Chapter XIII.

21 May

The repeating chirp of a guitguit awakened Gauge Krave.

Guit-guit, guit-guit, guit-guit it went on without stop.

Opening his eyes, he wiggled about on the veranda chair. A small black ani flew from a thick bush, into the radiant emerald sky. From a tall soaptree came the jaunty lyric of a bobolink, narrating a happy, courageous theme.

How is Saluma doing? he remembered, reaching for his cane. In a moment, he was on his feet and turned around, headed for the bedroom assigned him.

Surprisingly, she appeared at the door simultaneously with his own approach.

The door swung open, revealing her standing there with a broad smile.

“Good morning, Gauge. How did you sleep out there?”

“It was restful,” he replied. “Quiet and serene. Only the voices of birds.”

“I slept comfortably, Gauge. My fear was that it might be at your expense. But now come in here. Is there anything we can share for breakfast? I am sure that you are as hungry as I am.”

The ornithologist stepped into the room, shutting the door behind him.

“Because of my injury, the staff was in the habit of bringing me my meals. It will be here soon, Saluma.”

‘Then, I’d better hide myself until the person bringing you breakfast is gone. Perhaps the best place for me is out on the veranda.” She took a step in that direction, but stopped as the front door opened, letting in a brilliant stream of daylight.

A large, round shape entered the room.

Gauge turned to Saluma to see what her reaction was to the presence of Sud Lozon.

She recognized him immediately from their encounter at the fallen orthopter.

Gauge spoke to her as if she had just arrived like Lozon.

“Thank you for visiting me so early. It is always a pleasure to talk with you, Saluma.” His eyes darted about, settling on the falconer. “Good morning, Brother Sud. It is a surprise to see you here.”

The fat man, closing the door, moved to the center of the room. His tiny black eyes took in both of them in succession.

“It is surprising to meet you here so early, Miss Talmon,” he said in a heavy voice. “The Great Roosting ended last night and our members are beginning to return home. Your visit is extremely early this morning.”

“I am here to learn how Mr. Krave is progressing,” she explained. “His recovery has been amazingly swift, hasn’t it?”

Lozon glanced at the Landian. “Indeed,” he muttered.

At that moment, a worker appeared at the door with a covered tray in his hands.

“It is time for your breakfast,” said the falconer, turning to Gauge. “I came to inform you that we will be leaving before noon to start the test.”

“So soon?” reacted Krave with surprise.

“The Dux wishes to move the project forward at once. That was his purpose in flying here without notification of his arrival. Time is of the essence, he insists.”

Saluma and Gauge glanced at each other. Each knew what the other had noticed and was now thinking. The dictator had not told Sud about the activities of his Auspex the previous night.

Both of them recognized that this was a fact of crucial significance.

Lozon asked a question of Saluma. “How is your father faring with his observations?”

“He is quite busy, as we all are,” she said with a gulp.

The head of the raptorium turned to Gauge. “Be prepared to leave in two hours,” he advised him, then stepped to the door and departed.

Saluma was first to speak when she was alone with the Landian.

“He is unaware of what happened at the observatory station last night.”

Gauge frowned. “The Dux must have thought he had a reason for keeping him in the dark about the arrests. What could it be?”

For a short time, they pondered the situation.

“I must go along on the expedition,” finally concluded Saluma. “It appears that the safest place for me to hide from the eyes of the Auspex is with the party heading out into the open field.”

“Impossible. Lozon would never permit it.”

All at once, her mouth broke into an arch grin.

“If, as you say, he is going to take an entire caravan of carriers, there will be plenty of room for a stowaway to hide in.”

“What if he discovers you, Saluma?” asked Gauge with alarm.

“I’ll have a convincing excuse figured out by then, believe me.”

A small company of lorryvans and passenger grounders filed out of the raptorium station through the entrance gate.

The Landian had refused Lozon’s offer to ride with him in the first vehicle.

Instead, Gauge Krave said he was willing to carry out continuing map studies in the rear of one of the vanwagons, if that could be arranged.

When no one was looking, Saluma spirited herself into the compartment her fellow conspirator had all to himself.

“Safe!” sighed the young woman once their carrier started moving forward.

The pair sat around a detailed topographic map of the southern mountains of Landia, talking in whispers so as not to be overheard from the driver’s compartment.

