Love between two star-crossed eagles and a sinister plot threaten a desert kingdom.
| Pride gazed out over the gilded balcony of the Crystal Palace, hoping to find something in the view to ease his troubles. But even the shining elegance of his beloved city and the delicate pastels of the desert sunset could do nothing to lift the young golden eagle Prince's spirits. With a heavy sigh, he made to tuck his head beneath the folds of his wing when a voice from behind drew his attention.
"Sire..." Pride turned to see the speaker, a hooded crow healer called Relic.
"Is mother awake again?" He asked quietly, not entirely sure what answer he'd prefer to hear.
The healer seemed to hesitate before responding. "I... Yes, Sire. But she's very weak. I fear this may be the last time she wakes."
Relic's words hardly surprised him, but they cut deeply all the same. After taking a moment to compose himself, Pride nodded to the crow healer and followed him back through the ornate door leading to the sickroom. There he saw his mother; Taaja Light, Queen of the proud city of Dragon's Brooch.
Once, she'd been every inch the bird one would expect an eagle monarch to be. Now, she was confined to a bed. Her rich bronze feathers were dull and frayed, her keen eyes clouded over with white, and her once-famous physical strength had long since been sapped away. Whatever disease was eating her alive from the inside, it had done its job well.
The Queen lifted her head fractionally as Pride approached her bed, and spoke in a voice that barely rose above a ragged whisper. "Who is there?"
"It... It's me, mother. It's Pride." He answered, trying and failing to keep the pain out of his voice.
"Pride..." She said his name in what might have been a motherly tone. "Good. Is Valor with you?"
"No." He answered, not without some resentment. "I don't know where he is."
"It's just as well..." She said wistfully. "There is much for me to say, and little of it pertains to him."
"Because he will not be King; you will."
"Mother, I don't know if I'm ready..."
The Queen shook her head weakly. "No, son. You will be a great King."
Before she could continue, a bout of coughing wracked her frail body. Pride reached out and touched her lightly with the tip of his wing until it subsided.
"There is virtue in your heart." She rasped after she had regained her breath. "Follow it, and you will always find your way."
"But I don't want to do this without you." He pleaded softly.
"I have seen the river flood more than seven-hundred times. That is a longer life than most creatures could ever hope for. Too long."
"But I love you..."
"And I you, more than anything in this world. And I love your brother as well, hard and foolish as he is. I would stay to guide the two of you forever if I could, but I cannot."
"I know..." Pride closed his eyes for a time before speaking again. "Is there anything you need, mother?"
"Only to know that you will weather this difficult time."
"I..." He hesitated. "I will do my best."
"Then I need nothing else." The Queen laid her head back down upon her deathbed. "Leave me now, Pride. I am tired."
Pride opened his beak to protest, but the words only choked dead in his throat. Instead, he simply brushed the tip of his wing across his mother's head. When her eyes had closed, he stayed by the sleeping monarch's side for a few pain-filled minutes before finally allowing Relic to lead him back outside.
Numb, he signaled to one of the Guards standing on either side of the door; a fierce-looking female bald eagle.
"You; what is your name?"
"I'm Auria, Sire." The Guard stood to attention, displaying the pink desert flower crest painted upon her breast that marked her as a Guard. "What is it you require of me?"
"Escort me to my quarters." Pride turned to gaze out at the city. "And make certain no other creature disturbs me there, save for Sevry."
Auria bowed low. "As you command, Sire."
Crossing the balcony, Auria hopped up onto the railing. With a tired sigh Pride joined her, and the two eagles leapt into the twilight sky.
Viewed from the air, Dragon's Brooch and its surrounding territory were even more impressive. Golden plains and the Collar River stretched off to the northwest, the great Orbus Desert dominated the south, and the estuary where the Collar met the Celestial Sea lay to the east. Between it all, the city itself rose from the desert sands and fertile flood plains like a cluster of jewels. Especially striking was the aptly-named Glass District, where the Crystal Palace itself was located; complex stained glass windows decorated every one of the district's polished wood and sandstone structures.
Pride was so preoccupied with taking in the scenery that he hardly noticed how far he'd fallen behind his escort. He also failed to notice the dark form trailing above him until it was too late.
In the split second it took Pride to swing his head towards the shadow at the edge of his vision, fiery pain exploded into his left shoulder as he was struck by something huge and black. The Prince let out a shrill chirrup as the force of the blow plunged him downward, slamming him bodily into the ceramic roof of the palace. Dazed and injured, Pride was only vaguely aware as powerful talons closed around his throat.
