Twitter. Tweet. Chirp. Cheep. Glarblegurglewurblebruuuupslurp.
There are many words for the sounds of birds, Sylvain Ailier thinks to himself. But it’s hard to get the sounds of the words right.
A hummingbird, he guesses. He’s heard that strange combination of gurgling and slurping before, and usually the sound is accompanied by the sight of a deceptively innocent-looking tiny bird. Sylvain yawns and hops out of the almost cradle-like circle of weeping willow branches he’d picked out as a sleeping spot the night before.
Stretching out his arms and rotating his neck, the bird mage glances at the coat he’d been using as a blanket. Rummaging in the pockets, he withdraws a small cloth bag of birdseed. Smiling to himself, he pulls aside the hanging leaves of the weeping willow and walks out into the crisp morning air.
His wandering journeys had taken him to many picturesque places, and the mountain lake he’d stumbled upon while following a swallow was no exception. He enjoys this carefree, never-tied-down life, learning a little spellcasting here, some new words there. Whistling cheerfully, Sylvain pours a liberal amount of birdseed into his open hand. He considers the amount, then sprinkles some of the seeds on his shoulders and sits down. His trusty spirit staff, a keepsake of his first mentor, rests on the ground in front of him.
First a small songbird wings its way towards him, perching on his shoulder and pecking at the bird seed. An oriole stops by for a brief moment to sit on his hand and look at him, and soon Sylvain is surrounded by bright eyes and feathers.
He looks up when a shadow passes over and something with a wingspan the length of fifty little birds lands in front of him.
A Legendary Crow, Sylvain recognizes as the figure approaches on silent feet. Traditional clothes, avian and human features (arms, legs, wings), Japanese Tengu, perhaps. Whatever it is, it seems to be eying the still-open bag of birdseed lying on the ground. Sylvain waits patiently for the birds swarming around him to fly off into the trees, and wordlessly picks up the bag of birdseed and hands it to the crow-man, who rasps a word of thanks.
“Honored brother, what brings you to me?”
The crow-man pauses in his inspection of the birdseed, pulling his beak out of the bag. He folds his wings neatly, rummages in a traveler’s pack slung over his back, and withdraws a small paper-wrapped box. Sylvain takes the proffered item and the crow goes back to pecking at the bag of birdseed.
Puzzling out the scrawled characters in black ink on the paper wrapping, Sylvain figures out that he is to make a delivery, to someone who lives deep in these mountains. Very deep. At least half the day’s journey, plus time for stopping to ask directions many times. Sylvain glances at his spirit staff, glad for the many birds that live in the area.
Remembering his manners, the bird mage bows to the Tengu, tucking the box into a pocket of his coat. “Consider it done,” Sylvain says, and is rewarded with a friendly squawk from the crow-man before he takes off into the sky again.
Sylvain is halfway to his destination and thoroughly lost when he realizes that the Tengu never gave back the birdseed.
Shiritori Zakuro looks up from the elegant spray of leaves she is carving on the wooden handle of what will soon be a demon priestess’s comb. “Come in,” she calls over her shoulder, as she shifts in her seat and leaves her workspace. Her cotton robe trails a bit on the ground as she creeps on four red exoskeleton feet toward the entryway of her home, but it is the layers upon layers of folded paper decorations that she wears that weigh her down more. Paper birds and delicate kusudama tied with thin silk cord are woven into her long hair, and rustle with every move she makes.
When he first meets her, Sylvain wonders if Master Shiritori considers herself a fire hazard, what with all the paper she wears. He does not bring up this point at any time he converses with her.
Shiritori greets the bird mage graciously, serves him some tea, and takes the package he has delivered, unwrapping the paper and opening the box to find several gold pieces tucked into cloth padding. She smiles at the metal, murmuring something about a divine bow, and tucks the gold pieces into her sleeves. The sleeves are rather wide, Sylvain notices, to accommodate the scythe-like spikes that slant delicately from the master's forearms. He has never seen her in combat, but few mantis-kind battles are long enough to attract spectators. She turns towards the stove where a teakettle is still steaming, and Sylvain sees wings folded neatly at her back.
