Dance Across the Hungry Jungle, part 6
Part 6: I know why the caged bird squawks
Landings were a well practiced routine in the Dog House, and Cap’n Crunch’s inbound flight set the deck crew into such a well rehearsed drill it could have been confused for Dance Fighting. The cleaners moved off of the main landing strip, put the feeding mounts and Red Spots in their pens, readied the capture netting in case of rampaging Red Bullseyes (a thankfully infrequent disaster) and a few brave marshals stood by the entry to direct the incoming beasts with batons.
The Cap’n lead the landing party with an artful one hoof landing; his Bullseye tapped the floor to cross from the airspace into the garrison, but somehow seemed to glide more than walk on the floor. The cap’n slid artfully off the Bullseye’s back and walked to the side to an attendant, netted Two-can in hand.
Miss Snuffles managed a two hoof landing on the Dog House’s stable floor, and trotted a few feet before coming to a complete halt. Miss Snuffles’ mood had improved considerably over the flight back, and she tamely lowered her head and a hoof so Lucy could get off without having to jump twice her height off.
Venice’s poor Bullseye had to do a four hoof landing and ran a good distance before skidding to a halt, leaving behind wood shavings as its hooves gouged into the floor. The beast panted as Venice got off, collapsing onto the floor in exhaustion. Once off the beast Venice trotted non-chalantly over to Lucy, and as she looked behind him she had to admire the deck crew. A pair of Marshalls netted the Bullseye and used two well trained Red Spots to help drag Venice’s Bullseye out of the path of the other incoming riders and Spots before it got trod over.
Feet firmly on the ground, the Dirtamancer seemed at last in his element. «Lucy!» He bellowed as he came by. «About what you were saying up there.»
Lucy actually took a step back so she could make eye contact with Venice without craning her neck too much. «Aye?»
«It’s an interesting idea, I’ll give you that. Right now we really do need more golems and heavies than city improvements for the war. You’re sure we could follow your... Luck-a-sense to good rock and metal deposits?»
Lucy tilted her head a bit «I think so, aye. But I’ll be honest with ye lad. My Luckamancy sense isn’t some kind of… mineral Findamancy. What I see are chance encounters. They involve some risk, but they’re also a chance to get a reward. And considering you’ve barely actually explored any of the land around here with your own Dirtamancy senses, it stands to reason what I’m seeing is missed chances for you to explore your craft and discover good rock and metal deposits.»
Venice nodded. «Yeah, thinking about it I’ve only really surveyed less than 10% of the land in Tar Zhay. There could be all sorts of stuff out there. Maybe even gem deposits!» He said, gesturing with a thick arm to the jungle outside the Dog House’s entrance.
Out of the corner of her eye Lucy saw Sky Cap’n Crunch approaching. If Venice agreed, they’d have to run the plan past him for approval. She smiled playfully and answered Venice loud enough for the Cap’n to hear. «Could be anything really. A lost city site, some forgotten artifact, or like happened to me earlier today for being impulsive, a bird to the face.»
Venice’s raised an eyebrow, and Sky Cap’n tisked at Lucy and smirked «Indeed.» And Crunch filled in Venice on the events leading up to the capture of the Two-Can. «Whatever you’re proposing ma’am, we’re going to consider it very seriously, but given what happened today, even if it passes muster we’ll be taking every precaution.»
«Aye aye, cap’n» She saluted crisply. Lucy had this to say for the Cap’n, he didn’t seem to carry a grudge.
«Speaking of our little feathered friend, would you two like to see the Bird Cage?»
The Bird Cage was something Lucy had unknowingly seen a few times already from the outside, but never been allowed inside. It was an outdoor greenhouse; all lovely glass and metal scaffolding and shaped like a-- well, a bird cage. Lucy had to gaze in wonder at the Titan’s sense of humor: that a building could be repurposed for something so much more in tune with it’s Signamancy.
Sky Cap’n nodded to the guards, who snapped to attention. One of the guards opened the door for them, and Sky Cap’n maneuvered the netted Two-can carefully to get it in without hurting the blighted bird. Lucy and Venice followed, and once the four were inside (Venice ducking a wee bit), Lucy found they were in a little tunnel with a second set of doors leading into the birdhouse proper.
