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Green and Golden

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And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace
Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas


The forest spread out over them in overlaying wings, flowing with the wind and almost singing when the leaves ruffled. Naesala wasn’t quite sure whether he liked it or not. Compared to the naked sky, it should almost have been oppressive, but it wasn’t. It was soft and gentle and for the first time he realized how very desolate Kilvas was.

They landed amidst a gathering of herons, one of which came forward to welcome them. The ancient tongue in her voice sounded like a melody, which could almost hide that she was polite, but reserved and distant as she inquired as to their presence. Nealuchi, of course, was delighted, and eagerly prattled on praises and greetings while Naesala assessed her. She was a willowy middle aged woman called Melia, with dark grey wings and hair and a long flowing robe. She grew slowly more sympathetic as Nealuchi sweet-talked her.

“Now, be a good Nestling and show your manners,” Nealuchi said, as he pushed Naesala in front of him.

Naesala could do better than polite. Naesala could do charming. He smiled and bowed. “I’m Naesala of Kilvas, pretty lady.”

The heron hid her mouth behind her sleeves but Naesala could see she was smiling.

“He seems sweet enough,” she said, “but there are not many children around here, he will probably get bored and…”

“There are children!” Naesala blurted out, because he just saw them join the crowd, trying to be sneaky (which they were not very good at, being all in white and almost shiny with their long blond hair.)

“Prince Reyson! Princess Leanne! I told you not to come here!” The heron woman sounded flustered.

“Ah, Nestling… see their white wings? We are in the presence of royals. Don’t be so rude.”

Naesala wasn’t really listening because he was busy staring at the heron children. One was a boy, perhaps a little bit older than him, with a rather sour expression on his face that only resulted in pretty pouty lips. The other was a girl, looking a couple of decades younger and positively sparkling with excitement, her wide green eyes gawking at him shamelessly. She glided over to them, the boy following just an instant after.

“Are you a raven?” she asked in a lovely voice.

“Of course he’s a raven, Leanne. No one else would have such dark wings,” the boy said, his voice also melodious.

Naesala wasn’t impressed by royalty, after all he’d played often enough with his cousin the son of King Kilvas, and even if he never could win in a straight fight, he’d managed to outwit him often enough not to hold him in awe. But much unlike his cousin, the heron children were awfully pretty, with a grace and a glow that ensnared the eye, so he decided not to take offense and to try for charming once more.

“I’m Naesala, my lady Leanne, and a raven indeed. I see you’ve heard of us. Only good things, I hope.” He grinned at her and at the boy.

The boy looked pensive. “There are a lot of stories about ravens,” he said cautiously, “but Lillia always says we should judge by ourselves what’s in the heart of people.”

“Well then,” Naesala said. “We shall be friends.”

“Princess Leanne, Prince Reyson, please!” The heron woman fretted. “It has not yet been agreed that…”

“Oh, Melia, please,” Leanne interrupted. “We never see other children to play with and I like this one. Couldn’t we keep him?”

Keep… him? Naesala wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that.

“I also think it would be the best for our education if we spent some time with another member of fellow bird tribes,” Reyson said primly.

“Ah… well…”

Nealuchi coughed. “Please, my lady. It would be of great kindness if Nestling could remain in Serenes for a while, so as to broaden his horizon and weave ties between the bird tribes. At least until our troubles are settled…. As you can see, he’s very well mannered and won’t cause problems. Will you, Nestling?” he added, with a sobering glare.

Naesala straightened and attempted to look innocent. Thankfully, he’d had a lot of practice. “Of course not! I will be very obedient.”

She sighed. “I guess it can’t hurt for a little while. I pray that your troubles will soon be settled, Sir Nealuchi.”

The old crow smiled and answered with some sort of inanities.

“Well, children, please introduce your new friend to the forest and be careful to tell him of the rules, while I go ask His Majesty for his approval.”

Leanne smiled broadly and already slipped her hand inside his, springing for a fluttering dash that almost unbalanced Naesala. When he recovered his bearing, he realized that Reyson was right behind, also smiling smugly. Naesala raised his eyebrow and Reyson tried again for a sterner expression, then shrugged and took off up to a large, comfortable tree on which the three of them sat over most of the vegetation.

