The unrelenting sun beat down on Kusarel, sweat pouring under her feathers and fur. A burst of dust and dirt shot straight into her lungs as she tended the fields. Coughs erupted from deep inside her chest, as horribly dry as the arid air, but she clamped her beak shut. Every bit of motion sent stabbing pain through her muscles, unaccustomed to wing-breaking labor.
“You doing ok there, Kusarel? Nothing like calligraphy or painting, huh?” Elkeri panted with a seemingly gleeful hoot, though her neck was hunched and stiff, as though sore. Kusarel managed to prop up her heavy head as she wiped the sweat dripping off her brow, glancing at Elkeri. Already, the old feathers around the base of Elkeri’s ears had begun molting away. New feathers poked through the tender skin, feathers that would be green and wispy, trailing down her neck like beautiful jewelry. Except, of course, for the fact that this particular piece of “jewelry” would forever brand her friend as a farmer.
“You’re staring, Kusarel.”
Startled out of her trance, she squeaked and whipped her head downward. “Sorry! I was just…um…”
“Admiring my new look?” Elkeri sniffed, tracing her claws over the budding feathers. “Don’t blame you–I’ll be rocking this style.” She gave a sharp laugh–too sharp. As her talons lingered over her feathers, Kusarel saw a flash of dread in her eyes, the realization that this was her fate and she would soon be branded for life.
“Could you run some of the vegetables over to the copiers? I’ll keep working here…” Elkeri pawed at the dirt below, part of the field they had been tending all day alongside the other farmers. All around them gryphons scrambled about, hardly paying each other any mind as they toiled in preparing the soil, watering, planting, and coaxing new buds to spring forth with their powers. Their sizes and colors varied, but all of them had the same thin, almost fairy-like green feathers above their brows.
“Of course!” Kusarel tore her gaze away from the farmers and wrapped her tail around a basket of carrots, lifting it into the air. The simple act sent screams of resistance throughout her body, begging her to drop down and relax.
Oh, if mother saw me now, she would shriek like it’s dawn. But if Xaiel thinks this will help…I’ll trust him.
Not like there’s anything else you can do, a nagging voice whispered in her head. You’re trapped, Kusarel. Nothing you do will be right. You’re going to fail no matter what, because you’re still a blank and that’s all that matters.
Suddenly, the blazing fields seemed like a sanctuary. At least she was so busy there that her backstabbing mind wouldn’t shoot these thoughts at her. Clicking her beak in agitation, she stepped onto the roads and wove her way over to the copiers’ tents, tucked on a side street at the far end of the fields. As she approached, the gryphons under the tents all bowed in respect, beaks touching the ground and claws stretched out in front of them.
Kusarel stood in front of them for a few moments, waiting for them to speak. The silence stretched on, the gryphons still bowing in perfect stillness, before she remembered they were waiting for her cue.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” As soon as the words left her beak, she heard her mother mentally screeching at her: “Apologizing to a lower class…no, the LOWEST class? A disgrace, Kusarel! A disgrace!” “I mean…could you copy these for me, please?”
She threw down the basket of carrots, harsher than she intended in her embarrassment. A few vegetables tumbled out and fell in the dirt, rolling off to the side. The copiers finally broke their bow and snatched up the vegetables before she could react, as though from years of practice.
“Of course, Miss Silversky. We would be honored,” one of them spoke, a petite little gryphon that kept her eyes dutifully downcast. A wealth of deep blue feathers cascaded from the side of her head down her jawline, the telltale sign of a copier. None of the gryphons made eye contact with her, only keeping their heads pointed in her general direction.
“Thank you very–“
“Copiers! Get over here now,” a voice from behind bellowed, cutting Kusarel off. Three of the copiers scrambled around Kusarel, groveling to the newcomer. Kusarel recognized him as a gryphon of just average standing, nothing special. Still, next to the copiers, he may as well have been the Empress.
“I want these construction materials all copied by tomorrow. No imperfections,” he huffed, flapping his wings and throwing his head back. The copiers remained bowing, but she saw them give each other sidelong glances as they flicked their ears.
“Forgive us, but our powers are meager. We cannot avoid imperfections, but we will do our best.”
He snorted and stamped his claws into the ground, stirring up loose gravel. “Useless! It’s ridiculous your kind is allowed to live in the city. Leeches, that’s what you are, you know that?”
Still bowing, the copiers nodded their heads, none of them so much as trying to retort. Kusarel glanced behind the demanding gryphon, hoping to see Xaiel or Elkeri stomping over. They never let this sort of rudeness go…though come to think of it, Elkeri probably couldn’t argue back without risking her own neck, Kusarel realized with a start. She no longer had her family’s name to protect her.
“And what are YOU staring at, farmer?” The gryphon advanced forward, ears upright and flared. Kusarel stepped back without thought, but as she did, he suddenly scrambled away with a yelp.
“Silversky! I mean, Miss Silversky! I’m so sorry, very sorry, yes. Of course, I should have noticed the feathers…lack of feathers. Please pardon my rudeness.” He inclined his head, just like the copiers moments ago, and zipped away before she could reply.
Didn’t take long for him to switch roles there, muttered that ever-irritating voice in her head. Kusarel stamped it down, just as she always had. That sort of rebellious thought was for Xaiel or Elkeri, not for her.
