Theodore stalked after the aura trail, dropping and climbing along descending ledges. The air was thin and smelled of clay and fresh rain. Far below, a waterfall poured into the valley to form the mouth of the river Wander. The Upside Hills offered a view of the whole valley. From here, he could see the city and the Whirlwood side by side. The capital was so small and dense compared to the sprawl of wilderness that seemed to swallow it.
It took some productive hours of hiking and scaling to zero in on Perceval’s location. Then, without warning, the tool shut itself off. Theodore panicked, smashing the buttons and dials to try and activate it again.
He looked up to see a stunted tree struggling to grow out of a rocky cliffside. Among the branches there was a gold-yellow hawk, swearing as it tried to knit sticks and twigs into a nest.
“Devil damn it!” He spat out a limp sprig. “How do they do this without hands?!”
Theodore approached. “Good afternoon, your grace.”
The hawk froze. He shot a glance back, stiffened, and tried to play it casual. He cleared his throat.
“CAW. Erm. CAAAAW.”
“Very convincing,” Theodore said.
“Go away,” he said. “You have mistaken me for someone who is not a bird.”
Theodore waved the aura tracker. “I know it’s you, Percy.”
Sighing, the prince lowered his head. “What do you want?”
“You flew off.” Theodore said. “The plan was we’d help you escape, hands intact. Instead, you talked my partner into casting an illegal enchantment on you.”
“Sorry.” He broke eye contact. “…You took a big risk helping me. I didn’t like putting you both in danger. I didn’t like waiting around to get caught. All I wanted was a new life. A free life. One where I don’t have to worry about anyone, and nobody has to worry about me.”
Theodore folded his arms. “And how is this new life treating you?”
“Fine!” The prince said too quickly. “It’s been great! Perfect! It’s…” He sagged. “Well. Hunting is a lot harder than you’d think. Prey is real fast, and half of it can talk. So, I’ve been having trouble. It’s okay, though! I found… there was some carrion.” He paused. “That was an experience.”
Theodore looked over the pitiful excuse for a nest. “Are you expecting eggs? Should I tell the king he’s going to be a grandfather?”
“What? No!” Perceval knocked the mess out of the tree with his beak, sending it tumbling down the cliff. “I just… I thought if I’m committing to this bird thing, I should learn it, alright? Give me a break. Oboe gave me this chance. I asked for it. I want to take it seriously.”
He didn’t know. Theodore supposed there was no way he could’ve known what happened after he left. “Percy.” Theodore steeled himself. “Oboe’s in trouble. Conrad captured her. She’s being held in the dungeons for enchanting you.”
His pupils shrank to pins. “What?”
“You need to come back,” Theodore said. “You need to give her a royal pardon before she stands trial.”
Perceval fell quiet. The wind howled.
“But…” His beak hung open. “I can’t go back. If I go back, they’ll will never let me go again. Father will tighten the leash, triple the guard. I won’t be able to piss without three sets of eyes on me.” He shuttered, his feathers ruffling. “They’ll crown me. And then I’ll be trapped for the rest of my life.”
Theodore’s throat was dry. He remembered his father planning what knight order he would join. He remembered how helpless he felt, forced into lessons day after day to learn to become something he didn’t want to be. He knew exactly how the prince felt, and he hated that he needed to tell him to do anything but fly away.
“Percy,” Theodore said. “She committed a crime for you. If you don’t come back, they’re going to kill her.”
“I…” The prince stared out into the endless horizon. “But… I’m free. I’m finally free. I’ve wanted this so long, but…”
A black shape swooped between them, beating its feathered wings to light onto a branch beside Perceval. “Forgive the wait, your grace.” She said. Theodore’s eyes widened as he recognized the honeyed voice of Whisper. “I was taking care of some unfinished business.”