Auria flew out of the gloom, striking Pride's attacker like a furious, silent lightning bolt. Both birds skidded across the polished ceramic tiles in a mass of hissing, agitated plumage. The would-be assassin kicked out, catching Auria square in the breast and tearing out a shower of dark brown and pink-painted down. With a pained chirping, Auria leapt back and away from the assassin's dangerous talons. Her opponent took the opportunity to scramble back to its feet, puffing out its feathers to form a dark, ominous circle. From the center of that circle, two luminous orange eyes sat like perfectly-round coals. A low, serpentine hissing seemed to fill the air.
Slowly, Auria stepped between the assassin and the injured Prince. Having regained some of his senses, Pride attempted to push himself upright, only to collapse again with an agonized shrilling as his broken wing gave way beneath him. There would be no flying or fighting his way out of this; his only hope was in Auria being the better warrior.
Auria stood stock still, waiting for the assassin to make the first move. The atmosphere was impossibly tense as the assassin began to stalk a slow semicircle around the pair of eagles, searching for an opening to exploit. Auria's yellow gaze followed along, blinking periodically against the pain from her injured breast.
With another furious hiss, the assassin flew at the troublesome Guard, talons bared. Auria hopped backwards at the last instant, dodging the attack and allowing her assailant to unbalance itself. Before the assassin could recover from its fumble, Auria stepped back in and struck a stunning blow across the side of its head with a stiffened wing. Crouching low, Auria lunged inward, catching the assassin's throat tight in her deadly hooked beak. The assassin tried to pull backwards, but the move only caused more harm than good; the flesh of the assassin's throat tore like cheap linen, showering Auria's white head and yellow bill in warm crimson.
Auria watched disdainfully as the assassin collapsed into a choking, bleeding heap. Once she was certain the dark form no longer posed a threat, she turned her attention to the Prince she'd been fighting to defend.
"Sire?" Auria gently eased Pride onto his feet, cradling him in the arch of her neck.
"My wing..." Pride was almost afraid to examine the damage himself.
"It's not as bad as it probably feels, sire. Trust me; I've had a broken wing myself."
"Really?" Pride inquired absently, mostly trying to get his mind off his pain.
"Yes, from the last time I tangled with a Silent Moon." Auria gave the body a pointed look as she spoke.
Icy claws seemed to grip at Pride's heart. "Silent Moon?"
"Yes..." Auria stalked back towards the body, turning it to allow a closer examination.
It was a huge female eagle owl; her normally tawny feathers dyed a uniform shade of assassin's black. Auria lifted up the owl's left wing, revealing a painted white mark across her breast in the shape of a crescent moon.
"It appears you've made some enemies, sire."
Most of what Pride knew of the Silent Moons, he knew from his long talks with his faithful Crescent Isle crow servant, Sevry. According to her, they were one of the few savage elements of the Isle's culture; a secretive and deadly guild of owl assassins. Confusion filled his mind as he looked down at the body. Who could possibly want him dead? Why?
"You... Saved my life." He said suddenly.
Auria merely looked at him and shrugged her wings. "Well, someone had to, right?"
Pride surprised himself with a bout of disbelieving laughter... Only to nearly collapse in agony as the shaking agitated his shattered bone.
"Hey, hey..." Auria stepped in, lending the Prince her support before he could fall again. "We should probably get you to a healer before you do yourself any more damage, Sire."
Pride tried to say "yeah," but only succeeded in producing a pained wheezing sound. Instead, he merely nodded his head before allowing Auria to lead him through the long and painful process of climbing down from the palace roof.
Pride looked up from the work the pair of raven healers were doing as Sevry burst through the door of his room. Panting and muss-feathered, the Isle crow slid to a halt in front of her master.
"Ohh..." Sevry took a long, distraught look at the fresh plaster cast that now encased Pride's right wing. In an instant, her worry seemed to transform into anger, which she directed at Auria. "You... How could you let this happen?!"
Auria only bowed meekly against Sevry's anger, as if the crow servant wasn't less than half her size. It was Pride that spoke on the guard's behalf. "No, Sevry; it's my fault. I had strayed too far behind."
"I..." Sevry closed her eyes and turned her head away. "My apologies, sire. I just... Don't know what I'd do if..."
Pride cut in before his friend could finish the thought. "It's quite alright, Sevry. I know."
Pride turned to the two ravens who currently applying ointment to the wound on his other wing. "Could you give us some time alone?"
The ravens shot each other uncertain glances. They shrugged after a few moments, and shuffled their way out of the room without a word.
