Chapter III.

17 May

Azael dared to be candid at his own supper table. The two guests sat on either side, while his daughter was opposite him at the other end of the orange tulipwood table. He spoke as he and the others ate their meal.

The Director of the Station did not even lower his voice as he gave his opinion of the government and the person at its head.

“We in Avia are among the worst ruled people anywhere on the Continent, yet no one is willing to risk publicly criticizing our system. After all, what is a dictatorship? It is decision-making by the caprice of only one. What if the ruler is irrational? There are no limits that can block a crazed tyrant. So far, the present Dux has made only small, repairable errors. But what if some mad whim takes control of his mind? That is what I fear when I wake up in the night. A single ruler can be the producer of irrational decisions.

“Urias Asaph knows next to nothing of ornithological science, yet he can decide the fate of our entire winged population.”

“The birds have friends who are eager to protect them, Father,” opined Saluma in a cool, clear voice. “Someday, there shall be a new Dux in charge.”

“That one may prove to be worse than the one we now have over us,” he said with a grumble in his throat. “There is no constancy in the arrangement that Avia lives under. Not once have the people of our country voted on anything. They wouldn’t know how to go about such things.” He paused in his bold statement. “We are like children who have never once taken responsibility for our own lives. All power and authority lies in one person’s hands. That is a dangerous, frightening situation.”

Overwhelming silence fell on the four. Gauge Krave was the one who broke it.

“I am only a foreigner, but I harbor deep sympathy for the dilemma facing all thinking, conscientious Avians.” He gave the Director an incisive look.

Interruption was caused by a knocking noise somewhere.

“It’s the back door,” said Saluma, rising from her chair and hurrying into the kitchen. Dr. Talmon looked at Gauge, then Ban, turning and twisting to see who it was returning with his daughter.

The sapphire eyes of Saluma’s father seemed on fire.

“Mr. Secretary!” he said with a startle.

In seconds, the head of the observatory was up on his feet, pushing back his chair and approaching the short, red-haired man in a brown hunting outfit.

Cetab Daisan’s green eyes shone brightly as the two men shook hands.

“I arrived with the Dux a short while ago. The landing was made across the valley, at the place they call the raptorium. Our leader has been invited to participate in the hunting exercises those people carry out from their bird mews. It is supposed to be a sort of inspection tour of their colony.

“I decided to take a walk to your station on my own. It wasn’t very far at all. The exercise was helpful for my own health.”

“Did any of the Auspex see you leave?”

“I believe not,” replied the Secretary of Nature in a strong, confident tone. “There are no aides with me. No one to report on my whereabouts. I slipped out of a side door of our quarters after telling my associates that I was exhausted and had to take a nap after eating. They believe I am still resting there.

“The Dux is having a private supper with the fellow called Sud Lozon, the power-holder in the raptorial sect.”

“Sit down with us, sir,” suggested Azael. “There are several matters I think we should discuss.”

The pair moved over to the tulipwood table, sat down there, and began to talk.

Once the servitors had taken away all the dishes, the host and his guest were alone and free to converse between themselves.

Do the raptorials have a listening device in this cozy, almost empty room? wondered Dux Asaph.

Is the dictator carrying a recording reel? pondered Sud Lozon. He decided to begin with generalities.

“For untold generations, my family has been involved with taming the Falx for the sport of field hunting. We falconers are a proud, private breed. It has been difficult to discuss our problems with others. Whenever there has been a need for something new, the solution has had to come from within our own group.”

“Yes, I know how self-reliant your people are,” agreed the dictator.

“As is well known, recent decades have witnessed the decline of hunting among the landed gentry. There is no longer the demand for hawkers of long ago.

“The situation presents certain difficulties that we are now coping with through our Raptorial Union. Some refer to us as a religious, spiritual cult. But that aspect of our activity is incidental. The histories of Avia are full of reference to the awe that our people have always had for the finest, most noble birds. Watchers have for ages attempted to foretell the future by observing the flight of the major raptors. There is nothing new in seeking the aid of the winged ones.

“That is where the name of the Auspex originates, they are watchers like those who follow the birds and the other sky travelers.”

