“Welcome to my palace, Kusarel,” Elkeri said in an uppity voice, beak pointed snootily toward the roof of her den. “Where would you like to sit? Perhaps some tea or fancy appetizers will suit you?”
Kusarel couldn’t help but laugh as she squeezed into Elkeri’s den, though the situation was anything but funny. Still, seeing her friend joke around like this helped calm the massive headache that had been brewing all day. Scrunching up her brow deep in thought for too long wasn’t good for her, apparently.
“You doing ok, Elkeri? I’m…sorry I left you earlier.” Kusarel lowered her head, drooping her ears in apology.
“You’re fine. It’s your mother who should be apologizing. You know I can’t stand your family. Or mine, for that matter,” she added with a snarl. “All ‘family name’ this and ‘honor’ that. Drives me mad.”
The tense knot in her stomach began to unravel a little. Seeing Elkeri back to her usual self filled Kusarel with relief, so much that she hardly had the energy to rebuke her for being rude.
“But, this den is…really something,” Kusarel said, trying to change the subject before Elkeri could go on one of her rants.
The single den Elkeri had been given was nothing like the dens of their families. Rather than sturdy stone, these shelters had been constructed out of of a paper-mache material, so thin the rays of the sun shone through in places. The scuffling of other gryphons could be heard through the shared walls, destroying any semblance of true privacy. Kusarel tried to stretch out her hindlegs, feeling a cramp setting in, but the back of her calf slammed against the wall near the entrance.
“Careful there, Kusarel. If you stretch too much, you could knock down a wall,” Elkeri said with a roll of her eyes. “This heavenly palace is not nearly big enough for two gryphons, you know.”
And now she had led Elkeri down another possible route for ranting. Kusarel would have slapped herself with her tail, but she was pretty sure she’d accidentally hit Elkeri in the process with how tightly they were packed in.
“Well, at least the village gave you a den! You don’t have to sleep outside or anything. That’s good, right?” Kusarel pawed at the dirt beneath her talons, so different from the smooth marble flooring in her family’s dwelling.
“Cut the act. Your optimism can be cute, but I don’t get it at all. Like how you always defend your mother, for instance. She threatened to cull you today, didn’t she?”
Kusarel dug her claws deep into the dirt, keeping her tail as still as possible. “How’d you know that?”
Her friend leaned over to embrace her with her wings, only to jam her horns against the ceiling. A chunk of paper-mache fell away, exposing the sky above. “Oh, for the love of…I’ll fix it later. But anyone would know that, Kusarel. Your family’s pretty predictable. Honestly, I’m surprised you even visited me. Thought for sure you would’ve been scared away with your reputation at stake.”
“I’m not that bad, am I?” Kusarel said in a small voice. The guilty feelings from before sank back in, remembering what a terrible friend she had been earlier.
“Aw, I didn’t mean it that way,” Elkeri nudged her on the forehead, placing a claw over hers. “You’re a good friend. You’ve just always been so straight-laced. I get worried about you sometimes, doing whatever your family wants.”
“But that’s how it is, Elkeri. You know that.”
“Oh trust me, I know it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Elkeri sneered, brows furrowed as she snapped at the air. “Screw the Empress with all her rules and hierarchy. I hope the Godslayer offs her for us!”
“Elkeri! Don’t say things like that!” Kusarel squeaked as a loud thwap came from the other side of the shared wall.
“Oi, cut the blasphemy over there! Some of us are trying to sleep!” called a voice from the other side in a drawl.
“It’s not even sundown yet! You can deal,” Elkeri barked back, glaring at the wall as though she wanted to tear it down.
“You know nothing, whelp. Just wait until tomorrow. They’ll work you to the bone, every day of your life.” They could hear a couple cackles before silence finally returned.
Neither of them said anything for a moment; the air felt more tense than before, as though something ominous had crept in the den. Memories of bony, mud-caked gryphons toiling in the fields all day came back to Kusarel. She had hardly ever seen the farmers in the plaza or gathering areas; they spent every waking minute working, and when they finally had a break, they always slunk to their dens to rest their weary feathers. Will Elkeri really be ok? She’s going to be miserable for the rest of her life. What do I do?
“Did I hear some good ol’ fashioned Empress bashing over here? Because if so, count me in!”
Elkeri’s ears perked up as she hooted, “Hey, Kusarel, your twin is here! Now we can get this party rolling.”
