When she woke in the morning, her clothes were folded neatly on top of a chest. They were sparkling clean, even the blanket. The cheese-sword had been unknotted from its shoelace and slipped into a leather sheath attached to a narrow belt.
“It’s a little loose in the sheath,” said the servant-bird apologetically, bustling in. “The shape’s a bit unusual.”
“It’s for cheese,” said Summer.
The bird paused for an instant. “Are the cheeses very fierce in your world?”
Summer started laughing. “No. It’s…it’s a long story.”
The bird smiled. “That’s good to know. Master Reginald is down at breakfast still, if you’d like to join him.”
Summer put on her clothes, and then the servant-bird draped a new robe around her and helped her tie it with a sash. It looked rather odd in the mirror, but the bird assured her that no human would dream of sharing a meal with the Almondgrove family in anything less formal.
The Almondgrove dining room was a long, low table with a sideboard and many perches. It was so low to the ground that a chair would have towered over it, but the birds had provided a cushion for Summer to sit on. Reginald waved cheerfully as she came in.
“Grab a plate,” he said. “Help yourself. We’re not formal in the morning.”
It all looked rather formal to Summer, compared to eating in the kitchen at home, particularly when the butler-bird came out and poured juice for her. But she took a plate and went to the sideboard, which had jam and bread and cold cuts, as well as other things that looked rather more troubling. (Were those mealworms in jelly?)
She sat on her cushion and ate her breakfast. The weasel gorged himself on cold cuts.
“So!” said Reginald. “Sleep well?”
Summer nodded. She didn’t know why she’d been so tired. “Very well,” she said.
“Good, good. Wolf-chap went off to m’father’s hunting preserve, says he’ll be back later.”
“Are we not leaving today, then?” asked Summer. She didn’t have any great desire to leave, but she wasn’t sure what she would do with herself all day. It is always a little awkward to be a guest in someone else’s home when you have no way to occupy yourself.
“Thought we’d stay a day or two,” said Reginald. “No great rush, is there? Father’s tracking down something wonderful for us to go stake out for wasps.” He took a sip of juice. “And there’s a ball tonight in any event, so we can’t possibly leave before then. Miss Merope will be there!”
Summer had nearly forgotten Miss Merope. “Ah,” she said. “Um. Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Far more dangerous to miss it! Reputation in tatters, what?”
“Well, suppose someone tells Zultan where we are?” Summer was not entirely sure if they were still on the run, exactly, but people with other people chasing them didn’t stop and go to balls, did they?
“Oh!” The hoopoe waved a wing at her. “No fear! No self-respecting bird’ll give Grub the time of day! That’d be the worst sort of ton! And everyone brings their guards, of course, in case of a duel.”
“There are duels?”
“Only if we’re lucky,” Reginald assured her. “And it’d be over a matter of honor. Nobody’ll duel a human, never you fear. It’d be lowering.”
“I…see.” Summer started in on the toast, to buy time.
“You’ll come, won’t you?” asked Reginald anxiously. “Not to dance—not much for the aerial waltz, of course!—but meet Miss Merope and the crowd? Great good guns they are, slap up to the echo—but you’ll see that, of course!”
Summer followed less than half of that, but gathered that she was being invited. She was touched, but it sounded a little nerve-wracking. She hated school dances. Everybody stood around and looked awkward at each other.
“What do I wear?”
“Oh, it hardly matters,” said Reginald. “You’re a human, you can wear anything. No one cares. Um.” He coughed, catching himself. “That is, sure you’ll look smashing in anything, of course.”
The weasel rolled his eyes and muttered something around a mouthful of ham.
“Sure,” said Summer, grinning. His unconcern was very reassuring somehow. What did birds care what a human wore, after all?
In the end, she wore a black tunic with an elaborately patterned waistcoat over it. The waistcoat was for a bird, she thought, so it was rather strangely cut and seized the bottom of her ribs whenever she took a deep breath. But she found that she quite liked the look in the mirror, particularly with the cheese-sword. She looked strange and dark and almost dangerous, and when you are twelve, this is quite an accomplishment.
To her mild surprise, they walked. “Only a quick flit of the wings,” explained Reginald. “Even for a walker. M’father won’t get the carriage out for anything short of a visit to the Chorus, says we’ll get lazy. Some of the birds from farther out will drive, though.”
The dance hall was only about a twenty-minute walk, down the well-lit roads. The goose-guards went alongside them, carrying their spears in horizontal holsters under their wings. It looked very strange, but Summer supposed that if you had to draw a weapon with your feet, it made sense.
Glorious and the weasel had gone off to hunt during the day, so it was a party of only four: hoopoe and geese and human. They were rapidly joined by other birds, though, most flying overhead but a few walking like the geese. Reginald called greetings and friendly insults but stayed politely on the ground beside her.
