Harpia’s dinner party
Rocco shoved his heels into the soft mud on the bank of Thrush Lake. The water was dark, and so was the sky.
He’d spent the evening playing flight tag with the white robes in Silver Woods. Not a single bird call had sounded, but the game had been loud. On their way back to Roosting Hall, he’d told Basalt he was going to stop in at the Bathhouse. While they carried on, he’d flown back to Thrush Lake and covered his wings.
Cirrus darted overhead. ‘Ready?’
Trailing several metres behind, Rocco rehearsed his strategy. He had to find out more about the spy birds, but first he had to figure out if he was being led into a trap. Was Cirrus going to lure him out of the city? She could try, but she couldn’t force him to fly.
Having crossed the water and the field of green, now grey in the light of the moon, they came to the densely clustered city buildings.
‘Where are we going?’ Rocco yelled.
Cirrus, if she heard him at all, seemed only to fly faster. A few urvogels criss-crossed the paths below. Air Marshals marched along the wall. No one even noticed Rocco now that his wings were dark. Was that her trick? Was Cirrus going to tell everyone that he’d been trying to escape? If so, he’d just say he’d fallen into the lake. That would explain his camouflaged wings.
Shooting up, Cirrus landed on a peak of the palace roof.
‘Isn’t someone going to spot us up here?” Rocco asked, as he came to rest beside the bird.
The moon was brighter on the rooftop, casting a glow off the tiles and Illuminating his bulky outline.
‘Stop moving around. This is serious stuff,’ snapped Cirrus. Her dark eyes glistened.
‘Okay!’ So it wasn’t just a game.
Rocco followed Cirrus over the side of the roof. A small outside platform, a balcony, stuck out from the top storey of the palace. The glass doors were open. Filmy drapes billowed out in the night breeze.
Cirrus landed on the balcony’s railing. A potted tree stood between the railing and the open doors. Lifting her wing, Cirrus pointed. Rocco flew down, coming to rest behind the tree.
Inside the room, Harpia was sitting at the head of an elaborately dressed table. She hadn’t worn a crown before, but now a tall spiky adornment sat prominently on her head.
Over the table hung two fearsome eagles, diving in full flight with their talons open. Big candles were stuck into a wreath above the eagles, as if they were diving from a nest. Candlelight glistened over gold-trimmed dishes and water-filled globes of flowers.
Two Air Marshals, with gold epaulettes and shiny buttons, were seated on the far side of the table, facing the balcony. One was wearing the dull green colours of Gabbro, another urvogel city. He’d been walking around Avian Plaza earlier that day.
Another Air Marshal sat at the foot of the long table, opposite Harpia. His red and black flying jacket was decorated with flashy pins and coloured ribbons.
‘We’re just in time,’ Cirrus whispered.
Six gold robes, wearing embroidered sashes, were also seated. Some had feathery collars. Two wore crowns, although neither was as tall or as grand as Harpia’s.
‘What’s going on?’ Rocco asked.
Three minionatros entered the room carrying trays with small dishes containing a yellow jelly substance. Placing a dish at each plate, they exited the room.
The Air Marshal at the foot of the table retreated out of view and returned with a large sack. Murmurs of pleasure passed around the table as the Air Marshal dropped the sack on his chair, opened it and drew out a large pair of wings.
What were they doing with urvogel wings, here at a dinner party? Something nasty no doubt. Why else would they hide wings in a sack?
The Air Marshal flipped the wings on the table. The tips of the wings were dark.
‘Marvellous,’ said Harpia, fingering the string of blue rubies at her throat. Her naked shoulders shone in the flickering light. Her dark wings, draped to the floor, began to quiver.
She lifted a glass of smoky liquid. The dinner guests raised their glasses, all the while staring at the wings in the centre of the table.
‘To – what’s his name –’ said Harpia.
‘Cristobalite.’ The Air Marshal smiled.
