21 - Avian Flew

We depart a few hours later. It's lunchtime, and I'm wilting without proper feeding. I think that if there wasn't myself to worry about, he'd have stayed with her well into the afternoon, possibly the evening.

His hand moves to the small of my back, pressing just a little, but more keeping me close to him. "You're wondering why I brought you here, aren't you, Lotus?"

I nod.

"I thought it was important for you to meet her. For you to see her. And I..." the Peacock King's voice breaks a little at the end. "I rarely have a chance to show anyone my treasures as I have to you, Lotus. The only ones I have shown Hespiredes to were those of the Law that visited to ensure she was being taken care of well, and that she would see no more harm than she's been through already. But you...you can appreciate...you can understand..."

Silence drifts between us, filled in by the occasional birdcall.

"...You know the value of that which I keep, Lotus." He seems to deem that enough, and moves on. "And you've learned many things here, I hope?"

I nod. That statement above all is true.

He goes on. "Then--" A rustle in the trees nearby cuts him off. It surprises me just as much as it surprises him. My head jerks to look at whatever's rustling in the tree, and my eyes widen.

There are two pairs of eyes peeking at me from the tree. They are the eyes of children.

The Peacock King is frozen solid for a moment, then looks around quickly, paranoid, to see if we're alone in the Valley. I don't blame him.

Those eyes aren't human. But they echo his own just as much as they echo Hespiredes's.

We watch them in silence until the two children withdraw as quickly as they looked out. They would have been no more than eight if they were humans. By animism standards...I can only guess. I feel the Peacock King's hand curl around my shoulder before I can think on it further.

"I only wanted to protect her. She was lonely. She needed something to keep her in the Valley. She kept trying to follow me out, Lotus." It sounds more like he's explaining himself to someone else. But can I blame him, with what he's been hiding? "She needed them. There was only one way I could make her happy. There's nothing wrong with that."

I nod, my mind numb and my heart a little afraid.

There are some crimes that I don't want to think of the punishments for.

"If you tell anyone..." He sighs. "Lotus, please. No one else will take care of her like I can. I would have moved her into my Palace, all the animals with her as well, but the Dragon wouldn't let me. He said she mustn't leave. She'd only tame more animals as she moved, with her very presence. Do you think the Dragon would have allowed me to do as I did instead, to make her happy, if it were wrong?"

My tongue can't speak. It's limp and senseless.

"No one ever cared to make an animism happy, Lotus. They only cater to them for politics and land-grabbing. I care about her. She needed children. Don't...Lotus, don't tell anyone. Please." His tone has reached a level of pleading that shocks me. I could never imagine a person like him begging me for anything.

Maybe that's what finally makes me reply. I want him to stop.

"I have no reason to tell anyone about the secrets you keep in this Valley, Sire. Please let's just forget that I ever saw. There's no good in exposing you or her children." His relief is so great that when he slumps from it he seems to shrink.

"Thank you, Lotus. You have proven yourself an invaluable confidant. Why don't we retire to my carriage for lunch? You can eat something more civilized than campfire 'vittles'." With that, he leads me out of the Valley, his arm around my shoulders until we're in the safety of his wagon. I don't know if he was that afraid of me leaving and telling Camden of his crimes, or if he needed my shoulders for the support after being shaken so much.

Either way, I'm glad for the distraction that comes with food.

* * *

The Peacock King looks over his shoulder furtively before he shuts the door to the carriage. I'm already seated inside, my hands automatically tending to the tea service that's been set out. I pour two cups and hand the King his cup with saucer, then sip from mine. I can feel the nervousness exhuding from him. I don't blame him for beginning to panic. I don't know if I'll ever see his darkest secrets, whatever they are, and in fact I hope I never have that chance. But what I've seen today may be his most scandalous secret. Who can tell, with him? He's let me in on things before that could destroy him, yes. But he did so purposefully, and with deliberate care. This was a mistake for me to see. This could get him in more trouble than caging Faun.

"...Don't think that I'm a criminal, Lotus. Don't think that I do terrible things. There's an explanation. I know the Law but..." His expression is sorrowful, weary. "I know why that Law was made, too, and what I've done doesn't infringe. Please trust me."

I look up at him over the rim of my teacup. My eyes say nothing. Neither does my mouth. I merely sip.

