Panting heavily, Rocco zoomed after Magma. At least two hundred white robes were gathered in Avian Plaza, practising for the Air Games. Squadrons of various sizes and formations were flying back and forth, often with colourful streamers in tow. Large groups of spectators were gathered on the palace steps.
Up Magma flew, somersaulting over Rocco’s head. A moment later he reappeared, slamming his feet against Rocco’s chest before spinning away in a dizzying whirl of wings and robes.
Flight tag, the game the white robes had been playing yesterday in Silver Woods, was the easier, no-rules, version of akiva-du. Before taking off, Magma had told Rocco the basics. The ‘game crèche’ or territory was marked with flags on poles staked around the outer edge of the buildings on Avian Plaza.
Two to four competitors would catapult around the crèche, bouncing off any vertical or horizontal surface, including each other.
Points were gained by nicking an opponent’s shoulder or upper torso with the tip of a sword. A certain number of complete body spins or flips were required; he’d lost track of how many. Points were lost by leaving the crèche, hovering too long, or touching the ground more than twice during a game. The winner was the first person or pair to achieve twenty-one points.
Rocco raced ahead, his eyes fixed on Magma. So what if he could barely manage the chase part of the game. He was leaving tomorrow night, he’d already decided. He would escape into the trees north of Silver Woods, and disappear into the Badlands, the forest going up the mountainside. All he had to do in the meantime was gather up more food, and decide the best hour for getting over the wall.
Knowing how to defend himself with a sword wasn’t a bad idea either. Perhaps, if he could manage it undetected, he would steal a sword.
He would have preferred escaping to Lower Terrakesh, but the land was flat, and there was very little to eat this time of year. If what Basalt said was true, Upper Terrakesh offered many more places to hide. There was also bound to be fruit, given all the trees.
The Book Treasury stood at the far end of Avian Plaza. The Bell tower, suspended over a broad arch, stood at the entrance to the grounds and building beyond. He had to get in there and examine the wall map Basalt had mentioned last night. How big was Upper Terrakesh anyway?
His wings, large and lumbering, would have enabled him to beat Magma over a long distance. But here, the turns were short and he was always dodging up or down, moving out of the way of other white robes.
Magma had just disappeared behind the Bell tower. As Rocco rounded the corner, Magma’s feet landed on his shoulders. He flapped hard, trying to regain his elevation. The bell began to toll. The gong was loud, rocking his entire body.
Coming out again to Avian Plaza, Rocco scanned the crowd. On the ground below, small urvogels, about three or four years old, were learning the twelve positions of akiva-du. He’d been watching them earlier. Vesta and Basalt, swords flashing in the sun, were fighting above the fountain. No Magma.
A prick hit his shoulder.
‘Point.’ Magma smirked.
Rocco thrust his sword. His blade caught air. So what if Magma, now only a few wing strides ahead, wheeled back and got off an easy point. Rocco didn’t have any real stake in the match, or anything else going on in Krakatoan.
Passing low over the spectators, Rocco pursued Magma, counting the sun bells as they clanged loudly. Eleven.
Down below, the Alchemist waved from the palace steps. Why didn’t he just push off? Rocco had only just arrived in Avian Plaza when the Alchemist had turned up.
‘All settled in?’ the Alchemist had asked.
‘It’s important to keep those wings strong and agile.’ The Alchemist’s eyes passed closely over his wings.
The Alchemist had asked a few other questions. Are you eating? Sleeping? Finding some new friends? Rocco nodded or said yes, anything to get the Alchemist moving on his way again. But he didn’t move. He called Magma over.
‘Have a couple of rounds with the mudrock,’ the Alchemist said.
‘But I’ve got my own squadron practice,’ Magma replied.
‘That can wait – up, up now, get the mudrock moving. Harpia wants a report on his wing stride.’
Whatever Harpia was up to, it didn’t matter. In a few hours he’d be gone.
Around and around, Rocco chased Magma, dodging white robes and narrowly missing several swinging blades. Finally Magma landed. He gestured Rocco down.
‘I’ll show you a few basic moves,’ said Magma.
‘You have to lead with your right foot and also your right hand. Keep the other foot back, like this.’ Magma posed. It looked easy enough.
Raising his blade, Magma skipped forward while Rocco fell back. They reversed the dance.
Soon the bell was chiming twelve. In a single fluid sweep, the white robes swooped west.
‘Where’s everyone going?’ asked Rocco.
‘Food,’ Basalt called over Rocco’s head.
Rocco joined Basalt in the air. Basalt hadn’t said anything that morning about the white robes getting charged or wanting to escape. He’d said very little since they’d left the clatch. Now as they flew side by side over the city buildings and across the green field, he said nothing at all. Not to Rocco, or to his friends.
They landed on the portico of Singhurvogel Hall. Located in the northwestern quadrant of the city, the honey coloured building was surrounded by the rolling field of short cropped grass.
They ate in silence. Ten minutes later, Basalt was gone. A half hour later, Rocco followed Vesta, Magma and Iggy outside. The sun was hot as they walked along the side of the building.