Sipping his tea, Sylvain reflects on his unusual luck. Z.S. of famed Hand lore was said to be a fabled apparatus-maker, a master of the crafting arts and item enchantments, and she’d praised the excellent condition of his spirit staff. Perhaps hearing that was worth wandering through path-less mountain scrub and needing to stop more times than he remembered for directions. He’d had to call several birds out of their daily routines, including one or two rather shady-looking ones with beady eyes and sharp beaks—
Snapping back to attention at the movement of something being pushed across the table towards him, Sylvain breaks through his fog of thoughts in time to hear Master Shiritori inquire as to if he’d be willing to make a delivery to a dear friend of hers in the forest on the western mountainside. It is some paper made of pressed leaves, nothing fancy, but it is something the friend has asked for many times. Sylvain agrees before he completely processes the information that said friend is roughly a thousand years old, somewhat eccentric, and also the relative of many beetles, so please don’t eat any during your visit.
“…how many years, again?” He repeats when the silence has stretched just too far for his liking, and Master Shiritori just laughs, her voice like the wind chimes made of bones over her home’s door. “Do not worry about meeting her. A journey born of friendship is always worthwhile.” Her black compound eyes twinkle as she begins to clear the tea things.
A small figure is crouched before a large mossy rock, eyes fixed on what looks like an empty jar with small holes poked into the lid, sitting atop the stone in a cushion of lichen. Dressed in a tunic and long skirt fashioned from small, multicolored and interconnected metal pieces, the beetle girl Julodis is a bright spot of color in the otherwise dark undergrowth of the forest. Her metallic hair gleams with a blue sheen, which emphasizes the small but noticeable pair of antennae that sprouts from the crown of her head.
It has taken nearly three hours for Sylvain to find her, but fortunately the bundle of paper he is delivering is light. Still, he could use a nap, Sylvain thinks. There are many other things he would like to think on as well. What sound does a beetle make when it flies?
The bird mage pauses, setting his foot down carefully so as to not startle the girl who is so intent on her observation that she does not seem to move, to breathe. He approaches, slower, more steadily, and when he is close to the beetle girl he peers intently into the jar. He stares.
“…what are you doing?” is the first thing that leaves his mouth, though other questions in his mind are vying for recognition, questions such as “Where did you get that spider” and “Where did you get that large ant” and “Why are you staring at them climb around a jar.”
Flapping a hand at him silently, the beetle girl whispers back, “Shh. I’m writing a love story.” She smiles a dreamy smile, and continues with a slightly faraway look, “She’s a queen ant. He’s not that special so far as spider kind goes, usually he just barely captures enough of the regular ants to survive, fate threw them together…” she trails off and prods the side of the jar, knocking the spider back to the bottom, where the queen ant is pacing restlessly.
“Much as he admires her, much as he intrigues her, he will be her tragic end.” She tilts her head, and the faint, muted sunlight catches on the iridescent beetle wing ornaments that glitter at her ears. Sylvain blinks as he processes this tragic storyline.
A few heartbeats of silence later, Sylvain is fiddling with the twine adorning his spirit staff (and also discovering pocket lint in his coat) and he almost timidly offers, “If it’s meant to be a tragedy, I can ask one of my friends to eat them both. Birds eat bugs…” he breaks off, wondering how to word the rest of the statement politely. “That way the spider doesn’t have to kill his, erm, love.”
The beetle girl turns around and stares at the bird mage from where she sits, her antennae waving back and forth in agitation. “No. It must be their own nature that tears them apart. The heartbreak is more tangible—”
“I think,” Sylvain interrupts mildly, “You should stop shaking the jar…?”