"And you as well, Auria." Pride gave the guard an apologetic look. "I want it to just be Sevry and I for a while."
Auria gave a stiff bow, careful to not stretch the bandages around her breast. "Of course."
Once the two birds were alone, Pride asked the question. "Is there any news of my mother?"
Sevry looked away nervously. "There is not, Sire. The Queen still lives, but she's fading."
Pride let out a weary sigh; he hadn't expected any other response. Sevry let the silence stretch on for nearly half-a-minute before speaking up again.
"Was there anything else you wished to speak with me on, Sire?"
"Yes. Tell me; in the Crescent Isle, what do the crows feel about the idea of love between different breeds of creature?"
"I..." That wasn't the sort of question Sevry had been expecting. "Well, most of us would believe that no creature is actually obligated to breed, especially if something else would bring them greater fulfillment."
Pride settled his head down onto his bed. "I suppose that makes sense..."
"Why do you...?" Sevry looked towards the door, then back to the Prince. "Are you and that guard...?"
"I'd be dead if it wasn't for her." His voice seemed to drip with longing. "I've never seen anything so magnificent."
Sevry couldn't help but chuckle at the love-struck Prince. "Do you know if she feels the same?"
"I... Have no idea." Pride responded sheepishly.
"Well, either way, perhaps a lift of the ban would be in order after your coronation?"
"My subjects wouldn't love me for that."
"No, they won't." Sevry conceded. "But if you really want to fix this city, you'll have to make a lot of changes they won't like. This seems to me like as good an issue as any to start with."
"You're right, as always." Pride stared absently at one of the far corners of the room as he spoke. "Could you send Auria in for me? I'd like to speak with her alone."
"Of course, Sire." Sevry gave a courteous bow, although her ruffled plumage dampened the elegance of the gesture somewhat.
Mere moments after Sevry had exited the room, Auria's bright white-and-gold head wedged its way past the richly decorated door. "You wished to see me, Sire?"
The breath seemed to catch in Pride's throat for a few seconds before he could respond. "Uhh, yes. Could you come inside and close the door? I would speak with you."
Curious, Auria did as she was bid. After the two eagles were alone, an awkward silence seemed to stretch between them until Pride could finally think of something to say.
"I, uhh... I wanted to know something more about you."
"Is that so, Sire?" Auria asked in a vaguely sarcastic tone.
"Yes..." Pride wracked his brain for something to actually ask. "Before, you said that you've dealt with the Silent Moons before? Could you tell me more about what happened?"
"Of course, Sire." She let out a low chuckle. "It was back in Brass Valley, when a friend of mine got into trouble with some parrot crime lord... Or was it one of the big-time merchants? Eh, same difference in that city, I suppose. Either way, they ended up sending the Moons after my friend to keep her out of their business, so I had to bail her out of it."
"You lived in Brass Valley?" Pride wasn't too surprised; her name was clearly not of Dragon's Brooch origin. "How did you end up serving here?"
Auria shrugged. "To be honest, Sire, I was mostly following the pay. It seemed to me that I'd be better-off as a Guard in this city than with the Constables."
It was a common enough motivation; with Dragon's Brooch being one of the wealthiest cities in the known world, raptor mercenaries from all around the land often travelled there seeking that wealth. But it occurred to Pride that working for any of Brass Valley's merchants could have granted a similar pay raise, and without having to fly halfway across the Mythril Peninsula to get it.
"Is there any other reason you left the Constables?"
"Yes; because they're a lost cause." Auria's reply was bitter and scorn-laden. "They belong to every rich, fat bird that runs that city. I also prefer some form of honor and discipline in my work, so going private wasn't an option for me either. Coming here was the next best thing."
"I thought you said you were following the pay."
"I want pay and honor. Is that so unusual?"
"I suppose not."
"But I get the feeling that you're not asking all this because you're curious about my life story." Auria settled into sitting position as she spoke. "So, would you mind telling me what this is really about?"
Pride turned his head away and closed his eyes, unsure of how to respond. But when his eyes shot back open moments later, a curious look of determination had replaced his uncertainty. Pride rose to his feet and stepped down from his bed, doing his best to not wince as his broken wing shifted in its cast. He bowed as low as the cast would allow, his eyes locked on the floor in front of the stunned bald eagle guard.
"What this is about..." Pride's voice was shaky and nervous. "Is that I am being too foolish and cowardly to simply tell you the truth."
"The... Truth?" It was Auria's turn to sound uncertain.
"Yes." Pride's eyes turned up to meet Auria's. "That I've fallen in love with you."
Auria gaped back at him for a while before finally stammering out a reply. "Isn't that... Against the law here?"
