“So, when I do this, it changes.” Nifer cupped her hands together and twisted them. Her embellished skin undulated as she did. The red petal-scales moved. Their pattern shifted and changed, becoming a maze with moving walls.
“Racht likes to solve it with her finger. Wanna try?”
Did I ever.
“Sure,” I answered.
“Watch what happens,” Racht said.
She held her hands still. I entered the maze at the small of her back and traced my way through its path. As my fingers walked around the hedges and moved upward, the color shifted from red to orange. When they climbed higher, the petal-walls turned to yellow, then green. As my fingers took their final step to exit onto her neck, the petals became blue.
“Cool, huh?” Racht beamed at me.
Nifer peered over her shoulder and said, “Try to make your way back down.”
That was easy. But as I passed from blue to green, the path changed and my fingers hit a dead end. It was due to the twisting of hands no doubt. By orange, I was anticipating the pattern of the changes. The walls twitched right before realigning themselves, so I could guess where they would go next. My fingers made it through the last row of red walls and found their way out.
“That’s really amazing, Nifer.”
“Yeah, it’s cool. I can’t see it but I can feel the fingers going up my back. So I make the maze harder for them. I can’t say anything specific about my Rhynthyne, but they have some similarities… With the help of Racht’s fingers and a few more tries, I ought to get it open.”
She slid past Izla to her worktable, and grabbed a pinch of something lying there in a pile. She held it out to me.
“Here, take some of these.”
I extended my hand. Three of the petally, grass-like scales fluttered into my palm.
“They fall off all the time. No bald spots though, so I guess that’s okay. They do cool-Ess stuff if you play with ‘em. Enjoy!”
A fwisssh was followed by a second muffled fwisssh. Our Rhynthynes interacted through glass, and our two spaces became one. Izla’s eyelids and wings were drooping.
“Full day, huh?” I asked her.
“Absolutely. I had fun!” She yawned. “You have fun?” .
“I did! Thanks for the flight.”
“Thanks for carrying me back. And for letting me swim. I wasn’t sure if I should go without you. Since we’re Paired…”
“I didn’t mind. I enjoyed my time alone. You look tired, Tiny Bird. Going to sleep soon?”
“Yeah. I have to. You?”
“Nah. Not right away. I’m gonna work on this Rhynthyne.”
“Well, if you solve it, wake me up.” She crawled into bed, snuggling the softness of her Rhynthyne. “Good night, Capritare.”
“Good night, Izla.”
Had she even heard me before the waters of sleep washed over her?
I caressed Nifer’s maze-petals with my fingers. I separated them and slipped a petal into my Rhynthyne’s hole which seemed to shift its shape. A rainbow of light burst forth. My Rhynthyne transformed in front of my eyes as the second hole healed itself shut.
I saw Izla’s reflection in the smooth of its side. She was sleeping peacefully, and I didn’t want to disturb her. I hadn’t solved the whole thing—just one more part. I’d tell her in the morning.
But, she saw it before I could.
“You didn’t wake me?” She looked hurt, wounded.
“I didn’t think I needed to. I mean, I still have another hole to go.” She softened under my hug. “Come on! Let’s work on yours, see if we can make some progress. The cycle’s ending soon.”
“I know.” A smile spread over her face, but I couldn’t discern if it was genuine or faked. “Okay.”
I sat on her bed with her. She held up her Rhynthyne, turned it around, pulled out the backwards feather. She slid it back in.
“Maybe if I trace it on your back, it will open.” Her words were level, but her tone was laced with jealousy.
I chose to ignore her statement.
“Hey, can you hold it up again? No. Point it towards me. There. See that?” I almost touched it by accident. “Look at the tip. I can see a little line there—a break in cloth.”
“Oh yeah. I never noticed that before. Hmmm…” She stared at the tip up close. Her eyelashes tickled it. She pushed the tip, smelled it. Nothing happened.
“What if you twist it? Does it move?”
Her eyes widened. She kept unscrewing it until the tiny tip came off to reveal a hole similar to the one at the other end. The quill—what if she…? She pushed the quill from the bottom. It disappeared inside and poked out the newfound hole at the far end. She pulled and out it came. The barbs had righted themselves. As we watched, the red drained out of the feather and it became pure white, then a rush of deep-orange bled back into it. The Rhynthyne split open to reveal its seed.
An engulfing hug of arms and legs and wings assaulted me. “Oh Capritare! You’re a genius! I never saw that seam before, but it must have been there all along.”
“You’re welcome. It was just there.” I spoke into her ear so close to me. “Now what?”
She leaned back. We were face-to- face. I could smell the perfume of her breath, feel the heat of her body. Our transwalls were up. We were hidden. Did I want to kiss her? It was a celebratory moment after all. I’d kiss back if she started it. We paused in the tension. She was soft—too soft of a Tiny Bird.
She slid off me and studied her backwards-feather-turned-right.
I asked her, “Are you going to eat the seed?”
“I don’t know yet. I need to think. I’m gonna go to Hollow for a while. Okay?”
She rose and slipped the seed into her pocket. I crawled over to my own bed in my own space. The center transwall went up.