Asaph gave a feline grin of recognition, acknowledging the connection his host had just made.

“We have had to advance our methods. That is where the teratorn comes in. That species was nearly extinct when I convinced my associates to start a program of artificial breeding and incubation of that giant bird. Our contributors made it possible to build this facility and carry out experimentation. Without the cultic aspects of the enterprise, perhaps this would not have happened the way it did.” Sud Lozon leaned over the table, his yellowish eyes looking into the dark ones of the dictator of Avia. “I have enjoyed successes far beyond what could have been expected at the beginning. As a result, my horizons have greatly expanded. I have grown extremely hopeful about the future.”

All of a sudden, there was solemn quiet in the dining room.

“There is nothing comparable to a teratorn anywhere on our Continent, in any country or region. No hunter is its equal. The bird is as tall as a small man. Its wingspan often exceeds twenty-five feet. Speed and strength have been proven in it many times. Only today, one bird was released for its first hunt. It came back to its hacking tower with a lamb that it drove down and killed.”

“No other raptor can accomplish anything like that,” noted the Dux. “But it would appear that the giant bird is too big for sportsmen to use out in the field. Am I correct?”

“That is the situation at the present time, Your Greatness,” meekly admitted the falconer. “But let me describe for you a secret project I am about to set in motion. It contains an incredible amount of promise.”

Asaph listened attentively to what was said next.

Cetab Daisan’s green eyes glanced down at the horologe on his narrow wrist. It was about time for him to return to his quarters at the raptorium.

He spoke candidly to the observatory supervisor.

“I need the assistance of you and your staff, Dr. Talmon.”

The latter leaned forward over the orange table. “What can we do?” he asked.

“You have approximately forty employees here, I recall,” said the Secretary of Nature.

“Forty-five,” corrected the Director. “Thirty-two watchers, eight reel librarians, and five full ornithologists. They can be of help in whatever you wish to be accomplished.”

Cetab Daisan smiled with satisfaction. “Good. All these people must concentrate their attention on monitoring the activities of the raptorium and its teratorns. Every flight of these giants must be closely observed. New developments are of interest to me. As soon as any innovation is discovered, word of it must be sent to me at once. I have no other means of finding out what may be happening out in the field here in the Aeries. Your people will have to serve as my eyes.”

“We will begin, then, early tomorrow morning,” promised Azael Talmon. “All our attention will be focused on the problem of the teratorn. You shall be kept informed about what is learned.”

The cabinet member rose from the tulipwood table and soon began to take his leave.

“I must stay at the raptorium till the end of the Dux’s visit, then fly back to Arom with him. You can then report to me over the Department’s wirenet, directly to my office in the capital.”

“Our eyes will be nailed to the sky,” firmly asserted the Director.

Three pairs of eyes watched as the Secretary of Nature made his exit into the night.

Gauge Krave and Ban Nephis stared at each other.

“Are you thinking the same thing I am?” asked the Landian.

“We must help however we can, despite the possible risk.”

Saluma turned her face toward Gauge.

“But you are not an Avian,” she said in a low whisper.

The ornithologist suddenly grinned.

“I have an obligation to help set limits to how the gigantic bird is allowed to live and fly. After all, it was probably one of the teratorns that knocked us out of the air and caused our crash.”

No one laughed or made any reply to this.

Meantime, Cetab Daisan was making his way along a forest path that led across the valley, to the raptorium from which the winged monsters came.

The sounds of nocturnal singers created an uncanny sense of foreboding. A luscinate nightingale competed with a philomel, while from afar came what seemed a whippoorwill’s song of sorrow. The Secretary halted in place when a clicking was heard overhead. He looked up into the branches above him, toward the canopy of star points. A saxicolan stonechat was giving a signal of warning. Was it meant for him? he wondered.

The Avian Secretary of Nature ambled on, doubling his pace. Soon he spied the lights of the guest villa where the party of visitors he belonged to was staying. The path led into an open field, distancing him from the calls of the night.

As the short, slight form approached the log building, its greenish eyes made one last survey of the mountain forest it had traversed from the observatory station. They had failed to perceive the Auspex eyes monitoring the movements of the official protector of Avia’s natural wildlife.


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