Halfway to the bottom Rocco stopped. He sniffed. Death had followed him into the stairwell of the corner tower. He jerked around. Only Magma and Vesta were behind him.
‘I – I thought I heard something,’ said Rocco.
At the bottom of the stairwell, they passed through an arch that led to a large room, walled with dank-smelling stones. The white robes hurriedly lit torches on the wall and pulled musical instruments out of a row of barrels standing in a corner.
They began to play. The music was sad and reckless, circling the hollow space like a song bird after the rain.
‘What sort of place is this?’ asked Rocco.
‘We’re in the catacombs. They run everywhere under the city. Urvogels used to live down here, before the fortress wall was built,’ said Basalt, taking a flute from Iggy. He paused to blow a note before continuing. ‘It’s a perfect place to play our music, tell our stories and rhyming tales. The blues and golds don’t like our stuff, but down here we can do as we please.’
Magma and Vesta were seated on the floor, holding gourds: drums of some kind.
Iggy offered Rocco a ukelat or a set of bells. Rocco took the ukelat. It was larger than the one he had at home, but it was made the same way, a hollowed-out gourd with strings stretched across a hole.
‘Won’t we get in trouble down here?’ he asked as he fingered the strings.
‘What for?’ Iggy asked.
‘I don’t know, but it feels so out of the way and – and we didn’t want the Air Marshals to see us.’ It sounded kind of feeble but there were so many rules, petty rules as it turned out, that he had to ask.
‘It’s only solitary stuff that’s forbidden,’ said Iggy. ‘We’re all together down here.’
Iggy sauntered back to the row of barrels where he resumed his job of handing out musical instruments. Rocco sat down between Vesta and another white robe, a female with jewelled clips on the shoulders of her wings.
Vesta gave Rocco a quick nod. The white robe on his other side was playing a flute. Rocco began to strum, letting the music carry him into the treetops, which he could still see with his eyes closed. The wind sounded like rushing water, free without any care except getting from one place to another. That would be him soon.
Soon they were all playing, at first just random strains, but then all together in a tide of music that lapped up in waves of an overflowing river. Low and throbbing the music fell, before rising in sweeps. For one brief moment Terrakesh was grand again.
Rocco’s eyes filled with tears. He’d been crying on and off since yesterday. He didn’t seem able to stop. The white robes were so beautiful, focussed on pulling each harmony to life and sitting with their wings resting behind them so nicely on the floor.
He strummed the chords, not knowing the tune but managing more or less to keep the rhythm.
Through the melody came another sound, of feet shuffling out of tune.
A voice shouted.
The music stopped. Everyone turned just as two Air Marshals strode into the room. One was tall and the other short – a slanted pair as they stood side-by-side.
‘What’s this?’ The tall Air Marshal had a face like a goshawk, particularly his nose, which was bony and stuck out rather prominently from his face.
Had they been expecting Air Marshals to check in on them? It didn’t seem so. Mild surprise had surfaced in the white robes’ faces.
The Air Marshals’ frames and plumed helmets cast long shadows on the torch-lit walls.
‘We’re just playing,’ offered a white robe with gold rings in her ears.
The tall Air Marshal marched over, staring down with inordinate interest at their musical instruments. The white robe beside Rocco laid her flute on the floor. Others did the same. Perhaps it was some sort of inspection, thought Rocco.
The tall Air Marshal began to pace around the circle. The short one strode over to the wall. Standing beneath a torch, he pulled out a book and began reading in the dim light.
The tall Air Marshal stopped behind the white robe with gold earrings. ‘Any blue robes down here?’
‘No.’ Basalt’s voice was clear as he stood up.
Flashing his beady eyes, the Air Marshal continued looking around the circle. ‘No gold robes, either, I suppose.’
The short Air Marshal had been flipping pages noisily, as if trying to find something of particular interest in his book. Clearing his throat, he read aloud. ‘Says here, where two or three are gathered together, let us rejoice in song and voice.’
