Chapter XIV.

22 May

“Do not be surprised, Miss Talmon. The driver of the wagon informed me of your presence at the start of our journey. I did not indicate back at the raptorium station that I knew of your father’s incarceration, did I? The reason for your flight are perfectly clear, believe me.”

Saluma moved to the center of the room, stopping inches from the map table.

Gauge, as surprised as she was, dared present a question.

“You also know, then, about the assassination attempt on the Secretary of Nature?”

Lozon answered this with his yellow eyes still pointed at the young woman.

“The raptorials have ways of learning and passing on important information. Yes, word of what happened in Arom reached me at once. Our people also knew that Secretary Daisan escaped to the bird observatory and was captured there by the Auspex. He is now in official custody.”

Saluma interrupted him. “What happened to my father and the other two?” she asked him in a desperate tone of voice.

“They are being held in the capital for secret trial, along with the others.”

“Others?” said Krave with surprise.

Lozon turned and faced him. “This is serious business,” he declared. “The Dux is carrying out a general purge of his regime. Three other cabinet secretaries have also been taken into Auspex custody, along with several staff officers at the rank of general. The entire government is in a state of terror over what might happen next. No one feels safe at the present time. No one.”

“Yet Urias Asaph has sent us on a mission that will surely lead us to war between Avia and Landia. How can both events occur simultaneously?” demanded Gauge, his thoughts in a whirlpool of confusion.

The falconer suddenly spoke as if he were alone, thinking aloud to himself.

“His mind is both deep and complex. It operates in separate, sealed-off compartments. Though he dreams of foreign conquest in Landia, his own internal rule feels unstable to him. An odd combination of opposite elements, isn’t it?”

“But what do we ourselves do?” persisted Gauge. “Is there only obedient service left as our lot? Are we to end up being agents of the Dux and his complex of ambitions?”

Sud Lozon opened his mouth to speak, but decided not to. Instead, he advanced past Saloma to the cabin door.

The two others watched as he spun about and mumbled a few words to them.

“Let us get some rest. We have a long trek to the test location tomorrow.”

In a second, he had disappeared outside into the night.

Gauge glared with anger at Saluma. “What happened?,” he demanded. “Where were you?”

She described her excursion into the derelict dorp, naming each bird species that she observed there. “It is a treasure-trove of winged varieties all about,” said Saluma. “This region is like a museum of bird species from out of the past of our country. My head is spinning from all the rare kinds of birds that I have caught sight of so far.”

All at once, Krave smiled with warmth. There was no reason for any anger on his part, he told himself. No disaster had yet befallen them personally. But what would come next? he wondered. What unseen danger might be hanging over them at this very moment?

“We must be very careful what we say to Lozon,” he told Saluma in a serious, sober tone. “The future of everything lies in his hands.”

“Yes,” she replied. “That is the truth.”

Gauge proceeded to tell her how their leader had changed the location for the projected test base.

“Interesting,” she noted. “He is growing ever more independent of the Dux.”

There was no chance to examine the avifauna of this area, for the caravan of carriers took to the road at the very crack of the emerald dawn.

Since there was no need to hide from Sud Lozon, Saluma asked Gauge if he would object if she joined their van’s driver in the front cab.

“I’d like to view the landscape as we enter the mountains,” she explained. “Perhaps I’ll even see some birds that are new to me in the region.”

Agreement camw with alacrity. “Go right ahead,” nodded Gauge. “I will be busy with the zonal charts and maps.”

Once the wheels were rolling, she spotted an early wheatear out of the side window. Then came a yellow-headed verdin and a tiny swiftwing. Black and glassy, a jackdaw flurried through the dewy air. Several purple grackles scurried past, chased by a large, sharp-billed bright blue kingfisher. Suddenly Saluna realized that the latter bird was a migrant from the Landian side of the border. What did a national frontier mean to a winged traveler, though? The bird watcher smiled to herself as she considered the question.

A large missal and its brood of young were feeding at a cloudberry bush, while a solitary nuthatch crept up from behind.