Julodis’s head whips back to the mossy stone, where her hand is, indeed, clenched around the jar and jostling it. She gasps. “When did the spider catch the ant? He must have been spinning web all this time they were walking in circles around each other!” She holds the jar up to her eyes, chattering on, “The spider isn’t even moving. Just resting on the web, isn’t moving, just—‘the spider holds his hapless victim close, mourning the law of nature that has led him to kill his queen.’” She sighs as she regards the jar fondly. A passing blue-gold beetle in flight lands on a leaf nearby, and begins to warble an aria in a high, tinny flutter of wings.
Sylvain somewhat spoils the effect by muttering, “Actually, I think the spider’s eating.”
“She had gnawed on his heart for too long! Artistic license. Look at how the spider cradles the body.”
Sylvain manages an awkward chuckle, but quickly stops when he sees Julodis’s expression.
“Are… is that a tear?”
“Shut up,” is the brisk response.
Sylvain directs his eyes skyward (or in the forest’s case, canopy-ward) and stifles an exasperated comment. He withdraws the stack of leaf-pressed paper from his coat, and places it carefully on the mossy stone, in the space vacated by the jar. “Here. From Lady Shiritori. I wonder if these will soon bear words of tragedy and love.”
Julodis eyes the paper and grins, and Sylvain is reminded that a thousand years is young for someone who can live to be ten times that age. “Thank you, bird mage,” She says politely. “When you take the path back, take the turn that is lined with mint. Sing your avian songs as you walk, and you will find yourself at a wooden house. Please visit my brother at the foot of the mountain and let him know I have a new story for him. He will ensure the journey is worthwhile.”
The words are familiar. “A journey born of friendship is always worthwhile. Sayonara,” Sylvain bows slightly, shoulders his staff, and beats a hasty getaway before he starts to feel too uncomfortably sorry for a spider and an ant.
“Ah, still writing, is she? That live-action as-it-happens tragic fanfiction stuff?” Vansoni, preferred name Vans, smiles a smile that showed a mouth full of unnaturally sharp (and spiny) teeth. “My sister was always a dreamer. Perhaps that’s why she sees more than most.” The beetle man chuckles as he organizes a pile of assorted small debris on a table that he and the bird mage are seated at.
Vans continues to sort through a series of small dark pellets as Sylvain looks around the inside of the house. There are no walls that separate the space into rooms, but small wickerwork contraptions are suspended from cut tree branches that crisscross the ceiling like a web. Metallic beetles crawl like an ever-undulating blanket of color along the network. Vans himself, clad in a colorful loose-fitting coarse-cloth robe, seems to blend in well with them.
“In any event, it is good to hear from my little sister again, and good to hear that she has the means to remember her stories. Things are easy to forget over a thousand years, if one cannot write them down.” Vans reaches for a shelving unit under the table and takes something out of one of the drawers. “Please, accept this from the two of us.”
Sylvain accepts the cloth sack, hearing whatever it contains rustle as the pouch changes hands. “Thank you.”
Vans grins. “The beetles around here are on good terms with the birds. The smaller the limbs, the more delicate work can be done, the more food can be gathered. This blend convinces the birds around here to leave the beetles alone so they can keep gathering the ingredients.”
“Blend?” Sylvain inquires, though he feels he knows what the answer will be.
The beetle man nods, his stubby antennae bending once in a nod of their own. “Birdseed. Hope you like it.”
Sylvain walks through the dwindling light of dusk, holding a bag of birdseed, nigh-identical to the one he’d taken from his coat pocket less than a turn of the sun ago.
A hundred steps later finds him at the base of a magnolia tree his feet have led him to without his head being aware of it. Sylvain leans his staff against the tree and looks up. He shrugs off his coat, tosses it onto a low branch, and scrambles up the crisscrossing sections of wood at the trunk. Leaning back against smooth bark, he opens the package. A moment later he is eating small handfuls of birdseed and humming snatches of avian lullabies as he chews.
He hears twittering from somewhere near the large white flowers on the eastern side of the tree. Smiling, the bird mage shifts to the side a little, and pours a neat pile of birdseed onto the three branches he can reach without getting up.
The chattering of birdsong lasts long into the evening. There are many words for the sounds of birds, Sylvain thinks, before dozing off.