“It is interesting that Urias Asaph keeps certain facts from his ally now riding in the front grounder. What do you think such a situation signifies, Saluma?”

“The Dux trusts no one except himself, it would appear.”

A long pause followed, broken by the stowaway passenger.

“I wonder how far Sud Lozon will trust the ruler of Avia?” she murmured, almost to herself.

When the caravan stopped for dinner, Gauge succeeded in obtaining an extra helping of mulligatawny from the staff aide serving as cook.

Saluma swallowed down the thick curry stew with haste.

Once her companion had returned after taking back the spoon and bowl both of them had eaten with, the pair went back to examining the maps.

“So, Lozon is going to leave the choice of target area to you,” began Saluma, her voice thoughtful and distant. “That permits you great discretion.”

He gazed at her with startlement in his gray eyes.

“How do you propose that I use it?”

She made a slight grimace of frustration.

“That is something neither of us knows yet.”

They studied each other pensively, in silence.

“We have only two days to come up with something, Saluna,” he said with a sigh.

With the setting of the daystar, the sky became a deep aquamarine.

One by one, the lights of distant space suns and nebulae began to shine. Night was enveloping all the latitudes of the Continent, all its various countries.

The caravan halted alongside the road, before an abandoned dorp where a half dozen houses had fallen into ruin years before.

Sud Lozon sent an aide to summon the ornithologist to supper with him under a field tent that had been pitched. When the messenger was gone, Gauge turned around and faced his traveling companion.

“I shall have to go. My hope is that there is some food around that I can steal for you, Saluma.”

“Don’t take so much that it would arouse suspicion if noticed,” she warned him with a grin. “There is no reason to tangle up my position prematurely.”

Krave nodded agreement, then exited from the vanwagon.

Under the command tent, Lozon and his raptorian crew were beginning to eat when the newcomer arrived.

“Come and sit here,” called out the leader of the expedition. “I want to discuss several questions with you.”

One of the assistants had managed to capture a wild tragopan.

“This is a tender pheasant!” smiled Lozon as Gauge sat down across from him.

Only after both men had finished eating did the discussion of business commence.

“The Dux gave me the authority to decide on the specific details of the first test,” began the falconer. “My goal is to make it successful without assuming undue risk. Late tomorrow we shall reach the border area. I have decided to make a change in the location of the test camp. Why should we take our carriers up into the rocky highlands of that area? It is best to stay at a lower elevation, where the ground is a level plain. After all, the teratorn flies, doesn’t it?

“Let’s go see your maps. I want you to help me choose a new forward base.”

Gauge felt a shudder as he thought of Saluma in the vanwagon.

“I could bring the main charts here,” he volunteered with haste.

“No,” countered Lozon, “I want to plot some distances with the protractoral device you have. It’s too bulky to move about.”

The man in charge rose to his feet, forcing Krave to do likewise.

She will now be uncovered. What possible explanation can I give for her presence?

Such were the troubled, worried thoughts of Gauge as they made their way to the tail end of the line of vehicles. Impending disaster seemed unavoidable. Coming up to the side door of the wagon’s cabin, he opened it to let Lozon enter first.

It took but a moment to realize that the interior was empty.

The overhead light sac still burned, but Saluma was absent.

What has happened? wondered the Landian as he followed Sud Lozon in.

She was right, the abandoned dorp was a favored nesting area for winged travelers. Although it was dark, she could make out a family of brightly colored yellowhammers. A starlit greenshank next caught her attention, followed by a whitethroat.

Saluma swooned in fascination with all her ornithological discoveries.

It must be that human beings never came here to disturb these creatures.

A dark blue indigobird produced a night call that Saluma at once identified. She spied an ink oilbird, a true nocturnal. Soon the daytime denizens would be dreaming in their nests.

Already the last green rays of the daystar were gone.

Saluma decided to return to the safe shelter of the wagonvan, again making a wide loop around and away from the caravan, then returning to the road.

I should have left Gauge a note of some sort, she chided herself. He is probably concerned with my safety and my whereabouts. How has he handled the chief of the Raptorial Association? she asked herself.

Saluma opened the side door of the cabin and two startled faces looked up at her from the map table.

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