Mochizuki post station was always quieter after the last mail drop of the day was sorted, and everyone had settled onto their futons. That particular night was quieter than most, with the peculiar stillness of the world holding its breath in anticipation of a big storm.
The storm came through just before dawn, rattling the shutters and the sliding doors as the wind shifted. Shizuka lay on her futon, only half-asleep, waiting for the gust front to come close enough that she could use it and hoping it would still be dark enough that no one would notice her leaving.
By the time the quiet wind-whistle rose two notes and began to cut through the rattling of the post station, she was already getting up off her futon and creeping out to the porch with her gear in hand. Fortunately, the older girls slept in a room with an inner door, or the wind coming through the door from the porch would have woken them all for certain.
Shizuka hurried into her sandals, arm-wraps, harness, and headscarf in the dim predawn light, glancing up at the launching tower to try to see the direction flags. The sky wasn't light enough yet to show the flags against the clouds sweeping in, but from the sounds of the building and fence in the wind she had a good idea which way the storm was blowing anyway.
She made it all the way to the stack of broken kites at the base of the tower before someone caught her. As Shizuka was carefully pulling the kite she'd hidden out from the back of the pile, another shadowy figure shuffled across the garden, hopping a little as she struggled to tie the ankle-straps on her sandals over the loose fabric of her hakama. Shizuka froze, but there was no reason for anyone to be out in the yard at this hour fully dressed unless they were planning to go up. At least the other girl didn't immediately cry out or run to wake anyone else, instead heading over to within quiet speaking distance where Shizuka could recognize her as Fuji, another Kaminari girl around her age, although Fuji had only come to this post in the last few months.
"What're you doing up so early?" Fuji asked, checking the weather more out of habit than with any particular focus. "Storm's going to be too much to fly messages in, I think."
"I know," Shizuka murmured, holding her kite awkwardly behind her. She was already in harness, so there wasn't much point it trying to hide the kite in the shadows, but she couldn't help it.
"Oh!" Fuji exclaimed, covering her mouth with her hands. "You can't...I mean, what...er...I'll come with you!"
Shizuka blinked, stunned for precious moments of the increasing daylight. "Come with me?"
"You can't fly off alone, not in front of a storm like this!" Fuji replied quickly. "I'll meet you at the top of the tower - I just need to get a kite off the rack."
"But...you can't just steal a kite!" Shizuka protested, her voice cracking on the last word as she tried to keep quiet. Although taking a broken one she'd fixed up herself wasn't that far off from stealing, it still wasn't the same. Fuji turned her head pointedly towards the one Shizuka was holding and then waved her hand dismissively.
"I'll bring it back intact, it'll be fine," she replied, turning on her heel and walking lightly across the yard to the proper kite racks.
Shizuka shook her head and quickly snapped the loops of her harness into the kite frame, feeling the giddy rush of anticipation before she even started up the launch tower. If she climbed up quickly enough, maybe she could leave before Fuji gathered her gear. The other girl had been kind and cheerful since she arrived, but Shizuka didn't really want to explain herself or try to resist being talked out of leaving. She didn't want to leave the post and the community it offered, but the growth spurt that had just started was going to make it impossible for her body to be taken for a girl's much longer. Whether this was one last free flight or running away she really hadn't decided yet, and she wasn't sure she wanted a companion to be deciding for her. With a deep breath at the reminder of Fuji on her heels, she scrambled up the ladder into the early dawn glow.
It normally only took a few moments to hook up a flyer to the launch-spring, but the spring was stiff and unwieldy for only one person to ratchet down. Shizuka was still struggling with the mechanism when Fuji's head and the upper part of a kite popped over the rim of the tower floor. Surprisingly, the other girl didn't bother talking, instead dropping a handful of carry-bags and joining Shizuka at the spring. The two of them together pulled it back easily, and made quick work of the second one after only a glance between them. Clearly, Fuji was more than ready to leave with Shizuka, and if they were going to ride the gust front rather than be swamped in the rain following it, there was no time to argue.
Shizuka's plans hadn't extended beyond riding an unwanted kite out of the post station and buying herself some time away from prying eyes. For someone who usually prided herself on her organizational skills and planning, it was uncharacteristically impractical, but every time she thought about the future she felt it like a weight pressing her flat. She was trying to ignore the logical voice that knew this was more likely a last desperate free flight before being grounded and stripped of her position as a Kaminari girl than it was a real solution to her problem. Now that Fuji was here, she could almost pretend they were in one of the other girl's stories about gods, monsters, and Immortals. Shizuka laughed under her breath as they started hooking Fuji's bags onto the mail release latches that lined the frames of both kites.
"Do you even know what we're doing?" Shizuka finally couldn't help but whisper, as they hooked their kite frames to the launch springs. Someone down in the yard was pulling up water from the well, and the whole post was going to be awake soon.
"Going on an adventure, of course! Anywhere in particular you'd like to fly?" Fuji replied cheerfully, her dimples showing now in the morning light.
