Twin Feathers: Chapter 16

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As they walked down the streets of Shamais, Kusarel couldn’t help but stare at the strange world around her. Her feathers were pressed against her body, making her look half her size and announcing to everyone she was quite nervous, but she didn’t care right now. From all sides came the squeals and chirps of more gryphons than she had ever seen in her life, scampering about and bumping into one another in the crowded city. Even the sky above was packed, filled with gryphons flying up to the higher levels of Shamais. Broad walkways stretched from tower to tower, looming far above her and Elkeri. She could just barely make out shops and stalls on some of them, while others appeared to contain dens, chiseled from a stone that glimmered with hues of blue and black in the sun. The same stone had been used for the path they walked on now, and she could have sworn the buildings around had diamonds embedded around their entrances–or if not diamonds, crystals of some sort that sent waves of light spiraling across the city.

“I thought Tremora was amazing, but this…” Kusarel waved a claw, taken in by all the brilliance and wealth around her.

“Crazy, right? I’m just glad no one is giving us any trouble.” Elkeri gestured to her wispy green feathers, trailing behind her head like a veil. A couple other farmers passed by and gave them quick nods, though they kept their eyes down. Scanning the area, Kusarel realized Shamais was packed with a mix of power feathers. There were plenty of high-ranking gryphons, of course: Elemental wielders like Yatalo, some with orange feathers like his, others with teal or gray feathers for controlling water or the wind, respectively. Gryphons with black power feathers, so dark they seemed immune to the light all around; she had only seen a couple of them back in Kryga, but she knew they could bend and shape minerals with great ease. The ones she saw here were likely behind the sprawling architecture of Shamais.

Yet there were also middle-class gryphons, like the merchants who so deftly sold their wares, born with the gift of charisma and golden feathers to match. Weavers with a crown of sunflower-yellow feathers atop their heads, shooting out silk from their wrists to turn into cloth products. And then there were the lower classes, like the farmers and copiers, all keeping their heads down, but still milling around the others.

“It seems less segregated here than the other cities,” Kusarel voiced, trying to take in the rainbow of feathers all around her.

“Probably because Shamais is so huge. I’m sure we’d still get treated like seagull droppings if we talked to anyone, though.” Elkeri squinted her eyes at a nearby blacksmith, who was shouting at a copier bowing before him. “But as long as we don’t bring attention to ourselves, we can just blend in.”

She couldn’t help but sigh in relief at those words. Whether it was her blank status or her resemblance to Apael, Kusarel couldn’t help but feel she had been in the spotlight much too often lately. Being able to walk around without anyone staring, jeering, or stuttering in fear made her wings feel lighter. Her feathers puffed out a bit as she relaxed, realizing they were invisible and unimportant here.

“Alright, so where do you think Apael would be?” Elkeri rose up a bit on her hind legs, craning her neck toward the sky as she surveyed the area. “This place is just massive.”

“Well, he is a soldier. He’s probably either patrolling or at the palace.”

Her friend gave a nod, horns shimmering from the splash of colors all around. “Makes sense. I’d be willing to bet he’s not patrolling this area, though. Everyone seems too relaxed.”

With a sinking heart, Kusarel had to admit Elkeri had a point. Wherever Apael had been, he left a feeling of terror in his wake, as they had experienced firsthand in all the cities they had visited. This light atmosphere wasn’t right at all.

“So we have to find an area that feels more tense, then. Or go right up to the palace. Just great,” Kusarel muttered. She couldn’t help but wish they could just lope around here for a while instead, taking in the sights while hidden in the crowd. It was foreign and overwhelming, yes, but at least she felt unnoticed and fairly safe.

“Hey, you’re the one who wants to do this, remember? I’m all for just hanging around here, but I don’t think we’re going to find your brother that way.”

With a disheartened nod, Kusarel trotted over to one of the open areas along the side of the path, meant for gryphons to spread their wings and take flight. She took to the air with a few practiced wing beats, and Elkeri followed after a moment, hanging just a bit behind her. The air shot between her feathers as they ascended, passing all the gryphons as they aimed right for the highest point of the city. They finally stopped after a minute to hover just above the towers and all the walkways below. Kusarel took the lead as she glided in a circle around Shamais, eyes locked below her as she scanned the sprawling city.

“Both of you, stop!” a voice bellowed out from behind. Freezing in midair, she whipped her head around and saw a guard blazing toward them, covered in full silver armor. He shot right up to them and scowled, flaring his talons too close for comfort.

“Flying above the towers is forbidden. You need to fly below the notch, or I’ll drag you off to the nearest prison.” The guard nodded at carved arrows on each tower Kusarel hadn’t noticed before, a good twenty feet down from their height.