The cramped space made her antsy, and Venice taking up so much of it wasn't helping. Despite her animosity towards it, she tried to distract herself by focusing on the surly Two-can. It was still a blue and black bundle of shiny feathers, with an orange stripe along the wings, and a cylindrical orange and yellow beak. It’s beady blue eyes were casting Eyebeams at her. Huh. Lucy noticed the blighted bird was wearing some kind of earmuffs on its head, and someone had also bound its beak with a band. No wonder it was so quiet.
Once the outer doors closed, the Cap’n opened the inner ones and they all felt the rush of warm, thickly humid and heavily scented air hit them. The scent of exotic plants and the leavings of dozens of birds hung heavy inside the bird cage.
The inside was uniquely beautiful; there was a single large Cocoapuff tree at the center, a few plant nursery beds overflowing with untended aromatic herbs and flowering plants arranged around it, along with several ground rows of various plants like tomatoes, melons, and Honey-nut bushes. All around them zipped and flew happy Two-cans, some perched on the Cocoapuff tree, others on bushes or the tables, and each wearing a tag around the ankle. From every corner of the birdcage came the echoing sounds of faraway parts of the jungle, with ferals a-roaring, birds a-singing, waterfalls... a-falling. But there were so many it all cancelled out into a sort of white noise.
There were so many, in fact, that Lucy guessed all the food produced by the greenhouse was being eaten by their feathered guests, and the dung on the floor certainly proved it.
Lucy took another whiff of the odious aroma, and trying to make light of the situation asked. «Cap’n, are these double doors to keep the birds in, or avoid the smell of bird crap from overwhelming the city?»
Cap’n maneuvered the Two-can onto the lone empty table with some gardening equipment on it. He opened a drawer in the side and pulled out tags and materials as he spoke «Ma’am, the smell of these bird’s crap might as well be a state secret. You bet your life we don’t want the Banana Republic finding out about them.»
A laugh had begun to well up inside her when the Cap’n had finished his first sentence, but the second had such deadpan honesty that the laugh croaked in her throat. «You’re... serious, lad?»
Venice moved to help the Cap’n from the other side of the table, holding the bird steady and a clawed foot extended.
As the cap’n spoke he took out a violet colored and tag with the number seven on it, and attached it to the Two-can’s leg. «Yes ma’am. As far as we can tell, no other side is actively trapping them to use as comms. No one outside of Komissars or Breakfast Clubbers can know.»
Lucy suddenly made the connection, and had to ask «Is that what the earmuffs on the Two-Can are for? To keep the missing pair from repeating what we’re saying?»
Cap’n nodded «You have to yell to be heard by one in a jungle, when they’re in a tree; but they can pick up regular conversation well enough when they’re close to you and it's quiet. The ones flying around inside can’t hear us with all the combined noise. And officially, if anyone asks, these birdhouses are the “quirky affectations” of the side’s nobility and city administrators.»
Venice held the Two-Can steady, keeping his grip outside of the range of its beak, and chimed in with «The cover stories are pretty ingenious, the Duke at Label is “collecting songbirds”, the city manager of Archer has developed a taste for unique gourmet meats, and the Earl of Mossimoco is gathering them to harvest the colorful feathers for duds.»
Cap’n Crunch took out a little notebook from the same drawer and started writing in it as he examined the bird. He spoke and wrote fluidly, Lucy guessed flyers had to be good multitaskers. «Our cover is that Archduchess Shay wants new birds for raiment, so she can improve the Dis-co’s training costumes. And if you ask me about it once we’re outside, I’ll swear up and down about how annoying it is that Shay’s pulled rank this way.»
Once the Cap’n had finished and put the notebook and tags away, Venice gingerly removed it's earmuffs, unbound the beak, and opened the capture net to let the bird escape. It flapped up angrily, and Lucy kept her arms ready to recast the paralysis spell on it if it tried to come back for revenge. It’s little bird brain must have been bigger than she thought, as it just flapped away and perched on the Cocoapuff tree and glared down.