"Maybe we could look for tengu on the mountain," Shizuka suggested under the sound of the rising wind-whistle on the tower railing, half-hoping that Fuji would take it as a joke and just keep her company on a picnic flight, since she already seemed to be treating it as a day-off lark. Fuji's entire face lit up at the suggestion, as she tied her usual bright green flight charm onto the struts just beside her shoulder. Shizuka found herself wondering how terrible it could be to make her last flight out a true adventure. If she was being impractical, why not take it as far as possible? She crouched low on the launch platform, cranked her kite wings wide, and felt the wind starting to lift her up alongside Fuji, at least until she cranked the launch pulleys tighter. The wind was strong enough they almost didn't need the spring-launchers, nearly rising into the air before they could pull the release cord and let the spring fling them up with a jolt that sent them racing west-southwest ahead of the storm front. Clattering alarm bells and shouts from the post yard followed them into the air.
Riding the front of the storm, they quickly left Mochizuki behind. Shizuka rarely flew on her days off, preferring to keep busy with post maintenance rather than standing out as a thrill-seeker or someone to be watched. She was surprised at how good it felt to focus on keeping ahead of the rain, feeling out the cross-currents to find the easiest and fastest glide rather than fighting to keep on the most efficient course for the next post. She and Fuji crossed back and forth along the edge of the racing clouds, heading further up Mt. Tateshina. In this kind of weather, it wasn't smart to fly too close to another kite, so there wasn't much chance to talk - just a few shouted comments as they passed close to each other before winging away again on the next gust. But Shizuka enjoyed the company. Fuji's cheerful whoops and whistled directional warnings were pleasant reminders that she wasn't alone. Not yet. With the wind rattling along the waxed paper edge of Shizuka's kite-wings, punctuated by the crack of thunder deep in the storm they were racing, it was probably the closest to the essence of being a Kaminari girl she would ever feel, and it wouldn't have been right without a flying partner even if they weren't racing each other to the next mail drop.
As the wind pushed them up along the slopes of Mt. Tateshina, Shizuka felt the pressure of the storm moving in on them and knew they were going to have to stop and let the storm pass them. It wouldn't be easy to get airborne again unless they went up to the top of the mountain, and it was a long hike back to the post if they didn't. The rain was already rattling on the top of her kite by the time they crested the peak and saw the jumbled rocks of the crater beyond. Shizuka whistled the drop signal, not wanting to let go of one of her wing grips long enough to wave in the shifting cross-currents, especially while looking for a spot to land that wouldn't end with broken legs. Once she saw Fuji's head turn at the sound, she pulled the levers to crank down her tail, kicking hard in the leg straps before freeing her feet to land, and settled more or less gracefully on the ground, with only a few stumbling hops from rock to rock as she turned to keep the wind from grabbing her kite again before she could crank in the wings and flip the tail properly back out of the way of her legs. Right after Shizuka pulled in her kite, Fuji touched down with great whoops of laughter.
"That was fantastic!" Fuji shouted over the rain and wind. Shizuka turned her back to the wind and finished winching up her kite tail so she could crouch down on a reasonably flat rock, angling her back so the kite sheltered her from the worst of the rain. Up this high, bits of sleet were starting to mix in with the water. Shizuka tugged out a scarf from under her jacket and hunkered down closer to the ground.
Fuji settled in next to her before pulling a mail-release and dropping one of her bags on the slushy rock in front of them. "I think this one was lunch," she added at a more conversational volume, scooping up the bag and peering inside. "It's early, but we can call it breakfast."
"Back at Narumi on the Tokaido, the mountains were too far for them to let us go on a quick trip away like this," Fuji explained as she handed Shizuka an onigiri. "I like being on the Nakasendo better."
"Um...we aren't exactly supposed to be doing this," Shizuka murmured to the rice ball in her hands, rather than let Fuji see her guilty expression.
Fuji waved that away as she took a healthy bite out of her onigiri. "S'a day off. We're not missing out on anything but boring chores. And it'll be easy enough to get back, not like on the coast. It won't be a problem."
"Assuming that it doesn't get too much colder in this storm, I suppose," Shizuka replied, blowing on her hands between bites of onigiri.
"If you're so concerned, why did you sneak out at dawn to fly up here, anyway?" Fuji asked, digging out another rice ball for each of them. Shizuka wondered when she'd had time to pack so much picnic lunch without anyone noticing. "Why not wait until later in the day? If you're going to get rained on anyway," she added, with a pointed shift of her shoulders that sent water sheeting down the side of the kite rather than the back.
"Well...that is...there's..." Shizuka stuttered to a halt, feeling her face heat up. She'd never talked about this to anyone, and the habit of hiding was too strong to break for a girl she'd only met a few months ago, no matter how friendly.
Fuji rescued her from her embarrassment. "Hey, hey, don't worry about it. I get laughed at all the time for praying before I launch and leaving offerings whenever we stop, but it's their loss, not mine. You do what you want, no need to explain to me. Oh! Did you mean it when you said we could look for tengu? Because there must be some on Mt. Tengu over there, or why would it be named that, right?" Fuji waved her right hand, in an apparently random direction - it certainly wasn't pointing at any of the mountains nearby.