A small knot of quail with dozens of ribbons in their topknots fell in alongside them. “Marm,” said Reginald, dipping his head. The largest of the group nodded to him. “Master Almondgrove.” The rest of the quail lifted their fans almost simultaneously and gave breathless chirping giggles.
Summer was close enough to one of the guards to hear the goose snort. She caught the big bird’s eyes and they exchanged glances. Summer felt suddenly very much older and very grown-up, and not just because the quail only came up to her knees.
When they arrived at the dancehall itself, she felt smaller again. The building was immense, the size of a barn—two or three barns, maybe—and there were carriages being pulled up in front of it. At first Summer could make no sense of the carriages, and then she realized that they were pulled by ostriches standing ten feet high, their plumed headdresses rising even higher.
As she watched, one of the ostriches turned in the harness and used his long, snake-like neck to reach the carriage door. “Madam,” he intoned, in a voice like gravel.
He’s the coachman and the horse all at once! That’s certainly efficient!
Three orange birds got out of the carriage, their heads bizarrely rounded. Summer couldn’t tell if it was a mass of feathers or a peculiar hair-style….feather-style…oh dear…I wonder…
“Reginald, do some birds wear wigs?”
The hoopoe let out a loud bray of laughter, tried to stifle it, and nearly choked. One of the geese pounded him on the back. “Dash it, Summer, what a time to ask that! Yes, but it’s not done. You pretend not to notice and then talk behind their backs, that’s the polite way.”
“No, no. Human you know, ma’am, very different where they’re from, no offense intended—”
This last was to the quail matron, who had turned a round-eyed glare onto Summer.
“Qwerrrrmk!” she said, and turned away. She gestured with her fan and all the quail ran forward, dipping their heads as they passed Reginald, and vanished through the open doorway. It was also the size of a barn door, but shaped like a keyhole, much larger at the top than the bottom. There were no steps, only a long ramp up to it.
“I didn’t mean to offend them,” said Summer sheepishly.
“Oh, bah, don’t trouble yourself a bit. Some birds live to be offended. She’d be more offended if you didn’t provide something to be offended about, in a manner of speaking. Ho, Thrasher! Is that you?”
A yellow-eyed bird dropped down beside them. “Reggie! Thought you were still rusticating!”
“Oh, I am,” said Reginald happily. “This is just—ah—rusticus interruptus, you know? Had to come back home for a bit. Thrasher, this is Summer. She’s a human.”
“No doubt,” said Thrasher. “Thank heavens you told me, Reggie, I’d have been completely at sea otherwise.” He winked at Summer.
“We flocked together when we were barely out of the egg!” said Reginald. “Up and down and back around, one yolk in two shells—oh, I say, it’s Banner!”
They had reached the doorway of the dance-hall, and Reginald darted into the air, calling after another bird. Thrasher gave Summer an amused look.
“Best bird in the world,” he said, “but no attention span at all. May I get you some punch, Miss Summer?”
“Sure,” said Summer. “Thank you?”
Thrasher vanished into the crowd. The geese gently shepherded her out of the way of the doorway.
The crowd was both overhead and underfoot. There were dozens of balconies and perches, the rafters lined with chatting birds, while more grounded fowl scurried back and forth on the floor. A band played in one corner, consisting of an enormous quantity of guineafowl, sometimes two or three to an instrument.
Some of the birds were dancing in mid-air, spinning and flapping and bounding in intricate figures. Far more, however, were milling about talking to one another, sparing only occasional glances to the dancers.
“It’s a sad crush,” said Thrasher, reappearing with a glass of punch. He handed it up to her. “Far too many people here to see anyone or have a conversation at all. Dreadful, really dreadful.”
He sounded quite cheerful about this. Summer grinned into her punch.
The crowd on the floor was about knee height, but a few birds stood as tall or taller than Summer: another goose, far more elaborately dressed than the guards; an emu with strings of crystals braided into her feathers so that she sparkled like a galaxy; two black and white birds that stalked like dinosaurs on heavy gray legs.
She was the only human, but not, she thought, the only non-bird. There was someone in the corner who looked like a gigantic snail with an iridescent shell, although Summer wasn’t sure if they were a guest or the refreshments.
Should I go talk to them? But what if I’m talking to food? Err…
Thrasher had stepped away to talk to another bird nearby. She didn’t quite feel comfortable interrupting him. She looked for Reginald in the crowd, hoping she could ask him, but didn’t see him.
In the end, she stepped back against the wall, near the goose guards, and tried to look as if she was having a good time. Which was like every school dance she’d ever been to, honestly, except that the birds were far more interesting to watch than middle-schoolers.