‘Basalt said we should carry on doing things normally,’ said Vesta. ‘So – so we don’t attract attention.’
So they hadn’t changed their minds, or lost their nerve overnight, thought Rocco as he followed them up. Instead of flying back to Avian Plaza, they continued north to the back of Singhurvogel Hall and over Thrush Lake. A large wooden raft appeared out in the middle. One by one they landed.
Vesta pulled a tin from her pocket. Opening the lid she hooked a worm on the end of a fishing line that was already lodged in a corner of the raft. Ankle bangles jangling non-stop, she sat down and pulled a small leather-bound book out of her robe.
Iggy flopped down on his stomach on a corner of the raft. Reaching his arms out, he stroked the water. ‘Come, froggy, come.’
Magma had pulled a sack out from under his robe. Opening the top, he dropped the contents, an assortment of bones, onto the raft. He began to stack them, not sloppily, but precisely as if each piece was of critical importance.
‘What is it?’ Rocco asked.
‘I’m just seeing how high I can make it,’ said Magma.
‘What are they?’ Rocco asked.
‘Possum. Rat. Rabbit. Mostly bird.’
So they were to spend the afternoon hanging out on the raft? Is this what they always did? It might prove useful, thought Rocco, lying back so that he was propped up on his elbows. Across the distance, beyond the trees of Silver Woods, Air Marshals were walking along the north wall. He’d been watching the Air Marshals steadily since he’d arrived. One pair made laps around the entire wall. Other pairs stayed on a designated side. Ten Air Marshals on any given shift.
‘Look,’ said Vesta, holding up a flattened flower stem that she had just pulled out of her book. ‘The leaves grow perfectly even. One here, and another one there.’
‘I thought books were illegal,’ said Rocco.
‘There’s not a scratch inside.’ To prove the point, Vesta opened the pages, which fanned out revealing blank sheets with leaves and flowers pressed in between.
The bell clanged two. A pair of Air Marshals, moving black dots, had just landed on the walkway of the east wall. Rocco watched as they walked along before disappearing into the northeast corner tower. On the north side wall, two Air Marshals had just stepped behind the trees overhanging the walkway.
‘Can I ask you something?’ Vesta glanced up from her book.
‘We’re not like you –’
What was she going to say? Her face was tense.
‘What’s it like to have a mother?’
‘Air Marshals killed my mother.’
‘We heard.’ Vesta inserted the flower stem into her book. ‘Does it hurt? In here?’ She touched her chest.
‘Us too,’ she said. ‘Py’s gone.’
Iggy made a sniffling noise.
‘Maybe you can find him,’ said Rocco glancing at the dense trees going up the side of the mountain.
‘We’re planning on it,’ said Vesta.
‘Where’s your mother?’ asked Rocco. It sounded a tad rude, but Vesta had brought up the topic. She couldn’t very well get mad at him.
‘Don’t have one.’
‘How’d you get here then?’ asked Rocco.
‘We’re urvogel. The queen goes into the hatchery and lays her eggs in a pool of water. She decides when. There’s a big celebration afterward. But she’s not involved in keeping the water at the right temperature. Minionatros do that.’
‘Harpia’s your mother?’
That seemed pretty impossible. How could one urvogel give birth to or lay enough eggs to populate a whole colony?
‘It’s not like that. We’re more like spores shed from a tree. Once we hit the ground, that’s sort of like being hatched. The rest is up to us.’
‘I saw a pig giving birth once. Cook let me.’ Magma laid a bird’s skull on the top of his stack of bones.
‘Does it hurt? Coming out of a mammal?’ asked Vesta.
‘No one remembers that. We’re too small!’
‘About this big.’ Rocco held up his forearm.
Vesta nodded. ‘Our birth eggs are half that size. Want to see part of my shell?’ Vesta pulled a chain around her neck. A medallion dangled into view.
Scooting over, Rocco took the smooth rock-like stone in his hand.
‘It’s frozen, inside amber resin,’ said Vesta.
The flecked shell was no bigger than the tip of his finger. ‘It looks like a bird’s egg,’ said Rocco.
‘It’s interesting, how things grow,’ said Vesta dropping the chain back inside the top of her tunic.
‘I guess Harpia’s not worried about being invaded,’ said Rocco, turning his attention back to the wall. ‘There aren’t any guards on patrol.’
Vesta’s and Magma’s heads bobbed up.
‘They’re inside for the shift change.’ Magma turned back to his collection of bones.
‘Twenty-four hours. I couldn’t work that long, not without having a sleep,’ said Rocco, glancing over at Vesta’s fishing line. She was trying to hook a fish. He was trying to hook some information.
‘They always change the guards at two,’ said Vesta. ‘Two sun bells and two moon bells. Listen, there’s a special horn that blows right after the new guards take their place. They’re testing the equipment.’
Rocco’s ears began to buzz. Maybe, just maybe, he’d figured out the best hour for his escape. There would be an exchange of information before the new guards took over their posts. That would take time.
‘You never said why your wings are blue,’ said Iggy, pulling his head up from the side of the raft.
‘I don’t know why,’ said Rocco. ‘They just are.’
