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”