Art Pact 126
Floating high above the ground, the observatrix felt the instability in the air as a tickling feeling on the lower planes of her wings, a sensation that reminded her absurdly of the feeling of pups nestling in a nest. She had never been a mother, never even considered it, indeed, always quoting the importance of her job - although in fact she had admitted to herself long ago that she would have happily let the enemy roll over the enclave in an instant if she could only be assured that she would be allowed to continue to fly as long as she liked.
A far-distant crack of an artillery piece echoed up from the ground, bringing her out of her reverie, and she banked gently to be just far enough out of path. It was unnecessary - the little grey flower of smoke and shrapnel blossomed a full hundred chains away to the north, too far even to be the result of incompetence in the enemy gunnery crew. They had been firing at someone else - or something else, perhaps, a cloud or some phantasm of the sun that had caught them in skittish mood.
She wheeled around again, gaining height from the updraft around the city walls. It was still amazing to her that the walls, scarcely five chains high, could affect the air so far above so dramatically. The winds here even smelt of the city to her - the stench of the cesspits on the south side where the dead were being flung now, the heavy scent of cinnamon from the markets in the west. Not for the first time she wondered whether the whole population could be transformed as she had been and brought up into the clouds. There were higher reaches in the air, places where the enemy could never find them - or never fire upon even if they were found. The idea was both appealing and appalling to her, and she was run through with pity for those bound to the ground and jealousy of her own escape. Would the sky really be so much her home if it were full of petty merchants hawking their wares, of the babble of children and the gossip of nest-wives? If the professor were correct, it must have been so in the older times, but the professor was often wrong.
A safe height attained, she returned her attention to the job at hand. The regent-colonel had been irritable and moody that morning, stomping around her quarters with the look of a man who was expecting some aspect of his life to be destroyed at any moment but unsure as to which. He had been badly mauled in the commons the previous day, and the scars and limp were still with him, even the knowledge that the chief amongst his opponents was now close to death's door. His orders were terse, lacking any of the usual flattering loquaciousness, and she had felt for an moment as though she had wronged him in some obscure way.
She swept north, beating her great wings once, her lesser wings twice to match the rhythm, then stilled them for a long glide. Here, close to the walls of the city (but not so close as to be within range of the city's hastily-improvised catapults) were the first ranks of the enemy - just indistinct lines from this distance, even with the eyes the professor had given her. Behind them were the little red and white circles that marked the tents of the front-line commanders, and the great purple square, from this height the size of her thumbnail, that was the marquee of the siege-commander-in-chief. The regent-colonel's greatest external opponent, the siege-commander had never been seen by the city's telescopes, and remained a mystery, although the booming voice that issued from the great amplifying horn to the south of his marquee was well known.
Behind these well-regimented lines the enemy's host became more scattered and difficult to interpret. There were low hemispherical thatch huts that rose from the plain like the tops of so many bubbles, making it appear as though a section of the ground were boiling. These, the intelligencers said, were the nomadic houses of the Arkree, a people from the west. A pen nearby held a few large brown beasts that jostled restlessly against each other, their features indistinct to the observatrix. She banked to allow her shadow to flash across the pen and was pleased with the result - the animals' nervousness dissolved into violent panic, and they battered at the walls of their enclosure. She did not expect they would escape - the siege-commander seemed to be too clever a man to permit unnecessary danger within his own camp - but the fact that she had ruined the day of some handler or other was pleasing to her.
Finally, furthest from the city walls, was the makeshift encampment of the carrion-crows of the opposing force, the merchants and butchers who supplied the army with its needs and who scoured the path behind it, stripping the conquered territories of all that they were worth so that when the war was finished it would not matter whether the enemy had taken over the whole continent or been pushed back to their own land - they would have taken everything worth having except the soil.
Somewhere amongst those tents and wagons was the man the regent-colonel was interested in, the trader that had exercised his wrath so thoroughly as he gave his orders to her that morning. She checked the ground for any sign of artillery - nothing this far out, although it was not uncommon for artillery pieces to be hidden and suddenly revealed when it was too late to gain enough height to escape. She felt unusually confident, though, and let the air spill out from under her wings to roll into a lazy dive. The ground rushed up to meet her like a child to its mother.
There. Near the western edge of the merchant's gathering place stood the wagon she had been told to look for. A green-painted roof, the tongue such a dark red that it might have been an actual tongue.
She moved closer. Her shadow shot across a group of figures, and suddenly the ground was writhing with them, like ants whose nest had been poked.