Rocco turned. What’s going on, he was about to ask. Cirrus motioned with her beak. ‘Just watch.’
Harpia’s merry voice rang out. ‘Thank you, Air Commodore. To Cristobalite, then. May your wings be put to the best possible use. For that, we are indebted.’
Clink. Clink. A murmur of affirmatives travelled around the table. The Air Marshal – or rather the Air Commodore – began hacking the wings into pieces. Each segment was passed along. Two to the left, two to the right, another few pieces to the left and so on.
‘My word… it has a tangy ferment, but still so succulent and fresh,’ announced a gold robe. He sniffed and ripped away some feathers, biting into the sparse flesh. The Gabbroan’s greedy-looking canine teeth flashed into view as his jowls pulled back.
Awful slurping noises erupted as Harpia’s guests dipped the bone pieces in the yellow jelly. The sound of crunching filled the room.
‘Why’d you make me come here?’ Rocco turned angrily. Cirrus only nodded again at the room.
The dinner guests’ shoulders were hunched forward over their plates. Their tongues flicked over their teeth, now stained with blood. Fat, mixed with saliva or jelly, glistened on their chins. A gold robe with a greasy stain running down her clothes snarled at the urvogel seated next to her. An angry exchange of words ensued.
They were crazed, breaking the bones into smaller and smaller pieces while teasing the marrow with their tongues.
The door opened. Two new minionatros, a male and a female, entered the room. The male was taller with broad shoulders but instead of having a topknot, his hair hung loosely around his shoulders. The two strode around the table, picking up the discarded feathers and bits of bones.
The female minionatro moved as if she were sleepwalking. The male kept moving in, and then pulling away as if he wasn’t quite sure of himself. He bent over to pick up a glass. As he stood up again, a large wet stain on his back came into view. His hand came up. He was pushing back his hair. Above his forehead a distinct white forelock stood out.
Cristobalite? Was he really picking up the remains of his wings?
‘See how we rave over your bones.’ Harpia grandly swung her arms.
She, Harpia, knew it was him.
The glass that Cristobalite had been holding clanged onto the table, hitting a dinner plate before it bounced to the floor. Cristobalite disappeared under the table. Standing up again, his hands shook as he laid the glass on his tray of dirty dishes.
‘Our enthusiasm is deep, much deeper than your feeble commitment to my reforms. But move along now, your efforts as a minionatro are clumsy. A bit of practice and perhaps you’ll begin to measure up.’ Harpia waved him away.
Cristobalite and the female minionatro fled the room. Walking leisurely, as if he had all the time in the world, the Air Commodore followed them out. He returned carrying a second sack, which again he dropped on his chair. Another pair of urvogel wings was drawn out. As he had done before, the Air Commodore hacked the wings into pieces and passed them around.
Harpia and the others had taken on a glow. A dark luminescence seeped out from under their skin. Their wings began to flap, at first jerkily as if in spasm, but then forcefully, with a loud clicking.
Their wings appeared to be growing larger and more brilliant. Instead of holding their light as they did at twilight, they pulsated bright and dim.
‘They’re demons from the underworld!’ said Rocco.
‘Watch. They’re about to grow mad.’
The Archurvogel’s wings had become engorged; they were twice the size they’d been only moments ago. Harpia got up, strode to a mirror mounted above the fireplace, and commenced preening herself. She turned back and forth, smiling into her own eyes, which were large and moist. Her wings clicked noisily.
The Air Commodore got up. His wings flapped uncontrollably, causing him to lurch and twitch as he moved between the wall and table. Arriving at the fireplace, his head loomed large, and his limbs appeared elongated in the firelight. He stooped before Harpia, clasping his hands like a praying mantis.
The Air Commodore said something. Harpia laughed. After a moment of talking they returned to their seats, talking more loudly than ever but in words that didn’t make any sense. Everything was a jumble, sounds strung together without any meaning at all.
‘What’s happening to them?’ asked Rocco.
