Chapter VIII: Grand.
SLAM! (Did I already write that?)
It’s not the sound of a trap door dropping me to my death. Marginally less terrifying - it’s the full sensory experience of a whack on the back from the giant bird whose wing I just deep-fried. He envelops my face in his other wing - it seems my death sentence has been repealed from ‘trap door’ to ‘suffocation’.
“You know what, boy?” the bird squawks. “You’re all right! Two more hugs for Stirling With Two Eyes!”
Huh? Before I know it I’m being cuddled by the bird, an ALIEN and a Northerner. (Hugs aren’t my thing at the best of times.)
“That was poetry. A little more rhyming and rhythm than we usually like up here, but a bit more practice and you’ll be poeting with the best of us. So how d’you feel about that drink?”
“Thank you,” I mutter to the man down below.
Chapter IX: Befriend The Fledgling.
“An ale for our poet, on the house. And a glass of ice,” says the bird. (Whose name - according to the licensee sign behind the bar - is ‘Red Heron’.) The bartender pulls my beer, then heads out the back with a chisel and hammer. He comes back with the glass of ice. Red takes it in one claw and holds it to his wing.
Perched on the barstool beside us is the anthropomorphised version of Red. He’s dressed like a person, but even in what look like Size 13 shoes, three talons are piercing out each toe cap, and one more out each heel. Wings emerge from his sleeves with feathered fingers and opposable thumbs. A book’s open on the bar, beside a notepad and inkwell. I glance at the text and instinctively want to shelve the book somewhere in the 340s. He’s writing in the pad with a quill that’s almost certainly one of his own feathers. The birdman looks up - he’s wearing goggles, and has styled his crest into a Mohawk. “What happened to your wing?”
Red slaps me on the back again. “Stirling With Two Eyes set fire to it.”
“And you’re buying him a drink?” The half-bird looks at me, impressed. “Set fire to the rest of him and I’ll buy you a keg.”
I laugh, in the hope it’s the right response. “So, Red, this must be your...”
Red shakes his head vigorously. “This is the next-door-neighbour - Shooter. You two should get to know each other, Shooter could do with a friend.”
Having apparently fobbed us off on each other, Red hops back towards the stage with his glass of ice.
“I have enough friends, Red!” Shooter shouts after him, then returns to his studies.
I try to look busy by rereading the poem. It’s no more comprehensible the second time around. “What even is a fledgling?” I mutter.
“Let me Dougal that for you,” Shooter says. “Hey Dougal! What’s a fledgling?”
“It’s a bird that’s developed feathers large enough for flight,” the barman (Dougal?) tells us. “Or someone inexperienced. To use it in a sentence: ‘Shooter is a fledgling with the ladies.’” Dougal chuckles at his own joke.
Shooter sticks his head deeper into his book.
If I am going to follow the instructions in this stupid poem, I need to do something I’ve been deliberately avoiding for years. I have to make a friend.
Chapter X: Where Be Dragons?
“So...” I begin, then realise that’s all I have. (This is how unpractised I am at making friends.)
“Mate!” Shooter replies. (I take it back - it turns out that when I actually try, I’m a savant at friendship.) He points to my untouched beer. “Are you going to drink that?”
(Oh.) “No, it’s all yours.”
Shooter dips his long beak into the beer like a straw, then takes a sip. “Where’d you pick up that accent?”
“I don’t have an accent.”
“There you go again! ‘I don’t have an accent.’” Shooter mimics my voice perfectly, like he’s playing back a recording. “Where the heck did you learn to speak like that?”
“The same place I learnt everything,” I say. “In South.”
“You’re from South?” Shooter whispers, suddenly interested. He pans his head to the right until it’s facing backwards, then scopes the bar a full 360 degrees back the other way. “You can’t just say stuff like that! We’ll tell people you’re from Braddon. People just expect weird things from Braddon.”
“I’m not weird. I’m normal. Everything in South is normal. It’s here that’s insane - look, you have aliens, for God’s sake. Oops, I mean ALIENS - and I’m sorry to point this out to you, but it’s the exact same word!”
Shooter’s head springs around to me again. “I didn’t realise Southerners were so racist. Why don’t you have aliens?”