“You must tell us everything about the world,” Reyson said.

“And play with us,” Leanne demanded.

Naesala preened under the attention. “Of course! Oh, but there’s only that…” He trailed, dramatically.

Reyson frowned. “What is it?”

“The custom of my people is not to give away things so easily. So I’ll trade you.”

“I’ll trade!” Leanne said, sounding like she thought it was a great new game.

“Trade what?” Reyson said, suspiciously.

“Oh, we’ll think of something,” Naesala said slyly. He already had a few ideas.

“I guess that’s not unfair. What did they mean by “troubles” earlier? I’ll trade you for the rules of the forest,” Reyson added quickly, before Naesala could interject anything.

So, the heron boy wasn’t just a pretty face. Naesala smiled. “Oh, that? That’s nothing much. Just some people have taken sick and died in Kilvas lately, and nobody quite knows what to make of it, and as usual Nealuchi is panicking about nothing. But-“ Naesala took a grave look. “You must swear not to talk about that with anyone else, right? It’s a raven secret. At least from the hawks, because they always try to use everything as a reason for why we shouldn’t live on our own on Kilvas instead of with them.”

“I promise,” Reyson said, looking quite serious.

“I swear, too.”

“We never see hawks anyway. We don’t really see anyone,” Reyson said, sounding rather bitter about it.

“Naesala plays with me, now!” Leanne’s wings fluttered as she pulled on his hand again. “Naesala plays and I will play with him later in exchange.” She had the most adorable smile and Naesala found that he couldn’t say no to that.

They played hide and seek and tag and other silly games in the forest all the afternoon.

By the evening, Naesala knew of all of their favorite spots and all the places where it was forbidden to go. He’d been told which of their older siblings and various minders were strict and unyielding and which could be swayed with a pleading gaze from Leanne or an earnest appeal from Reyson. There were, overall, a lot of rules and a lot of restrictions. Herons were serious, tetchy, and fragile creatures, it seemed. What a hassle! Naesala didn’t mind the royal heron siblings, but he didn’t look forward to staying Ashera-knew-how-long in such a fussy and repressive place. If Nealuchi liked it so much, he should stay here on his own.

“This is such a vast and beautiful forest, it’s a shame we can’t explore it more…”

“Well…” Reyson said, “It’s supposed to be dangerous. There could be beorc around after all…”

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of beorc. We deal with them all the time on Kilvas. They come trading and we never have any problem.”

“I’m not afraid!” Reyson said, stiffly. “But we’re herons, not warriors, and we’re supposed to behave ourselves.”

Naesala scoffed “Sure. Well you behave yourself, and I’ll do the exploring on my own. You sure those white feathers of yours aren’t chicken wings?”

“You take that back!” Reyson said, outraged, while Leanne was grabbing his hands.

“Don’t leave!”

This was too much fun.

“Well, come with me, then, and I’ll take it back. Anyway, you won’t have to worry about danger,” he allowed generously, “I’ll protect you.”

Reyson’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I’m older than you and you’re our guest. I will protect you.” And he turned and stalked away, wings and robes swishing dramatically.

Leanne tilted her head pensively. “Naesala is sly.”

He smiled sheepishly. “Sorry?”

“No. It’s fine. Nothing ever happens here otherwise.”

They came back to the heron home, and he met the other royals and found out they’d made a place for him to stay in one of those beautiful tree houses that seemed to grow out of the tree in braided twigs and foliage.

 

Things settled in a pleasant enough routine. In the morning he went along with the herons on being taught (usually by one of their older sisters, Lillia, or by Melia) some pretty inane religious drivel which he mostly tuned out beyond basking in the glow of all the singing. And they would talk a little about what he knew of the rest of Tellius (which meant mostly repurposing a lot of his mother’s stories). Lillia was pretty sharp and gently pointed out anytime he was embellishing too much on one of the tales, and asked thought-inducing questions.

They ate mostly fruits and nuts, which Naesala had expected would be light, but there was so much of it, and in such variety, there for the picking pretty much everywhere you went, that he was surprised to find himself quite sated with it. And no one ever glared at you for wanting a second serving.