Had I done something wrong? Was she jealous that Nifer had given me the petals that had solved part of my Rhynthyne? Should I have awakened her? But, she was fine before hugging me. Had she expected—wanted—me to kiss her? Was it wrong of her to want that? Was it wrong of me to not kiss her?
Numb, I fumbled with my Rhynthyne. Who could I talk to? Neelid? Everyone had been moved. Everything had changed. I asked around for him. He was paired with a Pherasian. They were in the back-left corner, the next-to-the-last set of spaces. While the last two transwalls were open, Neelid’s were closed.
“Neelid? You in there?”
“Yeah. Can we talk?”
I heard rustling and saw hurried shadows flicker on the glass. “Not a good time man.” Giggles. “Maybe later? I’ll come find you?”
Pher! What had I interrupted? Their fondling of one another’s Rhynthynes?
I felt a need to be close to Olioli. I leaned against its wall and let myself go blank. Before long, the image of Izla’s feather turning white began looping in my mind. Her puzzle was solved. White feather. I needed to solve my own Rhynthyne. Choosing would happen the following evening. White feather. Not much time. White feather.
I opened my eyes. Others were filing through the corridor, cutting across Oli, and exiting towards the Firedrop ring. The Telling! Yram! I had forgotten. Where was Izla? I wanted to sit next to her. Our Pairing was ending soon. With no talking permitted after a Telling, I had only a few moments. Otherwise, my words would have to wait until the next morning. I jumped up and sprinted to the opening, sideswiping a few others on the way. Out under the sky, I scanned the faces and giftings. Wings—I was looking for wings. Then I found her. She was sitting quietly by herself, absorbed within her thoughts. I avoided stepping on tails, fins, and random appendages as I worked my way to her.
A large, armored guy was in my way. “Excuse me, I’m trying to get right there. Can you slide over ? She’s An Other to me.”
He grunted but made a space for me. Izla looked up and offered a solemn smile. The light of Lesser Moon revealed a redness encircling the blue of her eyes.
“How you doing? Wait. Don’t answer. Teacher will arrive any moment. I want to say I’m sorry. I’m pretty sure I hurt you and I’m pretty sure how. Really, honestly—I’m sorry.”
A richer smile spread. “It’s okay. It’s not really you. It’s me. There’s so much happening so quickly. I’m trying to figure out who I am, what I want.”
“We all are,” I said.
“I tried to help you solve your Rhynthyne but couldn’t. And then you figured out the key to mine so easily. You didn’t even have to touch it. You looked at it and discovered the answer.”
“But mine has more facets, Izla. It’s more complicated. And you did help me! Think about it. You fetched the Lablina for me. That solved one hole. Then, you introduced me to Nifer. If it wasn’t for you, the second hole would still be open. Actually, the only parts I have solved have been because of your help.”
She was quiet, wheels turning. “Hmmmm… I guess you’re right. You pretty much need me.”
“I do. You mean a lot to me, Izla. I’m glad we were friends first and then I got to be your An Other.” Careful now, I cautioned myself. Don’t wound her again. “Our Pairing ends tomorrow. We won’t be the same thing that we are now. I’m sure hoping we can continue to be amazing friends.”
“We will. I don’t know if I should say this to you—out loud—but I think you know it too.” Izla was on the verge of a confession. She paused, then began again with a stutter. “I—I don’t think that we are each other’s THE.”
Relief. Finally one of us had said it. We both felt it, but now the Lablina was out of its shell.
“Thanks for having the acorns to say it! One of us needed to,” I said.
Laughter. Peace. Reconciliation. An easy one, really. She slipped her tiny hand into mine.
I turned my attention to the flames of the Firedrop flickering through their sequence of colors: orange, green, violet. Day and night its flame soldiered on. Those who lingered nearby were warmed by it. The rain that wore down the stones of the courtyard had no power to douse it. Wood was never added. Ashes never formed. It burned and burned through the light of Older Sun and the light of Lesser Moon. It was a mystery. There were rumors of its origins, but speculations were all we had. Its source, and the energy that fueled it, were truths we weren’t born knowing. Yet it burned still, with all of our questions. Perhaps our lack of answers was what kept it aflame.
The concentric rings of bodies and voices circled around the Firedrop ring parted to make a path. A pair of Teachers ambled down it arm-in-arm. As they reached the inner ring, they parted and took their places on either side of the fire. Facing one another, they began.
“Once there was one who had solved her second Rhynthyne and found herself upon her third Choosing. Pheras had been chosen first. Then Pheras again for the second time. Two times in a row was the limit. The Rule of Rejection breathed heavily into her face, pressed into her breast. If she did not choose to eat the seed and become a Pherasian forever, she would not be allowed to choose Pheras this time around. She was confused. She believed herself to be mostly Pherasian, but was that untested belief enough? She had never tasted another Ogen’s offering. What would be the delicacies of Yramid or Esque? Would she taste them or let them go unsavored?
Once there was one who could not make up his mind. For, he was not sure yet who he was. From one Choosing to the next, he cycled through the Ogen: wings, armor, an extra eye no one could see, journeys to Lake, Forest, Ridge. He sampled it all and grew partial to none. The multitude of flavors tickled his inner tongue. He did not want to commit or make a final choice. He wished upon Younger Sun / Higher Moon that he would never have to decide.
