O my beloved guests, listen and I will tell you of one of the most wondrous places in this world or any other. There is a palace set into a brilliant sky, where the sun warms without burning and the winds cool without freezing. This crown jewel of the firmament is as the finest of cities, set about with gardens and orchards, where grow fruits from across Khavayin and from all lands distant, even lands that have never known the tread of a man or woman’s foot. The palace is filled with flowers, yet the flowers pale beside the bright colors of the courtiers who wait in attendance, and music plays, yet the music fades beside the lilting song of the courtiers who walk among the pillars and sit among the trees, for this is the palace of the Queen of Birds.
It was winter in the palace, or perhaps it would be more truthful to say that the palace was in winter. The throne of the Queen of Birds moved through the Overworld from season to season according to the meticulous calculations of her ibis scribes and swallow navigators, or sometimes according merely to her whim. The inner gardens were still warm, protected as they were with walls of smoky glass and steely eggshell. Those courtiers who ventured into the outer orchards had largely abandoned the sleek robes that accentuated their aerodynamic forms, and now wore additional downy coats fluffed up against the errant winds.
But not all. A slender woman with rich brown skin and hair white as a wandering flurry stepped lightly along the marble balcony. She looked not inward at the slumbering trees, but out at the piled gray clouds below, and smiled to watch them.
The genasi looked back over her shoulder. Another woman picked her way down the balcony toward her, clutching a feather mantle tightly about her. Every element of her garb was a shade of pink, from rich and reddish to vivid coral, complementing the deep pink of her hair. She reached Aya with one last elegant stride, and then shuddered, lifting her right foot slightly from the balcony.
“I can’t believe you. It’s freezing out here! I don’t have any proper coats for the weather, and you have none at all!”
Aya shrugged with an easy smile. “I like being near the skies, Bamahbi. The winds don’t bother me.”
“Tch. I like the skies as much as anyone — except you, obviously — but some days are meant for long warm baths.” Bamahbi of the Particular Step sighed. “I looked all over for you, you know.”
“Why?” Aya watched one cloud smash into another. “I’m not in attendance to her Majesty for… another hour, I think.”
“Do you really not pay any attention to the calendar?” Bamahbi huffed. “Well, of course you don’t. Really.” She rummaged under her mantle and drew out a small object wrapped carefully in a silk scarf. She held her head in almost mock-regal fashion as she offered the impromptu package.
“Happy birthday, Aya.”
“Oh. Thank you, Bamahbi!” And just like that, the wind changed, and Aya’s attention was fully on the parcel. Bamahbi even loosened her mantle a bit as the winds seemed warmer around her.
Beneath the silk scarf was an ankle bracelet, hung about with small charms in the shape of wind chimes. Aya held it in the air, and laughed at the music. Then she put her foot on the rail, without the least bit of decorum, and fastened it around her ankle. As she balanced on the balls of her feet, the music still played a little, even with the chimes striking her skin instead of one another.
“It’ll play only when you focus on it,” said Bamahbi, still precisely poised. “It wouldn’t do for you to forget yourself and trill an impromptu tune while escorting Her Resplendent and Iridescent Majesty to her chambers, may-the-winds-bear-her-ever-higher—AWK!” Aya had wrapped her arms around Bamahbi, and squeezed her fellow handmaiden tight.
“It’s so lovely, Bamahbi. Thank you.”
“Of course, chick, of course.” She puffed out a bit, and despite being no more visibly older than Aya, took on a matronly expression. “Now can we go inside? I would like to warm my feet before we attend to the dressing before the royal luncheon.”
Aya nodded, still smiling, and the two walked back along the balcony, Aya’s light and carefree tread just a bit slowed to match Bamahbi’s exacting pace. The music from the anklet played, and then stopped, and then played again as they entered one of the inner orchards.
“Now don’t call too much attention to yourself,” tutted Bamahbi. “We still need decorum.”
“But it’s a lovely gift,” said Aya.
“It is. And I would also like to offer my good wishes,” said an unmatched voice, as a woman stepped from among the fig trees.
The Queen. Her plumage was rich jades and emeralds and amethysts, cool jewel tones set against a snowy drift that any arctic owl would envy. Her gaze was owl’s wisdom and eagle’s pride and vulture’s patience, and it was settled on Aya. The two handmaidens swept immediately into deep, deep curtseys.
“Y…Your Resplendent and Iridescent Majesty, our pardon!”
“My pardon, Bamahbi? And for what?” Her voice was enough to drive nightingales into deep melancholy with its unmatched beauty. “I am not where you expected me to be. There is no fault to you, save a lack of omniscience, and I do not think omniscience is a trait I want in my handmaidens.” She gestured with one long-nailed hand, and the chains running from finger to wrist tinkled. The two straightened.
“You have been a pleasant addition to my court, Aya.” She trailed off, regarding a plum hanging in a tree, then returned her gaze to her attendants. “I know you must leave us soon, and there will be memorials and attestations and letters of recommendation from the court—” she stifled an imperial yawn— “and I wished to offer you my personal thanks away from all that tedium.”
She gestured, and a starling-cloaked servant emerged from nowhere, kneeling before Aya. The servant held a cushion, and on the cushion was a prismatic egg. Aya was still reaching out to touch it when a crack ran down its pearlescent length. The egg came apart in gemlike shards, and a bird in fabulous multicolored plumage uncurled. It fixed one eye on Aya, then the other, then it fluffed out its feathers and bowed.
“My lady. I am Ramjat Azmeil Hashaban Fazim Omnibus Prismatica jin Ramjat jin Ramjat, of a most wise and dutiful lineage, and I am to be your familiar if you will have me.”
Even in the presence of the Queen of Birds herself, Aya almost laughed. She extended an arm and turned her head, letting her snowy hair fall away from one shoulder, and the bird Ramjat settled contentedly onto it. Aya then curtseyed so deeply that her bangs brushed the floor, and Ramjat spread his wings and bowed with her.
“I am honored beyond words, o Presence Among the Winds.”
“Then there’s no need to talk,” said the Queen of Birds, turning with a smile. “We will be going to luncheon early, my dears. I have an appetite.”
Aya and Bamahbi fell into step behind her. The palace shifted among the winds, and set a course for spring.