This is a bad idea.
Scowling, Akela spread her arms, golden sunlight gleaming against her cocoa skin. “You have a better one?”
Dancer lowered her head and opened her beak, crestfeathers pinned to the back of her head. No, but that fails to change the fact that this is an incredibly bad idea.
Akela rolled her eyes. “You say that about all of my ideas.”
The gryphon gave a low creeling sound and rolled her shoulders, clacking her beak together sharply. I shall stop saying it when it ceases to be true and the sun forgets to shine, sister-of-my-heart.
Based on expression and posture, gryphon language was punctuated by sounds rather than composed of them. There was no real equivalent for the word “sister.” The idea of family-female-sibling would always be accompanied by a quirk of the head or a particular crestfeather angle which could completely change the flavor of its meaning.
Children growing up on the island chain of Oa were taught the gryphon equivalent for simple concepts like “sister,” but it took real effort to learn the rainbow of differences between egg-sister, nest-sister, or clan-sister. There was even a very specific way of holding the wings which would indicate sister-to-whom-I-am-currently-not-speaking.
More than once, Akela wished she had the expressive ears, wings, and feather crest of her friend. Maybe then she’d find it easier to talk to people.
She wrinkled her nose. “You don’t have to come, you know.”
Dancer shook out her wings. Every year, this is the thing you tell me. As if I would leave you to steal a boat and become kidnapped by pirates or merfolk. The gryphon elevated her head to her full height, looking with feigned derision down her beak at Akela. No, I must go, if only to keep you from mischief. The merfolk do not deserve to be afflicted with you.
Akela laughed and flicked her fingers over one ear, the closest she could manage to sister-of-my-heart. “Just one quick flight, and we’ll be back in time to celebrate Koapua Night with our families.”
The gryphon lifted her crest, her tufted ears springing forward with sudden excitement. Yes, and the village will celebrate with young pork roasted in a pit, mangoes dripping with juice, and fresh red snapper. There will be fires to throw sparks into the night sky to mate with the stars, and drums and clever stringed gitars. There will be music.
“And there will be dancing,” Akela finished her friend’s unspoken wish with a teasing smile.
Dancer spread her wings, excitement flickering through her crest like an electric current. The setting sun struck her midnight feathers at just the right angle to spark luminous greens and gemstone blues from the ink of the gryphon’s plumage. The light warmed her velvety leonine fur and hinted at the subtle rosettes usually hidden in the deep shadows of her pelt. Like all gryphons, her entire lower half shone a stark and unrelieved white, from chin to tailfeathers. Against the gleaming ebony of her upper half, the effect on Dancer was even more elegant than on most other rainbow-hued gryphons. Behind Dancer, the sharp angle of the mountain fell away into lush forests and distant sparkling oceans.
Akela wished she was an artist like her father. Or a poet like her sister. Or even another gryphon, equipped with the anatomy to truly tell her friend just how gorgeous she was.
Instead, she was nothing. Featherless and artless, destined to be a merchant or a fisherwoman or do whatever it was people like her ended up doing. This was her last idle year, and unlike everyone else in her year-group, she still had no marketable skill or plan for the future.
Dancer stepped forward and lowered her massive head across Akela’s shoulders, great black wings sweeping forward in an embrace.
Akela gently wrapped her arms around Dancer’s neck, feeling the silken brush of feather along the stiff length of her friend’s crest. Dancer smelled like she always did — spicy and sweet and musky, like a slow and dappled stream spilling from sunwarmed rock.
Even without feathers or words, somehow Dancer always understood her.
Tonight belonged to the goddess Koapua. Every resident of Koapua island would leave their homes to sleep under her stars. Drinks would be raised in praise of her name and her bounty. She would be thanked for harvest and fish, for sun and rain and earth beneath their feet.
Akela felt a curl of anger flare to life in her stomach. And if that harvest was less than it once was, and too many young fisherfolk were lost to the waves, and too many days filled with shocking frigid rains, no one dared raise their voice against her.
The stories whispered about Koapua no longer told of piglets returned to their sows and trees miraculously growing coconuts to feed starving strangers. Now, they were sharp-edged tales of punishment for sloth or retribution for slights against the goddess.
Even the merchants who traveled to the larger cities on Koapua had the same news. Less food. Less sunlight.
In the distance, the sound of voices raised in a rhythmic chant rose as Akela’s village began their preparations for the festival.
Akela pulled away, a sliver of fear freezing her spine. “We’re going to be late!”
Dancer sidled away, one golden eye narrowing. You doubt my speed?
Akela’s brief shock of terror faded. Of course Dancer would make it on time. “Never.”
I would fly to the ends of the earth for you, sister-of-my-heart. Dancer lowered her head and dipped an outstretched wing with clear invitation.
Akela laughed. “Lucky for you, we aren’t going that far.”
She slipped her worn flight pack over her shoulders and fastened it securely across her chest. The smell of fresh flowers rose from the soft leather, orchid and freesia wafting from the main compartment. She smiled and gave the bag a gentle pat before lifting the flight goggles from around her neck to fit snugly over her eyes.
The goggles themselves were shockingly ugly. Cobbled together from discarded pieces she had rummaged from trash heaps, the mismatched eye cups showed rusty pockmarks that no amount of burnishing could hide.
But they kept the bitter wind from stealing her vision during flight, which was all she needed them to do. It wasn’t as if tiny Koapua island had a thriving gryphonsport team like any of the larger southern islands, so buying goggles from a merchant would have been impossible even if she could have afforded them.
With the ease of long practice, Akela slid her legs over Dancer’s barrel and leaned forward to take a grip of the longer fur just above her friend’s shoulderblades.
“Let’s go,” Akela whispered, her belly pressed against her friend’s spine and her thighs locked against the gryphon’s ribcage.
Dancer took three loping strides, then launched herself off the side of a rocky cliff. Midnight wings, each twice as long as Akela was tall, beat powerfully in defiance of both air and gravity, stirring the foliage of trees and ferns below.
Before the sun dipped below the waves, they had a dead god to honor.