‘Your wings are pretty,’ said Iggy. ‘Why won’t you come? I wish you would. We all do.’
Rocco fastened his gaze on a water bird some distance away. He couldn’t bear to see the sadness brimming up in Iggy’s eyes.
‘I’ll do anything you ask,’ continued Iggy, sitting up straight. ‘I’ll fetch your food and I’ll – I’ll clean your feathers in the morning. You won’t even have to ask.’
Iggy pulled his sleeve across his face. ‘We’re going to die out there! I just know it!’ said Iggy springing to his feet.
‘I’ve been thinking about that, too,’ said Magma. ‘Once we leave, we won’t ever be able to come back to Krakatoan.’
Their faces were worn, all three of them, Rocco had noticed earlier. They had dark circles under their eyes.
Reaching into his pocket Iggy pulled out three lychee pods, still attached to their stems. ‘Here. You can have these,’ he said, passing the pods to Rocco.
Spreading his wings, Iggy leapt from the raft. ‘I’m going to find Basalt,’ he called over his shoulder.
‘Where is Basalt?’ Magma asked.
‘He’s meeting with Dolerite, trying to get some blue robes to come with us. So far no one wants to come.’
* * *
Vesta and Magma remained on the raft all afternoon. Then, saying they had something important to do and that they’d meet up with him later, they flew off.
Rocco now knew the hour of his escape. Two moon bells. The guards had stayed inside the corner tower for almost half an hour before one pair came marching out. That was more than enough time to scale the wall and disappear. He would be ten or even fifteen kilometers away by the time they came out.
He tilted his face to the sun. These were the same hot rays that fell on the Ebo River.
Was he really never going to see his mother or Jafari again? He swallowed hard.
The clouds were too few and too far away to give him any comfort. He needed the rustling of the tree leaves. He could fly over to Silver Woods, but Death didn’t seem as strong or cloying out on the water. It was always with him though, sitting behind his eyes, or hovering just out of sight over his shoulder.
Death was bold. It was sapping out his strength. His limbs were weak. One day soon Death would suck out his very life.
‘You there,’ said a voice.
Rocco rolled over.
‘Hey, blue wing. I’m talking to you.’
A breeze was blowing through a stand of water reeds. In the middle of the reeds, a raven was perched on a stump sticking out of the water.
Rocco sputtered. ‘Y-you talking to me?’
‘Course I’m talking to you.’ The raven bobbed its beak. ‘Do you see anyone else out here?’
Rocco scanned the water. Was Death playing tricks on him, or had he fallen into a dream?
‘You some kind of spy bird?’ he heard himself say.
‘If I were a spy do you think I’d admit it?’
‘Probably not.’ Rocco pulled a feather from his underwing. He must be awake, he thought. His flesh had twitched.
‘What do you take me for, a swallow?’ said the bird.
‘They’re… ahem, not exactly the sharpest wing in the sky.’
‘What d’you want anyway?’ asked Rocco. Whether by some trickery or illusion, he was talking to a bird. He’d keep talking until the dream turned back into reality.
‘Direct like a crow, and yet your wings are blue,’ said the raven, flapping her wings. Yes, he was sure, the bird’s voice was raspy but she was definitely more of a she than a he.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ asked Rocco.
‘It means whatever you want it to mean.’
Rocco eyed the bird.
‘I’m Cirrus, and I guess there’s no hiding the fact that you’re Rocco, the mudrock with wings. I’ve been trying to talk to you for days. Thought you were never going to leave that gaggle of urvogels.’
Rocco peered closely. ‘How do you know my name?’
Cirrus’ shoulders began to shake. ‘Everyone talks. That’s all some birds do. Talk, talk, talk. Rocco. Rocco. Rocco. Don’t you hear them? I guess not. Urvogels and humans aren’t tuned into anything but their own chatter.’
Her tone became sombre. ‘I’ve a proposal. You don’t know it yet but you need my help. There’s something you can do for me too. It’s urgent.’
‘Why should I believe you?’ asked Rocco. If he was dreaming, the scenes were terribly vivid. Hopefully he could remember everything afterwards, when he woke up, so he could sort it all out.
Cirrus was silent for a moment. ‘Since I’m the one who’s asking, I’ll have to trust you first. I have something to show you tonight. Something important. After that you can judge for yourself.’ Her face was hard to read. ‘Okay?’
‘Why don’t you just tell me what it is?’
‘You just said you’ve no reason to believe me.’
The raven had a point.
‘Meet me in the silver trees as soon as it’s dark. And for goodness sake cover up those gaudy screaming feathers. We don’t need Air Marshals on our tail.’
Maybe Cirrus could tell him about spy birds. Whether she was one or not, it didn’t really matter. He’d just get her talking the way he’d gotten the white robes to tell him about the Air Marshals. All he needed was a conversation starter, a question or statement.
‘Okay,’ he said.
Cirrus flew off.
Rocco stared across the water and into the trees. Were there birds in Silver Woods that talked? He hadn’t noticed any owls or nightjars yesterday when they were on their way to the clatch. What if one such bird – the kind that talked - saw him going over the wall tomorrow night?
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