‘I’m not quite sure,’ said Cirrus. ‘It could be madness. I’ve heard of such head diseases taking hold when animals eat themselves. Or perhaps you are right, it is something aided by the underworld.’
‘They’re vile. Did you see? Harpia ate Cristobalite’s wings. They all did!’
‘Pipe down,’ hissed Cirrus. ‘You need to keep your wits about you, especially now. Look. Harpia’s about to discuss you.’
The Alchemist, wearing a curious black and white striped cloak, had entered the room. He hung back, standing like a simpering fool, one hand petting the other.
Harpia said something that didn’t make any sense. The Alchemist bowed, and approached the table.
‘The mudrock’s wings are excellent, strong and lean!’ said the Alchemist. ‘They are as blue as the sky and as fit as the day he hatched, only we know he didn’t hatch. Forgive me, it’s nerves that force my tongue into such a twitter. I’ve made extensive personal observations today in Avian Plaza. His wings are ripe for harvest. It will be a rare raw delicacy, I assure you.’
Cirrus was right. The Alchemist was talking about him.
Rocco leaned forward and retched into the potted plant. A bitter aftertaste filled his mouth. He spat quietly, shoulders heaving as another stream of puke ejected into the top of the pot.
Wiping his mouth, he leaned forward. One of the gold robes was saying something that sounded like words.
‘Harpia has promised us a party on the eve of the Games that we shall never forget. The blood of a mammal is especially warm and flavourful. It gets the blood rushing. Oh, it does!’ The gold robe rubbed her hands together. ‘Blue wing’s offering is best served cold, is it not, my queen?’
Harpia’s eyes lolled back in her head. She showed her teeth and uttered another string of nonsense. She waved the Alchemist away. With a stiff bow he trundled out.
‘The mudrock’s father, yes. Milos, I hear,’ said the gold robe to Harpia. ‘We don’t know his true identity, but how fitting that you should finally see justice. It’s a long time coming.’
‘She’s paying you back,’ whispered Cirrus.
‘She’s evil,’ said Rocco. ‘My father fled because she was going to kill him.’
‘You now have the proof of your eyes and ears,’ said Cirrus. ‘Harpia plans to eat your wings.’
‘Why are you showing me this anyway?’ asked Rocco. Birds, even those that talked, didn’t go around doing favours for complete strangers.
‘This information is a gift, an ugly gift I readily concede, but a gift nonetheless. I’m sorry you had to see it, but it is better to know than to be kept in the dark, is it not? More to the point, I need something in return.’
Before Cirrus had time to answer, Cristobalite and the female minionatro strode in again. They carried large trays filled with ravens, some still twitching, which they laid on the table by the Air Commodore.
A second pair of minionatros carried in two more trays, similarly laden with black birds. Walking purposefully, they laid their trays at Harpia’s end of the table. Harpia picked up a bird. She held it in her hand, watching as the minionatros retreated.
As soon as the door closed, Harpia ripped off a wing and shoved it into her mouth. A hush had fallen over the table. The guests looked at Harpia as if they might devour her, there was such lust in their eyes.
Rocco stopped breathing. He couldn’t take any more. His eyes might as well be on fire, all the vile images that had passed into his head. He might never get them out. Lifting a leg over the railing, he forced his body up and over the side. The wind rushed into his ears as he fell. How far would he fall before waking up?
His wings yanked open. Up he flew. It wasn’t a dream, it was real. Another wave of nausea came over him as he soared past the railing. Cirrus saw him. He continued on, up to the rooftop where they’d been sitting before. He fell on the tiles, his chest pumping hard as he sucked the air.
The raven’s feet clacked over the sloped roof. For the first time he could see that Cirrus herself was shaken. Her wings were rumpled and she kept bobbing her beak.
He never would have imagined that he had anything in common with a raven. But after everything he’d just seen, he now knew they shared an enemy – Harpia.
‘What is it you want me to do?’ asked Rocco.
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