The musicians struck up a fast number and conversation stilled as birds swung overhead. It looked as if they must surely crash into each other, flying wingtip to wingtip as they were, but somehow they all threaded the measures of the dance. It was quite extraordinary to watch, like a three-dimensional square dance.
Would that be a cube-dance? They had only just gotten to squares and cubes and powers in math. Summer was still rather proud of the idea and wished she had someone to tell it to. Did they do algebra in Orcus?
When the dance ended there was another one, and another after that. Summer’s eyes were dazzled with feathers and jewelry and swirling fabrics, until the dances began to turn into long swoops and swirls of color. She had to stop and rub her forehead before her eyes unfocused completely.
When she opened them again, Reginald was in front of her with another bird in tow.
“Want you to meet someone, Merope, love,” said Reginald cheerfully. “This is Summer. Summer, Miss Merope Bee-eater.”
So this was the bird that Reginald was quite desperately in love with, thought Summer. She bowed.
Miss Merope was tiny, barely half the size of Reginald. She was magnificently sea-green, with a blazing yellow throat and dark red eyes. A black band of feathers ran from her bill over her eyes, like striking mascara.
She wore a white gown, with a fan on a chain around her throat. As Summer watched, she stood on one foot and caught up the fan in her claws, hiding her face behind it.
“A human!” she said, in a high, buzzy voice. “Reginald, darling! Is it your new bodyguard? Does it talk?”
“She’s a she, not an it,” said Reginald, casting an apologetic look at Summer. “She talks very well, for all that she’s not that far out of the egg. Don’t you, Summer?”
“I try,” said Summer, who had just discovered that when someone asks if you talk, you have a sudden desire not to talk. At least, not to them. She made a mental note to apologize to the weasel.
“Summer’s a brick,” said Reginald cheerfully. “Been up and down the countryside with her, riding a wolf, no less. Such adventures we’ve had! You won’t half believe them.”
“I’m sure I won’t,” said Miss Merope. She gave Summer another long look over her fan.
Summer disliked her enormously.
“Reginald, dear,” Merope said (not taking her eyes off Summer), “is that where you’ve been? Gadding about with a—a human?”
“And a wolf and a weasel!” said Reginald happily. “Went to rusticate, and fell headfirst into an adventure.”
Merope shuddered delicately. Her gray-green tailfeathers trembled. “How dreadful!”
“It’s been brilliant,” said Reginald.
“Reginald has been very brave,” said Summer. It didn’t matter if she didn’t like Merope, Reginald did, and that was the important thing. She wasn’t going to have to marry the red-eyed bird, after all. “We would have been in a lot of trouble without him.”
Merope shuddered again. “But you’re home now,” she said to Reginald. “And you’ll be coming to my house party next Sunday, of course.”
“Oh, ah,” said Reginald. “Sorry, Merope, love. Adventure’s not over yet. Just swung by the old family homestead for a bit of a nosh and some advice, don’t you know?”
Merope deployed the fan aggressively. “But Reginald…!”
Reginald cast another look at Summer, this time pleading.
“I shan’t like you at all if you don’t come,” said Merope, holding her bill up. “It shall be a sad crush and I shall be wearing my red crepe and you’ll be off sleeping in a hedge like a bandit.”
Summer had a brief fantasy of taking the fan away and beating Merope over the head with it. Unfortunately Merope was less than a quarter of her size, and it would have been incredibly unfair.
“You don’t have to come,” she said, feeling more hurt than she expected. “I mean, I hope you will, I’d miss you a lot, but it’s not your problem. Baba Yaga didn’t tell you to do anything. And you’ve gotten me all this way, and that’s more than—I mean, we’d just met—”
It occurred to her, rather shockingly, that she might cry. Not from the hurt, although that was part of it, but from the sudden realization that Reginald had picked her up in the middle of the fields and shepherded her all this way, without asking for anything, simply because he was…well…Reginald.
At some point she’d gotten used to it and forgotten how grateful she was. It all came crashing back and she had to stare downward and pretend to be very interested in her drink.
“See, Reginald,” said Merope. “Listen to the human. You want to stay, don’t you?”
“Nope!” said Reginald, surprising both of them. “Nope. Can’t let a chit like Summer go running off on her own. Word of a hoopoe.” He patted Summer’s foot with his claw. “There’ll be other parties, Merope, love, and if I went back on my word, I shouldn’t be fit company for any of them.”
“Hmmph!” said Merope, and flew away. Other birds descended on her as she left.
“Isn’t she lovely?” said Reginald, sighing.
“Err,” said Summer. “She…um. She’s very…brightly colored?”
