers, but now the light meant he was unaffected by Harpia’s dust. Didn’t it? He kicked his feet, and lifted his arms. He was still in control of his limbs. No impulse was hauling him out of his chair.
The room had grown as hot as a bush fire. Py’s section stood empty at last.
‘This court stands adjourned.’ The Herald finally began rolling up his long swath of paper.
In the ceiling, a row of windows below the dome was thrust open and rays of light fell into the room. Rocco caught sight of Harpia’s skirt and feet as she flew out of a window. The gold robes were folding up her swing, and the long lengths of hose.
Down at the front, eighteen pairs of urvogel wings hung on the judges’ desk. Nineteen convictions had been entered. Py had been the youngest. He was the only one to be exiled instead of losing his wings.
Rocco bolted up the aisle, pushing past the Krakatoans who were moving much too slowly. He was the first to push out into the bright sunlight. He gulped the air, flapped his wings, and examined his legs and arms. He still looked normal.
Dust blew off his feathers and clothes as he ran full tilt down the steps and crossed Avian Plaza. Arriving at the side of the fountain, he bent over and retched. He could climb right into the basin, but perhaps there was a rule against that. Instead he dunked his head in the water and swished around.
Standing up, he retched again. Wiping his mouth, he sat down on the side of the fountain. He immediately began shivering so he stood up again and flapped hard. Using his hands he beat the dust from his clothes.
The Krakatoans were spilling out on the steps of the courthouse. Their wings gleamed. They had always been bright, but now they glowed with a pristine whiteness that was almost blinding. Basalt, Magma, Vesta and Iggy appeared. Spotting Rocco, they glided down the steps and over to the fountain.
Their heads, brows and lashes were full of dust. They leaned or sat on the edge of the fountain. Their skin gleamed pale.
‘What is that stuff?’ asked Rocco, flicking dust off of Iggy’s shoulder.
‘It’s Harpia’s royal perfume,’ said Iggy and Magma together.
Instead of laughing because they had just said the same words at the same time, they gave Rocco a blank stare.
‘What’s it for?’ Rocco gave his own shoulders another casual swipe. Dust churned up.
Their eyes were glassy like the patrons coming out of the opium dens in Krakatoan.
‘Py’s gone!’ said Vesta, catching her breath. Her eyes sort of looked like a wounded animal’s.
Rocco waited. It made sense that they were worried about Py, but what about all the gore and blood and severed limbs they’d just seen? Didn’t the others matter at all?
Magma removed his tunic and flapped it in the air. ‘The Archurvogel’s wing dust unifies the flock. It binds us together.’ The words sounded as if he were quoting from a page.
‘There’s a clatch tonight.’ Basalt’s eyes were dopey, but his voice was clear. ‘It’s only us white robes. On court days, we always meet after, just to hang out. Want to come?’
Rocco was silent. He didn’t understand urvogels. It didn’t really matter, because in a very short time he was going to escape. In the meantime he needed someone to show him around. He’d already observed that urvogels always went around in pairs or larger groups.
He nodded. ‘Okay.’
* * *
Rocco lay back against a silver willow. Vesta had just told him the name of it, and also the names of the other trees: silver birch, silver ash and silver maple. The forested area, a sprawling grove of trees inside the northern city wall, was called Silver Woods. The palace wasn’t visible which was a great relief. He might have been anywhere, sitting with his back to a tree in a place far, far away. If only it were true.
The wind sounded ever so nice, the way it rustled high up in the branches. Every so often a white robe playing flight tag in the trees would call out. It was evening. They had just come from Singhurvogel Hall, where a meal of bread, noodles and vegetable broth had been served.
Everyone had sat around long tables, divided by robe colour, eating food that was more or less familiar. Instead of using forks, they ate with slender sticks, pinched together between the thumb and fingers. They were difficult to wield, so Rocco had slurped the noodles and broth directly from his bowl.
The white robes at his table had complained of headaches, but otherwise they’d said very little. Rocco’s head didn’t hurt, but his stomach had been churning since he’d thrown up earlier, by the fountain.
With a hand resting on his stomach, Rocco fixed part of his attention on Magma, Vesta and Iggy who were sitting under an adjacent tree. The other half of his mind spirit was floating up in the treetops where the air was fresh and the birds were flying free. That would be him soon; he just had to hang on to the idea of it.
They were waiting for it to grow dark so they could start the clatch, whatever that was. No one had said exactly, but he would find out soon enough. Basalt had been gone all afternoon. He hadn’t even attended the evening meal.