Kusarel barely suppressed a groan as her brother, Xaiel, poked his head in, eyes filled with a mischievous glint. “He’s not my twin, Elkeri. I’m nothing like him.”
“Yeah, he’s much more fun than you. But you sure look like twins,” Elkeri chirped, mirroring her brother’s impish look.
“You know I love picking on my little sis, but I’m here for hating on some royalty,” Xaiel said, trying to inch his way into the den best he could. He may have been smaller than the two female gryphons, but the den was still far too cramped for all three of them. His forelegs and neck just barely squeezed in, the rest of his body sticking outside the entrance. Draping his claws over one another, he dipped his head toward Elkeri. “So, I heard some rumors out on guard duty. Want to hear ’em?”
“Xaiel, please don’t,” Kusarel begged, flattening her ears against her head. “What if someone hears? We’ll be in so much trouble.”
Elkeri waved a claw at Kusarel and leaned forward, wings shivering in excitement. “Oh, do tell!”
“My pleasure! That lovely old pigeon we call the Empress is starting to show her years, finally. They say her time is coming to an end.”
A sharp hiss erupted from Elkeri as Kusarel tried to turn her head away, longing to flee from this conversation. She poked Xaiel in the side with her back paw, but he refused to budge, lost in his gossip.
“The guards I talked to? They’ve met up with other guards closer to the palace city, and you know what they say there? The Empress’ feathers are falling right off her skin! She walks with a limp and is always hunched over. I mean, go figure. That waste of space is over 500 years old now.” Xaiel barked out a harsh laugh, digging his talons deep into the ground as though he longed to rip into the Empress himself.
“Dying of old age? Too good for her,” Elkeri snorted. “She’s the reason families turn on each other.” Something wavered in her glance as she lowered her head, doodling in the soil with a single talon. Kusarel squinted, trying to make out the upside-down drawing from her angle, before realizing it was a picture of Elkeri’s father. She felt her throat swell up, remembering how Yatalo said he may never talk to his daughter again…all to preserve the family’s reputation.
“Absolutely agree. I could go on forever about how she deserves to die…” he took a deep breath as though preparing himself for a never-ending rant, than stopped as he glanced at Kusarel. “But, for the sake of my paranoid sister here, I’ll save that for later.”
“I just don’t want us to get hurt, or arrested,” Kusarel muttered, feeling like a killjoy. At least she was used to the feeling, if nothing else.
“Speaking of getting hurt, Kusarel,” Xaiel said, all his playfulness disappointing in a heartbeat, “Tomorrow, you need to help Elkeri out as much as you can. Work around the clock, ok?”
Kusarel just blinked at him, cocking her head quizzically. “I can, but why?”
Xaiel leaned closer, dropping his voice to a mere whisper. Kusarel pricked up her ears, struggling to hear him. “The more you can make yourself useful, the better your chances of surviving until you get your powers. We need to give our dear mother less reason to cull you.”
A weight pressed against Kusarel’s chest, heart hammering. With Xaiel and Elkeri gossiping, she’d been able to distract herself from her grim future. Now, it was facing her down once more, eyeing her like a spider waiting to jump on its prey.
“Not that I would ever let them cull you,” he added. “Mother may be a clawlicker who worships the Empress’ molted feathers, but I’m not. Well, you know that. ” He nudged Kusarel with a chirp. “But I want to put off that confrontation as long as possible, you know?”
“I won’t either,” Elkeri said, raising her head sharply as she whipped her tail back and forth. A few thin layers of the den wall tore off, whirling into the air. “Let them cull you, I mean. If it comes to it, I can help you flee, too. Me and you could start a new life in a far-off city together.”
Kusarel knew those words were supposed to make her feel better, so she bobbed her head up and down like an excited cub. But all she felt was a choking pressure spreading throughout her body, a need to run out into the open air and breathe deeply before her lungs locked up. Her vision went hazy as she thought of leaving this village, her family, behind. I can’t do that! It’s all I know. How would I survive away from here? What do I do?
That thought swirled through her churning mind as she plodded her way back home with Xaiel, leaving Elkeri to turn in for the evening. He tried to engage her in light chatter a few times, even slapping her with an outstretched wing to get her attention, but nothing broke through the fog surrounding her.
What do I do?
© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”