“She wasn’t very nice to you, though,” said Summer. With the gratitude had come indignation that anybody would treat sweet, noble, silly Reginald like that.
Reginald shrugged. “Certified beauties,” he said philosophically. “They’re used to having you hop when they tip their beak to you. Show signs of not hopping, and they turn into termagants.”
Summer had no idea what a termagant was. “I thought you were in love with her,” she said cautiously.
“Oh, of course,” said Reginald. “All the rage, isn’t she? Positively unfashionable not to be in love with her. ‘Scuse me, Summer, I see Marcus! Ho, Marcus!”
He flew away, toward a heavy-bodied black bird with a spectacular ruff of feathers. “Marcus!”
Summer exhaled. To no one in particular, she said, “I don’t think he’s in love with her at all…”
There was a gentle laugh beside her. Summer turned and saw a lovely chestnut bird, with a long green gown and a spotted white breast.
Except for the gown and the fact that she was nearly two feet tall, she strongly resembled the hermit thrushes that lived in the park near Summer’s home.
“Confused?” asked the thrush. Her voice was a long liquid trill.
“Very,” said Summer. “Um. I’m Summer?”
“And I am Sophia,” said the thrush. “It is a pleasure to meet you.” She dipped her wings, and Summer bowed, more deeply than she had to Miss Merope.
“Now, then,” said Sophia. “If you will bring me a glass of punch, my dear, I will answer the question that you are not quite sure how to ask.”
Summer went to the punchbowl and brought back a glass as well as refilling her own. Sophia took hers and dipped her beak into it. “Thank you,” she said.
Summer sipped her punch, more slowly. “So…Reginald…” she said.
Sophia shook her head fondly. “Young birds,” she said. “So ridiculous, and so dear. We are not like your people, my dear. Most of us do not mate for life. The hoopoes don’t, nor the bee-eaters, nor the thrushes. We fall in love for a season, mostly according to the dictates of fashion, and then we move on.”
“But she’s not being nice to him,” said Summer angrily. “And he’s my friend, and I don’t want people to be mean to him.”
Sophia smiled. “That does you credit,” she said. “Friendships last a long time among birds, even if love doesn’t. But you needn’t worry about Reginald. He’ll fall in love a dozen times in the next few years. Some of those—the kind ones—he may stay friends with. The ones, like Miss Merope, that are lovely and unkind, he’ll forget in a season.”
Summer frowned into her punch. “Don’t birds get married?”
Sophia nodded. “Certainly we do!” she said. “But—correct me if I’m wrong—don’t humans marry for a long time?”
“Well, yes…” said Summer. “You’re supposed to get married forever, unless you get divorced.”
“Ah,” said Sophia cheerfully. “There’s the difference. We birds marry for a season. The nest is built, the eggs are laid, compensation is given, inheritance decided, and then we go back to our own wintering homes.” She finished her punch. “Very tidy. Very short. You aren’t stuck with someone for years if it turns out you can’t stand each other.”
Summer realized with a shock that Sophia actually felt sorry for her.
No, not for me—for humans!
“Uh,” she said. She took a gulp of punch because she couldn’t think of what to say. “Oh. Don’t you…err…ever…for longer…?”
“Oh, it happens,” said Sophia. “Mostly when you’re older, and get tired of bothering with romance. And some of the birds do it all the time—the swans and the falcons and whatnot. But really, it’s nice to go home to your own roost and not having to worry about dealing with someone else about.”
It sounded very lonely to Summer. Then again, if you lived in a huge manor house, like Reginald, with all your family around you, would you be lonely?
“I’m sure your way works for you,” said Sophia. “Our way works for us.” She patted Summer’s shin. “It was very nice to meet you, Miss Summer.”
“And you, Miss Sophia,” said Summer, remembering her manners.
Sophia laughed again. “Miss! No, dear, it’s Matron Sophia.”
“Oh! I’m sorry—”
“Not at all, not at all.” Sophia trilled softly. “Miss! Thank you, my dear. No one’s called me that in a long time.”
She swept away, her gown trailing behind her.
Summer mulled over the conversation, staring into her punch. It occurred to her that she had no real idea what Sophia had thought of the whole thing, while Sophia had clearly been able to read her expressions very well indeed.
“Zounds!” said Reginald, coming over. “In high company, there! I leave you alone for the shake of a cat’s whisker and you’re climbing the ranks like a trooper.”
“High company?” Summer glanced after the thrush.
“I should say so! That was Matron Sophia, you know.”
“She was very nice…?”
“Nice!” Reginald hooted. “Nice! Blimey, Summer, that was the leader of the Dawn Chorus.” And when Summer looked blankly at him, he said “You know? The Prime Minister of Birds!”