Magma, Vesta and Iggy were grooming each other’s wings.
‘Do you think they gave Py any amber venom to take with him?’ Iggy asked, shifting around to look at Magma who was sitting behind him. Magma tugged a wide-toothed comb through Iggy’s feathers. A pile of discarded feathers sat on the ground beside him.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Vesta. Perched on the ground behind Magma, she was pulling a similar large comb through Magma’s wings. Every so often she’d reach forward and drop a handful of rumpled feathers into the growing pile.
Rocco had seen river monkeys pick nits out of each other’s fur. He’d also seen village women caring for the sick and elderly, but he’d never seen children grooming each other.
‘What’s amber venom?’ he asked, his eyes half closed. After being silent for much of the day, he’d adopted a half curious, half not caring approach to the white robes. He needed to keep them talking so he could learn about the city, but he couldn’t afford to set them off. He wasn’t one of them. The smallest misstep might unleash a torrent of abuse. Basalt had already told him that urvogels all feel the same things.
They were worse than the River Gang boys. These urvogels were a mob.
‘It’s the antidote for separation sickness,’ said Magma. ‘It builds up tolerance for when the Air Marshals fly outside the city.’
‘Humans don’t get separation sickness,’ said Rocco. It was a neutral, factual statement. They couldn’t disagree.
‘Urvogels get sick,’ said Vesta. ‘We die if we’re cut off from our hatch-mates.’
‘You mean Py – he’s going to get sick? Die?’
Magma and Vesta both nodded.
‘But Py was the youngest of everyone – that hardly seems fair,’ exclaimed Rocco, opening his eyes and sitting forward before he’d even realized it.
‘We know,’ said Magma.
‘But can’t Py just travel to another urvogel colony? Won’t they take him in?’ Leaning back against the tree Rocco forced his eyes into a half-mast position again.
‘That’s what we hope,’ said Vesta. ‘Except –‘
‘Py’s never been outside the city. He won’t know which way to go.’
Rocco’s stomach rolled over again. Why should he care about the exiled urvogel? Py was young. Didn’t everyone care for the young? Didn’t every species protect their offspring, keep them safe until they were grown?
‘Do you want me to tidy your feathers?’ Iggy asked.
Rocco shook his head.
‘It’ll help you feel better,’ said Iggy, dropping his own wings.
‘I’m okay,’ said Rocco, closing his eyes tightly. He didn’t want to hear any more about Py. His whole body felt as if it was about to break apart, dissolve right there into the ground, or maybe get sucked into the flicker that was hovering just behind him in the woods. He now knew that the flicker was Death.
His mother and Jafari were dead and he was next. They had died out of turn. He should have gone first.
‘It’s time,’ said Basalt, swooping down. He gave a low whistle. Overhead, the branches rustled. Basalt set off, walking, into the trees. Rocco followed with Vesta, Magma, and Iggy. The branches continued to rustle overhead. The white robes were following, although he never managed to see them. Not a single telltale wing flashed into sight.
Amongst the trees, boots clapped along the wall.
‘Air Marshals,’ whispered Vesta. ‘They’re always sticking their noses into whatever we’re doing. They have secret meetings. Why shouldn’t we be able to hang out on our own?’
They were very near the north wall – much closer than Rocco had realized. The silver trees were thick: thick enough that he could swing over the top and disappear into the trees beyond. He fingered the figs that he’d gleaned from the breakfast table that morning, and the pair of apples and hunk of cheese he´d taken from the supper meal. These items in his pockets were the start of a food cache. He was also going to need a knife and maybe a hide or blanket. The air was a good deal cooler in Upper Terrakesh.
Once he got free, he wasn’t going to be able to go home. The village was the first place the Air Marshals would look. Gogogamesh might be safe for a while, but it was also risky. Eventually someone there would be only too glad to turn him in.
Twigs crackled underfoot. After a period of walking, they came to the northwest corner tower. Basalt, the first to arrive, pulled the door open. Out of the trees flew one and then another white robe. They flew down in twos and threes; Rocco counted sixteen, plus the five of them.
The stairwell was dark except for the dull glow coming off the white robes’ wings. He didn’t much relish going down below the surface of the earth, but he couldn’t very well pull out now.
Whatever happened he couldn’t show that he was nervous or afraid. They were intelligent, top of the food chain by all appearances. Any sign of weakness would bring out their predator instincts.
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