Chapter 5 Episode 3 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles
The road warden and his kin asked Peter many questions in a fast patter; Adewole had trouble keeping up. The warden knew about the expedition from Dunalow already. Were they oathbreakers? Not as far as he knew, Peter said, since they hadn’t taken the oath to begin with, but yes, they did have metal flying machines as they’d heard; Peter had seen them himself. Adewole wondered how the warden had learned about them. Many couriers had passed them, but all at a fast walk not a run; none had stopped to talk, and none as far as he knew had seen the flying machines.
“Anything to give him?” Peter asked Adewole.
“Do we need to bribe him to get through the gate?” said the Major through Adewole.
“Nay, there’s nowt blockin’ the way,” Peter answered. He waved at the gate’s portal, which once might have sported wooden doors or iron grilles but now gaped open onto the Risenton Road. “But do you carry a cargo,” Peter continued, “thass tradition, to tip a little something into the warden’s cup.” The Major took out his coin purse, and Peter hissed, “Nay, nay, man! Metal’s too dear! Do you tip him that, he thinks we’re up to some great devilry! For all I know, you are, handing out metal like oatstraw,” he muttered.
Quartermaster Jagels dug through her supplies. Peter rejected a little mirror and another cotton bandana, a lithograph of the mural gracing the Ministry of State’s grand lobby—”Paper? Do you be mad, flinging paper about?” said Peter—until she found a simple wooden cooking spoon in her personal pack. “That’ll do, I guess,” he grunted. The warden accepted the wooden spoon from Major Berger, blinking with pleasure; his family crowded around, cooing as he bowed over and over.
Though the walk hadn’t tired him, Adewole was ravenous. He dropped his burden to the ground, folded his long frame down beside it and dug into the waxed-paper packet his landlady had pressed into his hands just this morning, though it seemed like days before. Deviatka settled beside him and did the same. “Knew you’d want it. What was all that about?” he added, gesturing toward the excited warden and his family.
“He already knew about our arrival and asked Peter Oster all kinds of questions.”
“How could he have known?”
Over a nearby grain field, a flash of brown and white wings drew Adewole’s eye. A familiar owl quartered the field, flying low and slow. The owl swooped down feet first, arising with a mouse clutched in her talons. She flew to a high road marker not far from where Adewole sat, swallowed the mouse head-first, and clacked her beak a few times in satisfaction. “I think I know how,” Adewole told Deviatka. “Good afternoon, Volekiller,” he called in the local human dialect.
“Afternoon,” she said in the same.
“Did you tell the warden we were coming?”
“Could have done,” said the bird.
Peter Oster settled down next to the two professors. “Owls stir the pot now and again,” he said.
Volekiller closed one great glowing eye. “Unfeathered ‘uns need the pot stirred now and again.”
“Volekiller,” said Adewole, “do you mind if I call you something else?”
Adewole remembered Major Berger had named his owl companion after his mother: an honored name. His mother’s name, Chiku? No, this mischievous owl was nothing like his mother. Mischievous— “I thought I might give you my sister’s name.”
“Your sister? Tell me summat of her, and I’ll tell you do I take the name.”
Adewole told her as much about Ofira as he could: how loving she was, how fond of little pranks, how gracefully she danced, how her eyes were almost as big and amber as the owl’s, and how her skin matched the tawny, dark brown of the bird’s feathers. He left out her penchant for breaking knickknacks, but left in her love of little superstitions, like her lucky bead. “Thass nothing bad,” interrupted the bird. “Luck is real.”
Adewole showed her the picture he carried in his wallet, and the lucky bead on his watch fob. “Ofira loved birds. She would have loved to meet you.” His heart turned itself inside out and the familiar ache beneath his eyes threatened tears, but he found himself smiling instead, imagining the sheer joy a talking bird would have given his sister. Peter Oster wiped at his eyes.
The owl considered. “Thass an honored name. You may call me Ofira, then.” The newly-renamed owl blinked her eyes, rose into the air and returned to quartering the field.
Adewole turned to his own lunch. As he munched on a thick ham sandwich, he noticed Peter Oster’s curious gaze. “Wassat, then?” said the young man.
“A ham sandwich—ham is a kind of meat, from an animal called a pig.” To Deviatka, Adewole said, “He is asking about our food.”
The engineer grinned, fished a sandwich from Adewole’s packet and handed it over to the young man. “Do that be ‘ham,’ too? We have no animal called ‘pig,’” said Peter.
“No, it is beef. It is from an animal rather like a horse, except it is bigger, and horse meat is usually fed to dogs, not people.” Peter stared at him. “Ah, you do not know what a horse is,” said Adewole. “Er, steer—ox—cow?”
“I hear of cows, they’re summat like giant goats say the old stories. Your bread’s odd, too.” Peter nibbled the sandwich. “That tastes nowt of goat. Thass meat, though.” He took a huge bite, gave a perfunctory chew and swallowed. “Dogs’re Dunalow? Next you tell me cats’re there, too!” He studied Adewole’s face. “Do cats be there? Yes? Do they spit fire from out their eyes as the tales go?” Adewole explained cats as best he could, and added most people Down Below ate neither cats nor dogs. The decadent, wasteful idea of pets scandalized the young man.