"It won't be, once I'm King."
"And don't you need to leave an heir?"
Pride shook his head. "There needs to be a member of the Taaja clan to wear the crown; nothing more. My brother can leave an heir."
"What if he doesn't?"
"Then I'll figure something out..." Pride brushed the side of his beak against Auria's neck. "But I want to figure it out with you."
Auria's plumage fluffed out fractionally at the touch. "Heh... Well, then I suppose I'll have humor you, Sire."
Prince Valor looked up from his fuming as the raspy voice of a magpie drifted in from beyond his chamber door. The door latch clicked and Kasha Cairn's black head poked its way through the crack.
"You'd better have good news..." Valor's voice was characteristically bitter and angry.
"I do, Sire." Cairn stepped into the room, shutting the door behind him before continuing. "My ally may have failed, but it seems that the situation may have provided a... Less direct solution to your troubles."
Valor groaned impatiently. "Don't dance around with me, Cairn. If you know a way to kill that fool, just tell me."
"That's just it, Sire; you may not have to kill him. It appears that your brother has fallen in love with the very guard that saved his life."
"And how does that help me?" Valor sneered. "He's allowed to take any mate he wants."
"Not when they're a bald eagle, Sire."
Valor stared at Cairn for a few moments, confused, but eventually the meaning started to dawn on him. A low, triumphant laughter rumbled up from the Prince's throat.
"Ah hah hah hah hah hah! He always was an idiot romantic." Valor stepped down from his bed, his feathers puffing out with his excitement. "How satisfying it's going to be once I use it to bring him down."
Cairn reached out a wing to halt his Prince before he could make for the door. "With respect, Sire, I think it would be best for me to make the accusations."
"And why is that?" Valor demanded.
"Because it would be suspicious coming from you. But from myself - a mere servant with very little to gain and everything to lose from such an accusation - it'll be much more credible."
Valor looked thoughtful for a few moments before relenting. "Fine. I'll trust you to it."
"I won't fail you, Sire." Cairn made to tug at the door rope.
"Oh, and Cairn?"
The magpie turned to look at his Prince. "Yes, Sire?"
"How exactly did you learn of my brother's indiscretion?"
Cairn's eyes flicked over to one of the stained-glass sheets that decorated the room's walls, deep black and cut into the shape of a bird in flight. "The door was unguarded; I was able to listen in while your brother confessed his love."
"Heh, trust my brother to be so stupid at a time like this." Valor flicked his wing towards the door. "You may leave now. Make sure this gets done."
Cairn bowed. "Of course, Sire."
When Cairn was back out in the high-ceilinged palace hallway, he allowed himself a quiet chuckle; things were going perfectly.
Looking up and down the empty hallway, Cairn quickly composed himself. He couldn't afford to seem anything less than utterly sincere when he approached the Minister of Virtue, even if he did intend to mostly tell the truth. Once he was certain he appeared meek and remorseful enough to play his part, the magpie took to flight.
"Pride of the royal clan Taaja and Guard Auria of Brass Valley, you both stand before this jury accused of crimes of deviancy." The hawk judge stared down at the pair of eagles huddled at the center of the courtroom with hard metallic eyes. "How do you plead against these charges?"
The judge was a ferruginous hawk, large for a hawk but still lacking the sheer bulk to compare to a golden eagle. Even so, Pride felt small and lost as he looked up to the judge's pulpit. He had no idea what to say. The truth would surely destroy everything, but could he lie? He'd been taught since he was a chick that the Taaja name represented honor and honesty (he may have even had ancestors named Honor and Honesty, though he couldn't quite recall). Dishonesty here would be anathema, but...
"How do you plead?" The judge's harsh voice cut into his deliberating.
Pride let his eyes wander around the huge cone-shaped courtroom, taking in the jury of birds gawking from the walls above; his brother perched above them all, clearly trying his hardest to not seem pleased at the proceedings; the magpie he vaguely recognized as one of the palace servants, sitting on the witness' perch next to the judge's pulpit; and finally Auria, standing beside him with her head bowed. She held his eyes for a moment before sighing and nodding fractionally.
Pride turned back up to the judge. "... We..."
As he was about to begin his confession, the hoarse cry of a crow filled the courtroom. Sevry swooped down from the upper courtroom entrance, alighting on the floor between the two accused and the pulpit.
"This is a farce!" The Isle crow swept her wing in Cairn's direction. "That bird has no basis for these charges!"
"I don't know why you'd say that..." The magpie's voice sounded genuinely hurt. "I am merely trying to do what's best for..."