"From here, your compass should be pointing nearly right at Mt. Tengu," Shizuka corrected her, before ducking her head in apology at the brusqueness of her tone. Navigation was important, and if you couldn't tell which way the mountains ran with a compass showing you south, you weren't going to get far. She'd forgotten for a moment that Fuji was from Edo and didn't know the local landscape yet, and had corrected her as she would any of the trainee girls.
Fuji glanced at the compass mounted on the head of her kite frame, then grinned and craned her head in the proper direction, although with the rain and sleet coming down hard, there wasn't much of a view. Every now and then a quicker gust of wind would push at their backs, like a hand trying to shove them off the mountain to go get a closer look, and they had to keep shifting the kites to keep from getting soaked through rather than merely damp around the edges.
"I don't see anything off that way," Fuji finally said. "But isn't that a peak over to the..." she checked her compass again, and stopped with her mouth half-open. "Shizuka, is your compass moving funny?"
Shizuka had just barely enough time to glance up at her compass before she felt the wind sweep around them like a storm-god's hands, lifting them in a quick, out-of-control spiral. If they hadn't pulled in their wings after landing, Shizuka probably could have kicked the tail release and made some progress pulling out of the updraft. But as it was, all she could do was hold hard onto the edge of Fuji's sleeve and try not to scream. A quick glance down showed them impossibly higher than the mountaintop already, with a howling wind pushing them harder upwards than anything she'd ever felt and threatening to tear their kites to pieces. Most likely, if their wings had been out, they already would have snapped off. Her harness was cutting hard into one hip and shoulder and she felt like she might be spraining her fingers clutching so hard at Fuji, who was laughing hard enough that Shizuka couldn't tell if she was enjoying the experience or hysterical. Probably some of both.
Before Shizuka could do more than start to panic, the wind popped them up through the clouds and deposited them surprisingly gently on a sloping grassy field wreathed in bits of floating fog or cloud - a piece of ground that really really shouldn't have been there. Shizuka and Fuji both slumped down to the ground, awkwardly tangled in the lines that had broken on their kites and snarled together in the wind. There was a long time of disturbing quiet, broken by their attempts to catch their breaths, before either of them bothered to try moving. Finally, Fuji managed to undo enough of her harness to wiggle out of the mess, long before Shizuka calmed enough for her hands to stop shaking wildly.
"Wow!" Fuji laughed, a little breathlessly but not sounding panicked in the least. Shizuka rolled her head to glance over at Fuji's feet, which was about all she could see through the tangle of kites. "This is fantastic! I think there might even be tengu over there," she added more quietly, dropping into a crouch so she could meet Shizuka's eyes.
Shizuka pushed weakly at the ground, not wanting to be trapped under two kites if the tengu decided to come closer and find out what the wind had dropped. Had the wind been under their command, and gathered up two girls for a snack or something? Shizuka found a burst of coordination to at least sit back on her heels, if a bit hunched to one side with the weight of the second kite.
"What? Where?" Her shift of position pulled her nearly free of Fuji's kite, enough so that she could tug them apart and stand up properly. She wasn't going to just lie around on the ground if there really were tengu out there.
The ground was oddly squishy under her feet, although some of that may have been the feeling of sopping wet straw sandals. On the far side of the field, coming clearer as some of the cloud-fog blew away, there was a small group of colorful figures crouched around a smoky fire, holding something over it which looked like the end of a giant sheet or maybe a bag, laid out along much of the space between the fire and the girls. The figures sort of looked like they might have wings, she supposed, but from the bright stripes of color it seemed more likely they were just draped in some kind of fabric. Bits and pieces of their conversation reached Shizuka on the light breeze, along with the pleasant scent of woodsmoke and peaches, but she couldn't make out any words. One or two of the half-dozen people seemed to be staring at them, but no one was doing anything alarming yet.
Shizuka felt a spreading calm steady her still-shaky limbs as she watched the colorful people messing about with their fire. They were people, she was sure, not tengu - or at least, they were some sort of being that looked a lot more human than any kind of birdlike demon. She had always thought that people living Above the Clouds was supposed to be a metaphor for the court, not a physical description, but, well, perhaps not. They didn't appear particularly disturbed by the appearance of two disheveled Kaminari girls, and that meant they might have seen this kind of thing before. It probably wouldn't hurt to ask them about this place, because there didn't appear to be any handy launch sites to get back out of here and down to the world...in fact, there didn't appear to be any gap in the ground that they could have come up through. So, yes, magic was clearly involved somehow, but that didn't mean anyone they saw here would have to be malicious or want to eat them. With a deep breath, Shizuka straightened her kite.
"Let's go introduce ourselves," she told Fuji as she started towards the far side of the field. Fuji squeaked a brief protest, but quickly scrambled after her kite and followed when it was clear that Shizuka wasn't going to stop and wait for her.
It took them a few minutes to walk around the spread of thick woven cloth on the ground, and Shizuka inspected it curiously as they walked. It seemed to be a bag after all, filling up with smoke and air, with the upper section starting to billow a little in the breeze. She thought it might be a little like a much, much bigger version of the paper signal lanterns they flew at some of the posts, held up by the heat of a tiny lamp in the center.
