The Rookery

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Tien Lyn fought the nightmares in apprentice's cell and lost. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw dead bodies with familiar faces: her father, her uncles, her aunts, Xia Dao Ni, and her other cousins. The memory kept bringing up people she barely knew and now lost, an excruciating task. She saw no point in looking for a scroll to read, not even Empress Mei's chronicles. Mere written words wouldn't keep her mind from circling through the dark places. What she needed to keep her from going mad was the company of living beings.

A bird chirped outside at the first sign of light. It was still too early for the humans to be up and about, but the birds in the rookery would be waking up. Tien Lyn pulled her ugly dress on, fighting dizziness. Her fingers could not make it through the tangles in her hair, and she just let her shoulders droop. She did not care enough to search for a brush. The water jug was front and center in the austere room, but she ignored it. Washing up felt too hard a task to tackle just now.

The spiral staircase leading up to the Bird House creaked mercilessly, but it was nothing compared to the cacophony that greeted her on the seventh floor. The Senior Apprentice had not lied: it was the birds' domain. Birds roosted on the beams under the ceiling, birds fluttered in their cages, birds, birds, birds...

To do away with the stink its inhabitants produced, the upper floor of the pagoda was opened to the fresh morning air. After her sleepless night, Tien Lyn wanted to stand by the railing, look at the sunrise, and breathe. She leaned against the wooden lattice that was used in place of solid mud and brick walls taking in the dizzying height of the tower that offered an escape from her guilt and grief.

Behind her, a bird flapped its wings, took in a mighty breath and produced an ear-splitting screech. Tien Lyn turned away from the tempting sight to look at the intruder. It was huge and had legs as long as a crane's, a fan of colorful tail-feathers. It strutted around like it owned the place. Recognition dawned on her. The bird that chastised her was a magic fenghuang.

She edged away from the railing: "I am sorry, I am sorry, Lord of Birds!" Perhaps it would peck her to death she deserved.

"She's nobody's Lord yet. Just a chick," The mage came around the central pillar that blocked her view armed with a jug of water and a small dish. His smile was benign, but fenghuang beat a hasty retreat.

"I hope to see her paired up with a dragon one day," the mage continued as the bird flapped up noisily to the railing and settled to observe. The old man handed Tien Lyn the jug and gestured for her to pour fresh water into the dish. He deftly replaced the dish in a cage while complimenting the bird's plumage.

"Good morning, Master... ahem..." Tien Lyn attempted to recapture his attention. "I am sorry, Master... ahem... Finch did not mention your name?"

The mage chuckled. "Oh, that's Finch for you. Ever cautious. A good man, and talented. He's reached Understanding a long time ago. I could have made him a mage. Yes, yes, I could have. But do not tell him that, child."

"But why?" Tien Lyn asked, offended on Finch's behalf.

The mage sighed deeply: "It is for his own good, child. Ours are troubled times, very, very troubled."

He extended another dish and waited for her to pour water in comfortable silence. Another dish. And another.

When he finally spoke up it was to tell a bird that her last clutch was excellent.

Tien Lyn grew impatient and dared to cough to interrupt the string of praise to the bird's egg-laying abilities.

"About Finch, Master?"

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