“It’s not ‘racist’ to not have aliens. Not having aliens is the status quo. North is weird for having aliens, and...” (Don’t say ‘bird people’. Don’t say ‘bird people’. Don’t say ‘bird people’.) “...dragons!”
Shooter’s face is better at conveying expressions than Red’s. He’s confused. “You’re the ones with dragons.”
“You know, like on the maps. ‘South - Here Be Dragons’.”
“That’s North.” I point to the ground, then gesture around this crazy place. “Here be dragons.”
“We don’t have dragons.”
This is infuriating. I search my trouser pockets and extract their contents. “Then how do you explain this?” I slam my documentary evidence on the table.
“Wow,” Shooter says. “That’s the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen.”
“I know, right? But the point is, Shooter, if you don’t have dragons, why does this note I received from North say ‘I was locked in here by a dragon’?”
“The dragon...” Shooter begins, pensively, “...must have flown here from South.”
“There are no dragons in South!”
Shooter slurps the rest of my beer, screws a lid on the inkwell and throws all his stuff in a backpack.
“Where are you going?”
“We’re going to ask the one person I know who can tell us about dragons. We’re off to see the Devil.”
Chapter XI: Half Empty.
I follow Shooter out the door. It’s night, but bright with by streetlights and the headlamps of traffic. The road’s filled with bikes, large tricycles, quadracycles (tetracycles?), pentacycles, hexacycles, and after that I stop counting wheels. North looks like a montage - everything’s built out of repurposed materials - stacked bottles on their sides are assembled into windows, and wind turbines spin blades of old street signs. Parts of edifices that have fallen apart have been replaced by piece by piece, like buildings of different ages have been superimposed on top of each other. Above my head swings a sign:
<‘The Red Heron, bar and ethanol station.’>
“I’m not in South anymore, Shooter.”
“Braddon,” Shooter corrects. “Remember, if anyone asks, you’re from Braddon.” He double checks he’s locked his own front door. Looking at The Red Heron’s egomaniacal sign and Shooter at the same time, the similarities are unambiguous.
“Have you always been Red’s... um... neighbour?”
Shooter gives me another deadpan bird stare. “I’m not an idiot, you know. I get that from my mum’s side of the family.”
“Red and Mum obviously had an affair. He’s never admitted he’s my biological father; I’ve never eased him of the guilt by telling him I know.” Shooter's beak clicks on window glass as he gazes inside like a peeping Tom, except it’s his own house. “She died when I was young. That’s her photo on my piano.”
I shelve the image of Shooter playing the piano, and spot the a framed sepia photograph of a woman. A human woman. “No way that’s your mum.”
“I know - she was so beautiful.” Shooter starts walking up the street, and I match his pace.
“No, I mean humans share 95% of their DNA with chimpanzees, but we can’t breed with them.”
Shooter clucks disdainfully. “Are there laws against it in ‘Braddon’?”
“Of course there are laws against it!” (I know I might sound prudish, but... come on. I’m right about this.)
“Well that’s why you can’t breed with chimpanzees there. It’s legal here. One of my best friends is half-human, half-chimpanzee.”
At least half of this statement rings false, but I have no cultural basis to tell if he’s lying, or joking, or if half-chimpanzee best friends are completely normal here.
“Laws are powerful.” Shooter squawks. “It’s why I’m studying for the bar.”
Just when I thought Shooter couldn’t look any more ridiculous, I imagine him in a curly white wig. I bite my tongue to avoid using the words ‘legal’ and ‘eagle’ in the next sentence. He diverts our path to avoid a giant pit in the ground, and as we pass, I look over the edge to the bottom. “Is that a giant chessboard?”
“We don’t talk about that.”
Shooter stops in front of something that’s either a building with a tree growing out of it or a tree with a building growing out of it. “Because the seventy-ninth rule of Chess Club is ‘You do not talk about Chess Club.’”
I can’t help myself. “What’s the first rule of Chess Club?”
“‘White moves first.’ Moron.”
Chapter XII: Idle Hands.
We walk straight in to the treehouse/housetree. “The doors to The Devil’s Playground are always open,” Shooter tells me as firelight dances across the hallway walls. “Most Northerners are petrified they’ll end up here and would never come in by choice. But the Devil’s all right.”
The hall opens into a cavern. “Let me guess, ‘the Devil’ is actually half-Tasmanian-devil.”