Hours passed as she ferried baskets of goods to the copiers and back, her tail growing heavier and heavier with the never-ending loads. Still, she couldn’t help but feel she was better off then the copiers; whenever she returned to their tents, they had their eyes squeezed shut as they concentrated on their work, claws held above the vegetables. Misshapen clones slowly took form next to the original crops: Tiny, lump-ridden little morsels. Yet as pathetic as these copies appeared, she saw more than one copier collapse to the ground from the strain, their breathing coming in short gasps. Kusarel almost ducked under the tent to help one of them, but a guard rushed around the corner and prodded the poor gryphon with a spear. Kusarel slipped away and kept her distance after that, not wanting to risk a confrontation with the guards.
Her legs burned more and more with each passing minute. She watched the sun with bleary eyes, keeping track of its movement and waiting, almost begging, for it to dip into the horizon. The shadows grew longer as the fields were bathed in a dim red light, finally signaling the end of a brutal day. Elkeri threw down her watering pot as though it were a venomous snake and let out an exhausted murmur. She nudged Kusarel in the side, almost knocking her over.
“Done. We’re done,” Elkeri panted, swaying on her feet. “Let’s go take a bath, ok?”
Kusarel gave a clipped nod, unwilling to bend her tense neck anymore than necessary. The thought of a perfectly warmed bath, water flowing under her feathers and loosening matted fur, filled her with an eagerness she hadn’t felt all day.
It took longer than it should have for them to plod over to the baths, both of them dragging their claws against the pavement. A dozen stone tubs, propped over low-burning fires, greeted them as they arrived at the bathhouse. A few gryphons bustled about, placing their talons over the flames to keep them at just the right temperature and height. Kusarel spotted Yatalo hunched over one of the tubs. He cocked his head briefly in their direction, then shuffled back to his work far too quickly, turning his back to the two of them.
“Stop,” barked the attendant at the front, blocking off Elkeri’s path with an outstretched foreleg. “No farmers until after sundown. Though Miss Silversky, you are very much welcome.”
For a second, Kusarel’s mind filled with confusion. They had both always gotten into the baths just fine, with no trouble at all. It took a few seconds for the full weight of the attendant’s words to settle in.
Oh shoot. Elkeri’s not going to be happy. She turned to look at her friend, who, sure enough, had puffed out her chest so far she looked like a war gryphon. The attendant flinched and stepped back just a bit, casting a look at Yatalo behind them. Elkeri’s father made no sign he was aware of them at all, muttering to himself as he adjusted the flame.
“There are plenty of empty baths here, Jasunel. It’ll be fine.” Elkeri tried to shove her way forward, but Jasunel bounded in front of her, legs spread in a battle stance. Kusarel backed away slowly, wishing she could melt into the shadows and get away from this mess.
“It’s not fine at all. Those are the rules and they must be followed.” Jasunel glanced back and forth before lowering her voice, pleading, “Look, I’m sorry, Elkeri. But the patrons will be furious if I let you in. They’ll call the guards, and then, well, I don’t know what they’ll do to me. I can’t risk it.”
For a moment, it looked like Elkeri planned to rip off the attendant’s face, beak and all; a low growl emitted from somewhere deep in her throat, pupils dilated and ears flat against her head. Kusarel took a deep breath and forced herself forward, placing a claw on Elkeri’s back as gently as she could.
“We don’t want to get anyone in trouble, right, Elkeri? We’ll go to the rivers to take a bath instead.”
Jasunel bobbed her whole body up and down, sending Kusarel a thankful glance. “Yes, the rivers are an excellent idea! Open to all.”
Kusarel felt Elkeri shaking beneath her talons, but she knew her childhood friend well enough to realize these were tremors of fury, not fear. She spat out some disjointed words in rage before rearing back on her hind legs and pivoting away, almost sending Kusarel toppling to the ground.
After mumbling a quick sorry to the attendant, she bounded after Elkeri, forcing her aching muscles forward. The ground trembled as Elkeri slammed each claw down in a vicious gait, chest still thrust forward and beak pointed to the sky.
“The nerve! That pile of parrot droppings! I deserve a simple bath after hours of working my tail off. Don’t I?” Elkeri hissed, whirling on Kusarel like a crazed wolf.
“Yes, of course you do. We’ll take a nice bath in the river, ok? It’ll be just like when we were cubs, splashing around. Remember when you tricked Xaiel with that stick, back then?”
Elkeri blinked at her a few times before the rage started to seep out of her eyes. She relaxed her stance and let out a happy chortle, slapping her tail against the stone. “Ooh, that was great! He thought it was a real sea serpent, that wimp.” She walked off toward the rivers with a cackle, waving Kusarel forward. Shuffling into the gentle waters, the two of them scraped the grime and mud off their hides, doing their best to loosen the matted areas tugging painfully at their skin.
An hour later they scuttled over to their dens, shivering as the night air passed through their feathers. Elkeri nuzzled Kusarel with her beak, giving a quiet chirp.
“Thanks for helping me out, Kusarel. Even when I’m a hothead.” She gazed down the road to the row of farmers’ dens, something weary settling in her eyes. “Well, time to rest and do this all over again tomorrow. For the rest of my life.”
A heavy silence followed, nestling in the shadows all around them. Without another word, Elkeri tore herself away and went off to her den. Somehow, her gait seemed less prideful than before, as though weighed down by something heavier than she could handle.
© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”