‘Try Article fourteen.’ The tall Air Marshal resumed walking, stopping behind a white robe with a feathered necklace around his neck, holding a set of bells. Bending over, the Air Marshall grabbed the bells and tossed them on the floor in the middle of the circle.
Rocco, sitting cross-legged, examined his shoes. Was there something wrong with the bells? Had the white robe stolen them?
‘We’re not doing anything wrong.’ Basalt’s voice had a worried edge.
‘Ah, here it is!’ the short Air Marshal called over. ‘All acts of enjoyment, reading, singing, or the playing of instruments shall include the guiding presence of at least one fully fledged urvogel.’
Walking over, the tall Air Marshal stuck a bony finger in Basalt’s chest. ‘You fully fledged?’
‘Anyone else here fully fledged?’ The Air Marshal whirled around.
‘Course we’re not fledged. We’d be wearing blue robes. Can’t he see?’ the white robe beside Rocco whispered.
The Air Marshal’s head jerked up. ‘What did you say?’
The white robe’s voice was barely audible. ‘There’s nothing wrong with white robes wanting to pass time together. We do it at night in Roosting Hall. There aren’t even minionatros around to watch us.’
‘But you’re awake now, aren’t you?’ The Air Marshal’s nostrils flared, making him look even more like a goshawk as he marched over. ‘White robes can’t be trusted to do things properly. You’re down here, rollicking around and no doubt conjuring up all kinds of wild ideas and weedy notions.’
‘Can’t we just have fun?’ asked another white robe from across the circle.
Ignoring the remark, the Air Marshal, still standing in front of the white robe beside Rocco, pulled out a small black book.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked, pen poised over the page.
‘Feldie – I mean Feldspar.’
The Air Marshal scribbled. ‘What’s that?’ he said, pointing.
‘A flute. I made it myself – from the wing of a griffon vulture.’
The Air Marshal scribbled again. Ripping the page out of the book he handed it to Feldspar. As he was about to move to the next white robe he lifted the heel of his boot and crushed the flute.
Rocco pulled his wings down. Surely they’d noticed him already; he stood out like a sore thumb.
With a single long step, the Air Marshal moved to the white robe on the other side of Feldspar. She’d been playing a small harp, which she now laid on the floor in front of her.
The same questions were asked. The tall Air Marshal scribbled again. Tearing the page out of his book, he was about to hand it to the white robe when Basalt leaned in and scooped the harp off the floor.
‘There’s no reason to smash it,’ said Basalt defiantly.
Reaching over the white robe’s head, the tall Air Marshal seized the flute from Basalt’s hands. Moving again to the middle of the circle, the Air Marshal dropped the instrument. All eyes were on his boot as the heel came down. The harp lay in pieces.
Eventually they were going to get to him, thought Rocco. They would say something cruel, embarrass him in front of everyone, get them going on the game of mockery that Harpia had started yesterday.
‘No one told us we weren’t allowed to play music together,’ said Vesta.
The Air Marshal strode over. ‘You’re Vesta, right?’
‘You’ve just been made a master at akiva-du?’
‘All that practising and exams, and you can’t even find your way to the Book Treasury? Harpia’s Law is there for every one of you to read. There’s always a Reading Partner on duty. They’re very skilled at taking you through the passages, you only have to ask.’
Vesta’s face turned red.
‘And your senior here.’ The Air Marshal gestured at Basalt. ‘It’s his job to keep you updated on any improvements to Harpia’s Law. Maybe you should put in a complaint.’
Basalt looked as if he wanted to say something. His mouth was open, but his neck and brow were full of sweat.
Rocco peeked over at the paper in Feldspar’s hand. It was folded in such a way that he couldn’t read the words.
Meanwhile the short Air Marshal had produced his own little black book. Starting at the other end of the circle he was writing out his own charges. A trail of crushed instruments lay scattered on the floor behind him.