She struggled right into the Choosing without an inkling as to which way she should go. Pherasian forever? Or something else?
He found himself at the end of the seven cycles without an inkling as to which way he should go. Pledge one now? Or return to oblivion with the hope of being born again?
She chose to nibble on Yramid. She liked what she tasted, but tried Esque and Pheras again, just to make sure. Then, in the final cycle, she ate Yramid’s seed.
He weighed all that he had learned and, not wanting to return to oblivion, he chose a covenant with Pheras.
And were it not for their experiences and trouble of choices, they would not have found one another. They would not have discovered who they were inside, or risen to the place where they each were ready for THE. Yet when the time came, they were ready.”
The Teachers stopped addressing us and locked solely on one another. Fire arced between them across the negative space above Firedrop, outshining the quivering rhythm of orange, green, and violet. With their eyes only on one another, they followed the curve of their quarter circle to meet in the middle, locked arms and passed through the sea of pensive faces.
We could not talk, but we could touch. We returned to our space, chain-linked, arm-in-arm. We were both quiet, both thinking. My thoughts were on many things at once: Izla, our pairing, the next Choosing, my choice, the pesky third hole. If I didn’t solve it, I would have to be Yramidian again.
We silently, instinctively, dismissed our third wall so that we could spend our last night together. I studied Izla. Her eyes were so blue. Her wings were so lovely. Her smile reminded me of the curve of the Lablina’s shell. Her lips were deep-red like a belt of vine. Our Pairing was like warm rain diving deep into the cold of Lake. Our time was seeping fast.
She slept. I fingered my Rhynthyne. I needed to discover what it’s last hole was craving. I didn’t want to spend my cycles bouncing from one Ogen to another only to end up not knowing who I was. I also did not want to vow to an Ogen until I was sure that commitment honored my First Name.
Those thoughts slapped me with fitful dreams. In one, I was balancing on the skyward tip of Chall, reaching upward to touch YSHM. I stretched and stretched but could not touch it. There was a blast of wind and I began slipping. I teetered on the choices: fall, jump or grow wings. Then my toes left their perch.
“I think I might choose Pheras again,” Izla said. “I know I’ll be forced with dealing with the Rule of Rejection like the girl in the myth. But I feel like that’s where I’m at right now.”
“Well, it looks I’ll get stuck with Yramid. This Pher thing isn’t gonna open in time.”
“Hey, your wall hasn’t dropped yet! Don’t give up. It could take all day for—”
Fwisssh. Our common transwall closed. My personal wall was still up. That meant that it was time for Izla to go. Did Pairings visit the Ogen back-to-back?
I called through the wall, “Make the most of it Izla! The next cycle begins!”
A muffled reply, “Thanks. You too. You’ll know what to do when it’s time. Solve that Rhynthyne!” I saw her shadow fly across my wall.
I sat there—enclosed—alone with my Rhynthyne. I had to solve it. I wanted a choice. I rubbed my fingers over the two closed sides. The Lablina had closed the one like a healed wound. Petals had closed the other. They were both shifty things, changing things. What else? The Lablina had still been warm and pulsing. Were the petals still alive? They had possessed something like life within themselves. Alive. Did that matter? What else? I stuck my middle finger deep in the hole. It was still conical inside, still pointed. The Lablina hole had been crescent shaped. It had reminded me of the shell and that’s why I had tried it. The petal hole had been amorphous, changing. When I saw the moving maze and color flashes, I had instantly thought of that hole. What did I possess that was long and pointed?
Lablina was from Lake. Seraph had thought to use it. Izla had fetched it. The petals were from Nifer. They were part of her gifting. Racht liked to trace her way through the labyrinth. What else? They both were gifted to me in a way. Had I received any more gifts? Only my hooves and strong legs from Yramid. That was a dead-end, so I switched my thoughts.
Pheras ruled over the Lake. Water, Seraph, Izla, the Lablina—they were all Pherasian. Nifer, her maze, and the petal-blades were all of Esque. Was there one hole for each Ogen? If so, the last one belonged to Yramid. My hooves wouldn’t fit. What about fur from my leg? I yanked out a clump. Ouch. I inserted it into the hole, but nothing happened. Time was running out. What else did I have from Yramid? I had costume supplies from Forest. I had already tried the bark from Chall. What about a gill from the toadstools? I lifted the hatch and heard a simultaneous fwisssh.
Oh no! No! Hatch. Not toadstool. Point! Neelid’s point! Time to go. I grabbed the antler stub and my Rhynthyne. Out the door. Fumbled to orient the point. Twisted to find the final hole. I entered the corridor. My clop clop echoed in the tight tunnel. I jammed the point into the hole as my hooves hit the stone of Oli.
There was a surge of heat, a flash of silver. It worked! My Rhynthyne was solved! It separated at its three corners, and each of the three sides hinged at the base. A seed appeared—an orange seed. The transwall into Olioli disappeared and the Ogen sucked me in.