In the afternoon they played in the forest, exploring a little bit farther each time. Discretion being the better part of valor, Naesala didn’t take them too far (and to be honest, he often enough had to convince Reyson to stop, giving him an occasion to regret his earlier egging on.) Nealuchi would never forgive him if he managed to get the herons angry at him enough to kick him out.

One such afternoon, Reyson and he raced over still water, hoping to balance out Naesala’s superior swiftness with the Heron’s greater familiarity of marshy ground. Perched on a willow’s lower branch, Leanne gave signals and called the wins. Reyson had started positively fuming with competitive fire, never quite able to outdo raven reflexes, his feathers and robes stained mud brown and his hair wild as a swallow’s nest.

“Let’s call it a day!”

Anymore and Reyson might actually end up making himself sick and then there would be hell to pay from Nealuchi and Lillia.

The heron boy brightened. “Are you growing tired? I might have a chance at the next one then.”

Naesala laughed. “You might not be as quick, but you’re as stubborn as any crow.”

Reyson’s eyes sharpened so he hastened to add, “That’s a compliment, really! Being tenacious is how we survive!”

“Hmm…” Reyson said. “I had never thought of it before… but you ravens are fast, clever, and persistent. And most of the other laguz people are strong. There is not much that we herons are good at in comparison.”

That was such an odd way to look at the respected and beloved herons of Serenes that Naesala blanked out. “Err… you’re very pretty?”

“What’s the use of that?” Reyson said, vexed.

“It helps persuading folks to do what you want?”

“I don’t see you having much problem with that.”

Leanne interjected: “That’s because Naesala is pretty!”

“No, no!” Naesala protested, smugly pleased, “You’re pretty. I’m handsome.”

She giggled. “Leanne is pretty!” And twirled with her wings spread out like a fan.

Reyson rolled his eyes at them. “Let’s go back. I have to change before Melia catches us like this.”

 

Naesala was surprised to find how quickly he came to appreciate the Royal heron children. Underneath the snootiness that he tried to wrap himself within, Reyson hid a temper that Naesala delighted in setting off as it was a pleasure to see him spark-eyed and disheveled; and Leanne was not only too sweet and adorable to gainsay, but she was wickedly devious in using it to her advantage. And she took a real shine to him, so he couldn’t fault her taste.

A part of him kept expecting them to grow tired of him. Obviously, his presence was a novelty to them and while he didn’t mind – much – it made him wary of when their eagerness would turn to disinterest, or when he would peeve Reyson off one time too many.

One time, he aggravated Reyson by throwing twigs at him to the point of making him raise his voice in the middle of some religious singing and he thought for sure that would be it. Melia would tell him to pack and he would have to find a way to apologize to Nealuchi for spoiling their relationship with Serenes. But Reyson stiffly shouldered the blame as Melia had him start over from the very beginning, although he looked quite cross and ignored Naesala the rest of the morning.

Naesala felt unnervingly touched. He couldn’t think of anyone but Nealuchi ever going on a limb for his sake before. He had friends in Kilvas, of course, but it was every crow for themselves during any prank or scheme. Especially for him – he was the odd boy out: too closely kin to the royal family to be dismissed easily and fit as one of the crowd; but with his mother more often off traveling for years at a time, it wasn’t anything that he could trade on either. Ravens just didn’t do him any favors unless he could heartily bargain for it.

Naesala slipped into the forest at the end of the lesson. Surely, he could find some rare fruits to sweeten Reyson over and make friends again. The heron boy was quick to anger, but slow to take a grudge, he thought. He had to make it better so he wouldn’t lose the closest friends he’d ever had.

Naesala came to a halt. The thought was disquieting, a little bit.

The forest wasn’t home, and he was not entirely welcome here. But for all that Kilvas was a part of him, it never brought the comfort that he’d found here. There was always a cold wind between other raven youths, something like competition and greed and suspicion. Survival always came first at home, and everything else followed, and he’d never figured out before how that despair clung to everything that made its nest in Kilvas.

Serenes was free from such shadows. It was resplendent and bountiful and henceforth bred generosity in those who took wings from it. Or perhaps that was simply the nature of herons and ravens.