“Forbidden? Who cares where we fly?” Elkeri spat, bringing her wings back in a flaring arc. Kusarel managed to lay a claw on her shoulders right before she could advance on the guard, pulling Elkeri back.

“Let’s just go lower, Elkeri. I don’t want to get in a fight.”

“You should listen to your friend,” the guard said as he inclined his head toward Kusarel. “Random gryphons flying this high up is a security issue. You need to stay lower so everyone is contained. Understood?”

“Fine, fine. I can’t stand stupid laws, though,” Elkeri grumbled. She threw off Kusarel’s claw with a shrug and fluttered down, making angry hissing sounds the whole way. Kusarel started to follow her before the guard flew into her path, forcing her to fall back.

“Hold up.” His eyes trailed down to her scar, lingering there for longer than seemed necessary. “That’s quite a nasty wound there. It almost looks like something serrated you.”

“Oh, um, it’s nothing. Not a big deal.” She flapped her wings and inched forward, passing the guard hesitantly. He didn’t stop her, but continued to scrutinize her with a strange look before flying off, leaving her and Elkeri alone once again.

“What was that about? I couldn’t hear you from down here.” Elkeri nudged her with a concerned expression, watching the guard disappear into one of the towers.

“I don’t know. He was staring at my scar and mentioned it looked serrated.”

“Why would he care, though? It’s none of his business. Just like us flying above the towers,” she added with a growl.

“Elkeri, I bet he knows Apael clawed me. And if he does–“

Her words disappeared under the yells of many gryphons behind her, but one voice cut through all the rest. Filled with horror, she slowly pivoted in the air as a silver and black gryphon appeared in her vision, flanked by several soldiers.

“Your feathers might be dyed, but it’s definitely you. That scar and pendant prove it.” He thrust a talon right at her chest, the edges jagged like the tooth of a wicked beast. Kusarel let out a strangled squeak, mind frozen in terror as she cowered before him.

It was Apael, and he had found them first.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Twin Feathers: Chapter 15

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She was becoming stronger. The realization hit her as the days passed by, filled with flying by sunlight and then resting at night. Her muscles had screamed at her during the short flight to Tremora; now, she only felt an irritating ache, more a dull soreness than the stabbing pain from before.

Though in all fairness, part of the reason could be that she was getting much better sleep now. Every evening, they would circle around until they found a nearby settlement. Some were tiny little villages, similar to her hometown Kryga, which made her heart flutter in a strange mix of joy and loss. Others sprawled in all directions for miles, larger than Rivel. Despite the differences in size, Kusarel and Elkeri received the same treatment everywhere. The local gryphons always stared at Kusarel with widened eyes, filled with terror, and before long they were being offered the very best: Bedding at the roomiest inns, freshly-caught fish, silken blankets for the night and down cushions, putting her family’s belongings to shame.

She laced her claws through one of these blankets, marveling at its smoothness. A burst of guilt ran through her and shattered her admiration, leaving her feeling uncomfortable and lost once again.

“Elkeri? Is this ok?” She waved all around their room, a private chamber stocked with more food than they could possibly eat in a week. A breeze wafted through one of the many open windows, ruffling the tapestries covering the walls.

Elkeri held up a talon as she downed the last of her meal–some sort of expensive rabbit and herb dish, from the looks of it. Grasping her talons around a jug, she took a swaggering gulp, some of the juice dribbling down the sides of her beak.

“Absolutely. Not our fault if they think we’re related to Apael. I’m not gonna stop them from buttering us up.” She stared into the pits of the jug before muttering, “Especially after Tremora. And back home.”

Kusarel felt her face burn as she turned away, silently cursing herself. Of course Elkeri would be fine with this; she’d endured poor treatment due to her status for a while now, longer than Kusarel. This was the first break Elkeri had gotten in a long time from the strict hierarchy, and here was Kusarel, feeling guilty and wanting to turn all of this down. A fresh wave of shame washed over her at the thought of taking this away from her best friend.

“Get that look off your face,” Elkeri said, pushing a heaping plate of shrimp delicacies her way. “Tomorrow, we’ll be in Shamais. We only have one more day left, and I’m going to enjoy it.”

“Sorry, sorry,” she muttered, pecking at the food without much enthusiasm. “I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“You didn’t have to. Your face said it all.”

She stabbed at one of the shrimps a bit too violently, spearing it halfway down her beak. Elkeri let out a snigger as Kusarel scowled and pried it off with her claws, leaving a slimy residue on her face.

“I should really wear a mask around you. It’s not fair how well you read me,” she grumbled, forcing down the offending food as a distraction more than anything.