Just before they came within reasonable conversational distance, the smallest of the strangers popped up from his crouch by the fire and jogged over to meet them. If these were regular sorts of people, he...she...the child looked like it was about six or seven years old, wearing striped cloth draped over its shoulders and down to its knees, with funny thick leggings and fuzzy socks just like the others. Shizuka supposed it would have been difficult to make the child's outfit any brighter than the adults', but on a child the thin stripes seemed rather more sedate than she was used to. The child grinned and chattered at them with a pleasant gap-toothed smile, and while up close these people's faces did look a little strange, they weren't bright red with long noses like even the most human-seeming tengu were supposed to be. They didn't seem to have any feathered fans, either. It quickly became apparent that the reason she hadn't been able to make out their conversation was that it was in some language or dialect she'd never heard before. Fuji stepped a little closer to her shoulder, half-hidden behind Shizuka's kite, but stayed quiet.
"Good...day," Shizuka tried, after a quick glance for the sun and an arbitrary decision about the time. Probably it wouldn't matter what she said, anyway. The child just laughed, said something else incomprehensible but friendly-sounding, and gestured broadly towards the fire, taking a few steps towards it. She tentatively followed, and the child grinned even wider, so Shizuka grabbed Fuji's hand and led her over to the fire. Two or three of the others glanced up from their work and probably greeted them, or at least all seemed to be saying the same thing, as the child dove into the large stack of luggage piled up on one side of the fire, next to a huge basket. Shizuka tried another "good day," and a bit of a smile, and the people smiled back.
She was starting to feel a little awkward about just standing around with Fuji hiding behind her, when the child popped back up from their luggage, holding something shiny in its hand. The thing looked like a polished metal bird, bits of lacquered green and red outlined in polished silver, and the bird's beak started clacking open and closed as the child did something to its back.
"Is that a clockwork doll?" Shizuka asked, mostly to Fuji since the strangers weren't likely to understand her questions. "I've never seen one made out of metal."
"I've never seen a bird-shaped one," Fuji replied, stepping forward and forgetting some of her earlier caution. "What do you think it does?"
The bird's mouth opened again and began speaking, but the sounds didn't make any more sense than the people had. "It talks!" Fuji cried in delight.
"It makes sound, anyway," Shizuka agreed, splitting her attention between the bird and the child holding it up to them. The sounds were shifting, so that the bird didn't seem to be repeating what the strangers had said, but it still was nothing like real words. The child started chattering with two of the adults, gesturing with the bird a little.
"I wonder how that works?" Shizuka mused, reaching out slowly to gently touch one fingertip to the bird's glossy chest. The bird seemed to ignore the touch, if it could even sense it.
"I thought you were a flyer, not a mechanic," Fuji laughed. "Who cares how it works? It's pretty."
The child grinned at her, gesturing off towards the other side of the fire, where Shizuka realized there was a dirt path stretching off through the grass and fog. The child hefted the bird a few times, taking a few steps and waiting until they followed, before setting foot on the path and leading them away from the people at the fire. The others were starting to haul on ropes attached to the edge of the bag as it rose a little off the ground. Shizuka glanced back and forth between the colorful people and the child and bird, but decided that the easy coordination of the adults had no room for them to get in the way, and the child clearly wanted them to go somewhere. Finally, with a glance at Fuji, Shizuka shrugged within her harness and followed.
"Do you think maybe we shouldn't be going with them?" Fuji asked worriedly, awkwardly slinging the kite frame over one shoulder. One of her harness latches seemed to have broken on landing. "What if they're some kind of monsters just trying to trick us into leaving the field?"
"They look mostly like people to me, friendly ones," Shizuka replied. "And we're never going to be able to get back into the air from this field, so why shouldn't we leave and see what else is here?"
"Lots of monsters can look human when they want to. They might not be tengu, but what if they're foxes or something?"
Shizuka had never been all that worried about supernatural creatures before, and even with that wind bringing her somewhere that, if she thought too hard about it, was patently impossible, she found it difficult to worry about them now. There was likely a more reasonable explanation than magical creatures. "Why would monsters need to build clockwork? Wouldn't they have magical birds, if they wanted something like that?"
Fuji made a noncommittal noise and stopped arguing, but Shizuka thought she was unconvinced. Well, they'd find out soon enough, whenever they reached wherever it was they were being led. Hopefully it wouldn't be far, because her soggy sandals were starting to get lumpy and chafe. As they walked, the grassy area was starting to fill with scattered flowering trees - not organized enough to be an orchard, but beautifully placed in a way that made them seem not quite wild. Shizuka took a deep breath and smelled peaches, cherries, and a mix of a few other sweet scents that she couldn't quite place. Wherever they were, it was quite lovely.
Suddenly, the fog parted to reveal a huge gate over the path, bounded by flowering trees stretching off into the fog on either side as if following a wall. The gate was painted brightly with all kinds of interesting carved figures on it, human and animal and monster all combined. As they stepped closer, Shizuka could see that there were immense doors pulled back on either side, very much like a temple gate. The doors were also decorated, possibly telling stories in distinct panels, although the angle was poor for deciphering them and the child wasn't slowing much as they stepped through. No one seemed to be guarding the gate, but a few of the carved figures creaked and turned to watch them - Shizuka hoped they were clockwork and not something creepier, but she grabbed Fuji's wrist and made sure to hurry across the threshold just in case.