He came back nearly at dusk, with a basket full of rare berries. Reyson glowered at him for disappearing and making them worry for nothing, but took the berries without comment and shared them with Leanne, so Naesala was pretty sure he was off the hook this time.

 

After two moons, Nealuchi came back to Serenes.

“Am I going back now?” Naesala asked; not quite knowing whether he wanted to leave or to stay. How quickly had he gotten used to the forest and its lakes!

“No, not yet.” Nealuchi looked tired, but it was a long trip after all and he wasn’t young.

“Why are you here, then?”

“I was sent by King Kilvas. Your Highnesses,” Nealuchi turned to Reyson and Leanne, “May I ask to see King Lorazieh, but with the utmost discretion?”

“I will go to ask him at once,” Reyson said gracefully. “Come Leanne, let’s see Father.”

Naesala waited until they had disappeared behind the tree lines. “What’s happening?”

“You are fine, right, Nestling? Not feeling weak or anything?”

“Of course not.” Naesala scowled.

“Good, good. I thought so. If anywhere’s safe, it would be here.”

“Sure, it’s a very nice place. Good food, pretty people. What’s wrong in Kilvas?”

The old crow sighed but relented, “The disease is spreading. Nothing seems able to stop it.”

“That bad, huh? What does my uncle expect old Lorazieh to do about it?”

Nealuchi was a worrywart, but if the King had gone as far as to ask another nation’s monarch’s help…

“Tsk, Nestling. Show some respect.”

“Yes, yes. What does he expect of King Lorazieh?”

“Your uncle’s son got sick as well. Heron songs have many virtues... I hope they may be able to strengthen him…”

Naesala’s cousin was one of the tougher ravens he knew. Surely, he couldn’t be that far gone.

Prince Rafiel, looking dignified and fussy as always, interrupted them to lead Nealuchi to Lorazieh. The three children remained behind.

“This looks rather grave,” Reyson said, while Leanne slipped her hand into Naesala’s in wordless comfort.

“Well… Nealuchi always makes a mountain out of nothing, but… I’m not so sure about this one. You have to keep it all to yourself, right? This is serious Kilvas secret stuff.”

“I promise,” Reyson said, as formal as the first day.

A few hours later, Nealuchi left Serenes accompanied by Lillia.

“It’ll be all right,” Reyson said. “She’s as good a singer as Mother.”

“And she’s very smart,” Leanne said, “And kind.”

Of course she was, Naesala thought, to accept to go help on an island beset by death. He was a little surprised the heron King had let her go. But herons were different. Generosity came easily to them.

The days that followed were filled with nervousness, and Melia despaired of their lack of attention to their teaching.

Lying on the cold grass besides one of the small ponds, they considered the waters gloomily.

“I wish they were more we could do,” Reyson said, suddenly.

“You are,” Naesala said. “What Lillia is doing… no one but herons could do that.”

“I meant,” Reyson said, coloring a little. “I wish there were more I could do.”

“Oh,” Naesala said. “Well it’s not like I’m any use to Kilvas here either.” He grabbed the damp earth, feeling it sway under his nails as he closed his fist. “No point worrying about it for now.”

Three days later, Lillia came back to Serenes, eyes red and brow grim. Even a royal heron’s galdr hadn’t held the death of the son of King Kilvas at bay. Nor had it the queen.

“Whatever is the cause of this, it is beyond our ken. Perhaps Goldoa...” She said softly. “I am sorry, Naesala, for your kinsmen’s loss.”

Naesala wordlessly shrugged, ill-at-ease with her gentle words. None of it felt quite real yet. Here he was, in this green and golden haven, enjoying spending time with Reyson and Leanne, whereas back home his people were besieged by a plague.

He asked Nealuchi to go back.

“No. You stay here, Nestling. Now, more than ever. With so many dead, even in the King’s family, this is the best you can do for Kilvas, to remain in as much security as you can.”

So Naesala stayed.

 

They started exploring farther away into the forest after that. Recklessly so, and what had to happen eventually did.

That afternoon they’d come onto a small glade, when a group of beorc came face to face with them. There were five or six of them, rough and dirty looking, carrying axes and bows.