“Oh! We need to figure out your disguise, don’t we?” With a drawn-out squeak, Elkeri rose up and stretched her front legs far in front of her, claws flaring and digging into the wood below. “I’m thinking we dye your feathers. Good idea?”
She only shrugged in response, lashing her tail in agitation. The turmoil in her belly just wouldn’t settle, that horrible nagging feeling that they were walking right into danger. Trying to find something to drown her anxiety, she squinted up at a tapestry near the window, shimmering in the fading sunlight. The metallic silver background reminded her of Apael, and she lurched her eyes away with a shudder.

“You could wear a mask, but that’s probably too obvious. Right?”

“I don’t care, Elkeri. Do whatever you want.”

“Hey now.” Elkeri crouched to lock eyes with her, cocking her head to the side. “This was your idea, remember? Going after Apael? Don’t get all grumbly with me.”

She was right, of course. This was her idea, and every part of herself hated that. The closer they had traveled to Shamais, the more her awful inner voice had piped up, predicting death and injury and failure. It whispered to her that perhaps she should just give this all up. Stay here, in whatever city this was, and live as nobles for as long as they could get away with it. Then they would move on to another area, burying thoughts of Xaiel with gluttony and vice.

But she had to do it. She still knew, deep down, that she would never forgive herself if she gave up on Xaiel, leaving him to whatever bizarre fate he had received from the Empress. The coolness from her mother’s pendant wafted down her chest, and she ran her talons across its rounded front. Her mother may think she was dead, permanently cut off from the family, but of course Kusarel knew better. She was still part of the family, and she couldn’t just leave them be now.

“I’m sorry…I’m just nervous. But the dye sounds like a good idea, I think.”

Elkeri gave a content purr and pushed herself back up, trotting over to the door. “I’ll go get some dye, then. Bet I can get it for free, since they all seem to know I’m connected to you.” She chuckled as she walked through the exit, leaving Kusarel alone.

The silence around her pressed in, and she huddled in a corner, folding her legs underneath her and her tail over her head. If she tried hard enough, she could pretend she was back at home, sleeping on the bedding in her room.

She would do anything to make that a reality.

What felt like an eternity passed before Elkeri barged back into their room, humming an upbeat tune to herself. Kusarel couldn’t help but feel even more tense, put off by her friend’s happiness.

“Stop your sulking and get over here. I’m going to dye you.” Elkeri plopped down near the window, organizing a few jars filled with unknown liquids. At Kusarel’s refusal to get up, she leaped over and grabbed her by the foreleg, dragging her over. “And then you’re going to have fun and enjoy yourself the rest of the day. It’s not everyday we get to live like royalty.”

“But tomorrow is Shamais,” she murmured, more talking to herself than anything.

“Yes–tomorrow. Not today. Don’t let tomorrow ruin today.”

I think it’s too late for that, she thought, but she kept her dissent to herself. She didn’t want to ruin Elkeri’s good time, if nothing else. Her friend deserved a fun, happy day before they both died a horrifying death at the claws of her twin.

….Maybe I do need to relax a bit.

She did her best to relax her muscles, letting go of the tension that had been building up for days. The dye felt refreshing against her feathers as Elkeri worked it in, still chirping a joyous song Kusarel remembered from her childhood days.

“We’re gonna look like sisters once you’re done. Well, minus the horns.”

With a start, Kusarel craned her neck to admire Elkeri’s handiwork. She hadn’t even wondered what color Elkeri had chosen. Sure enough, her feathers glimmered a rich brown, just like her friend’s.

“I got some gray coloring, so I’ll go ahead and try to dye your fur too, but I don’t know if it’ll take. Your fur’s so dark.”

An hour later and Elkeri had finished, huffing quietly in satisfaction. Dragging a mirror over to Kusarel, she sat beside her with raised shoulders. “Well? Pretty good, huh?”

Blinking, Kusarel couldn’t help but silently admit that Elkeri had done a decent job. Her entire front half was covered in brown feathers, not a hint of silver to be seen. The fur on her back half hadn’t turned out nearly as well, but it had changed somewhat, more of a stormy gray now instead of luscious black.

“You look good with brown feathers. Though not the gray fur. You looked much prettier with your natural black.”

Kusarel clucked a few times, giving Elkeri a sideways look. “You’re the one who chose that color, not me.”

Cuffing her with a wing, Elkeri squatted down beside her, dropping a stack of cards by their feet. “Ignoring that, we’re going to play a nice, relaxing game of cards, and you are going to enjoy it. Got it?”

“Yes, yes, I get it.” She let Elkeri set up the game as she stared out the window, gazing at the looming towers of Shamais in the distance. Tomorrow, they would reach their destination, and all this would come to an end.

Haunted by a rising dread, she drew a few cards and shifted the other way, turning her back to the window. Yet the vision of the towers burned before her eyes, a stark reminder of the tomorrow that awaited her.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 16