Chapter 15

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She was becoming stronger. The realization hit her as the days passed by, filled with flying by sunlight and then resting at night. Her muscles had screamed at her during the short flight to Tremora; now, she only felt an irritating ache, more a dull soreness than the stabbing pain from before.

Though in all fairness, part of the reason could be that she was getting much better sleep now. Every evening, they would circle around until they found a nearby settlement. Some were tiny little villages, similar to her hometown Kryga, which made her heart flutter in a strange mix of joy and loss. Others sprawled in all directions for miles, larger than Rivel. Despite the differences in size, Kusarel and Elkeri received the same treatment everywhere. The local gryphons always stared at Kusarel with widened eyes, filled with terror, and before long they were being offered the very best: Bedding at the roomiest inns, freshly-caught fish, silken blankets for the night and down cushions, putting her family's belongings to shame.

She laced her claws through one of these blankets, marveling at its smoothness. A burst of guilt ran through her and shattered her admiration, leaving her feeling uncomfortable and lost once again.

"Elkeri? Is this ok?" She waved all around their room, a private chamber stocked with more food than they could possibly eat in a week. A breeze wafted through one of the many open windows, ruffling the tapestries covering the walls.

Elkeri held up a talon as she downed the last of her meal--some sort of expensive rabbit and herb dish, from the looks of it. Grasping her talons around a jug, she took a swaggering gulp, some of the juice dribbling down the sides of her beak.

"Absolutely. Not our fault if they think we're related to Apael. I'm not gonna stop them from buttering us up." She stared into the pits of the jug before muttering, "Especially after Tremora. And back home."

Kusarel felt her face burn as she turned away, silently cursing herself. Of course Elkeri would be fine with this; she'd endured poor treatment due to her status for a while now, longer than Kusarel. This was the first break Elkeri had gotten in a long time from the strict hierarchy, and here was Kusarel, feeling guilty and wanting to turn all of this down. A fresh wave of shame washed over her at the thought of taking this away from her best friend.

"Get that look off your face," Elkeri said, pushing a heaping plate of shrimp delicacies her way. "Tomorrow, we'll be in Shamais. We only have one more day left, and I'm going to enjoy it."

"Sorry, sorry," she muttered, pecking at the food without much enthusiasm. "I wasn't going to say anything."

"You didn't have to. Your face said it all."

She stabbed at one of the shrimps a bit too violently, spearing it halfway down her beak. Elkeri let out a snigger as Kusarel scowled and pried it off with her claws, leaving a slimy residue on her face.

"I should really wear a mask around you. It's not fair how well you read me," she grumbled, forcing down the offending food as a distraction more than anything.

"Oh! We need to figure out your disguise, don't we?" With a drawn-out squeak, Elkeri rose up and stretched her front legs far in front of her, claws flaring and digging into the wood below. "I'm thinking we dye your feathers. Good idea?"
She only shrugged in response, lashing her tail in agitation. The turmoil in her belly just wouldn't settle, that horrible nagging feeling that they were walking right into danger. Trying to find something to drown her anxiety, she squinted up at a tapestry near the window, shimmering in the fading sunlight. The metallic silver background reminded her of Apael, and she lurched her eyes away with a shudder.

"You could wear a mask, but that's probably too obvious. Right?"

"I don't care, Elkeri. Do whatever you want."

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