“Look at those fancy subhumans!” Naesala heard one of them say, in the modern tongue.

Leanne cried out, “Are those beorc?” and he had to restrain her from getting closer.

“Naesala? What are they saying?” Reyson asked, already disquieted.

“Bet we could get a good price out of them.” Another be- human said.

“Go,” Naesala said. “We have to fly off.”

He picked up Leanne and took wing right away, as fast he could.

With Leanne in his arms, he could barely keep up with Reyson as they dashed through the forest. Leanne had cried out at first, with the surprise of it, but now she was clinging tightly to his arms, small and warm and trying not to impede him.

Reyson was a white blur at his side, concentrating on speed without any words of complains.

How foolish and stupid, really, and what was wrong with Naesala that he had had to lead his friends into troubles when there was trouble enough that he couldn’t do anything about?

They fell onto a muddy and thorny hollow. Good enough a spot to hide in, Naesala assessed quickly. “Here,” he said, setting Leanne down. “Let’s swap our cloaks; I’ll try to lead them away from you.”

Reyson tried to protest.

“There’s no time,” Naesala pushed, “you know I’m faster, I can evade them and get back to you.” The heron boy, stubborn as ever, didn’t look convinced. Naesala tried a winsome smile. “I said I’d protect you, didn’t I? And you, you protect Leanne.”

Leanne supplied, “Let’s ask the forest to help him out, Reyson.”

“All right,” Reyson relented, “but you better come back to us, Naesala,” he shot fiercely, before removing his coat.

“Of course! I wouldn’t abandon you like that… And a few humans aren’t going to keep up with me long!”

Naesala took the cloth and flew off, hearing behind him the soft duet of his friends communing with the forest.

A few quick glimpse of the shiny, white robe behind the trees was enough to catch the humans’ attention. They were as predictable as his cousin was always telling him - had always told him they were, he grimly thought.

He struggled to be able to keep ahead of them long enough to lead them astray. In the past weeks he had gained knowledge enough of the forest to know where best to slow them down in marshes and undergrowth while keeping himself hidden away so they wouldn’t realize they were being fooled. And the vegetation did seem to help, flowing out of his way when he raced, and back to hide him while he rested. When he thought the humans were far enough, he hid away the white coat in the mud, and shifted to fly back to the heron siblings.

He was out of breath but smug enough to forget the fear of earlier when he came back to the hollow where he had left them.

“Hey, I told you it would be a breeze to-”

Leanne dashed into his arms, interrupting him. He laughed awkwardly and hugged her back. Reyson was frowning. “You haven’t seen anything weird, have you?”

“What?”

“We saw a raven,” Leanne said against his neck, “He flew over us earlier. I told Reyson it wasn’t you because you wouldn’t leave us.”

“I didn’t think he was either!” Reyson bit back. “He was bigger anyway.”

“Another raven, here? Could it have been Nealuchi?”

Reyson shook his head. “I don’t think so. He was larger than Nealuchi.”

They were far enough in the forest that they were probably in beorc territory. And Benion was no friend to laguz, though it never stopped ravens from trading with them. Right now, with the herons at his side and after the scare of earlier, it was harder to remember that any deal could always be arranged as long as there were advantages in the bargain.

“I wonder,” Naesala said, slowly. “Why they’re here. Which direction were they going?”

The siblings exchanged a look and when they turned back to him, Reyson’s mouth was set stubbornly. “Let’s find out. It wasn’t so long ago we can’t follow.”

Naesala had never been any good at resisting temptation.

“All right, but you stay back and we scamper off if there’s any sign of trouble.”

Leanne was the one to tell them where the forest remembered the raven’s passing through. Heron abilities were really uncanny sometimes.

They didn’t go very far before they started seeing signs of beorc habitations. It was some sort of large, fancy hunting lodge, if Naesala had to guess. He was ready to tell the herons to give up and go back when he saw the dark clad figure talking to some armored beorc behind the iron forged gates and recognized his uncle.

“He’s there,” Reyson whispered. “Do you know him?”

Naesala nodded. He’d once heard some hawks had a rare skill to listen from very far away… must come in useful in times like this. No choice, then. He had had enough of being left behind and feeling helpless.