"Oh, shut up, you simpering little liar." The venom in Sevry's voice cut Cairn off. "You're not trying to do what's best for anyone but that puffed-up little hatchling-who-would-be-King up there!"
Utter silence gripped the courtroom, until Valor managed to stammer an objection. "What... How dare you..."
"No; how dare you, Valor. Your mother chose Pride, not you! But instead of accepting that you are unworthy, you have your pet pigeon over there fight your battles for you."
More shocked silence fell over the room, while seething rage seemed to come off Valor in waves.
"You will pay for these insults, crow." Valor's voice was flat and deadly when it eventually came.
"Hmph..." Sevry dismissed the Prince, instead turning on Cairn. "And you... Kasha Cairn, is it? What's your stake in this? What will you gain from seeing a tyrant on the throne?"
"I stand to gain nothing from any of this. I am merely trying to uphold this great city's laws." The magpie shifted nervously on his perch. "And, well... One could just as well wonder what you would have gained from keeping their romance secret. I... Overheard Prince Pride confiding in you."
"Is this true?" The judge questioned Sevry, having finally regained his voice.
Ignoring the judge, Sevry kept her eyes locked on Cairn. "And where exactly did you hear all this from?"
"I was... Outside the door."
Pride had been numbly absorbing everything so far, but his full attention finally perked at that. Something didn't seem to make sense, but he couldn't quite grasp what...
"Wait..." Auria spoke up, evidently to express similar misgivings. "But you couldn't have been out there, I was..."
Sevry turned on Auria, cutting the eagle off with a chop of her wing. When she seemed certain that Auria would stay silent, she turned back to Cairn, eyeing him critically for a while before finally speaking again.
"Thank you for your cooperation, Cairn; you've told me everything I need to know." After taking in the magpie's confusion, Sevry looked back to the two eagles. "You two say nothing until I return, understand?"
Auria spoke for them, nodding grimly. "We understand."
Without further word, Sevry spread her wings and shot upwards. It took a few seconds after she'd whisked back through the entrance from which she'd come for Prince Valor to bluster back to life.
"Wha... Seize her! Guards!" Valor jabbed his wing towards the steppe eagle and tawny eagle Guards perched nearby. "That crow is a traitor! Catch her!"
The pair of eagles scrambled to obey, launching themselves from their perches and following through the upper entrance. When it was all over, the only sound to be heard in the courtroom was that of Valor's barely-controlled breathing.
"What do we do now?" Pride whispered sideways to Auria.
"We wait for your friend to get back and keep quiet." Auria replied matter-of-factly as she was settling into a sitting position. "Those Isle crows always know what they're doing. Usually."
Sevry knew full well that Valor wasn't about to let her go unhindered, so she put as much speed behind her wings as she could muster. But even as she raced through the spacious, sparkling halls of the Crystal Palace, her mind was racing even faster to puzzle out what she'd do once she reached her destination. There was no way that magpie could have been listening from outside Pride's door; Auria and the two ravens had been standing there when Pride had confided in her, and then herself and the ravens when he'd spoken with Auria. So where had Cairn heard it all from? There was definitely more to this than was immediately apparent.
Sevry came to rest just outside the door to Pride's quarters, which was being watched by two Guards; a tawny eagle and a youngish golden eagle, respectively. The two raptors eyed her curiously as she approached.
"Can we help you?" The tawny eagle asked uncertainly.
"My name is Sevry, Prince Pride's personal servant. I'm here to acquire evidence to help in the trial currently underway." It was technically the truth.
The Guards deliberated silently with each other before relenting and moving aside. Sevry mumbled her thanks as she pulled on the door rope and stepped inside. When the door was shut behind her, she allowed herself a quiet sigh of relief before going to work.
Scanning the room, was struck by something; the walls. The walls of the Crystal Palace were decorated by countless stained glass plates, giving the building its name and much of its beauty. A few years back, some of the plates in this very room had been shattered in a mysterious accident. Sevry hadn't been involved, so she didn't know the specifics, but she recalled that the repairs had been coordinated by a high-ranking palace servant... Some manner of corvid, perhaps? She couldn't be sure.
Sevry looked to the wall in question, and found what she'd been fearing; one of the plates was dark black, cut into a shape that might have been a dragon in flight (though it was hard to sure, dragon's forms being variable as they were). But the shape wasn't what concerned her, it was the colour.
With a few heavy flaps, Sevry leapt up to the dark plate, scrambling to find purchase on the smaller plates beneath it. When she was steady, Sevry looked into the glass, using her wing to shield it from the lamplight. When she'd seen enough, she dropped back to the floor to find an appropriate object; something small enough to fly with, but heavy enough to be useful.
