The crowd continued to stare at Xaiel, some in awe, others in fear or shock. A few gryphons had begun inching away from him, clearly trying to get away from the center of the Empress’ attention. Those orange eyes glimmered as the Empress stepped forward, approaching Xaiel. Kusarel couldn’t help but notice something was odd about her gait, something uneven and faltering.
A limp! The rumors were true. Is she getting old after all? Is she dying? She inwardly shrieked at herself for having such a treacherous thought, resisting the urge to tremble. How can I think something like that! And with the Empress right here, no less. I deserve to be executed, with thoughts like this. She hoped for all the world that the Empress couldn’t see the treason written all over her face, exposing the guilt and shame and sheer blasphemy that went through her mind.
“Would your name happen to be Xaiel, young man? I believe that was the name I heard from the rumors.”
Her brother nodded his head up and down in a jerky fashion, like he couldn’t quite control his movements. “Yes, your grace. That’s me,” he said in a subdued, neutral voice, but Kusarel could hear the cracks underneath, as though it took all his effort to remain collected.
The Empress laughed with pleasure, folding her wings so they lay casually against her sides. Her silks fluttered and rippled with the motion, like leaves floating through the breeze.
“Oh, what a treat! I’ve been dying to meet you. I’ve heard lots of great things about you, you know.”
Xaiel’s beak fell wide open in shock, exposing the curved, sharp point at the end. Kusarel could have sworn she caught the Empress scrutinizing that powerful beak with a strange glee, as though she had found a great deal at the local bazaar.
“You…have? But why? Not that I mean to question you, your grace,” he stammered.
He might be rebellious, but even he knows better than to disrespect the Empress to her face. Kusarel couldn’t help but wonder if the Empress had heard about her brother’s constant disapproval of her reign. A chill shuddered through her feathers. Is she here to arrest him? Maybe she’s being sarcastic about the “great things” she’s heard. Casting a glance at Salaki, she saw the apprehension clouding her mother’s face. So she wasn’t the only one concerned, apparently.
“Why wouldn’t I? Everyone knows what a great warrior you are. It’s practically the talk of the kingdom! Many guards want to be just like you.”
At this, Xaiel perked his ears, craning his head up to meet the queen’s eyes. “Really? They…want to be like me?”
“Of course, of course! Tales of valor always travel quickly, you know. When I heard of you, I knew that I must meet you! After all, a warrior of your talent would best be in my personal army, don’t you think?”
The silence that smothered the entire village swelled to its bursting point and broke, eager chatters and murmurs rustling on all sides. Xaiel didn’t seem to notice, staring at the Empress with blank, glazed eyes, like he was having trouble processing her words.
“What an honor!”
“Must be a joke.”
“The Empress wouldn’t come here for a joke, you dolt!”
One of the royal guards raised a claw to silence the crowd, but the Empress nudged him on the wing. “No need. It’s quite the news! I can’t blame them for being excited.”
Kusarel’s mother, however, apparently felt otherwise. She flared her wings and glared loftily at her neighbors, stilling the chatter after mere moments.
“My Empress, we are honored beyond words. Certainly, our family has always been known for its excellence and well-bred offspring, but we never expected to be graced by the Empress yourself, Long-Lived One.” With this, her mother threw a claw across her chest and bowed once again. Kusarel couldn’t help but shuffle her claws in agitation. Is she really buttering up the Empress? Is that safe to do?
“Your family? Could you be…his mother, by chance?” The Empress said with an appraising gaze. Despite her calm words, something about the way she looked at her mother made Kusarel flick her ears. Her sunset eyes looked just a bit too narrowed and intense, the eyes of a predator sizing up a possible meal.
“Yes, yes I am!” Salaki raised her beak to the sky, before quickly remembering her place and resuming a more subservient position. “He was always a talented child, and we brought out the best in him.”
“Oh, how wonderful! It’s great to meet you, dear.” The predatory eyes vanished as the Empress patted Salaki on the shoulder like a family member. Kusarel saw the burst of pride and amazement on her mother’s face, though she did an excellent job in quickly hiding her emotions. “I’d like to invite you and the rest of the family to come live with me at the palace. A very high honor, don’t you think?”
Salaki almost tumbled over with a squawk, just barely catching herself. “I…to the palace? Live there? That…that’s the highest honor there is.” She stuttered and stopped mid-sentence a few more times before finally ducking her head. “I don’t know what to say, your grace. Thank you, thank you!”
“It’s no trouble at all. It wouldn’t be right to split up the family, of course. Speaking of, I don’t suppose you have any more children, now, do you?” The Empress said, tilting her head. The diamonds on her brow glimmered in the sun with the motion, sending arcs of light spiraling through the air.
There was a pause. Salaki remained frozen, as though the air had been sucked out of her lungs. The seconds ticked by at a painfully slow rate, filling Kusarel with anxiety for her overwhelmed mother. She toyed with the thought of chirping in, eager to take her mother off the spot, but her mother spoke first, her words slithering into the air with perfect finality.
“No, none others. He’s the only one, our single pride and joy.”
Kusarel blinked, trying to figure out what she had said. Did my mom mishear the Empress? She must have misunderstood. But a flick of her mother’s tail, directed squarely at Kusarel, stopped her from piping up and correcting her. That was the classic move her mother made when she wanted her daughter to kindly hush up, thank you very much. Which meant…
She knows full well what the Empress asked. So her answer means…
The fidgeting of gryphons in the plaza filled Kusarel’s ears like the buzzing of many insects. She could hear them talking in low voices, but she couldn’t tell anything apparent. All she could focus on was her mother happily chatting with the Empress, as though nothing unusual had just been said. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she vaguely registered Xaiel glaring at their mother with a look of pure disgust, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered were those seemingly innocent words, sealing the fate she had feared for so long.
She doesn’t have a daughter anymore.
I’m going to be culled.
© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”