“Look, you two stay here and hidden in the bushes. I’ll try to find out if I can learn more.”

Reyson bit his lips, his eyes skipping between the beorc house, Naesala and Leanne.

“Please,” Naesala said, out of persuasive arguments, and the other boy acceded.

“Be careful,” he said, reluctantly.

Leanne squeezed his hand before letting him go.

It was a good thing Naesala had some experience with sneaking in and out of places.

He circled the fence until he found a spot where his flying over it shouldn’t be noticed. Luckily, there were enough extravagant statues and lavish nooks and crannies to continue hiding in the inside. Soon enough, he heard his uncle’s voice and flew by the window it seemed to be coming from.

“I beg of you,” The King of Kilvas was saying, in a broken, coarse tone. Naesala startled and almost fell from the small stone knob he’d perched himself over. “I beg of you, please, relent… relent your curse, Senator…”

He couldn’t quite see the people in the room from his vantage point, only one vague dark shape, and didn’t dare peek for fear of being seen.

“You are tiring me,” said a cold, languid voice Naesala did not know. “Cease your beastly whining. You were not so talkative when you refused our orders.”

“Will you wait for all of us to be dead? At the rate this is going, we will all be dead within a fortnight. Already so many perished…” His voice broke. “Please, have mercy, Senator. What use would you have of us if we are all dead?”

What?

“What use do I have of you if you’ll disobey us?” The Senator countered.

“By all that is holy, we have learned this lesson. We’ll do whatever you want from now on…”

Naesala was biting his lips to keep himself for exclaiming. It couldn’t be, could it? It couldn’t all be because of this human?

“Hmmm… Very well. Perhaps it is time to show myself magnanimous if you know better than to flout your betters’ authority from now on. But remember we can have it start again anytime we want if you defy us.”

“Never, Senator. Thank you… thank you…” By the tone of his voice, his uncle was crying bitterly, raggedly.

“Now, be gone. Your unseemly begging is fouling my mood on such a propitious day when I was enjoying the hospitality of my friend. Quite uncivil of you.”

“The curse…” King Kilvas said, “You’ll stop it now?”

“Yes, yes, as soon as I am back home of course. Now, away!”

“Senator, please, any further delay…”

“Leave before I change my mind.”

There were some quick movements and Naesala let himself descend to the ground. Barely, he managed to remember to make his way back as stealthily as he could while trying to keep his thoughts from spinning.

He had never seen his uncle like this, and that human had… and how could it have gotten to this point, how could his uncle have let it go that far? How could that human have so much power?

But he couldn’t afford to consider this now… he had to go back to Reyson and Leanne and they had to get back before night fell…

And they…

Naesala felt his whole body shudder, thinking back to the words he had heard.

He didn’t even see the attack come.

The talons grabbed his shoulder and swiftly carried him over the fence and pushed him against a tree. He felt all the breath go out of his ribcage, and he lay there, too stunned to do anything.

Beside him, the raven shifted back, effortlessly as monarchs did. His hands were still squeezing Naesala’s arm painfully.

“I know you, boy.” King Kilvas squinted at him. “You’re my youngest sister’s son. What are you doing here? Who sent you?”

“N-nobody,” Naesala managed, terrified. “I’m staying at Serenes forest. Nealuchi insisted. I just… wandered… here…”

“Hah! That’s right, the old crow said. You, the herons protected. Tch! And you were snooping around? What did you hear?”

Naesala made an indistinct sound, trying to come up with some answer.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter, does it? You’ll find out soon enough, in all likelihood. Do you know, if my sister ever comes back to wherever she wandered off this time, she and you and me, we’re the only ones left of the family?”

He didn’t wait for an answer and huffed in a way that was barely recognizable as a laugh. “We’ll see how much you’ll enjoy surviving this, then. I wish you more joy in the crown than I found in it.”

He finally let go of Naesala’s shoulder and stepped back. “I hope you know better than to prattle, boy.” He transformed and flew off, before Naesala had any more time to gather his thoughts.

Reyson and Leanne found him a few moments later, worried and relieved to see him unharmed.