The answer came in the form of a small brass statuette of a coiled snake. Hoping Pride wouldn't a few extra dents and scratches on it, Sevry clutched the snake's neck in her talons, and, with much flapping and grunting, lifted the figure to just above plate-height. As she was struggling to keep the thing in the air, a din started up just outside the door; eagle voices, and more than two of them. She was out of time.
With a mighty heave, Sevry lunged toward the black plate, flinging the statue before just before the crash. Banking sharply to the left, the crow thudded roughly into the nearby wall as the dark glass shattered from the impact. She tried to hold onto the smaller plates, but only wound up sliding awkwardly to the floor as the chamber door crashed open.
Sevry made a flapping leap to the hole she'd opened. Peering into the hole, Sevry hesitated; the opening was just barely large enough for a creature of her size, with jagged glass around its edges. She'd probably cut herself if she didn't do this carefully...
After one panicked glance towards the Guards pouring in behind her, Sevry shoved herself through. Sharp pain laced through her shoulder as she crumpled to the tunnel floor, exhausted and panting. There were frantic scraping sounds from the tunnel mouth, followed by a dimming of the already meager light as the head of the tawny eagle door Guard peered in.
"This is... Evidence?" He inquired, thoroughly confused.
"Yes, this is evidence." Sevry grunted her reply as she pushed herself upright, waiting until she'd gotten a hold on both her breathing and her pain before continuing. "But I should probably find something that I can carry with me. You four wait here and watch this entrance while I investigate, understand?"
"Err..." The eagle hesitated, clearly not sure how to handle this turn of events. "I... Suppose...?"
"Good. Now, could you move away from the hole? You're blocking my light."
After another hesitant pause, the eagle dropped down to floor, allowing extra light to filter into the tunnel. It still wasn't much, but it gave Sevry a chance to examine her surroundings. The tunnel was visibly makeshift, roughly-hewn from the thick sandstone that made up the bulk of the Crystal Palace. The tunnel's low roof forced her into a slight crouch.
Peering off into the darker depths of the tunnel, Sevry could just barely make out a bend in the distance, where the tunnel seemed to veer off to the left. After allowing herself one final look towards the entrance, Sevry began her slow descent into the darkness. Keeping her uninjured left wing out, she felt her way through the tunnel until she came to the bend. From there, she could just barely make out a dim, flickering light in the distance.
"Do you see anything?" The faint voice of a Guard drifted down the tunnel.
"I see a light. I'm going to check it out."
Sevry continued down the tunnel, until she came across a small rough chamber, with similar tunnels stretching off in every direction. A small low-burning lantern hung from the wall above what appeared to be a makeshift writing desk covered in parchments. Sevry turned about, scanning the rest of the chamber... And stopped dead.
With an awful twisting in her gizzard, Sevry approached the macabre pile in the corner. Gingerly, she pulled a skull from the pile. It was small, with buck teeth and...
She tossed the thing away in horror. It was a rat skull. All of the bones were rat bones, undoubtedly the remains of the unfortunate workers who'd been forced to excavate this hideout, silenced forever to keep their secret.
Stamping down her disgust, Sevry took the skull in her beak and tucked it beneath the folds of her wing. She'd need it to make her case against Cairn.
Sevry turned to the desk, and the documents scattered across its surface. They were written in an odd looping script she couldn't read, but there was one thing she could understand; many of the parchments had a small crescent moon etched near the bottom, as if it were an author's brand. Sevry gathered every scrap of parchment she could find - seven in all - and folded them into a neat packet, which she tucked beneath her wing alongside the rat skull. After some consideration, she picked out one of the well-used black and white writing quills scattered across the desk, tucking that beneath her wing along with everything else.
Satisfied that she had enough evidence, Sevry took one final look around the chamber before leaving back the way she came. When she came to the exit, she peered out at the four eagles gathered uncomfortably down below.
"You four had better move out of the way." She called down casually.
Sevry waited for the Guards to heed her request before kicking at the remaining glass shards, sending them crashing down to the floor. Looking out of the hole again, Sevry wondered how she'd be able to get back down with all her evidence.
"You..." She looked in the direction of the tawny eagle Guard from the door. "Can you climb up here? I'll need you to help me carry something."
The tawny eagle gave a quiet sigh of resignation before leaping up to the opening with a few light wing strokes. When he had a firm grasp on the edge of the hole, Sevry took the rat skull in her talons and passed it towards him.