"...It...there's a reason, after all." He takes out a tray laden with sliced rolls and pastries and picks through the cheeses that are arranged with them. "Do you...do you know why that Law was made, Lotus? It's not to protect the animisms from being assaulted. That was already forbidden by other Laws forbidding touching them without their consent, which were part of the restrictions to keep people from physically harming them. it is actually, technically, legal to have, err...relations with their kind. Doing so is its own prohibition, though, since most will not tolerate any sort of that closeness without taking out a person's jugular for the presumption." I see him relax as he goes through these laws, as he leads himself through those knots. I suppose it's as comforting as reciting memorized phrases by rote. "No, that Law was not made to protect the animisms. It was made to protect all of us from the products of such a tryst. The criminal act is not intercourse, but allowing something to be conceived from it." He holds his tea in both hands, warming his palms with the cup. He looks up over the steam, face thoughtful. "Allowances have been made before, though I doubt you'd know that. Interbreeding in itself isn't the forbidden act. Interbreeding irresponsibly...creating monstrosities..." He shakes his head. "I knew the ways to keep that from being a possibility. They're healthy, strong. They have no ill effects on their environment."

He sees how confused I look. A smile timidly creeps up on his face. "Oh, my apologies, dear Lotus. I don't think you know the particular history attached to these Laws. But then...not many do. It is the taboos that become well-known. The details, and especially the reasons...those are the first things to be lost, always." He closes his eyes, shakes his head with a sad smile. "Let me tell you a story, then."

* * *

The Law is something that is constantly taken for granted by the general populace. The High Judge would agree - and of course, he would be the authority. He, too, is often taken for granted - and just as often finds his own ways to reprimand those that do so. Everyone knows there is a Law, whether they obey it or not, and whether or not they undestand it. Few realize, or at least take the time to realize, that most of the rules inherent in the Law are made in reaction to certain incidents. Or, to put it simply - some lucky person will, every now and then, find a way to make an example of themselves.

In the case of the restrictions regarding interbreeding, that would be an entire race that found they'd become an example.

The animism Tolku was, as are all animisms, quite unique. His area of dominion was very unusual - not just a forest or a valley, or a waterway. He watched over the Falls of the Hanging Islands - a misleading name, for the islands were not over water per se, and did not hang. You've heard of them, I'm sure - huge masses of land that balanced precariously on the tops of narrow rocky columns. Curiosities of erosion and geology, they are called a gift from God, for there are very few who can summon the gall to claim that luck and coincidence could manage to create such marvels. In any case, they are, in a way, islands in mid-air. The bases of their supporting rocks aren't surrounded entirely by water, so many authorities quibble that they cannot technically be called islands. I suppose it's not worth arguing over too much.

The islands have patchy forests and scrub trees on them, while below at the bases of the rocks, large forests surround the lakes and rivers created from the water that falls from the islands. Most don't believe that the Hanging Islands could hold enough water to support life while still fueling such great waterfalls. Again, a miracle of geology is to be credited - geysers and hot springs far below the ground create enough pressure to drive up water inside of the stone columns. This fuels the small lakes at the surface of the islands and easily fills them to overflowing.

The Hanging Islands are inhabited by a huge variety of fauna, but are most known for their birds. The Windbirds have wingspans that rival the sails of ships. They soar to the high islands on updrafts and wind currents. They glide above it all, often, causing huge shadows to sweep over the ground underneath. Their wings are partially feathered and partially bald, comprised of a thin yet strong membrane that is extremely light. They have crane-like necks and extremely strong talons, and their beaks are the beaks of hawks.

I've ridden them, you know. There's really no better way of getting up to the islands than a Windbird. Certainly there's no method that could possibly be as stylish.

An animism will always reflect the territory and animals that it guards. Faun's forest is a green, wild place known for its wild cats and fox population. Hespiredes's valley is peaceful, with very few carnivores and many quiet animals. You've seen how these factors reflect in their demeanors and appearances. Tulku's territory is known most for its birds, and its very airborne nature defines it. His thick black hair was oily and sleek, like a crest of feathers. His face was delicate and narrow, his nose a slim hook. Tulku was quiet and watchful, most often sitting up in trees and watching down over his lands, a peculiar hunch to his neck and shoulders.

But the nature of an animism will show through in more ways than appearance and demeanor. Sometimes those ways will be quite unexpected...even by the animism itself. Tulku really could not know what was to happen. How could anyone?

Most people assume all animisms scorn contact with other creatures, living hermit lives in isolation. This is not so. Within their own kind and with the fauna they encounter they are quite social indeed. Of course, their ways of social interaction are not like ours - but as animals do, they seek out mates and maintain relations with them. They love, and they breed. They have their own young.

Among animisms, there are even laws on interbreeding. Their kind is very careful about when they make more young, and how many they make, and with whom. They have to be sure that there is sufficient territory to support another guardian spirit for the lands. And they have to ensure that whatever territory that is free is compatible with the parents' territories. For instance, if two animisms both looked over swamps, their child would be incompatible with mountain territories. And while a valley animism and a forest animism would not be a stretch when it comes to pairings, one that guards desert lands would be unsuitable to pair with one that watches over dense forests. This last rule is more flexible than most assume - it's rare to find two types of land in the world that do not border one another. Even the desert has its oases.