So Naesala had to smile and apologize about not about coming back sooner and fib something about not being able to get inside the wall without being noticed by the guards. He didn’t make a good work out of it, and even Reyson, who wasn’t as good at peeking in people’s hearts as Leanne, probably felt something was off. But after a while even he stopped asking questions.

By the time they came back, night had fallen some time ago, and they got an earful from Melia and Lillia and even Rafiel showed up and looked disappointed at them.

Most of it glided over Naesala’s feathers. He kept mulling over what he’d heard before and his uncle’s words.

From times to times, he saw Reyson glaring talons at him, and Leanne looking close to tears, so he had to smile ruefully in answer.

He didn’t know what else to do.

He had been silly, getting used to the sweetness of Serenes. The bitterness in his uncle’s voice should remind him. He didn’t belong there. He had to remember to be a raven, all sharpness and cunning to navigate treacherous winds.

And he’d have questions for his uncle, the next time he saw him.

By bedtime, while he lay sleepless, Reyson drew near and grabbed his hand. “Naesala?”

“I’m sleeping, Reyson.”

“But you’re not.”

“Well, you found me out,” he snapped back. “What do you want?”

“I wished to thank you… for drawing the beorc out in the forest. That was very brave of you.”

“Yeah, I dunno what came over me. Should have just bargained you over to them.”

What?

Reyson always looked so endearing when flustered; Naesala couldn’t maintain his bad mood.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean that. Look, I didn’t do anything but take you out of the trouble I had put you in… oh, and I lost you your coat in the process, too.”

“Even so, Naesala, I am grateful.”

“All right, all right,” Naesala laughed. Really, Reyson was too obstinate for him. “Then give me back something in exchange.”

“Oh, raven customs, is that right?”

“Yeah, nothing’s for free. Not for us.”

“I shall think of something,” Reyson resolved.

A couple of days later, Nealuchi came to fetch Naesala back to Kilvas.

“Your uncle said he wanted to talk to you,” the old crow said, an unusual sad note in the voice. “I know he never took an interest in you before, but you must be nice to him. He- we lost a lot of people, Nestling.”

Somehow Naesala doubted the king was out looking for comfort. He tried to hide his shudder from Nealuchi.

“What about Mother?”

“Oh,” Nealuchi said, “I’m sure she’s fine, wherever she is. She’s shrewd enough to have ridden out the storm entirely.”

Like I did, Naesala thought.

He started preparing to leave Serenes. He was relieved, really; it had been tedious to evade the herons’ prying gazes in the last few days. Even so, he knew he would miss them. He’d be sorry not to enjoy playing anymore with sweet, sly Leanne and fierce, fair Reyson.

When he said his goodbyes, he wasn’t able to help himself. “Hey, do you think I might pass by again to visit in the future?”

Reyson, who had been standing awkwardly with a frown on his face, immediately said: “Of course! You can come any time to stay with us. We’re friends, are we not?”

Naesala grinned, “Yeah.”

“Naesala comes again tomorrow,” Leanne demanded.

“Perhaps not that soon. Sorry, Leanne.”

She pouted.

“I’m sorry, Naesala,” Reyson said. “I haven’t thought of anything of equal value to thank you.”

“Oh, that? Don’t worry about it.” But Reyson was still frowning, so Naesala smirked. “All right, then, give me a kiss and we’ll call it even.”

Reyson colored and his eyes went bright like when he was peeved so Naesala was already spreading his hands up to say he was kidding when Reyson closed in, butterfly quick, and brushed his lips against Naesala’s.

“There, we’re even now.” Reyson sounded smug. “Good bargain.”

“Not fair!” Leanne cried. “If Reyson gets a kiss, I do too!”

Naesala laughed. “Yeah, of course, wouldn’t want to be unfair.” He took her into his arms and laid a kiss on her cheek.

“Naesala, don’t be so sad now, all right,” she said softly while she hugged him back. He didn’t find any words to answer with so he only ruffled her hair so she’d make an affronted face at him.

They left soon after.

While they flew back to Kilvas he thought about it. Naesala might not belong in Serenes, but it was still there, welcoming and dear, where his friends lived. The thought should help face the bitterness ahead. At least, that much, he could always count on.