"What is that?" He demanded, eying the skull with suspicion.
"Pretend it's from a giant mouse." She replied sarcastically
The eagle recoiled in revulsion. "I'm not touching that!"
Sevry understood the reaction, but she couldn't help groaning in exasperation anyway. "It's evidence that the magpie testifying against our rightful King is a murderer. Just take it."
After a moment's hesitation, the eagle relented and took the skull in his beak before dropping to the floor. The eagle set the skull down as soon as he got the chance.
"Don't be so eager to get rid of that." Sevry called down as busy grasping the parchments in her talons. "I'm going to need one of you to carry that for me."
When he only stood staring hesitantly down at the skull, the other tawny eagle brushed him roughly aside with her wing.
"I'll hold it. I'm not afraid a dead creature." She turned on the other tawny owl when she had the skull firmly in her talons. "And you're supposed to be a soldier?"
"Well, no..." He answered meekly. "I'm just supposed to watch doors."
The female eagle looked away and scoffed. Sevry landed nearby, with parchments and quill all clutched tightly in her talons. The female tawny noted the blood caked on Sevry's right shoulder.
"Can you fly all that way?"
"I believe so." She replied, flexing her wing experimentally. "It's not very deep; it just hurts."
Sevry made a fluttering hop towards the wide-open door, calling behind her. "You two who were outside this door, stay here. Watch this room, and make sure nothing comes in or out of that hole."
"As you wish." The golden eagle answered for the two of them.
"And you two..." Sevry indicated the two eagles who'd followed her from the courtroom. "You come with me. We need to go save our city."
"I already told you, you can't not plead!" The judge's voice was shaky and venomous, clearly at the end of his temper.
Auria stood upright. "Well, then, maybe you'd like to come down here and make us?"
The judge opened his beak to protest, but a familiar cry drew his attention upwards. Sevry descended from the upper entrance, with the two eagle Guards trailing close behind. Silence gripped the courtroom once more as the three birds alighted between the accused and the judge's pulpit in a tight triangle.
"What is this?!" Valor exploded. "Why has that crow not been arrested?"
Ignoring Valor, Sevry pointed a wing towards the magpie above. "I come with proof that Kasha Cairn is a traitor and a murderer."
"You found... Proof?" The judge sounded doubtful.
"Yes. I found the entrance to a series of spy tunnels in Prince Pride's quarters, hidden by black glass; the Guards with me can attest to that."
"Is this true?" The judge looked to the eagles guards, who both nodded in assent. "And what was found there?"
"I found a hidden chamber dug into the sandstone, with many similar tunnels connected to it. I also found this..." Sevry gestured to the tawny eagle, who passed on the rat skull, which Sevry held in her talons for the whole court to see. "This is only one of the many rat remains I saw in those tunnels."
"That doesn't prove that Kasha Cairn is involved." The judge countered.
"No." Sevry admitted, setting down the skull and pushing the parchments and quill forward. "But these just might; these documents are written in strigiform, all bearing the symbol of the Silent Crescents. If there are any owls in the jury able to read them, perhaps they can provide some answers."
A pale ghost owl among the jury raised his wing slightly. "I can."
The judge looked from Sevry to the owl and back again. "I'll allow this."
Sevry pushed the parchments towards the owl as he touched down. Owls' emotions were notoriously hard to read, but as this one sifted through the documents - his white face slowly turning back and forth - something in his stance seemed distinctly... Unsettled.
"What do they say?" Sevry asked as the owl pushed away the final parchment.
"Well, all the notes with the mark seem to be written by a member of the Crescent Moons." The owl indicated one of the parchments. "I think this is the most recent one. It's an apology for some sort of failure."
"That would be the attempt on Prince Pride's life, I imagine." Sevry mused. "And what of the others?"
"The other two marked notes are merely requests to meet with the creature they were meant for. But the unmarked ones..." The owl hesitated before continuing. "Well, these seem to be full of... Observations on the two Princes."
Sevry glanced up at Valor, noting the uncomfortable stance he'd taken up.
The owl picked out one of the two parchments he'd indicated. "This one in particular contains all of Kasha Cairn's testimony."
"Interesting..." Sevry thought over all she'd heard for a few moments. "If that's all the relevant information you can give, you may return to your perch. Thank you for your assistance."
Parchments nearly scattered in the small wind kicked up by the owl's wings as he took off. When the courtroom was still again, Sevry continued her case.
And there is one final piece of evidence..." She held up the black and white quill. "This is one of the quills used to write these documents; a magpie feather."