The other side of the gate was filled with tables under canopies and fluttering flags, clearly a marketplace with vendors behind the tables and some crying their wares up and down the rows between the tables. Shizuka couldn't tell if there were any permanent store fronts mixed in behind the street stalls and wandering customers, but it seemed busy enough. Not perhaps as busy as a street in downtown Edo, or even Kyoto, but doing well.
The people were wearing all kinds of fascinating clothing and colors. Shizuka would have lost sight of their guide if Fuji hadn't pulled her along close on the child's heels, but then, Fuji's stories of Edo made it clear she was far more used to the bustle of a city than Shizuka was.
Fortunately, it wasn't a crowded enough road that wearing the folded kites on their backs got in the way. Also, their apparent destination was only two booths down, an expansive roped-off area with many wooden stands rather than tables, each one holding at least two or three shining clockwork birds. They weren't all the same shape or color as the first clockwork bird, but they clearly were the same type, with glittering lines of metal visible between all the lacquered colors and different beaks and feet and tails. The child lifted its bird up in both hands, presenting it to the birds on the nearest perch and saying something quickly. The birds on the perch all responded with slightly different sounds, one at a time, but none of them made sense as words. The child gestured at them with the bird it still held up, then at the ones on the perch, then at them again.
"What do you think we're supposed to do, grab one?" Fuji asked Shizuka, at which point each of the birds on the perch repeated the sounds they'd made for the child. "Oh, maybe we should talk to them!"
Fuji pulled Shizuka down the row of perches to the next set of three birds, glancing dubiously at the birds, then the child. "What do we say to it?"
The bird in the child's hands and the first one on the perch both answered, with different sounds. The child grinned, bobbed the bird up and down at them, then turned on its heels and left them in the bird park. Shizuka found herself sharing a grin with Fuji at the sight. "I'd guess anything will do, until we find one that makes sense?"
"I hope there's one in here that does," Fuji answered, waiting for the birds in front of them to stop before moving to the next perch. "Maybe we should both try different ones to get through them faster?"
"Good idea," Shizuka answered, suppressing a laugh at the absurdity of walking along speaking to clockwork birds in the hopes of finding one that would answer back intelligibly. It wasn't until they were halfway down the park that Shizuka thought she heard something recognizable, if a little strange.
"Fuji, I think this one might be close!" She beckoned the other girl over to a perch with a glittering rooster-clockwork on it. "Listen!"
The rooster obligingly repeated something courtly-sounding, almost like a poem. Fuji blinked a few times, then repeated the first bit slowly. "I know that one, I think it's at the start of one of the stories about Prince Shotoku."
The rooster blinked shiny brass eyelids at Fuji and tried again, this time with something that sounded like a real, if very archaic, greeting.
"Yes! Good day to you, bird," Fuji responded politely. "I wonder if it's Chinese?"
Shizuka didn't have a chance to answer, as a small, dark brown man wearing a deep orange cloth draped around his hips and over his shoulder came up from the other side of the perch and grinned pleasantly at both of them, nodding and putting a small songbird-clockwork on his shoulder. He murmured something to the songbird, which sung something to the rooster, which then spoke to Fuji and Shizuka.
"Welcome to the Cloud Kingdom, land of the Immortals and those of Earth who have found the way to Heaven," the rooster said. It was still rather like listening to a storyteller doing a part for one of the really old tales, but Shizuka thought that was what the bird had been trying to say.
"How clever," she told Fuji, without taking her eyes off the rooster. It turned and spoke to the songbird, which spoke to the man holding it.
"It is good you have found a bird to speak with you. That one has not been used in generations. I am Ayush, keeper of the speaking birds. Please may I ask what people you are?" he said through the birds. "And perhaps what it is that you carry on your backs?"
"We're Kaminari Girls," Fuji answered. "We ride the kites," she gestured at the one on her back, "for the mail between Edo and Kyoto. Are you some kind of monk?"
"No, no, I just keep the birds. There must be someone here to explain the Cloud Kingdom to new people. It has been a long time since we have had such new arrivals as you two, though. Pick up the rooster and come sit with me back in the garden, please," he gestured towards the far side of the bird park, where a weeping cherry dropped petals in the light breeze over a cloth spread under its branches. They followed him to the cloth and spent a few moments unhooking the kites before settling down cross-legged amidst the falling petals.
"I will send a bird to my cousin, who has a Vimana, and he will take you on a tour. While we wait for him, I will explain the basic laws of Heaven. A moment, please," Ayush continued with a smile. Then he whistled sharply, and another songbird like the one still on his shoulder, but this one in bright green instead of yellow, flew over to land on the cloth under the tree. With a few quick sentences, he appeared to be instructing the bird, after which it chirped twice and flew off.
"There. You must first know that no one arrives in the Cloud Kingdom who does not have something to offer here, though you may not know what that is," he began. The rooster made Ayush's words more stilted than they sounded out of his own mouth, but Shizuka thought she understood what he was saying reasonably well. "While nothing here is purely magical, nothing here is necessarily without magic either, including anyone who arrives here. So you would be welcome to stay."