The real problems, and the real strictness in regulations, lie in animisms breeding with other kinds. With the other 'animism spirits', as some call the nymphs and elementals, there lies the most compatibility. They could be likened to cousins, really. Methilae and river animisms make for good couples, and tend to produce more methilae as a result. Forest animisms and dryads are another good example. Actually, any animism whose land has sufficient trees on it can make a suitable pairing for a dryad. Again, they're most likely to produce more dryads. Incompatible elements and lands will make for a pairing that produces no offspring at all.

Animisms also breed very well with dragonkind, both the large Dragons and the smaller Drakes. As long as the draconic type can assume a humanlike form, there will be no problems with the pairing. Since Dragons look over the health of the very land itself, from geology to plant life, and also take great interest towards protecting the living beings that rove their lands, they make excellent compliments to animisms. The resultant child will always be an animism - to be fair, it would have Dragon blood in it, and keep a few draconic traits. It's interesting to see just what kind of hoard an animism can build and guard.

But, of course, there are types that will not breed pleasantly with animisms. There are many types in the world, so many strange peoples and races. But by far the most likely to breed with animisms, and the most likely to, with animisms, produce offspring that become monstrosities, are humans.

Tulku, bless the poor soul, was how we learned of this. He took a human wife, a woman who explored and fell in love with the Hanging Islands. At first, nothing seemed wrong with their children, and the two were very happy with their offspring. Slender and slightly birdlike in mannerism, the children were healthy, strong, beautiful. Their children's children were also fine, though perhaps a bit gangly and long in the finger and toe. One or two had a nose that was disproportionately long.

It was in the third generation that the problems arose. The children of Tulku and his wife were taking human partners, for they all appeared to be human, and seemed to have no special traits about them that would say otherwise. Every child of the third generation, which was quite a large generation - Tulku fathered many children, as did his children - was deformed in the same way. They were covered in feathers, their hands and feet were taloned, and they had beaks instead of mouths. Tulku's nature had shown through in ways that no one expected.

There was nothing wrong with them, at the outset, beyond the strange physical attributes. They behaved differently than their parents and grandparents - more of a mix of the traits of bird, animism, and human. They had affinities with birds, were able to communicate with and have some control over them. They weren't capable of flight, but with windbirds at their beck and call, this was no real problem. They began to form a society of their own, because humans found them strange and unattractive.

Their numbers were small at first, being only the freak children of the third generation. With each other, they would breed true, create more of their avian bretheren. But this was not enough for them. There were too few mates to pick from. It was not long at all until a few brave avians took human mates. Since the humans weren't too keen on the avians in general, this required kidnapping. The humans were released after a child was born from the union - avian traits became dominant after that third generation, so any child ensuing would be another addition to the race.

Occasionally a new avian would trickle into the colony from the human lands - an earlier generation of Tulku's offspring had tried to integrate into society, doing so seamlessly until the third generation 'curse' took effect. And since Tulku did not stop fathering children even after the avians came into being, this still happened for quite some time.

Humans came to hate this race of people that hid their kind amongst the populace until a freak was born of their line. Once news spread of the kidnappings, there was no stopping an uprising. Men and women of the Law were called in before things came to great violence. It was a tense time, especially when the Avians began denying the Law's application to them. As a new race, one not named in any Law yet, they claimed that they were free of the code that all other civilizations were upheld to.

The High Judge, of course, got wind of this.

In the end, the avians went to war before they could be led to reason. New Laws would have been drafted for them, but they did not wait for this. They felt the hatred of humans too easily, and their hearts were too swiftly tempted to malice. The temperaments of animism and human did not mix well in this race. They cared not for Laws. The avians only wished to rage against those that stood against them and those that they thought might ever possibly raise their hands against their kind. As in, every other civilized race on the earth.

They were powerful, and fought fiercely. They had their windbird mounts to aid them. Even with that, though, few survived. They chose to fight against the Armed, after all.

A few exist, even to this day. There are loose groups of them here and there. They're scattered, a nomadic people. Lawful societies won't trade with them, or really interact with them at all. The avians often fall in with underground crime rings to make their way through life. It's not terribly unusual to see one or two in a band of thugs or as part of a stolen goods cartel.

Thus was the Law made: humans and animisms were not to interbreed, under any circumstances. The reults would bring about races of people that had no ties to the Law yet and were beholden to no one. And, worst of all, they would be a people who, like the avians, had no place in this world. It's been shown to be true, after a few more infringements comitted by those that paid no heed to the restrictions. And the results? More mostrosities for the criminal underworld, more broken people, and more misery and hate. Such consequences are too great to risk more trysts.

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