Cairn, who'd been staying silent through the whole affair, finally spoke up in an oddly cordial tone. "But you have no way of knowing whether that feather belongs to me."
"That is correct, at least as far as our eyes can see. But a creature was a keen nose could smell the difference. So, if someone here would be willing to fetch a rat to the courtroom..." Sevry looked towards Cairn. "And if our magpie friend here would be willing to lend us another feather for a comparison, then perhaps we can find the truth."
Cairn held Sevry's eyes for a while before responding in a calm, reasonable-sounding voice. "If you insist. Fly to me, and I'll gladly give you a feather if it'll help prove my innocence."
Suspicious of the magpie's intentions, Sevry turned to the steppe eagle by her side. "Would you be so kind as to collect his feather for me?"
Wordlessly, the steppe eagle flew to the task, landing next to Cairn on the witness' perch. Cairn made a show of rifling through his wing feathers with his beak, as if deliberating on which he wanted to pluck. Suddenly, the magpie's stance seemed to tense up...
"Watch out!" Sevry shouted a warning, but it was too late.
Cairn pulled a small wooden dart from the folds of his wing, jabbing savagely at the eagle Guard before him. With a sound that was half startled chirp and half strangled gurgle, the eagle fell backwards, tumbling to the floor with an unpleasant thud. Cairn looked down at the motionless heap of brown plumage as if he were regarding a rotten fish.
"You killed him!" The tawny eagle shrieked in rage, and would have flown at Cairn if Sevry hadn't stretched out a wing to block her way.
"No! That dart is poisoned; don't get too close!"
Cairn looked in Sevry's direction - the blood-stained barb still clutched in his beak and his head cocked at a mocking angle - as if to say well, you just know everything, don't you? Taking advantage of the combination of shock and fear of his poison, Cairn leapt from his perch, sailing up and out through the same entrance Sevry had used.
Auria took charge of the situation, bellowing an order at the other Guards in the room. "Follow him before he escapes!"
"But he's got poison!" A voice from above protested.
"Well, then you'll have to be careful when you catch up with him, won't you?" Auria sneered. "Get going!"
After another moment's hesitation, every Guard in the courtroom jumped into action, with nearly a dozen eagles and hawks all flooding out through the upper entrance in pursuit. Sevry's tawny eagle companion raised her wings to join them, but Sevry stopped her with an outstretched wing and a shake of her head.
"No; we may still need you here." Sevry whispered.
The judge was staring down at the dead eagle, as stunned as every other bird in the room. Sevry called up to him after she felt he'd had long enough to digest the situation.
"Your Honor..." She started in a cordial voice. "Given that the only witness is now proven a traitor, do you agree that perhaps the charges against the Prince and this good Guard should be dropped?"
"Err, yes, well..." The judge straightened up, clearly his throat loudly as he made a show of reclaiming his officious composure. "Given... Recent events, and by the power vested in me by the great city of Dragon's Brooch, I move that the deviancy charges against Prince Taaja Pride and Guard Auria of Brass Valley shall hereby be dismissed!"
The judge punctuated his proclamation with two strikes of the polished gavel stone clutched in his talons. As the last echoes of the gavel sound receded from the courtroom, Pride breathed a sound of relief that was half-sigh and half-sob. The Prince likely would have embraced Auria if not for his plaster-encased wing. Instead, he settled for a longing-filled look.
Sevry was so preoccupied with watching her Prince's celebration that she failed to notice the actions of the other. But Auria saw, and nearly knocked Sevry flat with the beating of her wings as she shot upward to meet Valor talons-first.
The two eagles collided in midair, with Auria grasping Valor by the talons and tossing him down with a practiced, contemptuous ease. There was an unpleasant crunch as Valor crashed into the courtroom floor shoulder-first. Watching as Auria landed by Valor's side and pressed her talons roughly against his neck to keep him from struggling back upright, Sevry had the presence-of-mind to realize that she now owed Auria her life as much as Pride did.
Valor chirruped and whined piteously. "She ruined everything! You both ruined everything!"
"Try to not be so sore about it, Sire." Auria crooned in a falsely-comforting voice. "We were only doing our jobs."
Auria gestured sharply to the tawny eagle Guard, who stepped in to help restrain Valor after a moment's hesitation. As she looked over the whole affair, Sevry reflected on the fortunate events so far; a dangerous enemy had been driven out of the court, a proper heir was now firmly in-line for the throne, and now even the troublesome potential hear had removed himself from the game entirely with one rash motion. Everything was going... Well, maybe not perfectly. There was a dead bird on the floor, after all.
But they were going well enough.