A place where by its very nature only those who belonged there could arrive sounded like Heaven indeed to Shizuka, but what if it was only an accident that they had both been caught up in the whirlwind? She barely heard the next few things the man said, lost in the struggle between a startling warmth of hope that here was somewhere she might truly belong and the cynicism of years of fighting to carve out something like that place, knowing that people who found out the truth of her origins would likely cast her out of it.
"But should you only wish to visit a spell," Ayush continued, "then you must know that you must wait until the Kingdom flies back near where you arose from. Please do make yourselves as comfortable as you may during the wait, and do not hesitate to ask anyone should you need anything or simply have questions for us. First, if I may, I will begin with a question for you, about what this thunderous mail service you mentioned is. The last I heard of your land, or the land of the rooster-speakers, anyway, I did not hear of any such thing," he said, leaning forward a little.
Fuji happily leaned forward to match him and, after a quick self-introduction for both of them, started to explain the Kaminari Girls and the postal network that they operated, which was just as well, because Shizuka didn't think she could even start to find coherent words yet. Fuji began by showing off the clasps for the mail packets on the underside of their kites, and some of the other kite mechanisms, and had barely begun to explain the circumstances that had led to an all-female service from the apprentice flyers and mechanics all the way up the ranks to the postmistresses at the stations when the little green bird returned, chirruping loudly.
There was a muted roar from outside the bird-park that briefly drowned out both the bird and Fuji's story. They both fell into a startled silence, which Ayush filled with a grin. He gave a reassuring pat of his hand to the bird that had landed on his knee again after a brief flight upwards in what Shizuka would have assumed was surprise in something more alive than a clockwork device.
"That will be my cousin Ranjit now. Sorry to not hear the end of your story, but he is very busy and should likely not be kept waiting for the tour. Perhaps you could come back later and finish, delightful child?"
Fuji blushed a little at that, and Shizuka found herself suppressing a smile. Ayush smiled back at both of them, lifting the green bird off his knee and offering it to them. As Fuji tentatively reached out a hand, the bird squawked twice and hopped to her wrist. "Follow the bird through the gates and Ranjit will know you are the ones to be taken up. Please do come back for a talk when you have time, yes? I will keep your kites safe here for you."
Shizuka bowed politely to Ayush with a quick glance at her kite. It wouldn't do her much good here, where the winds were so gentle, and the old man had been very polite and accommodating. There was no reason to fear for the safety of a kite she'd rebuilt from the scrap heap to steal from her post, but she felt a brief pang at leaving it all the same. Still, it wouldn't be polite to doubt the man, so she scooped up the rooster and followed after Fuji and the green bird without saying anything.
When they went back through the gate (the clockwork carvings turning to watch them again as they passed underneath), there was a large wooden...thing out on the grass beside the flowering trees, resting in a thick flurry of fallen petals. The green bird flew off of Fuji's wrist towards the man sitting inside the structure, and he raised and arm and waved them over as the bird circled his head. Fuji and Shizuka glanced at each other, shrugged, and moved closer.
Shizuka ducked her head down a little as they got closer, but she didn't see any wheels under the thing that would have made it possible to move it up so close to the gate, even if it had been on the path rather than beside it. It was like a long, wooden box with stubby, triangular extensions along each side, tapering down into a kind of weathervane-like back (or maybe front) end, with projections in three directions. There were some odd circular metal cylinders attached to a thickly-welded iron box under the wooden frame, which made it more puzzling. Something that heavy shouldn't have been able to just appear out of nowhere, but the cylinders weren't oriented in the right direction to be rollers. And she didn't see any gearwork, let alone wheels or skids, that would explain how it moved.
"Good afternoon!" Fuji called up to the person sitting inside the thing, who presumably was the Ranjit they were supposed to be meeting.
Shizuka made sure the rooster's head was pointing towards him so it could talk to whatever translating bird Ranjit might have with him. At least, she hoped he had one with him, because there was little chance they'd be understood otherwise. The figure gestured broadly to a few steplike handholds along the sides of the vehicle - even without wheels, if they were going on a tour, the thing must be some kind of vehicle, Shizuka guessed - and clearly wanted them to come up. Fuji shrugged and clambered up the side and down into the center, leaning over once she was settled and holding out her hands for the rooster. The clockwork bird was large and unwieldy enough that Shizuka couldn't carry it up with her, but she wasn't sure it was light enough to really fly. She lobbed it up as hard as she could with a care for its possibly delicate clockwork, and was pleasantly surprised to see it extend its wings and flap up the rest of the way into Fuji's arms.
Once she was up on the top of the vehicle, she still wasn't sure how the thing worked. Their guide was seated in a shallow depression at the top of the thing, on the end further from the weathervane, with a whole row of dials, handles and levers at his back. He looked a lot like a younger version of Ayush, although he was wearing quilted clothing in a strangely tailored style, with lots of fancy metallic embroidery and mirrors along the edges of his sleeves and top. There didn't appear to be any other clockwork birds up here with him, but he had something coming out from under his close-fitting cap's earflap that hooked into a spot amidst the dials behind him. He spoke briefly, and possibly one of the words in there was the name Ranjit, but Shizuka thought that could just as well have been wishful thinking. Their rooster didn't say anything comprehensible in return, and he eyed it curiously for a moment before taking it gently from Fuji and setting it down in a depression between himself and the panel with all the instruments with a slight click. Then he pulled a few levers and turned back to face them again.