Lucy crossed her arms and glared back. She eventually softened her expression and turned to ask the Cap’n «That cover story has a pretty good point though. Is all this really worth the effort? Especially during a war, of all times? We already have hats and a Thinkamancer.»
Cap’n Crunch dusted off his hands and answered «Individual pairs are a novelty, yes. But once we get one for every city? They’ll make our debates that much faster and smoother, and if we get enough, there’s a bunch of other practical uses, from espionage to battlefield coordination.»
Venice gave Cap’n a sympathetic look. «I’m right there with you. I’d rather make two hundred Crap Golems than be forced to participate in another two hundred page debate on “Optimal Crop Rotations”.» Venice actually shuddered in the heat. «If it weren’t for the scribes condensing some of these into key points, I’d only vote once a hundred-turn.»
Lucy had actually been wondering about some of the specifics of Komissar voting, especially given they were all spread out. Two hundred page debates? Merciful Titans, if that’s what was in store, she wasn't sure she wanted the responsibility!
Sky Cap’n’s sigh agreed with her assessment. Still, he perked up as he spoke «We’ve trapped three dozen and gotten three matched pairs so far. They’re simply amazing, it’s almost like having the person be in the same room!»
Lucy chortled at the Cap’n excitement, and found an excellent bit of Rhyme-o-mancy to wrap her next question in. «So how do you tell when two Two-cans can be paired and spared?»
Cap’n and Venice laughed at her word play, and Cap actually motioned for them towards a bench. «Tedious trial and error. And potentially risky, considering that the unpaired ones are blabbing what they hear out in the wild. But there’s something to be said about putting a lot of different heads together to solve a problem. A clever scribe in Uppenup thought of it when he heard a gardener singing… from another city’s birdcage.»
He threw up both hands in an exasperated motion «Someone must have forgotten to tell the gardener not to tend his city’s greenhouse-turned-birdcage. But the scribe realized it wasn’t a security leak; camped armies sing all the time. Anyone else hearing him sing would just think it was a lone scout somewhere.»
When they reached a bench, Cap’n dusted off a spot for Lucy before doing the same for himself.
Out of bench space, Venice looked around briefly and couldn’t find anywhere clean to sit. He wrinkled his brow and sneered at the state of the Bird House. He pulled out a pair of shiny chrome fingerless gloves from a pocket in his shorts, and put them on with a look of intense focus.
He moved his left foot back and bent his right knee to lower his stance. He put a single gloved arm behind his back, and began to recite a spell while he made a slow punching motion; as if pulling on an invisible rope with a great weight anchored to a wall. «Wheeler, Linka, Ma-Ti, Kwami, Gi!» Once his arm was fully extended, the bird dung dissolved into the ground with a subdued green glow.
Lucy took a whiff of newly clean air, and clapped appreciatively. «Good job Venice! Way to kick the crap out of that crud.»
Venice smiled and shrugged his broad shoulders «It was either make fertilizer or crap golems. At least this way we can breathe a little easier.»
With plenty of seating now available, Venice picked a spot on the ground and sat cross-legged in front of them. Comfortable as a courtier in a divan and now eye level with Lucy. She had to wonder about a Dirtamancer who would sooner clean crap off the floor than make a dirt throne for himself.
Cap’n crossed his leg and relaxed into the seat before continuing their earlier conversation. «Tonight the Arch Duchess and some of the Breakfast Club will come down and start singing bawdy songs and drinking Tarzhale. Meanwhile, there’ll be scribes, clubbers, and Komissars listening in other cities to see if any of them are paired. Then tomorrow it’ll be party time in another city.»
Venice let out another of his big laughs «Ha-hA! Yes! I’m finally in time for one! So how about it Lucy? how do you feel about going Clubbing at the Birdcage tonight before we ship off?»
Summoning up a bawdy grin, Lucy answered «Count on it! I’ll even make sure to bring a couple of friends I’d like you to meet. It may take some convincing, but I’ll bring them even if I have to drag them in to see the show. It’ll be a real Drag-show at the Birdcage!»