“Believe me, I’m all woman,” the Devil says.
I gasp. My knees go weak, my insides explode, and heartbeats machinegun my head. I feel like Plato’s released prisoner seeing the world for the first time after a life of watching only shadows. The Devil is the ideal form of woman, of whom all others are imperfect copies.
“Crap,” Shooter says. “I forgot to prepare you.”
“H...” I wipe the drool from my mouth and hold out a sweaty and now saliva-coated right hand to the Devil. “H...” I repeat, just as eloquently.
“This is Stirling With Two Eyes. He’s from Braddon,” Shooter explains.
The Devil nods sympathetically.
“Hello Stirling, I’m Belle.” The Devil presses her warm lips to my still-outstretched hand, and I am never going to wash it again.
“Snap out of it, Stirling.” Shooter flaps my face. “Belle, dial down the pheromones.”
“You’re no fun.” Belle pokes out her tongue.
Gradually, the room around Belle comes into focus. It’s not a flaming cave, but a science laboratory lit by Bunsen burners. All around us are shelves and shelves of chemicals.
I pick up one jar and shake up the liquid inside. “What is all this stuff?” Apparently I’m now able to form vaguely coherent sentences.
“That’s the most lethal toxin known to man,” Belle replies.
I stop shaking the jar and return it to the shelf with care.
Belle frames her face with her hands. “But it’s great for wrinkles.” When it comes to Belle herself, I feel like I’ve been Platonically reimprisoned - it’s like trying to identify someone when I can only see her shadow. I can tell she’s wearing a lab coat, and is zero percent Tasmanian devil, but beyond that, I can’t be sure. At the centre of the room is a glass tank that stretches from floor to ceiling. Inside is a cross between a termite mound and wasps’ nest that’s filled with larva and winged insects. The data label reads ‘sensus plebasites’. “The day King O dies, I release them” Belle continues. “Each is engineered to bite a different Northener, then release one of two signals, depending on whether the host is more disposed towards monarchy or republicanism. I’ll analyse the results and North will proceed from there.”
“What would happen if one bit someone from... say... South?” I ask, attempting nonchalance.
“I bioengineered them not to cross the border,” Belle says. “Like fruit flies who can quarantine themselves from entering the exclusion zone.”
“But... what if the Southerners were in North?”
“Oh, honey, don’t worry about that.” The Devil smiles. “The plebasites would totally kill them.”
Chapter XIII: The Devil You Know.
“So... dragons.” Shooter does his best to get us on topic.
“Hold on!” (I’m not quite over the previous one.) “So if the king passed away now, a Southerner in North would be immediately bitten to death by one of these bugs?”
“That’s right, sweetie.” Belle turns to Shooter. “What was that about dragons?”
“There are dragons in South, right?”
“So the maps say. Why do you ask?”
“This is ridiculous. The dragons are in North.” I pull out Paige’s note again. “I have evidence.”
Belle sighs. “He really is from Braddon isn’t he.”
“Damn it - I’ve never even been to Braddon. I’m from South - a place where there are no dragons.”
Shooter groans. “Way to blow cover, Stirling.”
Belle touches my arm. “I’ve never met a Southerner before. Why don’t you make yourselves at home.” All of a sudden, I’m interesting. She sashays over to her shelves of chemicals and sets some beakers on a tray. “I’ll pour the drinks.”
“We’re kind of on the clock Belle,” Shooter says. “If you could just tell us what you know about dragons...”
“Pish posh.” The Devil swishes something marked ‘ethyl isobutyrate’ into half a flask of water. “What could possibly be more momentous than an evening with me?”
“Right now, the king’s lifespan tops my list of momentous concerns,” I mutter.
“I’m hardly going to release the plebasites while you’re here, Stirling.” Belle adds a pint of ethanol and pours out three beakers. She carries the tray of her concoctions over to the fireplace and settles on a cushion, patting the rug beside her. “Now show me this evidence of Northern dragons.”
I look at Shooter. He shrugs, and we follow Belle to the rug.
I hold out Paige’s fourth note, and as Belle takes it, her warm fingers brush mine. “Cheers,” she says and swigs her drink.
I sip mine - the mixture tastes remarkably like red wine.