"I'm Ranjit. It's a pleasure to meet you both," he smiled, the rooster now translating his words without apparent difficulty. "If you would take a seat on one of the cushions, here, you will have the best view once we get up in the air," he added, gesturing to a cushion on either side of his own seat.
Shizuka settled down on Ranjit's left with a frown, not seeing any way that this thing, which fit the three of them (and the rooster) with enough space for another three people in a row behind them, could get up in the air.
"I'm Fuji, and this is Shizuka," Fuji answered for both of them as she sat down next to the rooster.
"How does it work?" Shizuka found herself asking at the same time, biting her lip when she realized she'd spoken aloud.
"I see you haven't encountered a Vimana before," Ranjit answered with a smile, facing all the instruments and levers now that they were settled. "You'll want to strap yourselves in like so," he demonstrated with a set of shoulder harnesses tied to the planking on either side of his cushion. "And," he added, opening a box next to the rooster, "wear these goggles so you can see a little better through the clouds."
Shizuka took the goggles he handed her and poked curiously at the smooth lenses that must be made of some kind of glass, although she'd rarely seen any such things in person and never ones with the delicate pinkish hue these had. With a quick look at the way he was fitting a set on his head, she copied Ranjit and grinned at the strange tinge the world took on. The few petals still drifting through the air were a brighter pink, but it was the drifting clouds that looked the most different. Instead of seeming redder, they looked thinner, as if she could see farther through them than before.
"Now," he continued, beginning to pull on several levers, "this will get the mercury fired up again below us and we'll be able to lift on jets of air the engines push out through those canisters you saw under us."
Shizuka wondered if there was something he had done to the rooster to make it more understandable, because its archaic language was getting better and it was using words that were far more modern than earlier. Maybe listening to Fuji's story earlier had helped it get better.
"You'll need ear protection soon," Ranjit continued, handing them a strange contraption that had shell-shaped leather and metal pieces on either end of a bent strap, with a long line from one of the shells to the panel in front of each of them. "Put those on over your ears - don't worry, you will still be able to hear the rooster through them."
Shizuka slowly lifted the thing up over her head and tried to settle it comfortably so that the shells were over her ears, although it took a bit of pulling before she realized the strap in the middle could be adjusted to fit snugly over the hair folded up under her head scarf. By the time she got them settled, there was a low, thrumming vibration coming up through the floor of the Vimana that she felt more than heard. It rose to a dull roar, although little of the sound came through the shells, and she realized that this was what they'd heard when he had brought the Vimana in earlier. The vibration changed pitch as Ranjit continued adjusting the set of nearly half a dozen dials and levers in front of him, and lines on some of the instruments rose steadily. She didn't know the markings on the faces, but they were clearly responding to whatever he was doing.
Finally, the Vimana leapt up into the air with a jerk that made Shizuka glad she was strapped down to her seat, and she grabbed at the low wall next to her to keep her balance. Ranjit spoke, his voice - or rather, the rooster's version of it - coming directly to her ear despite the engines below them, as they rose up over the treetops and into the clouds.
"I'll take you on a quick circular tour of the major landmarks here, starting with the Buddhist section in front of us, where all the pagodas are. Seven of them're tall enough to always be seen above the clouds," he explained as they banked slightly to the left and rose up above the shifting, foggy mist that shrouded much of the ground.
Sure enough, there were four towers visible, floating in the puffy clouds that shredded around them, although only one looked like any kind of pagoda Shizuka had ever seen. The others all had a pagoda's layered levels, but the shape of them varied wildly, and one of them seemed to be coated in gold around the edges of each of the roofs.
"You can hear the hours chimed from that one over there," he pointed briefly to the closest one, a very squared-off version in bright colors, "when you're down on the ground, that is."
Ranjit moved two of the larger levers, and they banked more to the right in a sweeping turn that revealed more structures coming out of the clouds but also tempted Shizuka into looking more closely at their vehicle to try to figure out how he was driving it. Fuji was leaning over in her straps, clutching the wall and apparently watching the landscape as best she could through the clouds. The wind was whipping faster past them now, and Shizuka was amazed at how much easier it was to watch things go by when you didn't have to squint against the wind tearing up your eyes. From the way her clothes were flapping against her limbs, they were going very fast, much faster than the kites usually did, and her mouth dried out a little as she laughed.
"As we move around the edges, you can see this quarter giving way to a section that only has a few of their own clock towers, so mostly there's just a spire there...and there," Ranjit pointed as they rushed over a section that was mostly lumpy clouds through which Shizuka thought she could see some hints at slanted rooftops in dark colors. "And then we come to the stupas, which you should definitely take a closer look at if you have time on the ground, because that one," he pointed off to their right, where Shizuka could see a blinding reflection of the sun, "is covered in gold and gems on the whole building, with clockworks for the flags running up the west side to mark important festival dates."