The wagonvan braked in an instant.

“Something up ahead on the road, young Miss,” grumbled the driver. “Looks like we’ll have to wait and see how long it’ll be before we get going once again.”

Meantime, Gauge had climbed out of the rear compartment and approached the front section.

“I’m going up there to find out what is happening,” he told the bird watcher when she opened the side door to talk with him.

“Be careful,” she softly whispered.

Gauge gave her a simple nod, then proceeded forward toward the head of the caravan.

In a few seconds he was able to see what was happening.

Sud Lozon stood to the right of his grounder, conversing with a man mounted on a horse. From the rider’s green camouflage jacket, it was evident that he was a local woodsman. A messenger of some sort? wondered Gauge as he walked close to where the great reddish animal stood as if frozen.

All at once, Lozon signaled with his head for the horse rider to withdraw. He waited for Krave to reach him with impatience in his pale yellow eyes.

“I have some news from Arom,” began the falconer. “Your traveling companion is to be informed of what I have just learned. My wish is that you be the one to tell her.”

Gauge felt his head spin a moment. “What is it?” he said with trepidation.

“The Dux has ordered all prisoners held by the Auspex on political suspicions be killed. That would logically include the Secretary of Nature, Dr. Talmon, and the gyroplane pilot. Three other cabinet members are in custody as well.

“It has become a genuine bloodbath, it would appear.”

The two men stared at each other.

Saluma’s father is dead, then?”

“He was among those rounded up,” answered Lozon in a low tone.

“I must take great care in breaking the news to her,” muttered Gauge.

The falconer frowned. “We must not fall behind our time schedule. In a few minutes, I will order the journey renewed. There will be no stop for a midday meal so that we can reach the test base location before nightfall.”

Gauge turned around and hurried back to the lorryvan.

How was he going to reveal the truth to the daughter of Azael Talmon?

Saluma followed him back into the rear cabin of the vehicle with a look of surprise. Why such carefulness and secrecy? she asked herself.

The two sat down on opposite sides of the map table.

Gauge took an indirect approach to the tragic event he was about to disclose to her.

“I have seen Avia for only a short time, Saluma, but it has become quite evident to me how arbitrarily unfair the lives of its people can be.

“The dictator who rules at present is an especially selfish and brutal tyrant.”

She gave him a questioning look. “What are you getting at?”

“Your father has been killed by order of Urias Asaph.”

The sapphire eyes darkened with disbelief. “I don’t understand,” she stuttered as her hands began to tremble.

“The Nature Secretary and Ban Nephis have also been executed.”

He reached forward, taking her hands in his. Tears burst forth in flooding dreams she did not attempt to stifle.

Gauge placed his arms about both shoulders of the shaken daughter.

“Your father possessed an extraordinary character, Saluma,” he said consolingly. “None of us shall ever forget him, however long we live.”

Holding her close to him, he softly kissed her forehead.

Suddenly, a possibility flashed into his mind. It instantly materialized into a solid decision about what to do.

He pulled himself back so that her entire face became visible.

“We have to get away, over the border into Landia.”

At that moment the wagonvan began moving forward.

“What do you mean, Gauge?” she asked as she adjusted her body to the new motion.

“There is no safety here for either of us. Who can say what the Dux may decide in days to come? Our only hope lies in making an escape.”

She looked perplexed. “Do you believe we can flee from the caravan?”

“An attempt must be made when we are close to the destination,” he asserted. “As near to the boundary as possible.”

“But that is a wild region, Gauge. Only jaegerish tribemen live in such places.”

“Those people are not raptorials, though. I have read that they do not know how to use falcons. In fact, traps are still their main means of hunting. They lack shooting weapons of any sort.”

“Yes, you are right,” she admitted.

“We must wait for our chance to flee and take it at the best moment. For now, let’s put together bundles of the things each of us will need.”

That should help to keep her mind busy, calculated Gauge to himself. She must not dwell on the tragic fate of her father.

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