One by one the Air Marshals progressed around the circle, asking a few questions and then handing each white robe a scrap of paper. Finally it was Vesta’s turn.
‘Where’d you get the gourd?’ asked the tall Air Marshal.
‘I found it in the rubbish at the back of Singhurvogel Hall,’ said Vesta. ‘The cooks threw it out.’
The Air Marshal continued with his list of questions. Rocco stopped watching when he handed Vesta the piece of paper. The drum was crushed and then pushed with the toe of the Air Marshal’s boot into the loose pile in the middle of the floor.
‘I’m Rocco.’ He refused to look up, choosing instead to address the boots – both pairs, since both Air Marshals were now standing in front of him.
‘You’re lucky you weren’t killed as a bit of entertainment out on the palace steps yesterday.’ The toes of the boots turned, the calm before the storm of ridiculing words that was about to rain down. Rocco stiffened his back.
The short Air Marshal cleared his throat.
‘What is it?’
‘I don’t know if we can charge him. He’s not a citizen.’
The boots clacked away. A moment later, they returned, taking up their former spot in front of Rocco.
‘Normally you’d be arrested and held as an interloper.’ It was the tall Air Marshal speaking; Rocco didn’t have to look up. He already knew the voice. ‘But you’re here at the pleasure of Harpia. She can deal with you at the Air Games!’
A long pause. If they were expecting him to say something, or maybe spit like he had yesterday – he wasn’t going to.
‘You’re a mammal. Closer to a dog, or a hyena.’
Rocco clenched his limbs.
The boot, the scruffy one belonging to the taller Air Marshal, crushed the ukelat. A sigh, a stifled choke went up, likely from the white robe who had made it.
‘Make sure you clean up this mess.’
The room was silent as the Air Marshals’ boots clapped back into the stairwell. A long moment passed, until finally the door at the top thudded shut.
The white robe with the gold earrings began to sob. Others began to cry as well. Everyone else began talking at once.
‘What are we going to do?’
‘Category A! Everyone’s got a Category A!’ said another.
‘We’ll have to stand trial at the next full moon. Only another month of being able to fly!’
‘We have to do something!’ said Iggy. ‘I’m not losing my wings!’
Vesta had been walking around examining the scraps of paper.
‘They’re all the same,’ she said, looking sideways at Basalt. ‘They mean to turn us all into minionatros.’
‘Why doesn’t Belarica come back? Why doesn’t she save us?’ someone shouted.
So they knew about Belarica, thought Rocco, even though they were all obviously too young to remember her. Basalt might have been born or hatched then, but he wouldn’t have been more than two or three years old at the time of the Great War.
A crate scraped across the floor. Basalt sat down on top of it.
Everyone stopped talking.
‘I was just at a meeting with Dolerite’s troupe,’ said Basalt. ‘A flock of spy birds, cranes, arrived last night. Belarica has many supporters in Shale as well as among the reds, blues and golds of the Krakatoan court. The Archurvogel of Shale has given Belarica refuge, but Shale is a small colony, less than half the size of Krakatoan. The Archurvogel there doesn’t want to get into a war with Krakatoan.’
‘Why are you telling us this? It doesn’t help,’ said Magma. The red patch on his throat had flared up.
Basalt simply continued. ‘Harpia knows all the gossip. Many of the minionatros are loyal to her. They have to be. Harpia’s afraid of an uprising. That’s why she’s handing out so many charges lately; she’s trying to beat us into submission.’
‘So we’re basically doomed,’ said Magma.
Basalt fingered the scrap of paper in his hand. ‘I’d rather die fighting than let the Air Marshals cut my wings.’
‘Me too! Oh Basalt, what are we going to do?’ said Iggy.
‘I have a plan.’ Basalt’s voice was deadly serious. He paused, looking around the circle. ‘We need a troupe to fly to Shale, and bring Belarica back.’