Shizuka could see a few of the flags he referred to, and she checked his description against the the indicator needle in the center of the panel that she had thought might be a compass, but either it was pointing north, or the flag-side was to the east. She would have to ask Ranjit about that when they got down, since she didn't know how to get her voice to carry to the rooster without shouting.
"Now we should be getting close enough for you to see through the cloud wall a little into the mountain at the center of the Kingdom," he continued, gesturing straight ahead. "It's not one of the clearer days today, so unfortunately I can't show you much of the rest of the quarters at the base of the mountain, and we try to keep the Vimana a reasonable distance from the section with the minarets anyway, so we don't drown out the muezzin," he explained, although Shizuka didn't know exactly what he was talking about, since the rooster seemed to either have mangled or failed to translate a few of his words. "But over there I think you can just see the tip of one of the huacas poking up through the cloud. That one's from the Incans, the people who you probably saw with the balloon, if you came in by the gate I met you at. On a day with more wind we could see more of the ground and get a better look at some of the other flying machines, most of which need more wind than Vimanas do, but this will do for a quick tour, at least."
He banked around the slopes of the mountain, which frankly Shizuka was more inclined to see as a towering thunderhead than as a structure of rocks and earth. Although maybe a mountain in the Cloud Kingdom was more cloud than earth, at that, despite the way the ground had felt perfectly normal and solid when she stood on it earlier. The puzzle didn't hold her attention long when Ranjit pointed their craft at a huge, glittering sphere.
"What's that?" Fuji's voice came clearly through the shells on Shizuka's ears, startling her into losing her grip on the low wall for a moment.
"That, my friends, is the pride of the Cloud Kingdom - or at least of its flyers, navigators, and artificers," Ranjit answered. Even the rooster's version of his voice showed how proud he was of the massive sphere, all looping bands of metal and gears and little orbiting pieces in different shapes and colors. He slowed the Vimana to a speed that felt more like a leisurely flight than a headlong rush across the Kingdom, although it was hard to judge their speed without much ground to look at. "The map of Heaven and Earth."
The more Shizuka stared at the glittering edifice growing slowly closer, the more she thought she could make out a broader structure of an inner sphere with many moving pieces floating above it. "Earth is in the middle?" she asked, speaking in a normal voice and wondering if the other two would hear her.
"Yes, exactly! And the Cloud Kingdom is the wide, pale gray set of points just ahead of us now," Ranjit answered. "You can see the map fairly well through optics at the bottom of the tower if you're on the ground, but I always like to look at it from up here. Even though the Air Traffic Controllers in that little building at the top always get mad at me when I fly too close." He smiled ruefully and began to bank around the sphere from a good distance out.
Shizuka thought she could just make out a square structure at the top of the map, and felt a sudden wrench in perspective as she realized just how large that would make the map. They were probably still at least a half-li away, for the building to look that small. There were little flashes of colored lights around it, possibly how these controllers managed to show they were mad at Ranjit? A signal flag system like the post used wouldn't be very practical on top of something that large, she guessed.
"At the current rate we're moving over the Earth, I don't think we'll be back over your land for another couple of months. So you should probably settle in for a little bit while you're waiting. What kinds of places would you like to see down on the ground?"
Shizuka was still staring avidly at the map-globe and couldn't think of anything she'd like to see more than that. But Fuji's wistful voice came clearly over the shells as they banked away from the map-sphere and skimmed along the slopes of the central mountain, "We're sort of in Heaven now, aren't we? I wonder if I'll ever be able to meet an Immortal."
With a grin, Ranjit replied, "You already have."
The peaches and cherries are still blooming here, so I don't really know what a seasonally appropriate greeting should be. I hope you're not planning on sharing this note, anyway, so I supposed my letter-writing skills don't matter too much.
I hope you didn't get into too much trouble with the postmistress when you got back. It was a long time before you went back and I don't know what you could possibly tell them that would make sense. Just remember, if things aren't going as well as we hoped, you can always come back up here next time the clouds bring us over, now that you know what to look for.
I'm finding Heaven a wonderful place to live. Although the translation birds sometimes can carry messages, and they do have an air-traffic control system with lights, neither works as consistently or well as a proper mail system would. So now that I've gotten used to how things work here, I've started putting one together with Ranjit and the other Vimana pilots' suggestions for ways to fly that don't rely on the wind's support, because it's not very reliable here, as I'm sure you remember. It's been a great challenge, and I think that once the system is working it really will be even better than running a post myself, which is all I thought I wanted before deciding they wouldn't let me.
So please don't feel that I'm at all unhappy about being stuck here. I haven't met any more people who speak our language, but with all the talking you did before you left, the translation birds are much better, and it's very convenient now that I've trained a smaller one than that rooster, a songbird-clockwork that can just ride around on my shoulder.
I'm sorry I don't know better what to tell you in this letter. I've never corresponded much with anyone, and knowing that the next time I can send one will be months from now makes it hard. Don't let that stop you from replying to this one when the Kingdom comes by again, at least to say how things at the post turned out for you. Be well.