“‘I was locked in here by a dragon’,” Belle reads. “How did you get this?”
“A Northerner sent it,” I offer. “I came here to find her.”
“We’re on a quest?” Shooter claps his wings. “Why didn’t you tell me we were on a quest? I’ve always wanted to be on a quest.”
“Stirling.” Belle sidles closer. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but this is fiction. There’s no such thing as dragons.” She drops Paige’s note into the fire.
“Shortest quest ever,” Shooter broods, as our quest and the note go up in smoke.
“Paige was a phony,” Belle says, breathily. “But I’m real. Make yourself at home. The night is young, and so are we.”
Blood rushes to my head, but whatever it’s doing up there, it’s not fuelling my brain. “H...” I say. I can’t describe anything about her, but I could gaze at Belle forever. If I believe I’m with the perfect woman, does it matter if she isn’t?
“Stop it, Belle,” Shooter says.
“What? Stirling’s a big boy, he can make his own decisions.”
Belle leans towards me, and I can feel the heat from her lips. “We’ll be a match made in h...”
“Hell no!” I kick myself backwards on the rug. “Belle, you can’t convince me to stay by overruling my senses.”
“Oh well. You can’t blame me for playing my own advocate.”
My reconnected brain suggests something I missed. “How did you know the note was from Paige?”
“I have to give you your due, but not now, sweetie - we have company.”
Chapter XIV: Between The Devil And Deep Blue.
In the entranceway stands a woman in a chequered helmet shaped like a horse’s head. She wears golden chainmail over similarly-checked stockings, and carries a lance, with a leather-sheathed sword and handcuffs by her side. It’s like she got up this morning and couldn’t decide if she wanted to be a mediaeval knight or a policewoman, so she dressed as both. Also, her boots are two-feet tall.
“Blue!” The Devil calls to the knightcop while pouring more not-wine. “Join us for a drink.”
“I’m on call,” Blue replies. “Evening, Shooter.”
“Officer Connor! Stirling... you know Belle’s sister, Sergeant Ophelia Connor. Of the Royal Guard. We call her ‘Blue’, which is a colour often associated with the police.” Shooter is acting weird, even for a six-foot-tall birdman.
Blue frowns at me like I’m a square peg. “We’ve never met.”
Shooter speaks before I can. “Because Stirling’s not a criminal. His record’s spotless.”
“You said he knows me.”
“Well, everyone ‘knows’ you from your celebrity past.” While Shooter’s shadow dances around the wall, he does the same to the truth.
“He shows no signs of recognition,” Blue says, as a matter of fact.
“I’m from Braddon?” After my previous faux pas, I was sticking to the script.
No longer the centre of attention, the Devil throws back her drink and pouts.
“From where do you ‘know’ me?” Blue asks me.
“R...” Shooter stops talking as Blue holds his beak shut.
I look Blue up and down for signs of her past. I get stuck on ‘down’. (They really are the most ridiculous shoes I’ve ever seen. They look like a gymnastics springboard was mugged by a pair of go-go boots. From the easy strength with which Blue’s subduing Shooter, she could have been a gymnast. Does North have gymnasts? Do I even know what sports Northerners play? What was Shooter trying to tell me? Runner? Rugby? Rules maybe... Aussie Rules? No, rules! White moves first and you do not talk about...)
“Chess!” I exclaim.
Shooter relaxes, and his wing gives me its equivalent of a thumbs up.
Blue looks less convinced. To be fair, I may have been more credible had I not spent the previous minute pondering my answer. “Stirling, may I see your licence?”
“Hsfrmbrdn!” Shooter mumbles.
But I am not, and will never be from Braddon. I’m a proud Southerner and I open my wallet. As I hand Blue my driver’s licence, she slicks a handcuff around my wrist.
“We’ve heard rumours of a Southern invasion all evening. Mr Stirling, you don’t need to avoid silence, but nothing you don’t say can’t and won’t later be ruled inadmissible in court. Do you understand this right?”
I tell her I do. (I don’t.)
“Stirling has one more right. I’m his lawyer,” Shooter says.
Blue raises her eyebrows.
“I’m his law student,” Shooter says.
“On the record - now that your student lawyer is present,” Blue says. “Stirling, I’m arresting you in the name of King O of North.”