‘But none of us can survive out there!’ exclaimed Feldspar. ‘We’re not trained like Air Marshals.’
‘I’ll come,’ said Vesta.
Basalt nodded. ‘Anyone else?’
‘Magma, we have to go, too. We’re a troupe already, at least we used to be, before – before we lost Py.’ Iggy tugged Magma’s hands, trying to make him stand up. .
‘There’s five in a troupe, but it takes twenty to make a cohort,’ said Basalt. ‘That’s the minimum number of urvogels that can fly out safely together. It takes years of practice, and of going a little farther each time. But if we take enough amber venom with us, and if we stay together, we might have a chance.’
‘Just the thought of it makes me sick,’ said Feldspar. Her face, even her hands, were ashen white.
‘Harpia’s not going to let you go,’ said the white robe with the feather necklace. ‘She’ll send warriors after you, lots of them.’
‘I know,’ said Basalt. ‘But the Badlands are vast. I’ve been looking at the wall map in the Book Treasury. There’s an endless number of mountains and hills. They can’t search every gully and crevice. Once we get over the worst of our separation sickness we’ll fly to Shale and tell Belarica everything that’s been going on. Maybe the Archurvogel of Shale will have a change of heart, especially if she knows there’s lots of Krakatoans who are willing to fight for Belarica.’
‘Anyone else willing to come?’ asked Vesta.
Rocco pulled his wings up. He’d felt a draught. He was beginning to shiver again.
‘Rocco, what about you?’ asked Basalt. ‘If you come, at least we’ll be five instead of four. That will increase our chances of making it.’
Rocco shook his head. His limbs were weak. Death was all around him, black and sucking at his last bits of strength. How would it take him? Suffocation? Strangulation? Or a nice clean cut to the throat?
‘Maybe you won’t even get sick,’ said Basalt.
‘I – I don’t think so,’ said Rocco, staring at the broken pieces of the ukelat on the floor. They might talk nicely to him now because they wanted him to come. But as soon as something went wrong – if they got lost, or ran out of food – they’d turn on him. He’d be a punching bag, someone to blame for any amount of things.
‘Why? Why won’t you come?’ asked Iggy. ‘We can look for Py while we’re out there.’
Rocco shook his head. They loved each other, that much was clear. But the circle was closed after that. First sign of trouble, they’d be after him like a mob of birds.
‘Don’t you want to get free?’ asked Vesta.
‘Harpia ordered the Air Marshals to kill me if I tried.’ It was a perfectly solid reason, thought Rocco, looking directly into Vesta’s face. Disappointment flashed into her eyes. For the briefest of seconds he felt bad.
Magma made a disgusted sound with his lips. ‘He’s a mudrock. He’s used to looking after himself.’
‘It’s not that,’ said Rocco, glancing sideways at their slender wings, many of them trembling.
‘Don’t make him,’ said Feldspar.
‘No one’s going to make him,’ said Basalt. ‘I was just asking.’
They were elegant, like the ground-covering flower Wintersweet. Pretty white petals on the outside, but filled with lethal toxins underneath. The villagers used the milky sap on the tips of their arrows.
The discussion moved on. Despite more pleading, none of the other white robes would agree to go with Basalt, Vesta and Iggy. Magma said he’d think about it. Clutching their scraps of paper the white robes started getting up and disappearing into the stairwell. Rocco followed. Once outside, the white robes flew into the darkened trees.
What was he going to say if Basalt asked him again? Rocco waited by the dark hole of the door. Death had followed him out.
He was rotten inside. He’d always known it. That’s why there was only one of him. Nature hadn’t permitted any more. He was even more gnarly and twisted, refusing to die when it was his turn. Harpia had decreed it. Not that she was the queen of everything, but the Air Marshals should have killed him, and left his mother and Jafari alone.
Fog tendrils, roiling up from the ground, grasped at his feet.
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